T&T Clark has recently published a second edition of Thomas F. Torrance’s The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church as part of their Cornerstones Series, which aims to republish major works in the fields of biblical studies and theology. Originally released in 1991, Torrance’s extended analysis on the Trinitarian basis of the Nicene Creed is deserving of its inclusion in this series for its sustained impact in Trinitarian discourse. Torrance’s book gives an interpretation of the background, context, and contents of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Each chapter moves through one phrase of the creed, and gives Torrance the opportunity to analyze the debates and issues surrounding the linguistic choices that the patristic fathers made in formulating the creed. While Torrance is mainly content in this work to examine patristic debates behind the creedal formulation, it has much to add to current discussion on the Trinity, such as the ongoing debate in certain evangelical circles over the question of the eternal subordination of the Son.
Myk Habets introduces the second edition of the book with a new critical essay that is worth reading for anyone interested in the current landscape of Trinitarian theology. He evaluates the book’s contents as well as its place and impact on the field of Trinitarian thought. The book itself is composed of eight chapters that move through each phrase of the creed. The first chapter gives some background information on the creed, the controversies surrounding its formulation, and the mindset of the patristic authors who sought to give boundary markers for orthodoxy. In the second chapter, Torrance analyzes the patristic church’s understanding of the Father through the self-revelation of the Son. Torrance then gives implications of this knowledge in the third chapter, where the internal Father/Son relation is given ontological priority over the external Creator/creation relation. The fourth and fifth chapters focus on Christ as the Son of God, first in his relation to the Father and second in his relation to creation. The sixth chapter examines the Holy Spirit in his relation to Father and Son as well as to creation, arguing that what the Holy Spirit is toward creation he is inherently within the Trinity. The seventh chapter presents the doctrine of the church as an extension of the doctrine of the Trinity, with the Church as the body of Christ grounded in the Son’s relation to the Father but not equal to it. The final chapter once again looks at the Trinity through the lens of several Patristic fathers, such as Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Epiphanius.
Throughout the book there are three principles that are important for Torrance in understanding the formulation of the creed. The first is “lex orandi—lex credendi,” theology built on doxology, originating with Origen and guiding the evangelical faith of the patristic fathers in their twin-pursuit of theological knowledge and devotional piety. Torrance describes the patristic church fathers as evangelical precisely because of this pursuit, along with their goal of making God known to the wider world. The second principle stems from Athanasius’s famous quote, “It would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate” (p. 49). Torrance continually draws on the embedded principle from this quote—that God is known through the Son—for methodological reasons, showing how it grounds knowledge in the objective reality of God and also how it opens up possibilities for knowledge in the self-revelation of God in Christ. The third principle is the conceptual power of the creedal term homoousion. In the introduction, Habets emphasizes that this term provides the functional structure of the entire book (p. xii). Torrance continually refers back to it to explain each phrase of the creed, particularly related to the divine nature of each member of the Trinity.
As the book’s subtitle illustrates, Torrance believes that acknowledging the evangelical faith of the patristic fathers is crucial for understanding their theologies and the creed’s formulation. For this reason, Torrance’s book has much to commend it to current evangelicals also. Throughout the book, Torrance demonstrates the primacy of Scripture in patristic thought related to the creed. As Habets notes in the introduction, Torrance is also keenly aware of the patristic emphasis on witness in the life of the early church (p. xii). Expressing a position that relates to the modern debate concerning the eternal subordination of the Son, Torrance argues that Basil’s elevation of the Father as sole principle of the Trinity was a significant weakness compared to the Athanasian axiom that, apart from his fatherhood, whatever we say of the Father we can say of the Son and Spirit. Part of his reasoning is that the elevation of the Father as sole principle introduces the possibility of degrees of honor, unequal degrees of deity, and disunity within the Trinity. At the time of original publication, this line of thought separated Torrance from other Trinitarian theologians such as John Zizioulas and Colin Gunton, who advocated a Basilian understanding of the persons of the Trinity. Today, this same argument can inform evangelical theologians on the potential problems in advocating the eternal subordination of the Son for anthropological reasons.
Still, there are also certain historical difficulties for the reader to wade through. As Habets notes, Torrance has been accused in this work by David Ford and others of flattening out historical complexities and making Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and other patristic figures to sound very similar to the “scientific theology” that Torrance himself advocates (p. xiv). However, when read as a constructive engagement with Trinitarian doctrine rather than simply as a historical treatment of the patristic writers, Torrance’s work can be viewed as a case study in how to build a scripturally grounded and historically attested doctrine of the Trinity. For this reason, as well as its continued usefulness in Trinitarian discourse, Torrance’s book is well worth obtaining in this new (more affordable) edition.