Simply Trinity is the best book I have read in support of Classical Theism, what Matthew Barrett (Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) terms “The Great Tradition,” and the rule of faith (p. 35). The Great Tradition is grounded in the Nicene Creed (p. 37) and reinforced by the pro-Nicene Church fathers. Barrett turns to what he calls his “dream team” of pro-Nicene advocates as those who were the most influential in supporting and passing down the Great Tradition. The team consists of 12 theologians including: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, John Owen, John Gill and the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil and the Gregorys. Barrett quotes from his dream team time and again to demonstrate that Classical Theism has deep roots and is biblical.
The motivation undergirding Simply Trinity is Barrett’s belief that the Trinity has been manipulated and distorted beyond recognition, not only by liberals, but by evangelicals as well (pp. 14, 30-32, 73). He warns of Trinity drift (p. 21), led primarily by those who have moved from Classical Theism to social trinitarianism, (pp. 28-30 and chapter three). In social trinitarianism God is a community (pp.78-80), with each person of the Godhead having a separate will (pp. 148-149). Social trinitarianists twist the Trinity into conformity to their unique views on politics, unity, ecology, egalitarianism, patriarchy or sex (pp. 28-30). In doing so the Trinity is misunderstood, and misapplied, to support whatever position or cause one wants to emphasize. The evangelical form of social trinitarianism is found most predominately in the view known as eternal functional subordination (EFS) (p. 91), promoted by theologians such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Their position comes under extensive fire throughout, but especially in chapter eight (pp. 213-259).
Barrett believes the Nicene Fathers got the Trinity right when they taught that the Father is the source of origin (paternity), the Son is eternally begotten (filiation), and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and Son (spiration), (pp. 24-25). These are the only distinguishing marks within the Godhead (pp. 60, 106). “The Father is the principle in the Godhead… Unbegotten” (p. 171), but this does not imply a hierarchy or priority of the Father in relation to the Son and the Spirit (p. 172). While this may be the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, it leaves much to be explored, and Barrett does his best to explain important terms and concepts such as:
- Begotten means to come forth or proceed. The Son is eternally begotten, or eternally generated. “Generation alone is what distinguishes the Son as Son” (p. 162). The Son is not generated in time, but from the Father from all eternity (p. 165). Barrett is convinced that if the Son is not eternally begotten, we have no confidence that we can be born again (p. 180).
- Simplicity “means God is not made up of, composed of, or compounded by parts” (p. 54). “Simplicity is true of each person in the Trinity, since each person is a subsistence of the divine essence” (p. 55).
- Inseparable operations explains that the Persons of the Trinity work inseparably in all things including creation and salvation (p. 57). “Every act of God is the single act of the triune God” (p. 227). Barrett phrases it this way: “Every operation is from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit” (p. 293), and “What the Father planned and the Son accomplished, the Spirit applied” (p. 290).
- Divine appropriations further flushes out inseparable operations for, while the external works of the Trinity are indivisible, yet a “particular work may be appropriated by a person of the Trinity in a way that corresponds to that person’s eternal relation of origin” (p. 288). With divine appropriations, the Father begins, the Son executes, and the Spirit perfects (p. 300).
- There is a difference between the immanent and the economic Trinity. “The immanent Trinity refers to who our triune God is in eternity, apart from the created order” (i.e. the ontological Trinity) (p. 112). “The economic Trinity, however, refers to how this triune God acts toward the created order (i.e. God’s external operations). The economic Trinity reveals God in external operations (p. 112); it reveals something true about the Trinity’s eternal, immanent identity, but God’s identity is not dependent on His actions in history (p. 116).
- Impassibility “means God is not subject to emotional fluctuation” (p. 173).
- Spiration simply means that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and Son (p. 267).
Barrett tackles the difficult questions and texts. He traces Old Testament evidence of the Trinity (p. 109), examines passages such as Psalm 2:7 and Acts 13:33 (pp. 195-198), 1 Corinthians 15:28 (pp. 218, 238, 242-246), 1 Corinthians 11:3 (pp. 222, 251-253), and Philippians 2:4-6 (pp. 246-248). Important questions related to the incarnation (pp. 294-297) and events at Pentecost are also addressed. I was unconvinced by the author’s use of the metaphors of wisdom (pp. 201-202) and the Ancient of Days (pp. 207-209) to explain the generation of the Son. And his attempt to introduce the Covenant of Redemption as an agreement within the Trinity was questionable. If there are not separate wills within the Trinity then in what sense is an “agreement” necessary or even possible? This is standard Reformed Theology but seems to me to undermine Barrett’s thesis. But Simply Trinity would be hard to beat for a valuable defense of Classic Theism.
by Matthew Barrett (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021) 364 pp, paper, $17.82
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel