Franz DÜNZL, A Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church. New York: T&T Clark, 2007. xi+148 pp. Bibliography and index. $90.00 (paper), ISBN 0-567-03192-6
Reviewed by Brian M. DOYLE, Marymount University, Arlington, VA 22207

The number of recent systematic presentations of the theology of the Trinity has reintroduced the issue of the complexity of the history of this doctrine. Many texts exist that trace the development of the church’s theology of Jesus Christ but a similar text, looking at the Trinity, must examine related but different issues. Dünzl’s book, translated from the German, is a valid attempt to present this theological history.

As the reader would expect, this historical survey begins with the writings of the New Testament and their statements regarding the person of Jesus Christ and his relationship to his Father. This material is well done in Dünzl’s text. What may set this section apart from similar texts is his inclusion of non-canonical texts in his survey. I must admit that I had not considered the Gospel of the Ebionites as an influence upon aspects of the development of Christology and thus the theology of the Trinity. The determination of the canon occurs simultaneous to and subsequent to the ecumenical creeds. Restricting our concentration on the books found in our modern scriptures may not be fair.

What follows the biblical section are chapters that examine the controversies of the early church. Dünzl sees the struggle with Gnosticism to be the primary driving force of the development of Christian orthodoxy. In the fourth chapter, he examines the dispute between the Logos Theologians and the Monarchians. He assesses the vocabulary quite well and in manner that would be accessible to most readers. Yet, because Dünzl confronts the issues from a thematic position he is not tied to a specific chronology. He can examine Justin Martyr, Hippolytus of Rome, Novatian, and Tertullian as different voices arguing for the real distinction (however that was to be understood) between the Father and the Son. The distinction of these authors and their historical contexts are not a necessary aspect of his presentation which does not discount the historical validity of Dünzl’s presentation but forces the reader to take seriously the issues at play in the wider church.

This same approach is used as Dünzl examines the controversy spurred by Arius which caused the emperor to intervene and call the Council of Nicaea. While many texts present the creed of Nicaea as the answer to the questions posed by the early controversies, Dünzl is careful to argue that these answers, if they can even be considered as such, are contextual in nature and provisional. In his preface he warns the reader that, “We can never do more than glimpse the complexity of situations. And anyone who wants to recognize something of God’s plan and purpose in history will require much patience and considerable stamina.”

The historical survey of the Council of Nicaea, the theological development subsequent to it, and the final ‘agreement’ of the Council of Constantinople are well done. Dünzl’s presentation is fair, intelligent, and even handed.

The most interesting aspect of this text is found in the final chapter, Prospect. In this section Dünzl reflects on how his reader may respond to this brief history. First, he recognizes the historical gulf that exists between the modern reader and this history. Time has marched on, yet our theological vocabulary is defined in specific terms of orthodoxy. Secondly, and related to the first issue, we no longer live in a world predominantly shaped by Platonism. Does the work of the early church speak to a word formed by radically different philosophical concerns? There is also the reality that much of the history of the ecumenical councils has seedy political aspects. Emperors were involved despite a lack in theological interest or education. Rhetoric was used on both sides of debates to exaggerate the position of others in order to persuade agreement. The truth is, the development of the doctrine of God did not occur in a vacuum. God revealed God’s self within the history of humanity, with all the faults and inadequacies that flow from it. Dünzl’s honest and sobering look at the origins of the Christian faith is essential for critically minded Christians and thinkers. The value of the Neo-Nicene theology is in its historical and contextual attempt to bridge God’s unity and plurality, God’s presence and transcendence. This theology protects the revelation of the Scriptures and our human experience of the reality of God as found in the experience of Salvation.

While the book may not sync up with many of our course outlines, its survey and assessment make it a necessary read for church historians and systematic theologians.

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