Review: Traces of the Trinity (Peter J. Leithart, Brazos, 2015)

Readers of the blog will know that Peter J. Leithart appears regularly in some form or other here. I have referred to his little books, Against Christianity and Between Babel and Beast. I have reviewed Defending Constantine and Athanasius. I link to his essays on First Thingswebsite regularly. So, I want to start by thanking Baker/Brazos for sending me this book.

Like all of Leithart’s work, it is quirky and that’s where I want to begin. J. K. Rowling advises her young readers that to be equipped for life, they might sometimes have to go through it diagonally (Diagon Alley). They might, in other words, have to adopt a perspective that, if not counter to that of the majority, is at least slightly askew. Leithart does the same in his work: in Against Christianity and Defending Constantine he takes the decidedly minority side that “Post-Constantinian Christianity,” as exemplified in the works of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is deeply mistaken. In Between Babel and Beast, he offers a theological justification for the fact of empire and a warning that the latest global empire, America, is on the verge of becoming beastly. Through it all, he consistently manages to mortify both the “Christian Right,” and the “Christian Left.” Which is why I like him.

So what makes Traces quirky? Well, for a start, it’s odd to find a Reformed theologian this side of Barth engaging in unapologetically natural theology. And that’s what this work is. In fact, if you listen for it, you can almost hear the Basel professor putting down his wheelbarrow of books, banging his shoe and shouting “Nein!” in heaven. Having said that though, it’s not what one typically expects from natural theology. That is, it is decidedly NOT an attempt to work up from foundational claims about the nature of the world to the being of God. Rather, it is natural theology that is decidedly Reformed, and one that has clearly drunk deeply from the wells of Radical Orthodoxy, and especially the work of John Milbank.

Thus, the books grounding assumption is straightforward: if God is Trinity, then we should find traces of the Trinity—trinitarian patterns, reflections, vestiges—in what God has made. Specifically, Leithart takes one of the most difficult theological concepts—perichoresis or mutual indwelling—and looks for glimpses of it in creation.

Now a tangent. Perichoresis was a theological term hammered into meaning on the anvil of the Christological debates that culminated in Chalcedon. It was an attempt to explain how the natures of Christ, human and divine, subsist in one person without mixture or division. Each indwells the other such that each remains itself while at the same fully attuned to, and acting in harmony with the other. As the identity of the person of Christ receded and the identity of God came to the fore, perichoresis was pressed into service again, this time in order to describe the relationships that mark the inner life of God. Each person of the Trinity so indwells the other two that he is fully attuned to and utterly in harmony with them. None can be divided from the others. And yet, each remains a person.

Where does Leithart see traces of this reality? In the human/world relationship (ch. 1), in intra-human relationships (ch. 2), in erotic relationships in particular (ch. 3), in time (ch. 4), in language (ch. 5), in music (ch. 6), and in ethics (ch. 7). If such traces are present, what does this mean for actual practice, both generally human and specifically Christian? This question is taken up in chapter 8. Finally, chapter 9 provides an appropriate concluding theological gloss to the preceding discussion.

One will invariably be reminded of the social trinitarianism that was “all the rage” about twenty years ago, especially as is found in the work of the late Stanley J. Grenz and Catharine LaCugna (among many others). But it is best not to press this similarity too deeply. This movement has been rightly criticized as implicitly Feuerbachian—projecting from “the society we need” to an understanding of God that will support it. It ends up saying a lot about us, but nothing at all about God.

While Leithart does use some similar vocabulary (especially perichoresis), this is not the direction his work takes. Rather it is exactly the opposite. Moving from the identity of God as disclosed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Leithart seeks to discern traces of that identity in what this God has made, and only then ask what lived difference this should make.

I found this book hard to start—like I said, its quirky—but once the lightbulbs started going on, I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended for theological students and seminarians.

One thought on “Review: Traces of the Trinity (Peter J. Leithart, Brazos, 2015)

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