Any book that helps us better understand what the Bible teaches about God is providing the world a great resource for the most important issue in all of life. This is exactly what Robert Letham has done. He has written a great resource that helps readers better understand God in his book “The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.
Letham divides the book into four major parts. The first part only focuses on the biblical support for the trinity.It will take a long time to try and find the word trinity in the Bible, but it will not take long to find the holy trinity in the Bible. The first chapter begins where the Bible begins with the creation account in Genesis. Letham takes readers through the Old Testament and an ample amount of evidence that the God of the Old Testament is a trinity. After this, in chapter 2 he turns to the New Testament and shows how the relationship between Jesus and the Father give further support for the trinity. The third chapter turns to the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, as well as showing the pervasive patterns in the New Testament where God acts toward us in a threefold manner. Part 1 ends with and excursus on the ternary patterns in Ephesians. In sum, the scriptures reveal the plan of salvation in its entirety, as well as in its details, is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, was prepared from before the creation, is focused corporately in Christ and above all is an engagement of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who have one purpose, one will, and one effect (79).
In parts 2 and 3, Letham recounts the historical development and the modern discussion on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. His historical development begins in the early church and includes the Arian controversy, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, the council of Constantinople, Augustine, and John Calvin. There are also two chapters that explain how the doctrine of the trinity was the biggest reason for the split of western and eastern Christianity. Most of those debates were because of the filioque controversy and the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit. The modern discussion in part 3 includes theologians like Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Bulgakov, Lossky, Staniloe, and Torrance.
The fourth and final part of the book is titled “Critical Issues.” After thoroughly explaining the biblical foundations, the historical development and the modern discussions of the trinity, Letham writes 4 chapters showing readers the significance of the trinity in theology and in the church. The trinity is the center of all theology because theology is nothing more than the study of God and God should be the center focus of the church. Thus, the trinity has massive implications on other doctrines such as the incarnation and creation. As for the church, the proper understanding and emphasis on the trinity is critical for worship, prayer, and missions. It is in these final four chapters of part four where Letham’s arguments are made on the basis of all that he just unpacked from scripture and church history.
Overall, I thought the book was the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of the trinity that I have ever read or heard of. Letham did an outstanding job with unveiling the trinity from the scriptures and clearly showing its biblical foundations. Additionally, the historical development and modern discussion parts were a solid tour through the most important aspects of the doctrine of the trinity throughout the age of the church thus far. Since I do not have any disagreements with Letham’s exegesis or his historical accuracy, I will focus the rest of my evaluation on the critical issues in the final four chapters of the book.
The eighteenth chapter on “The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer” was the most enjoyable and best chapter of the book for me. It was while I was reading this chapter that I found myself seeing the crossroads between all the biblical, historical, and philosophical concepts of the doctrine of the trinity and everyday life as a Christian as we approach God in worship and prayer. In general, I would agree with Letham who quotes Laats and says “the trinity has been marginalized” (407). God should be the center of worship and it is only since the God of the Bible is a God with three persons, it is only logical to conclude the trinity should be the center of Christian worship. I thought Letham’s observations about the majority of our prayers, hymnbooks, and chorus books were all great ways of showing the marginalization of the trinity in today’s Christian worship. Until recently, all of my life I have been in churches and around Christians who have made worship much more about what we are doing rather than on what Christ has done. Christ is the one true worshiper and worship is a participation in his worship. If we understand the New Testament rightly and the view it gives of how we meet with and know God and worship him as triune, then worship is not primarily our act, but like our salvation, is God’s gift before or as it is our task (417). These truths are some of the most important truths that the church needs to be awakened to today. Way too much time is being spent arguing about the circumstances of our worship gatherings including but not limited to: the style of music, what we will wear, whether we will sit or stand, the length of the meeting, the building or place of worship, and on and on it goes. We need more debates and arguments about how God-centered our worship gatherings are or more time spent finding more Trinitarian hymns or writing out Trinitarian prayers, etc…
I completely agree with Letham about how the entertainment-oriented church services are man-centered and borderline with idolatry. Additionally, I agree with his views on preaching. Preaching is most definitely the high point of worship and the trinity needs to be preached and shape the preaching. It is likely that many so-called “Christian” preachers today could preach their sermons in mosque’s and synagogues because they are so much more about tips for living than they are about proclaiming what our triune God has done for us in Christ. All preaching much be shaped by the active recognition that the God whose word is proclaimed is triune (423). I hear so often from people who do not hold these same convictions that they are tired of hearing lectures about doctrine and want to hear more practical preaching that helps them with where they are in life right now. I fear that what most of these people mean by “practical preaching” is more like what Oprah or Dr. Phil does on television. They want a life coach or a counselor to tell them the latest way to live their best life now. Letham hits the nail on the head when he argues that the most practical preaching is that which enables us to advance in our knowledge of the God who is three persons (423). The last thing I want to bring up from this chapter that I found incredibly clear was the way that Letham described prayer as our engagement with a three-personed God. We pray with Christ and in the power of the Spirit when we call on God his Father as our Father (422). This teaching helped me think about the different roles each person of the trinity has as we pray to Him and I think simply helping Christians understand these truths will be incredibly useful in helping prayer be a more Christian experience.
With all of that said about what I found to be useful and true, there was a few thoughts and questions I had about all of this. The first question I am currently wrestling with is about what would change in my current worship, prayer, and preaching if I were to try and make it more Trinitarian? I by no means think we need to start using the term “trinity” more in prayers or hymns or even in preaching in order to truly be more Trinitarian. I would want pastors and church leaders to spend much more time and energy trying to make their language biblical rather than philosophical. For example, someone does not ever need to know the word “trinity” or even be able to articulate the trinity very well in order to be saved. I do not believe someone would ever need to hear about the Holy Spirit to be saved either. I think it makes much more sense to urge Christians and pastors to be more Christ-centered in their preaching, teaching, singing, praying, and speech because Christ is who the Father sent and who the Spirit wants people to see. “It is not that the Holy Spirit is not essential because nobody would believe without him, but knowing the details about how we are saved is not essential.”
At the end of the day, I would describe my relationship with Letham’s book a love-hate relationship. I did not enjoy reading parts of the book as he spent hundreds of pages to explain some of the philosophical arguments regarding the trinity. However, even though it was not “enjoyable” I appreciated what I learned and definitely feel like I have a better grasp of one the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. I would recommend this book to seminarians and scholarly-types who want a comprehensive and thorough treatment on the trinity. On the other hand, I think there are sections and chapters of the book that I see myself referring to and recommending to almost anyone who simply wants to learn the truth about our Trinitarian God.