Review – The Trinity by Gilles Emery

The criteria for an introduction to the Trinity are several: reasonable length, clearly defined terms, biblical reasoning, historical sensitivity, logical progression, and doctrinal synthesis. By these standards, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God by Gilles Emery, O.P. has earned its subtitle.

In the first chapter, the doctrine of the Trinity is located within the liturgical practice of the Church and within the movement of redemptive history. The New Testament allows us to follow both the path of the human Jesus leading to Easter or the path of Jesus’ pre-existent filial divinity. In either case, the Holy Spirit is the key to our knowledge of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the Trinity is manifested in the economy of salvation.

The second chapter contains a biblical examination of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with their relations and simplicity. The third examines “Confessions of Trinitarian Faith,” both in Scripture and in the later practice of the Church. It includes an overview of early heresies and a luminous close reading of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, relying heavily on patristic sources.

The fourth chapter clarifies the nature of the divine “persons” or “hypostases.” It moves deeper into the person/nature distinction, the ramifications of simplicity, analogical language. It also features reflections on the relationship between divine and human persons.

The fifth and longest chapter is a “Doctrinal Synthesis on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It explains in depth what is proper to each person, thus distinguishing generation from procession. The filioque is explained, defended, and asserted to be substantially agreeable to Eastern trinitarian theology. The Holy Spirit as personal Love and Gift receives special attention.

The final chapter reintegrates the economic and immanent aspects of the Trinity. It explains how modes of action may be “appropriated” to one person without compromising the indivisible action of the Trinity. The Father acts through the Son and in the Spirit, both in creation and in salvation. The missions of the Son and Spirit reveal God and save the just through “divinization,” a reception of the Trinity and communion with the Father. The book wraps up with a punchy conclusion and a glossary.

Emery’s specifically Catholic approach is visible in several ways. He remains at all times sensitive to the liturgical and sacramental dimensions of trinitarian theology. Thomas Aquinas is his primary influence. (Emery has written a 4oo+ page monograph on Thomas’ trinitarian theology). Most references to modern writings are to official documents of the Catholic Church or individual Catholic theologians. Probably also because of the introductory nature of the book, there is very little interaction with contemporary trends in trinitarian theology.

Trinitarian doctrine is not easy, but Emery (with has translator) has rendered it intelligible and attractive. The prose is straightforward, the subdivisions are logical, and the tasteful use of italics highlights key themes. Exegetes, theologians, historians, and liturgists alike will find the Trinity related to their discipline. Most importantly, The Trinity will prepare its readers to enter higher levels of discussion about the Trinity. That is ultimately what makes it a successful introduction. I highly recommend this book for your library, whether you are a beginner or not, Catholic or not.

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Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 9:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Early American Catholicism – The Priestless Church

[This is part one of a summary of James O’Toole’s The Faithful, a history of Catholics in America that focuses on the devotional and religious experience of American Catholics, as Catholics and as Americans.]

Few Catholics  On the eve of Revolution, there were few Catholics in the British colonies. Since Catholicism was discouraged by establishment Protestantism, most Catholics were scattered groups of immigrants, banded together by a common ethnicity. This combination of minority ethnicity with minority religion fused many Catholics into tight social units. Some did abandon their religion and join the cultural mainstream, but many more remained devoted, even though it was far from clear how to practice Catholicism under the conditions of colonial America.

Fewer Priests  The primary challenge for American Catholics was a shortage of priests. The ratio in many places was 1000 Catholics to 1 priest. Almost all priests were itinerant, meaning that a particular band of Catholics might see a priest only once every several years. If a priest was of substandard quality, there was no recourse. Any religion would suffer from a shortage of ministers, but Catholicism is especially handicapped under such circumstances. According to Catholics, only priests can baptize. Parents of unbaptized children may have to wait years for the sacrament; if their children should die in the meantime, the best they could hope for was that their children would remain in limbo, a place free both of torment and bliss. Only priests could administer the Eucharist, the central act of Catholic devotion. Only they could hear confession, absolving sinning Christians from the temporal penalties of their transgressions. When a priest did arrive in a remote area, they tended to stay for several days as Catholics gradually arrived from miles away. Confessions and baptisms could fill hours or even days, sometimes delaying the celebration of the Mass.

Individual Devotion  A unique Catholic lay spirituality emerged under these conditions. Devotional manuals and prayer books instructed heads of household to read Scripture texts and “reflections” aloud, and to recite prayers. Many were organized around the Church calendar, providing “an internal logic and a rhythm that lay people could feel.” These manuals are remarkable both for what they emphasize and for what they do not. Lacking regular confession, they led readers through examinations of their conscience. They encouraged the cultivation of inner virtues, including love and devotion to Jesus. Relatively absent from them are prayers to the saints, devotion to Mary, and attachment to the papacy. They were perhaps more “Protestant,” in that they offered a view of the spiritual life that rendered the institutional and sacramental aspects of Catholicism peripheral.

Catholics as Americans   After America gained independence from Britain, most Catholics viewed themselves as American citizens, committed to the ideals of freedom of religion and republican government. The Protestant mainstream was feeling more tolerant as well, partly because of the low status of the papacy and small number of Catholics at the time. Yet, there was the lingering question of how American Catholics would square their allegiance to a foreign figure —particularly one known for political meddling — with their commitment to American ideals. Most significantly, Catholicism was seen as the prime religious example of hierarchical principles, diametrically opposed to the republican political and religious principles embraced by America. Tensions caused by these principles would fuel controversy both among Catholics and between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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