A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Review of Carl L. Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity
International Journal of Systematic Theology, July 2017, 379-382
To those on the outside of its institutions and traditions, Lutheranism can sometimes seem like a parallel universe. Even when Lutheran theologians are writing about doctrines with a common ecumenical status (and the Trinity is such a doctrine par excellence), they have an alternative set of dialogue partners, publishing houses and channels of distribution. Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity, for instance, is volume three (the seventh to appear in order of publication) of a projected thirteen-volume series on confessional Lutheran dogmatics in the works since the 1980s. It would be easy for theologians from other confessions to overlook this entry from a small Lutheran publishing house, but it would be a shame if they did so. The tradition of Lutheran confessional dogmatics is astonishingly rich, and it has much to offer for contemporary trinitarian theology. Beckwith’s book is a contemporary dogmatic statement that follows the clearly marked lines of the Lutheran confessions and works extensively with a series of authoritative Lutheran theologians. The German Reformer himself is here, of course, as is Melanchthon. But the unjustly neglected Johann Gerhard looms largest in Beckwith’s constructive account of Lutheran Trinitarianism, and we also hear from Abraham Calov, Martin Chemnitz and Johann Andreas Quenstedt (‘the bookkeeper of Lutheran orthodoxy’, as Dorner nicknamed him).
Beckwith’s task is to present an account of trinitarian theology that is distinctively Lutheran, but not so distinctive that it shows itself parochial or even sectarian. This is Trinitarianism of the great catholic tradition, carried out with resources to which all the churches should attend. Lutheran systematic theologians were of course major contributors to the revival of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in modern theology: Pannenberg, Jenson and J€ungel have been major figures, and it is striking that even Reformed theologians like Moltmann and Barth have more Luther than Calvin in their footnotes when talking about the Trinity. We might even hazard the generalization that where the modern discussion has been most revisionist (in parting ways from classical theism, for instance), the Lutheran influence has been most conspicuous. Beckwith brings in an altogether different sort of Lutheran Trinitarianism, one whose voice has not been prominent in the conversation in recent decades, but whose credentials are self-evident.
The most striking feature of Beckwith’s presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it rests its case on a very conservative doctrine of Scripture. Beckwith identifies modern theology’s deepest problem as ‘the loss of faith in the historical reliability of the Scriptures, in the truth of the Bible as God’s Word, and in the providentially ordered language of faith’. Beckwith instead presupposes a unified canon of Scripture in which the triune author communicates verbally. He argues for a supernatural view of history in which God makes his presence known through a series of carefully designed interventions and manifestations; an economy of revelation and salvation as witnessed in a comprehensive, inspired text. The difference this doctrine of Scripture makes for the doctrine of the Trinity is evident throughout the book, from its main lines of argument to its modes of demonstration.
The book has fifteen chapters constituting three parts…