Social Trinity? Holmes Says No Way!

Social Trinity? Holmes Says No Way!

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Stephen R. Holmes, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, has published a book which amounts to a full-throated attack on social Trinitarianism. The title is The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP Academic, 2012, 235 pp.).

Holmes contends that Trinitarian theology of the past fifty years or so has largely gone astray from historic orthodoxy. Is he right?

The condemnation of today’s “Trinitarian revival” is stated very clearly on the last page. By “we” here Holmes means the majority of contemporary writers on the Trinity—Zizioulas, Volf, Gunton (his former professor), Leonardo Boff, Rahner, Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg, and just about everybody else. Holmes writes:

We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian’s Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God’s relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God’s ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality (200).

Holmes’ central argument is his repeated claim that according to the patristic consensus, “The three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin – begetting and proceeding – and not otherwise.” Therefore: “All that is spoken of God, with the single and very limited exception of that language which refers to the three hypostases [traditionally, “persons”] is spoken of the one life the three share, and so is indivisibly spoken of all three” (146, 200).

I want to say: Yes, definitely; a good corrective in order to maintain the true oneness of God and not slip into tritheism or modalism or something worse. But then I want to add: No, in this sense: The very fact that the Trinitarian “eternal relations of origin” are different and distinguishable necessarily implies other differences, at least analogically. Positing some diversity of roles and actions is at least implicit—and not illicit, provided the one-and-three unity and diversity is constantly stressed and maintained.


Holmes does not much like analogies. He feels they usually end up suggesting much more than we can legitimately affirm. The recent profusion of analogies in discussions of the Trinity, especially social and personal analogies, compromises the unknowability and simplicity of God, he believes. He thinks the contemporary emphasis on perichoresis is a misappropriation of the term.

Holmes contents that the Fathers in all their analogical reasoning were aimed at just one thing: elucidating how the one God could also be three. In the process however, it seems to me, they did a whole lot more without drifting into heresy.

I certainly understand and generally agree with Holmes’ concern about analogies. Of course no analogy or set of analogies can adequately speak of God. Of course they are all weak and run the danger of falsifying rather than revealing truth. That does not however rule out the disciplined use of analogies, for at least three reasons.

First, analogies are inevitable. Christians will always make analogies when confronted with the mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, careful analogies can be significant aids to devotion and discipleship.

Third and more importantly, much biblical material, and particularly Jesus’ parables, are both analogical in character and encourage other analogies. (This raises the huge issue of the semiotic or “sign” nature of all language, but that’s another tale and trail.)

Consider the very weak but still useful analogy from our everyday human experience of body, mind, and spirit. Here’s a pretty good, even if dimensionally challenged, analogy for the Trinity. Body, mind, spirit: Each has its distinctness, as we know if we reflect on our own experience. Yet in a healthy person the three are one. Integrity. Can we say the mind is like the Father, the body like the Son, and the spirit like the Holy Spirit, yet the three combine in one (only) person?

With enough humility, this is not heresy. Of course it really tells us nothing about God. But the analogy does remind us of the complexity of personal being; of the coherence of something other than unicity or uniformity; of the naturalness of tripartite forms in God’s good creation. And for biblical Christians: The analogy is a motive for glorifying God, for we recognize here some echo and reflection of what creation in God’s image must mean. It perhaps makes the whole concept of Trinity less strange.

Holmes would I think argue that any analogy from human experience is by definition illegitimate because of the huge gap between God’s being and human being. Because of divine unknowability. That however doesn’t sufficiently take human creation in the image of God into account. Here I would have a somewhat different understanding of the imago dei than Holmes probably has. It’s hard to know, since Holmes says nothing at all about the image of God in this book. Presumably he believes the imago dei reveals nothing about God.


Another of Holmes’ central arguments is that the contemporary Trinitarian “revival” substitutes the (or a) modern psychological sense of person for the classic doctrine of hypostasis. When the Fathers said “person,” they certainly meant nothing like what we today mean by the word.

