Beginning with the current skepticism about God's very existence. Dr. McGrath starts off with some convincing apologetics. This alone makes the book quite compelling. But McGrath ios not a mere apologist, he is a theologian. He knows that the only way to be sure about the living God is to encounter him: and this can happen to people who know alm0ost nothing about him.
McGrath then develops a number of models which help us to form some conception of God, leading to an important chapter on God as personal. An insightful chapter on the Incarnation follows, with some very straight talk to theologians who try to dispense with the deity of Jesus while making it clear that Jesus does not exhaustively define God, but is one person of the Trinity.
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Review 1 for Understanding the Trinity
Date:October 4, 2013
If you are looking for a book which thoroughly expounds the doctrine of the Trinity, this is not it. This book is not about the Trinity so much as it is about how we understand the Trinity (or God). McGrath’s thesis is that God is infinite, while humans are limited creatures, so we need models (a.k.a. analogies, pictures, metaphors or parables) by which we can learn about Him. Humans cannot understand the reality of the Trinity, so the best we can do is look at the models God has revealed to us. McGrath elaborates (or belabors, in my opinion) this point for the first three chapters.
Chapter 4 is titled “Biblical Models of God.” Here McGrath discusses some of the familiar Biblical metaphors for God, e.g. God as parent (note he did not say Father), as shepherd and as a rock. This is well and good, although it has nothing to do with the Trinity as such. The purpose of this chapter is to reinforce the author’s point that we can only understand God through models or metaphors. But he takes this point too far. Yes, humans are limited and Scripture uses many metaphors to aid us, but Scripture is also a revelation of Truth. By the Spirit of truth within us, a Christian can directly experience God, and can understand to a not insignificant degree who He really is (1 Corinthians 2:9-16; Ephesians 1:17). For example, “God is our Father” is not a metaphor. We have been born into God’s family by the Spirit, and we share in His image and nature. We truly are His children.
Before I continue, allow me to quote Robert Letham’s definition of modalism: “The blurring or erasing of the real, eternal and irreducible distinctions among the three persons of the Trinity.” (p. 500, The Holy Trinity, P&R Publishing, 2004). As the name indicates, modalism proclaims that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three modes or aspects of God. As we will see, McGrath teaches modalism.
In Chapter 8, titled “God As Three And God As One,” McGrath begins to approach (as close as he ever gets) to explicating the doctrine of the Trinity. He raises the ultimate question, “How can God be three persons and one person at the same time?” (p. 130). Note that, by the way he formulates this question, he is blurring the distinctions within the Trinity, suggesting that the three Persons are really one Person. The orthodox teaching is: God is not one Person; He is one Being in three Persons. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different Persons, distinct in their own right, and each is wholly God. But McGrath does not give that answer to his question. Instead, he says, “By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case” (p. 130).
God’s “playing three roles” is exactly what modalism teaches.
McGrath tells us that all three roles are “played by the same actor,” but Scripture teaches that there are three actors, i.e. three different Persons, not one. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit; and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. McGrath is blurring the distinctions between the three Persons.
(Tertullian was not a modalist, and it appears to me that McGrath is misinterpreting him. This is the only instance in which McGrath refers to him, and what Tertullian taught is not the issue here; what is important is McGrath’s interpretation of him.)
In Chapter 9, McGrath again stresses that we cannot understand the depths of God, and he compares this with the difficulty of understanding “the identity and relevance of Jesus” (p. 135). He then discusses the fact that Scripture tells us that Jesus is a prophet, priest and king. He says, “What then is being said when Jesus is spoken of as ‘prophet, priest and king’? That there are three individuals called Jesus? Certainly not! What is being said is that the one individual, Jesus Christ, assumes the functions of these three great Old Testament offices or institutions. … We are basically saying that there are three essential models which must be used if the full significance of Jesus for us is to be brought out” (pp. 135-6, he italicizes "three essential models"). He immediately continues, “A helpful way of looking at [the Trinity] is to say that three essential models must be used… The first model is that of the transcendent God who lies beyond the world as its source and creator; the second is the human face of God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ; the third is that of the immanent God who is present and active throughout his creation” (p. 136, he italicizes "three essential models"). Thus he is telling us that, just as Jesus assumes the functions of prophet, priest and king, God assumes the functions of three different offices, i.e. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. McGrath is suggesting that the Father, Son and Spirit are not three individuals (“certainly not!”).
God manifesting Himself in “three models” or “three functions or offices” is modalism.
On page 140, McGrath uses a three-leaf clover and a three-sided triangle as models of God, saying that, “each of the three portions of the leaf is an essential part of that leaf, but the leaf itself is greater than its parts. … The individual persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – combine to create a whole in which their individualities are transcended to give a higher unity.”
The clover and the triangle models are sophomoric and are avoided by orthodox theologians because they imply that each Person of the Trinity is only one-third God. This is false (Colossians 1:19 and 2:9). Letham says that modalism “can arise when the unity of God … is overstressed at the expense of the personal distinctions.” This what McGrath is doing when he says that God is “greater” than any of the three Persons, and that only God is “whole.” Similarly, he says in several places that God is “not a committee,” which is a “thoroughly unhelpful and confusing way of thinking about God” (p. 131). He doesn’t elaborate on the term “committee,” but in the context it is apparent that he means the “higher unity” of God is more important than any individual who might be a member of the “committee.”
However, orthodoxy teaches that the individuality of each Person is equally as important as the unity of God. Again, each Person is wholly God and there is nothing greater or more whole than each one of the Persons. The Persons cannot be “transcended,” as McGrath claims, because there is nothing or no one higher than the Father, Son, or Spirit.
Nowhere does McGrath try to balance his propositions quoted above with discussions or statements of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity to the effect that the Father, Son and Spirit are each distinct Persons in their own right, each wholly and fully God. Therefore I must conclude that McGrath is teaching modalism.
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Review 2 for Understanding the Trinity
Insightful discussion of a difficult topic
Date:October 28, 2012
The stated purpose of this book is to lay the foundations for the Christian understanding of the Trinity. As such, it does not deal extensively with either the biblical evidence or the historical development of the Trinity but rather with unpacking the meaning and significance of the doctrine. While many works have dealt with the former, few have dealt with the latter and certainly not with the skill and clarity that McGrath brings to this problem.
Using humor and illustrations drawn from everyday life to Quantum Mechanics, he assists the reader in grasping the limitations of language when speaking about the divine nature, the purpose of analogical models, and the semantics behind the theological language of the Trinity. Along the way, he also deals with some related and important issues (i.e., the existence of God and the denial of the hypostatic union). The final section includes an annotated bibliography for further study.
In conclusion, McGrath has answered a wide range of criticisms and conceptual difficulties with creativity and aplomb.