Book Review: Delighting in the Trinity
Author: Michael Reeves
Publisher: InterVarsity Press ISBN: 9780830839834
I started this book almost four months ago. I thought; from the cover title, that it was going to be a primer on Trinitarian theology and maybe a bit more. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. I did not connect with this book much at all. This is unusual in the sense that the book is published by one of my favorite Christian publishing houses and the fact the book is the recipient of overwhelmingly positive reviews (at least this is true on the Amazon.com website). Mine is not one of those exuberantly positive experiences.
Before I move into the reasons why I didn’t care so much for the book, I would like to list technical specifics and my positive endorsements. First, the author, Michael Reeves, has superior credentials and qualifications to write a book of this nature. My scholarship is nowhere near the level of Reeves, so my opinion and my review might seem a little unqualified; although, I believe my questions and concerns are valid even though I have not read a single review that mentions them outside my own.
The book is a short read at just over one hundred thirty pages. Despite the author’s academic background, I thought the book was very understandable and did not contain language that was “over-the-head” of most readers. The book is five chapters not including a brief introduction piece and a summary conclusion. There are quite a few side-bar conversations, which provide good information; however, I found these interjections quite distracting when reading through the main content.
The flow of the information follows these chapter titles:
- What Was God Doing Before Creation?
- Creation: The Father’s Love Overflows
- Salvation: The Son Shares What Is His
- The Christian Life: The Spirit Beautifies
- “Who Among the Gods Is Like You, O LORD?”
I think the book has much good information and is properly annotated, complete with bibliography and Scripture references. I believe, on this basis alone, the book has value that may compel a reader to further studies and to ask questions of some of Reeves’ claims that could lead to deeper understanding.
I do not disagree with many of the ultimate claims of Reeves, but I did not appreciate the presentation of his arguments. I felt that many of the foundational premises were weak and misguided. I am not sure if these positional statements were denominationally/doctrinally biased or not, but I felt they were posited in such a way that they were very leading. This caused me to have a great amount of skepticism and distrust as I made my way through the arguments of the book.
There are numerous examples of this style of presentation throughout the book, but I will only provide a couple. My first example begins in chapter one. Reeves begins making his case for a Trinitarian portrayal of God by dismissing longstanding, and Biblically sound, views. For instance, he paints in a negative light the view of God as Creator, saying; “if I start there, with that as my basic view of God, I will find every inch of my Christianity covered and wasted by the nastiest toxic fallout” (pp. 19-20). He uses a rather one-dimensional quote from Karl Barth to support his statements:
Perhaps you recall how, when Hitler used to speak about God, he called Him “the Almighty”. But it is not “the Almighty” who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme concept of power, who God is. And the man who calls “the Almighty” God misses God in the most terrible way. For “the Almighty” is bad, as “power in itself” is bad. The “Almighty” means Chaos, Evil, the Devil. We could not better describe and define the Devil than by trying to think this idea of a self-based, free, sovereign ability. -Karl Barth; Dogmatics in Outline
Reeves qualifies his point of this quote by saying that Barth was not denying that God is Almighty; but was insisting that mere might is not who God is. This qualifier might be a sufficient apologetic were it not for the fact that Reeves continues to overstate his arguments to lead the reader. He follows this statement with more hyperbole and rhetoric to pave the way of furthering the line of thinking he intends to take the reader. He says; “I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God” (p.20). I get what he is saying and I get what he is doing; however, I don’t care for the style of argument. My mind is drawn to the first portrayal of God as Creator and Ruler over all things from the earliest words in the Genesis account; and further, in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans. The apostle Paul states that all men are held to account of the knowledge of God simply on the basis of Him being Creator…not their knowledge of Him in any other capacity (Romans 1:18:20). Again, I get where Reeves is taking his reader, but I think the presentation has some flaws from my perspective.
Personally, I did not care for Reeves’ exercise of humor. Levity can be a useful tool in conversation, but it can be risky. One has to assume that their humor delivered is shared by the recipient. What one person finds “funny” another person might find confusing or offensive. There were several attempts at humor by Reeves that I did not find any appreciation for; this was especially true in his efforts to debunk historical metaphorical views toward explaining the Trinity (pp.32-38). An interesting thought I had while reading these “debunks” was that the Trinity is a mystery, an unexplainable mystery of God that we accept by faith. While there are traces, shadows, and echoes of the Trinity throughout our Holy Scriptures, there is no definitive explanation of God as Trinity. It took three hundred plus years of councils, conversations, and debates before the idea of Trinity was even formalized as a doctrine of the Church. One wonders, based on some of the statements of Reeves, how the Christians survived in their faith before the doctrine of Trinity was formalized.
Another example of hyperbole and rhetoric comes in this statement (found on page 57):
“If God is not triune, it gets even worse: for if God is not triune, it becomes very difficult, not only to account for the goodness of creation (as we have seen), but also to account for the existence of evil within it. If God is the supreme being, then evil cannot be some rival force, eternally existing beside God. Yet if God is solitary in his supremacy, then surely evil must originate in God himself. Above and before all things, he is the source of all things, both good and evil. Clearly, it is not good for God to be alone.”
I don’t understand why Reeves arrives at such absolutes in this statement. Is there any accounting for God’s allowance of free will? What is the definition he uses for “eternally existing beside God”?
I found other questionable statements that are intended to lead the reader to inarguable conclusions, but I didn’t always track with the logic of Reeve’s absolutist commentary. Another example follows:
“It is not just the grief our sin might cause him; the Spirit’s personal presence in us means we are brought to enjoy the Spirit’s own intimate communion with the Father and the Son. If the Spirit were not God, he could not do that. It is all because God is three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—that we can have such communion. If God was in heaven and his Spirit a mere force, he would be more distant than the moon.” (p.90)
I say; “why?” What makes this statement true? Let me reiterate again, I think, ultimately, I agree with where Reeves is going, but I disagree with his means of getting there. I don’t think the narrow presumptive reasoning he employs is necessary or fair. I think his perspective is rather exclusionary and makes certain doctrinal assumptions that limits the ability of sharing a beautiful message with a broader audience.
As I look at the reviews from Amazon.com, I may have missed the point of this book entirely. It is abundantly clear that my impressions stand in a minority. If I have completely missed the mark with my review, I extend my apologies to the author, Michael Reeves. None of this; however, changes the reality of my initial impressions…and I assure my audience that mine was not a cursory read. I’ve been carrying, reading, and rereading this little book for over twelve weeks.
I’m still studying and reading books on the Trinity and other reviews will be forthcoming. I doubt that this one will be on my recommended reading list, although it will be nice for me to have as a reference against others that I can compare it to.