This is valid and important, as others have pointed out. The distinction must always be clarified in any Trinitarian discussion. This does not mean however that our modern understanding of person is totally irrelevant to how we conceptualize God. It certainly doesn’t mean that God is impersonal (whatever that might mean). Transpersonal maybe, or super-personal or suprapersonal? Perhaps. (Holmes does say that “if the term [person] must be used” at all, it is “far better . . . to borrow coinages such as ‘suprapersonal.’” [195]).

I won’t explore this further; the point is that contemporary discussions of (and discoveries about) human personhood should make us even more aware of the glory of our Creator. God created us in his image. That does not mean we should return the compliment and create him in ours. But certainly the more we know about the wonder, glories, and complexities of human existence, the more we sense or intuit the wonder and glory of God.

We recall that Christian apologists of the third and fourth centuries creatively and redemptively used the language of their time and culture. There is no inherent reason why Christians today should not do the same thing as long as Scripture remains primary.

As to the whole issue of personhood and its contemporary indebtedness to romanticism, personalism, existentialism, and even pop culture (194): Throughout his discussion Holmes takes the worst or most extreme examples of the meaning of person when condemning its use in Trinitarian theology. He argues that modern conceptions of personhood are read back into God on the basis of human experience.

This happens, of course. But not necessarily. Here is the task of constructive theology: To attempt to understand just what personhood really means (in ways that are biblically sound and take account of modern confirmed discoveries, as distinct from theories) and then ask: Are there not some useful analogies here to help us in our Trinitarian reflection? Holmes says no. I think it’s an area of potentially fruitful theological investigation. Case not really closed.

Platonic Distortions?

Holmes contests the “presumption” (as he calls it) “that in some unspecified and shadowy way, there was a Hellenistic distortion of Christian theology early on” so that now we face the “theological task of reconstructing doctrine in a way that is free of this distortion.” The case for this has never been made, he says. He disagrees with the view that “metaphysical ideas” such as “simplicity, impassibility, eternity” are “alien to the Bible” (197).

Yet Holmes never deals with the possibility that these “ideas” or qualities might, if made determinative, be one-sided when used to interpret God’s nature as biblically revealed. If concepts such as simplicity and impassibility are applied to God with no corresponding attention to other and perhaps balancing qualities that would help the church understand or interpret these “qualities” in more biblically nuanced and less Greek-metaphysical ways, we have a problem. Does the Bible really teach God’s simplicity and impassibility? Certainly not in any Platonic sense; not philosophically. Scripture must define what such concepts might possibly mean. Alien philosophical concepts cannot legitimately be used to define the meaning of Scripture.

Then there is the question of the over-prioritizing of the oneness of God in relation to his threeness, especially in the West. This tendency is a major point of Colin Gunton, especially. Holmes never really deals with the question—a major gap in his argument. He seems to feel it is impossible to overemphasize God’s oneness as long the distinct “eternal relations” of Son and Spirit to the Father are affirmed. Thus he never really answers the critique of Gunton and others beyond dismissing it, simply insisting that the patristic writers both East and West were on the same page. So there could be no big East-West gap.

There is of course a whole lot more to this book. In the book’s encyclopedic overview of the history of Western Trinitarian thinking, Hegel and romanticism emerge as major culprits. If you were to draw a line, a continuum from Plato to Hegel, Holmes would be a whole lot closer to Plato than to Hegel. Certainly no synthesis!

The Quest for the Trinity is very useful as a history of developments shifts in Trinitarian theology over almost two millennia. Yet I think Holmes is wrong in his central thesis that the main body of contemporary Trinitarian reflection constitutes a fundamental departure from the church’s historic consensus. Still, he has laid down a challenge that will need to be answered with the same thoroughness, and this should prove fruitful. I still believe in what James Orr back in 1901 called “The Progress of Dogma.”



3 Responses

  1. As we can ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’ (Is. 63:10, Eph. 4:30) we cannot think of Him as an impersonal force, or simply as something that emanates from the Father and the Son.
    Graham Tomlin’s recent book ‘The Prodigal Spirit’ is another very helpful book on the Trinity.

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