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A Transforming Vision: Knowing and living the triune God, edited by George Westhaver

17 August 2018

David Brown considers diverse essays on the doctrine of the Trinity

THIS book stems from a conference at Pusey House, Oxford, in June 2016, and is one result of the House’s stated aim of securing a stronger academic profile. As such, the range of speakers from home and abroad is impressive, and there is much to learn from the volume, but, sadly, readers will at times find it an uphill task.

This is because the proceedings are only lightly edited, and so move back and forth without any obvious sense of development. Even sermons on readings for the day are included, and two tributes to the Oxford theologian John Webster, who had just died. It also begins with an ill-tempered piece from Jarred Mercer complaining of all attempts (but especially that of his fellow American Miroslav Volf) to use the Trinity as a model for daily life.

Fortunately, most of what follows is much more restrained. Indeed, later in the volume, Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his easy, gentle, and, at times, humorous style, does not hesitate to make precisely some of those moves of which Mercer complains, speaking of the relevance of the way we conceive the Trinity to “our understanding of political and social life”.

Equally, those who prefer to take their inspiration from Aquinas rather than the Cappadocians reject more severe versions of Thomism which think it enough to declare each person identical with the whole. So, for example, Richard Conrad OP, Director of the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars, Oxford, takes Karl Rahner to task for claiming that Thomas ignored the activity of the Trinity in the world. Instead, his Summa was intended, he suggests, to culminate with humanity destined for communion with the Trinity — expressed by the philosopher, Lydia Schumacher, in her contribution, in terms of participation in God.

Again, going back to Aquinas’s antecedents in Augustine of Hippo, Paige Hochschild (a professor at Mount St Mary’s in Maryland) argues that Augustine’s later writing on the Trinity was more continuous with what he had learnt from Cicero in his earlier engagement with paganism and its notions of wisdom than a repudiation of it.

None of these qualifications should be taken as denying that the Trinity remains an ineffable mystery to us, since no image or analogy can ever be fully adequate to a reality immeasurably beyond our capacity to understand. Even so, it is to insist that there are bound to be some connections between the divine nature and human beings in their particular setting, if only because we are in the divine image, and the world is an expression of the divine will.

The mistake in much 20th-century writing on the subject has been aggressively to assert that only one particular type of image is illuminating rather than to accept the possibility that, because all images ultimately fail, even conflicting analogies might have their potential uses.

As several contributors remind us, even Karl Barth (someone usually presented as an advocate of the opposing view) was prepared, at times, to resort to more social language. Jeremy Begbie of Duke University, though, suggests correcting Barth’s spatial imagery with his own distinctive musical analogy (God is like the interpenetration of a major chord). While excellent in itself and useful in escaping some misleading ideas that space imagery might suggest, it, too, however, has its limitations: for example, each note does not have the same status in respect of where the music might go next.

There are also essays on biblical and patristic studies, and art. Hans Boersma, of Regent College, Vancouver, reminds us that, despite extensive modern use of the Rublev icon to illustrate the doctrine, this is not where Christian interpretation of Genesis 18 began, but, rather, with Christ accompanied by two angels.

Endeavouring to fit her essay to its setting, the art historian Ayla Lepine focuses on a rather strange selection of Neo-Gothic and Pre-Raphaelite images, with one intriguing, revisionary twist. She suggests that John Everett Millais’s paintings of the two sisters welcoming back the dove to the ark might be re-reinterpreted as a post-gendered Trinitarian image.

An interesting proposal, too, comes from the American priest Gavin Dunbar: that the language of satisfaction in Cranmer’s consecration prayer picks up on medieval visual imagery of the throne of mercy (the Gnadenstuhl); but, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, literary precedents would seem more likely.

Of the Anglican essays, one of the most impressive is by the Canadian Gary Thorne, Chaplain of the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He opens by insisting on the relevance of Richard Hooker, the 16th-century Anglican divine, to today’s young: a startling claim, but justified by his transcendent vision of Hooker’s concerns. This is a book, then, of considerable diversity, with something for almost everyone.


The Revd Dr David Brown is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.


A Transforming Vision: Knowing and living the triune God
George Westhaver, editor
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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