The doctrine of the Trinity has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Scores of books have been written, some reiterating classic Christian teaching and seeking to trace the implications of the doctrine in our current context, and others seeking to redefine the doctrine entirely. Regardless of the approach, most modern books on the Trinity focus on explaining the doctrine. Peter Leithart’s Traces of the Trinity takes a different route. Instead of illuminating the doctrine itself, he hopes to allow the doctrine of the Trinity to illumine the way we look at the world.
Leithart invites his readers to look at the world through the lens of the Trinity – particularly what he refers to as “the mutual indwelling” of the three persons, a concept known as perichoresis. He sees a pattern of particularity and interdependence throughout the very fabric of creation. This ‘mutual indwelling’ shows up, he argues, in such places as the nature of time, speech, music, human relationships, and in our own sense perception. For example, he sees the past, present, and future as being both distinct from each other, but still connected. The present wouldn’t be the present without the past, nor the future without the present. Therefore, Leithart asserts, past, present, and future ‘mutually indwell’ with one another. Ultimately, he believes these repeated patterns in creation are reflective of the Creator.
Overall, Traces of the Trinity is an intriguing project, but I had two major concerns with the book. First, the structure of the book was misleading and ended up assuming a lot from the reader. If the book was a paragraph, I might say that Leithart buried the lead too much. The preface states the purpose of ‘looking the world through the lens of the trinity,’ but this theme is never actually developed until the last chapter. The intervening chapters are filled with suggestive details and frequent uses of the phrase ‘mutual indwelling,’ but I could find no straightforward argument. Maybe this was intentional, but it made it much more difficult to follow the book. Furthermore, in order to get the veiled references to the Trinity, the reader must already possess a good grasp of Trinitarian theology and terminology.
Second, the postscript simply fell flat. Perhaps aware that some might find his methodology suspect, Leithart acknowledges in the preface that there may be concerns, but promises to address them in the postscript. His instincts proved accurate—I had a series of questions about the nature of analogy and social Trinitarianism as I was reading. Unfortunately, the postscript didn’t provide any meaningful answers. Leithart cited Bruce McCormack, Kathryn Tanner, and others who are concerned with use of analogy in much of modern Trinitarian theology. Leithart wrongly believes they reject all analogies and must be reduced to silence when speaking of God. He assumes their objections create an either/or scenario. Either you agree with Leithart and the tradition he is working in and use analogies to speak of God, or you agree with the objectors and cannot truly speak of God. However, the concern is not about whether analogies are used in speaking of God but how they are used and what is the nature of these analogies. Because he misunderstands the objection, Leithart fails to adequately address the concerns I (and others) have with this project.
Traces of the Trinity is a very ambitious and interesting project. But it is hard to recommend it to anyone who is not already familiar with much of Trinitarian theology, and, even then, there are some challenges.