Looking for more – a disappointing read of Simply Trinity

Well, you got a little bit of a taster of what is coming in this review in my previous two articles. You will have realised by now that the book I was referring to when I described how my judgements are formed was Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett. I then addressed a specific example looking at one footnote here.

Reader, I’ve struggled through his book, I’ve tried to give him a  fair hearing, I’ve hoped that my first instincts were wrong, I’ve hunted for buried gold but alas, there was none. And that’s not a good thing. If  you’ve read my thoughts on the EFS debate, you’ll realise that my conclusion is that both sides (EFSers and Neo-Classical Theists if you like) speak from within Biblical and historic (Nicene) Orthodoxy. Both sides are concerned to defend that orthodoxy and both formulate their positions out of concern to protect against risks they’ve identified.  Both sides, in my opinion, use clumsy language that risks pushing at the opposite boundary to the one they want to protect.

There is a genuine conversation to be had about the Trinity which can benefit the church. This does mean that the views being put about now need to be carefully engaged with. Sadly, Barrett’s book does not do that.  Let me explain why not.

First of all, here’s a brief outline to the book. In the first three chapters, Barrett sets out what he sees to be the problem, there has been a drift in our theological thinking, we’ve neglected a proper classical and Biblical teaching of the Doctrine of the Trinity. This has led to a number of errors even as people have been seeking to defend and popularise the Trinity. Particularly in his sights is the Eternal Functional Subordination position.[1] However he also is concerned about Social Trinitarianism (associated with Jurgen Moltmann) which he considers intrinsically linked.

In the second part of the book Barrett sets out his account of that missing classical Trinitarianism whilst taking time along the way to deal with those two specific problems. His full engagement with EFS/ESS is saved until chapter 8.  And here I think is the first example of where the problem lies with the book. It is clear from the way the book has been promoted that it is intended to respond primarily to Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem yet in reality we only get one chapter late in the book that comes close to engaging them.

So, we are treated to Barrett’s exposition of the Doctrine of the Trinity much of which you would expect to provide common ground between the different sides of the debate. That’s a reasonable approach.  The debate is supposedly between people who share a common theological tradition. We might expect Barrett’s opponents to be drawn in, nodding along and saying “yes I can affirm that.”  Sadly, Barrett is too eager to get his blows in and so the flow is interrupted by little barbs at his interlocuters and one finds oneself thinking “I’m not sure that’s fair.”

Here’s the second problem with the book. If this is a doctrine that needs recovering in all its classical and Biblical beauty then the best thing that Barrett could do would be to explain it clearly and engagingly.  However, whilst Barrett seeks to use a conversational, anecdotal style, when he gets to the crunch point of explaining this or that aspect of doctrine that seems to crumble.  For example, here he is answering the question  ‘What is Eternal Generation?”

“As we learned in chapter 2, the word ‘generation’ means ‘coming forth’ and with reference to the Trinity it refers to the Son coming forth from the Father’s essence. The concept takes us to the very heart of what it means for the Son to be a Son. He is eternally from  the Father which is why he is called  Son.  To be more specific, in eternal generation the ‘Father from all eternity communicated his name, his perfections, and his glory, to the Son.’ From all eternity, the Father communicates the one simple, undivided divine essence of the Son.”[2]

And

At the risk of stating the obvious, a son is, by definition one who is generated by his father, one who has his origin from his father. While we will point out dissimilarities between human and divine sonship soon enough, we cannot miss the one fundamental similarity: sonship means one is generated by the Father.” [3]

At the risk of also stating the obvious, apart from being very wordy I’m not sure we’ve come much closer to a clear definition. Like Theresa May’s answer to what Brexit means we discover that “Generation means generation.”  I think this highlights two issues. First, when God’s Word and indeed the church fathers like Athanasius and Hilary speak of God and we meet The Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is warmth, love and life in their descriptions that seems to have been squeezed out of the language of Neo-Classical Theism. 

Secondly, the assumption seems to be that we have found in our fourth century creeds some special magical language that needs no further interpretation. It is important to remember that if we use words like un-generated, generated and spirated that these don’t carry mystical power but are human language which describes God analogically just like the other words and phrases we use to describe him.  What if Barrett had said something like the following?

“We know what eternal generation means because we know what generation is in human terms. Generation describes how you and I come from our fathers. Now, we know that this means we bear something of our father’s likeness. It isn’t exactly the same because we also come from our mothers and so share their DNA too, we are finite in time and subject to corruption, however you get the picture. Now with the Son we are told that he is of the Father. That means that everything that is true of the Father is true of the Son in terms of his nature.  The Father is spirit, is eternal, is all powerful, is all knowing, is ever present, is sovereign, wise, good, love and simple. So too the son.”

