Film and Book Reviews

Trinity study will stretch your understanding of God

BOOKSWork on the Trinity stretches Kevin Giles' mind almost to breaking point.

In the year 2000 I began work on a book on the Trinity. I was finding the going hard and help elusive. Someone told me to contact Bryden Black, another clergyman in the diocese of Melbourne, who had recently returned from completing a doctorate on the Trinity at Oxford. We met several times; he came to our home with his wife Cathy and we went to theirs. He was immensely helpful and among other things lent me his thesis which really stretched my mind. He and his family now live in New Zealand. I have just completed reading The Lion, the Dove and the Lamb, his "introduction" (98, 129), to the doctrine of the Trinity for "the person in the pews" (xiv). I am today well informed on the Trinity but yet again his work on the Trinity has stretched my mind, almost to breaking point.

Bryden Black writes very well, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the voluminous literature on the Trinity, mainly written in the last forty or so years, and explains some of the basic trinitarian concepts superbly well. He begins by arguing that the New Testament is profoundly trinitarian in that it speaks of the Father, Son and the Spirit as God and by dynamically having them revealed in the outworking of salvation history; the Father sends the Son into the world, and then the Father and the Son send the Spirit.

His brief exposition of what Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and more fully Augustine, taught on the Trinity could not be done better. To make clear what these great theologians were talking about he frequently explains their reasoning and concepts by appeal to experiences we all have and when needed adds diagrams. With T.F. Torrance, he believes the confession of the Son as one in being (homoousios) with the Father at the Council of Nicea in 325 and then again at the council of Constantinople in 381 was one of the most momentous theological "breakthroughs" in the historical development of our understanding of God (58). This confession indicated that we Christians are to believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God in the same sense as the Father but is not the Father. He is also not a creature, but rather the co-creator with the Father and the Spirit.

In the first half of his book, Bryden Black gives a brilliant, concise and accurate account of the development of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity now codified in the Nicene Creed which we recite when celebrating the Eucharist. Basic to this ‘model’ (his term) of the Trinity is the conclusion that God is eternally triune and would be so even if he had not created the world and humankind. The incarnation of the Son and the pouring out of the Spirit are divine acts in history but the triunity of God is not constituted by these temporal and historical acts.

In the second half of the book, Dr Black introduces his readers to another "model" of the Trinity in which God "becomes triune" in the history of the world. He predicates his thinking mainly on the work of Robert Jensen (b.1930) and to a lesser extent that of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014), two erudite and creative Lutheran theologians, who have very similar historically conditioned and dynamic understandings of the Trinity. Following in their footsteps Bryden Black develops his own revised doctrine of the Trinity.

The Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is hard for the mind to grasp; this revised model in which God and history are intertwined so that the economic Trinity (God as he is revealed in history) becomes the immanent Trinity at the eschaton is almost impossible to comprehend and so I make no attempt to explain it. This model of the Trinity is both mystical and counterintuitive.

Bryden Black has certainly given us much to think about. I thank him for his work.

The Lion, the Dove and the Lamb: An Exploration into the Nature of the Christian God as Trinity, by A. Bryden Black (Wipf & Stock, Oregon 2015, $26).

The Revd Dr Kevin Giles, now retired, is an author and theologian.