Sunday, October 19, 2008

Classical Trinitarian Theology by Tarmo Toom

Toom’s new volume presents a welcome and excellent addition to the field. Realising the need for a ‘textbook’ type work, more comprehensive than a small primer, but less detailed than the extensive works of the likes of Behr and Ayres, Toom outlines his aim for his project as an attempt to provide an introduction to the ‘classical’, ie., patristic 4th century consensus, doctrine of the Trinity. He does so without providing any stake in its ‘rightness’ or faults, but as a necessary starting point for any further Trinitarian theology. The works of more recent Trinitarian theologians of all directions must be read against this background.

In the freedom afforded by a ‘textbook’, of aiming to present material for learning rather than an argument for persuasion, Toom sets up the shape of his book in 4 ‘times around’, a reflexive and recursive approach to the material, as well as furnishing a number of schematic charts and diagrams. The first ‘time around’ provides an excellent basic summary of the doctrines of the Trinity, relying on traditional terminology and conventions, and a minimum of exacting historical detail. This section would form an excellent primer for the well-read Christian looking to get a firmer grasp on the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as outlining the primary elements that one would want to communicate in outlining the Trinity as a teacher. It also functions as an excellent solid base for the rest of the book.

Part 2 consists of 3 charts, outlining and situating the emerging doctrinal issues, characters, and debates, in the 3rd and 4th century. Toom follows the course of the debates and positions, primarily by historical character, with attention to nuance, historical detail, linguistic usage, and theological concerns. As an introduction to the historical development of the doctrines, Toom shows his engaged acquaintance with both sources and secondary material, without weighing the reader down with excessive detail. A complete reading of Part 2 leaves one with an appreciation for the issues at stake, the questions raised and solved, and how pro-Nicene orthodoxy emerges as a viable and meaningful resolution of the ‘problem’ of the threeness and oneness of God.
The third part of the book, times three and four around, consists primarily of a guide to reading original source documents, focused on those mentioned by Toom in part 2. Having grasped an essential understanding of the doctrines, the reader is well equipped to begin exploring the terrain of the debates with a discerning and nuanced understanding of the ‘situation’ of each author and their works.

Overall I consider Toom’s textbook a great success at what it hopes to achieve. Having been in need of a quick primer before setting off into some primary source reading in this area myself, it did what it set out to, and I have a far more intimate acquaintance with the doctrines of the Trinity and the shape of the patristic debates, even considering a background already in early church history. The focused nature of Toom’s work, and pedagogical sensitivity, serves him well, and the resource guide of part three ensures his ongoing utility. His writing is not overly heavy or technical, but does not shy away from technical language where it aids the reader in following the material. All in all, a valuable contribution. 3.5 stars.

Classical Trinitarian Theology: A Textbook

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