Incidentally, that’s how people like Athanasius and Hilary would have tackled the question and they would have been a lot more readable. If you want to a warm, readable and helpful description of the Triune God then you wouldn’t do better than to go and read those old works for themselves. Modern authors tend to get in the way.[4]

The third problem with the book is that given its focus it actually gives limited attention to the matter in hand. You would expect a book seeking to engage with Grudem and Ware to do two things. First of all it would spend time detailing their argument in their own words so that we could read for ourselves what they are arguing in context. Instead, we are treated to Barrett’s recollections of his days as a student in Ware’s classes.[5] The risk with this is that we cannot be certain he has fully understood and accurately represented his opponents. The book at this point carries more of the feel of gossipy recollections than scholarly engagement. 

The problem here is that we are left wondering whether Barrett is dealing fairly with Ware and Grudem. We already know that he doesn’t treat Mike Ovey at all fairly or accurately.[6] The charges he is levelling at Ware and Grudem are serious and so it is reasonable to expect that all the evidence for the charges will be brought and properly considered including that from the counsel for the defence.

Without taking time to engage with what Ware and Grudem say in context and in detail then we risk misunderstanding and misrepresenting them.  Have we mistaken doctrinal error for clumsiness of language? Have we fully heard and engaged with their arguments?  Have we got to the heart of their particular concerns which may well be resolvable? 

The other thing we would legitimately expect is detailed exegesis both of Scripture and historical texts. Again, the book comes across as light on those points too.   It’s not that engagement with Scripture is absent.  Barrett argues for example that Ware and Grudem misunderstand 1 Corinthians 15:28

There is some but looking for more 1 Cor 15:28 and an extended treatment of 1 Corinthians 11:1-3.[7] Perhaps the regular Scripture citations and comment will be enough for some. However, I find myself looking for more. Where is the detailed exegesis of the Garden of Gethsemane scene for example?[8]

Then when it comes to the engagement with the historical data, we know from his endnote that Barrett disputes Ovey’s interpretation of the church fathers. Given how crucial Ovey’s interpretation of those historical works is, where is the response? Where is his refutation of Ovey?  Barret likes his sporting analogies and has spent some time in England so perhaps he would appreciate my assessment here that failure to do this is the equivalent of leaving Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane completely unmarked whilst doubling up on marking England’s defensive midfielders.

My final problem with Simply Trinity and with the wider Neo-Classical Theist movement is the “so what” bit. There is a right concern that we don’t manipulate the Trinity for political and polemic ends. However, at the same time, I’ve constantly been learning that what we believe about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation affects how we live.  We are made in God’s image and Scripture constantly points to who God is and what he is like in order to teach us more about who we are and what we should be like.  When Christ wants us to know how we should relate to one another in John 17 he explicitly refers to the relationship between him and his father. 

Yet the push is not merely that we might be learning the wrong lessons from the Trinity but that we shouldn’t be seeking to learn those lessons at all. I fear that we have here an example of the academy -and the large preaching centres-  that is becoming increasingly cut off from the realities of the pastoral coal face.  Academic Theologians need to remember that they, as much as pastors are gifted in order to serve the church.

It’s peculiar too isn’t it that there is an alliance forming between the Neo-Classical-Theists, egalitarians and feminists. I suspect that such an alliance is unstable and unsustainable.  The significant contribution of the EFS perspective is that we can envisage a world where those who are ontologically equal may still submit to one another.  Egalitarians don’t believe this is possible and so reject complementarianism. It is impossible from their perspective for a husband or a male elder to have authoritative headship based on gender because functional hierarchy would implicitly require ontological hierarchy.  Yet here we have men wanting to insist that they agree, it is impossible to have functional hierarchy without ontological hierarchy and yet also insist that they remain committed to male headship in church and marriage. Barrett and other neo-classical-theists who hold to complementarianism cannot ignore this. You cannot identify a trinitarian debate as proxy for the ethical debate and then fail to properly engage the latter. To go back to our football (soccer) analogy it’s like taking off your goalkeeper and failing to replace him.

As I suggested at the start, a genuine conversation is needed between EFSers and Neo-Classical Theists.  Both sides of the debate are firmly within Biblical orthodoxy.  That conversation will require both sides to stop throwing punches at each other in order to take time and listen.  I’m sure Matthew Barret does have something to contribute to the conversation. There’s evidence in the book that he can communicate effectively and he has a depth of knowledge to draw upon.  I hope to see a revised version of Simply Trinity come out that reflects the fruit of such a conversation.


[1] For more on this debate see here.

[2] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 161.

[3] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 161.

[4] I’ll make a couple of exceptions -if you are looking for a contemporary work then I recommend Bob Letham’s  master piece or for a short read try The Good God by Mike Reeves.

[5] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 214-217. This section comes across to me as leaning towards ad-hominem rather than a serious engagement with Ware’s thought.

[6] See my blogpost here

[7] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 250-253.

[8] For comparison in terms of how it is possible to exegetically engage both historical works and scripture in a fairly short book pick up a copy of “Your Will be done” by Ovey. Even if you do not agree with Ovey’s conclusions on the EFS debate you will still have the sense that you have been treated to a warm engagement with God’s Word and as a bonus introduced to some of the towering figures of church history.