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The Trinity: A philosophical investigation, by H. E. Baber

27 March 2020

Peter Shepherd finds Trinitarian concepts given a new freshness

RONALD KNOX told the tale of an East End boy at confession: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Thrown mud at buses and don’t believe in the Holy Ghost.” The same, apart from the buses, might be said of the many Christians in the fourth century who harboured doubts about the divinity of the Holy Spirit and, hence, espoused a Holy Binity. The Spirit had hardly figured in the Nicene deliberations, and was not formally declared divine until the Council of Constantinople in 381, when a Trinity was achieved.

The history of doctrine is not the subject of this fascinating book, however, which is a carefully crafted philosophical investigation into the doctrine of the Trinity. The author clearly sums up her approach early on: “Philosophical theology studies the machinery of religious doctrines and the logical problems they involve. . .These puzzles are of interest whether the doctrines under examination are true or false”; and “if [making Trinitarian utterances] is the church culture in which you engage, how can you make sense of its discourse and practice?”

So, rather than ask whether God is essentially triune, or only appears to be, from a human perspective (the traditional immanent/economic debate), Baber asks whether the doctrine of the Trinity makes any philosophical sense at all. In doing so, she begins not with the fouth-century councils, but with the “devotional life and practice of religious believers”.

Much previous Trinitarian debate has focused on the “identity question [or puzzles]”. It is easy to see why; for, if each of the divine subjects is God, can any genuine differentiation, on which Christian doctrine has tended to insist, be logically affirmed? But the author is not to be distracted by such puzzles: “It may be that a Trinitarian theology can provide everything that matters for monotheism without addressing the question of whether, and how, the Trinitarian Persons may be counted as the same God.”

Rather, she focuses on preserving the essentials of monotheism; exploring the distinction between how the Persons are individuated over against what makes them the same God; providing a critique of social Trinitarianism; and understanding Trinitarian relationships.

All things considered — including the inevitable narrowness of the approach, and the avoidance of the truth question — her arguments are both interesting and compelling. She provides both an impressive revisiting of some old questions and an enlightening reshaping of some classic ideas in which they gain a new freshness.

This book is one of a new SCM series described as presenting “the latest cutting-edge research across theological disciplines”. It is not intended to bridge the gap between Academe and the pew. While many philosophers may not be greatly interested in whether what they propose is true, readers of faith might well be. Simply showing that the doctrine of the Trinity can be presented coherently, while tickling the mind, will not warm many hearts.

Finally, I was disappointed by the lack of consideration given to the nature and use of language in Trinitarian discussion. Despite the formal setting-aside of the t-word, Baber may be seen to imply not only that the doctrine of the Trinity is true, but true in some kind of univocal way: God is this rather than that. Fifty years ago, Gilbert Ryle asserted that philosophy was essentially about language. Whether one agrees with that position, it is necessary to recognise the continuing importance of discerning how language is being used (paradoxically? metaphorically? symbolically?) if we are to understand the meaning of any doctrine. It would be good to have Baber’s view: perhaps another book.

Canon Peter Shepherd is a former head teacher of the Canon Slade School in Bolton. His is the author of Questioning the Incarnation (Christian Alternative, 2018).


The Trinity: A philosophical investigation
H. E. Baber
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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