Historically speaking, theological debates over the Trinity have been a major factor in the denominational breakdown of the church. Moreover, the extent to which these debates have influenced—and continue to influence—our individual conceptions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be overstated.
Take, for instance, the Filioque—the notion that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, as the Nicene Creed has it. The Filioque has been debated for over 1,400 years, heavily contributing to the church’s 1054 split into the Latin West (Catholicism) and the Greek-Byzantine East (Orthodoxy).
As those who reject the Filioque often argue, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, then the Father’s unique role in the Trinity is undermined and the Spirit is made subordinate. Those in favor may retort: If the Spirit proceeds from only the Father, the Son’s divinity and salvific work are threatened. In short, acceptance or rejection of the Filioque affects how we define and distinguish the divine persons—and how we worship them, too.
This is true of the many other Trinitarian issues as well. And so, wrestling with how and why we think what we think about the Father, Son, and Spirit—how they relate, work, and reveal themselves to us—is an essential task. This task requires serious biblical, historical, and theological investigation.
Theologian D. Glenn Butner’s Trinitarian Dogmatics, an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity, is a roadmap for just that. His approach to the Filioque is like that of the many other Trinitarian topics he tackles—ecumenical, fair, and nuanced. He distinguishes between hills to die on and hills to build bridges to, demonstrating why all of these subjects are ripe for critical conversation and reflection.
Interior to exterior
Unlike many introductions to the Trinity, which are organized according to historical or biblical topics, Butner’s approach is systematic. In other words, he moves from one concept—or “dogmatic locus”—to another, each building on the previous. In so doing, the reader is encouraged to study the book from start to finish. The interdependence of its form befits the truths it seeks to illuminate because, ultimately, no aspect of the Trinity can be grasped in isolation.
For instance, skipping to chapter 7, which covers “Inseparable Operations,” or how the divine persons act in concert, will make no sense without a firm grasp of perichoresis (how each person dwells fully within the others), dealt with in chapter 5. To productively wrestle with the divine persons’ mode of operating, one must first attend to the nature of their interrelation. This kind of reasoning informs the structure of Butner’s book.
Beginning with the doctrine of consubstantiality (which affirms that Father, Son, and Spirit share the same substance), and working through chapters on such themes as divine processions, relations, and operations, Butner’s topical progression culminates with a discussion on how we commune with the Trinity. While the first five chapters deal with God’s inner life, the last three pertain to how he works and reveals himself in the world. The book flows from interior to exterior, blooming out of the folds of God’s inner life and tracing their intersection with the Christian life.
The first five chapters allude to the connections between Trinitarian dogmas and specific matters of worship and spirituality. For example, at the end of the first chapter, “Consubstantiality,” Butner challenges the prevailing method of Sunday worship, which often directs “prayers, hymns, liturgy, and rites” to only one person of the Trinity, a practice he deems “a tacit rejection of the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When we worship the Father, we ought to acknowledge that we are simultaneously worshiping the Son and Spirit too.
Also, when discussing perichoresis, Butner argues that it “reveals the fundamentally trinitarian shape of salvation.” Because we are not equals with Christ, our union with him is not the same as the Trinity’s inner relation. But the latter still gives shape to the former. In being unified with Christ, Butner writes, “Christians in some sense share in the life of the Trinity,” a fact that underscores the importance of wrestling with the inner life of God.
Dialogue across history
Organizing concepts systematically allows Butner to create dialogue across history. He does not discriminate based on his own affiliations or leanings but converses with theologians spanning eras and traditions, drawing on the best of each to construct comprehensive analyses.
For example, Butner develops a robust understanding of the Trinity’s inseparable operations by dialoguing with church fathers (Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa), Medieval thinkers (Aquinas, Bonaventure), and contemporary theologians (Catherine LaCugna, Adonis Vidu), to cite just a few examples. By doing so, he substantiates his claim that the work is intended to be “in service of the important goal of Christian unity.”
