Thanks to the mysteries of the internet, I’ve wound up befriending Stephen Bullivant through Facebook over the last couple of years and this January he asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing his forthcoming book on the Trinity. I was very happy to accept the invitation, but I simply was not expecting any book on the Trinity, of all things, to be such a pleasure to read. The theology, writing style, and argumentation are excellent, and Stephen’s great use of analogy and a healthy dose of humor made for some memorable moments.
Bullivant sets up the purpose of the book as solving an age-old problem. Namely, all Christians believe in the Trinity, yet few of us are ever comfortable discussing what exactly our belief is. In a certain sense, it’s almost seen as a question we ought not to discuss because, well, we aren’t really sure how to. I once asked my pastor, Fr. O’Rioardan when I was in fifth grade to explain the Trinity, thinking I would either stump him or finally get an answer that I could understand. Unfortunately, I didn’t stump him, and I also didn’t get an answer I could comprehend. At the outset of The Trinity: How Not to be a Heretic, Bullivant outlines the three main points of the standard Christian doctrine on the Trinity:
- There is only one God.
- The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each God.
- The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the same.
These three basic statements, he argues, constitute the basic doctrine of the Trinity. When we are discussing the Trinity, it is these ideas we must keep sight of, and yet a lot of delicate balance is needed to say all three of these things at the same time. Too much emphasis on one point can lead us into tricky waters.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the first chapter, which dealt with the real crux of the matter when talking about the inner life of the mystery of God: language. Our contemporary world struggles mightily to use analogies without confusion and Stephen has a masterful way of highlighting how useful (and necessary!) analogies are, but also how limited they are. Simply put, no words can ever truly do justice to the majesty of the Godhead. And yet, if we don’t use words, we can’t say anything. But we have to say something; we have to be able to speak in some terms about the Trinity, and throughout his book, Bullivant shows us that the words the Church has come do adopt over centuries (one nature, three persons, consubstantial, co-eternal, etc.) are all carefully chosen and slowly adopted, and must be understood in the correct way. Indeed, as he notes, even Augustine was humble enough to know that we’d never really be able to say exactly what the Trinity is:
“In very truth, because the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit…is neither the Father nor the Son, they are certainly three…Yet when you ask “three what?” human speech labors under a great dearth of words. So we say three persons, not in order to say precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence.” (De Trinitate, V, I, cited on p. 96)
Anyone who wants to be able to have conversations about the Trinity needs to read this book. It covers the New Testament and Old Testament revelation, focuses on Arianism, modalism, and other heresies, and includes a great chapter on the whole vexing question of why we refer to God in masculine language. Bullivant, who earned his PhD at Oxford, manages to keep the complex discussion of each of these three attributes of the Trinitarian doctrine simple to understand, but he adds enough richness and depth to the conversation throughout to give someone with a theology background plenty to chew on. I think the great genius of his book is that he sets up each of the major Trinitarian controversies as a denial of one or more of the above statements.
I know I”m not the only one to voice my admiration for how the author managed to combine a great work of concise Trinitarian doctrine with some gut-busting humor, but I had to share some of my favorite examples. When you read someone who can do high level theology and make you laugh at the same time, you know you’ve hit the jackpot.
On Modalism and Sacha Baron Cohen:
“[Modalism] is, one might say, the Sacha Baron Cohen understanding of who God is: there is only one Sacha Baron Cohen, and Ali G, Borat, and Bruno are all Sacha Baron Cohen, because “Ali G,” “Borat,” and “Bruno” are likewise three personas in Sacha Baron Cohen’s repretoire.” (p. 51)
On the limits of analogy and the Trinity:
“We risk ending up with a God who differs from us mere creatures…only by degree. It is as though we could simply take the goodness of creation (Gen. 1:31), and by turning it up to eleven, somehow reach up to the goodness of the Creator himself. Of course, we cannot do that, and Scripture itself warns us against thinking we can. (p. 11)
On Arianism and Pinocchio:
Pinocchio is a walking, talking, living puppet fashioned by Geppetto in lieu of a “real boy” to love as his own. He is, if you like, a perfect creation of Geppetto’s, but not as one of his other creations. While Pinocchio shares several characteristics with human children–one might even call him a boy–he is not himself a real boy….While I’m not entirely sure that Disney intended to produce a feature-length satire of Arian Christology, that’s pretty much what they achieved.” (p. 65)
You can pick up a copy of The Trinity at local Catholic book stores as well as on Amazon. I highly recommend it for anyone, but it will be especially handy for those with a background in theology who want a short, go-to summary of the doctrine of the Trinity that quotes the Fathers, but is easy to quickly re-read before giving a lecture or teaching a class.