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The quest for a path through the thickets

20 November 2015

Peter Forster unravels conflicting theories about a mystery

Paul and the Trinity: Persons, relations, and the Pauline letters
Wesley Hill
Eerdmans £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT692)

The Trinity
Stephen Bullivant
Paulist Press £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT692)

THESE two new books on Trinitarian theology present an interesting contrast.

Wesley Hill writes for a more academic audience, and sets out to show how the later Trinitarian doctrine that the Church developed helps to illuminate what St Paul wrote. He writes in a critical dialogue with the generation of New Testament scholars, exemplified by James Dunn, which has tried to understand St Paul without the assistance of later doctrinal reflection, but which has generated a chaotic morass of competing interpretations.

Recent New Testament scholarship has generally started with the inherited Jewish belief that there can be only one God, and then attempts to fit the New Testament trinitarian material into such a scheme.

Two results have followed. First, any claim that Jesus was God incarnate, “God from God . . . consubstantial with the Father”, is presumed to be deeply questionable, and outwith the natural way a Jew such as St Paul would have thought. Second, the Holy Spirit is assumed to be, in some sense, an agent of God the Father, hence forcing an analysis of Paul’s thought in a “binitarian” direction: there is one God, and there is Jesus Christ, in some sense divine, who need to be related to each other.

For Hill, there is, in St Paul, a greater re-imagination of the reality of God in the light of Christian experience. What emerges through Hill’s exegetical exploration is a deep mutuality between God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is entirely dependent on God for his identity, and they share the title of “Lord”; yet their mutuality and glory also reveal the Lordship of the Holy Spirit, in a web of relationality that makes each of the three who they are.

Is it still possible to speak of the one Person of God? Hill doesn’t address this issue, which has been bequeathed by much 20th-century use of a “social” model of the Trinity, which emphasises the separate personhood of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Equally, he doesn’t consider the early patristic view that the role of the Holy Spirit is creative, to secure the true humanity of Jesus Christ, and give life to the world. This may be why Hill’s treatment of the Holy Spirit feels a bit abstract.

I expect this refreshing book to be something of a landmark in Pauline studies, breaking a log-jam that has beset much recent NT theology.

Stephen Bullivant, a Roman Catholic academic, has written an entirely different book, purely from the perspective of systematic theology. It is a guide for the perplexed, amid the great and variegated interest in Trinitarian theology over the past century, subtitled How not to be a heretic.

The chapters all circle around the mantra “There’s one God; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God; they are not the same.” Boldly, Bullivant claims that, for all its inherent mystery, the doctrine of the Trinity is basically very simple.

The book gives straightforward accounts of the classic Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, and why the cultural and linguistic differences between the Roman West and the Greek East made the whole debate so difficult. They provided a theological peg on which the later East-West schism could be hung.

This is, at heart, an eirenic book. Along the way, it sets aside many issues that have been controversial through the Christian centuries. This is the book’s limitation, but it is also its strength. In relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, it is the equivalent of “Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” That, too, can seem rather refreshing, at the end of a long day.


Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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