To this end, Butner strategically incorporates voices from cultural locations different than his own. However, he does not engage in tokenism (as is all too common in academic settings). Rather, he acknowledges that “there is no universal, singular voice of Hispanic women, of African Christians, or of the poor.” And so, he brings in theologians to speak on their varying cultures when relevant and helpful.
This is seen in his treatment of the divine missions of the Son and Spirit. Butner explains the situation Kenyan theologian James Henry Owino Kombo identified in African contexts, where many who first hear of the Trinity assume the Son and Spirit are somehow lesser deities. Kombo’s proposed solution is elevating the language of Son and Spirit in ways that overtly express their singularity with God the Father. Doing so, Butner acknowledges, would provoke a kind of “cultural shock” befitting the magnitude of this mystery.
According to Butner, this kind of cultural shock is needed in wrestling with the divine missions. The missions of the Son and Spirit are not fundamentally lesser than the work of the Father. Instead, writes Butner, the divine missions are “the fullness of the infinite … and simple God” made manifest “in the persons of the Son and Spirit within the finite … world.” This paradox is supposed to be shocking and strange to our time-bound minds.
Butner’s work is richly sourced not only by a plethora and diversity of theologians, but also in its interaction with the Scriptures. He identifies two principles basic to his theological method: the inspiration principle—that Scripture “participates in God’s knowledge by inspiration”; and the canonical principle—that it alone is “fully normative in theology.” Because of the high premium he places on Scripture, Butner draws on the entire canon throughout.
Butner agrees with Karl Barth that God is the revealer of his own revelation, but he argues that this self-revelation didn’t begin with the life of Christ. Rather, it has been happening since the dawn of time, and comprehending its culmination in Christ requires the context of the Old Testament. Because of this presupposition, Butner consistently finds support for Trinitarian doctrine in Old Testament history, poetry, and prophecy.
Sanctifying and strenuous
Butner’s approach is dialectical in two senses: He is constantly dialoguing with opposing views, and he alternates between discussing God’s threeness and his oneness throughout.
Regarding the first sense, Butner is always working through wrong answers to arrive at orthodox ones. This approach is important because, as Carl Trueman notes, “Heresy is usually quite sophisticated, actually has a meaning, and is to be taken very seriously.” To take heresy seriously is to take orthodoxy seriously. The two are in constant conversation, and to comprehend either requires engaging both. Butner does this well.
Regarding the second sense, while other introductions to the Trinity treat the Father, Son, and Spirit in separate chapters, Butner always deals with them together, highlighting either their plurality or unity (or both). He moves, for instance, from discussing consubstantiality (oneness) to processions (threeness), from simplicity (oneness) to persons and relations (threeness)—and so on. Perhaps the greatest challenge in discussing the Trinity is emphasizing God’s threeness and oneness simultaneously. By alternating between the two, Butner addresses this challenge effectively.
One of the most impressive things about this introduction may also prove an obstacle—its relative brevity. This book is compact. While this makes reading it far less intimidating, the sheer density of its contents may overwhelm or befuddle. Butner moves along at a very brisk pace. Giving the contents some breathing room, so to speak, would create space for more robust illustrations of how the Trinity intersects with practical liturgical and spiritual matters. Butner certainly points to these intersections throughout the book, notably in the final chapter, but more sustained attention would be welcome.
Trinitarian Dogmatics is instructive not only for theology but for worship too. Reading it is a sanctifying and strenuous exercise, providing space to wrestle with the deep Trinitarian mysteries and our limitations in comprehending them. Though it is written with the nonspecialist in mind, specialists will find it a useful resource too, as it is by no means nontechnical. This work will prove a gift to the academy and the church, promoting stronger ecumenical dialogue and more reverent worship of our God who is—mysteriously, magnificently—three in one.
Noah R. Karger is an MDiv student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and research assistant at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.