Mar 9, 2012

Invocation and Assent (A Book Review)

by Rob Clements

Invocation and assent: the making and remaking of Trinitarian theology.
Grand Rapids, MI: Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008
978-0-8028-6269-3, £15.99

Without question there has been a considerable resurgence of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in recent decades. A growing list of English-speaking theologians—T. F. Torrance, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf and Stanley J. Grenz, to name but a few—have made creative use of certain ontological understandings of the Trinity to provide a foundation for their wider theological reflections and social ethics. More recently, The Shack, a bestselling work of fiction by William Paul Yong (that portrays God the Father as an African American woman among other things) has brought the doctrine of the Trinity back into popular discourse worldwide.

Upon first glance, one might be tempted to lump Jason Vicker's Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology into the same category of Trinitarian hysteria, but this would be a mistake. Invocation and Assent is, in fact, an historical study of the process through which the doctrine of the Trinity became neglected by Western theologians in the first place, with special emphasis on the role that late seventeenth-century English Protestant theologians played in its demise. Specifically, Vickers argues that the earliest (that, is pre-Nicean) "rules of faith" were liturgical in nature and had a specific function within Christian community ("Invocation") and these "rules of faith" where not specifically designed to answer ontological questions regarding the immanent Trinity that later creedal affirmations would require of them.

Following the Reformation, Protestant theologians in attempting to navigate a middle way between Catholicism and Unitarianism would come to replace such "rules of faith" with the entire canon of Scripture arbitrated by reason alone ("Assent"). Vickers points to archbishop William Laud (1573-1645), as a pivotal figure in this transition, who, in responding to Roman Catholic challenges regarding personal assurance of salvation, laid the groundwork for a new conception of salvation in English Protestantism. "Instead of salvation having primarily to do with the invocation of the trine God in repentance, demon exorcism, baptism and the Eucharist, and in worship thanksgiving and praise, it now had to do with the cognitive or rational activity of giving assent to propositions contain in or deduced from Scripture" (p. 45). This was further enforced by writers such as John Locke, who set in motion a "minimalist way of thinking about Christian doctrine" as an irresolvable puzzle. Not surprisingly, Vickers (a professor of Wesleyan studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio) discovers that despite the marginalization of Trinitarian theology in scholastic circles, Trinitarian worship was revitalized in English Protestantism during the eighteenth-century through liturgical means in the hymns and prayers of Charles Wesley.
Cognizant that his study has only begun to unravel some of puzzling aspects of how Trinitarian theology has evolved, Vickers concludes his study with a chapter on the "The Work of Trinitarian Theology Today" where he attempts to lay some ground rules for future endeavors pasted on the history of the doctrine.

It would be fair to say that Invocation and Assent successfully demonstrates that the disconnection between Trinity and Christian life in English Protestantism preceded Friedrich Schleiermacher's influence and is largely due to combination of Sola scriptura and hyper-rationalism in the late seventeenth century. It also fills an important gap in the literature, which should be of interest to anyone studying the development of Trinitarian theology, as well as those studying the context into which eighteenth-century evangelicalism took root. 

For those of us Protestants who wish to recover a wider ecclesiology and avoid some of the dangers of the sola Scriptura approach, however, it remains to be seen whether the "canonical theism" which Vickers alludes to in this book and advocates elsewhere (see William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers and Natalie B. Van Kirk, eds. Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]) can ultimately avoid the kinds of abuses which spawned Protestantism to resort to such principles—but at least we can thank him for pointing out a number of historical pitfalls in this study so as not to repeat them.

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