Extremely readable. Holmes knows how to tell the story. If you’re looking for a condensed historical account of the doctrine of the Trinity in a few chapters, look at the chapters in this book, especially chapters 4-5.
How should we understand the second and third century information about the church’s understanding of the Trinity? He says “we should see this not so much as the development of a new confession, as the discovery of the necessary theology to give firm intellectual grounding to an idea that is so deeply engraved in Christian devotion and confession as to be inescapable.”
The idea, like a Platonic idea, was already there, informing the practice, assumed and uncritically acknowledged in worship. The believer that possesses (or is possessed by) the Holy Spirit has access to this reality, knows God. The church that possesses the Holy Spirit has access to the One who is the object of theology because he is the object of its worship. What was lacking was a coherent account of the idea, of the deeper rationale behind that which had been received. Faith possessed and expressed itself in worship, but sought understanding. When alternative rationales were offered, they were repudiated as it became apparent they did not account for what the church had assumed in order to worship as it did.
He puts it this way: “the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”
The apostles worshiped three without denying the assumption that there was one God alone. What they offered was a received way of speaking which was reliable and was in fact congruent with the Old Testament Scriptures. The church had to work to understand what was assumed in that precise way of speaking, which Holmes says is to understand the triune life of God. When we understand something about Scripture, we return to it with that understanding in order to understand more. The Apostles primed the pump for doing that, we could say, besides providing more Scripture.
“When the debate next flared up, with Arius’s complaints about the preaching of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, two generations of argument would finally lead to an account which allowed the church to understand how it could pray as it always had in fact prayed.”
Arius, in other words, posed a threat to the ongoing worship of the church. The problem was that his explanations would alter the way the church prayed by altering the understanding of the assumptions behind its prayers. He offered an incompatible, an incoherent account.