The Holy Trinity In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship
By Robert Letham
Presbyterian & Reformed 2004
A review by Jack Kettler
Robert Letham (MAR, ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Aberdeen University) is the professor of systematic and historical theology at Union School of Theology in Bridgend, Wales, and the author of numerous books, including The Lord's Supper, and Union with Christ.
What others are saying:
“Solid and judicious, comprehensive and thorough, abreast of past wisdom and present-day debate, and doxological in tone throughout, this is far and away the best big textbook on the Trinity that you can find, and it will surely remain so for many years to come.” - J. I. Packer, Regent College
“In this outstanding work, Letham points us back to God in all the mystery and glory of his triune being. With his keen theological acumen, Letham has given us a tour de force of Reformed theology.” - Sinclair Ferguson, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC
“A comprehensive guide that will stand us all in good stead. Writing from a clearly Reformed position, Letham takes all sides of the question into account, and seeks a way forward on controversial matters that will embrace many different insights in a coherently biblical whole. Teachers and students will rejoice in his clear presentation of the issues involved.” - Gerald Bray
Part One: Biblical Foundations
1. Old Testament Background
2. Jesus and the Father
3. The Holy Spirit and Triadic Patterns Excursus: Ternary Patterns in Ephesians
Part Two: Historical Development
4. Early Trinitarianism
5. The Arian Controversy
7. The Cappadocians
8. The Council of Constantinople
10. East and West: The Filioque Controversy
11. East and West: The Paths Diverge
12. John Calvin
Part Three: Modern Discussion
13. Karl Barth
14. Rahner, Moltmann, and Pannenberg
15. Returning East: Bulgakov, Lossky, and Staniloae
16. Thomas F. Torrance
Part Four: Critical Issues
17. The Trinity and the Incarnation
18. The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer
19. The Trinity, Creation, and Missions
20. The Trinity and Persons
This work on the Trinity by Dr. Letham is extraordinary in its scope. It undoubtedly will be the go-to resource on Trinity studies for many years. Pastors should have this in their library.
In the first chapter dealing with the Old Testament background, Dr. Letham carefully surveys the unfolding of the Scriptural revelation on the Trinity under some subdivision headings. In this first section, Letham documents the emerging revelation of the persons within the Godhead in Old Testament revelation. One particular heading stands out regarding the “Distinction within God.” (p. 26)
Letham illuminates some of these distinctions:
“In a number of passages, Yahweh addresses Yahweh, not in self-deliberation, but apparently as distinct agents. Psalm 110: 1 records: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Here Yahweh addresses a figure whom David calls his “Lord” (Adonay).” (p. 26).
Letham closes the chapter with a quote by Gregory of Nazianzen, which serves as an appropriate summary:
“The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further . . . with the Holy Spirit. . . . [I] t was necessary that, increasing little by little, and, as David says, by ascensions from glory to glory, the full splendor of the Trinity should gradually shine forth.” (p. 33)
Chapter 6 on Athanasius is significant. Letham enlightens:
“Athanasius was not alone in defending the truth. Nevertheless, we can hardly exaggerate his contribution to the refinement and crystallization of Trinitarian dogma.” (p. 127).
Chapter 9 Augustine is likewise significant for the development of Trinitarian theology in the Western Church. With Augustine, a difference of emphasis on explaining the Trinity with the Eastern Church began.
In regards to this regarding Augustine, Letham writes:
“It seems to me incontestable that he operated within the Christian tradition bequeathed by the Cappadocians. His prime motive was to defend and develop it against challenges that had arisen in the wake of the Constantinopolitan settlement. However, while doing so, he took a significantly different turn that would open up a chasm between East and West. Meanwhile, how better could we end than with Augustine’s prayer at the conclusion of De Trinitate?
O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of thine, may they acknowledge who are thine; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by thee and by those who are thine. Amen.” (p. 200).
Chapter 10 East and West: The Filioque Controversy:
This chapter is exceptionally valuable in understanding the filioque controversy.
The two following excerpts are just a small prevue of the value of this chapter. Letham explains:
“The Trinity According to the Eastern Church
The dominant influences in Eastern Trinitarianism, the Cappadocians and John of Damascus, place primary stress on the Father as the source of the personal subsistence of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the guarantor of unity in the Godhead— the sole principle, source, and cause of the Son and the Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Gregory Nazianzen corrected this emphasis with his teaching that the monarchy is the whole Trinity, not the Father alone, but this primary stress remains.” (p. 204)
“The Trinity According to the Western Church
Augustine has exerted an overpowering influence in the Western church up to the present day. We saw how he makes the divine essence, not the person of the Father, the foundation for his doctrine of the Trinity. Western theology has followed by starting from the one essence. The continued threat of Arianism in the West, particularly in Spain, led the church to lay extra stress on the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. The filioque was intended to undergird this: the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son served in Western eyes to safeguard the identity of substance of the Son and the Father. In turn, following Augustine’s psychological analogy, the Spirit was seen as the bond of union between the Father and the Son.” (p. 204-205)
Chapter 10 is full of the historical circumstances and theological debates that led up the split between the Eastern and Western Church.
Chapter 12 on John Calvin was particularly valuable. Calvin’s theology on the Trinity may serve as a bridge between the Eastern and Western Church. How so?
“Calvin in Relation to East and West Whatever we may conclude about Calvin’s relationship to the tradition he inherited, his focus on the three persons rather than the one essence is more like the Eastern approach than the Western. In much of what he writes, Calvin combines elements of both East and West. His use of the baptismal formula is reminiscent of Basil. He insists that God is not truly known unless he is distinctly conceived as triune, and that the fruit of baptism is that God the Father adopts us in his Son and through the Spirit re-forms us into righteousness. Butin comments on the influence of the baptismal formula on both Calvin and Basil, and also notices the weakness of Warfield on the Eastern church, for, like the vast majority of Protestants until recently, Warfield took little or no notice of Eastern theology. This focus of Calvin on the three does not undermine the unity of God, for his being is one. The three persons imply a distinction, not a division.” (p. 254.)
“Calvin famously cites this passage from Gregory’s Oration on Holy Baptism, saying it “vastly delights me”:
“No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.” (p. 267).
Part Four: Critical Issues dealing with the Trinity and Incarnation, Worship, Prayer, Creation, Missions, and Persons round off this marvelous work.
There are many gems in Letham’s The Holy Trinity. The scope of Letham’s work is so substantial that it is difficult to review since there are so many things a reviewer has to leave out. Page numbering citations are from the print version of the book.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham
This review by Keith Mathison does justice to this book. See Mathison’s review at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/book-review-the-holy-trinity-by-robert-letham/