First, I would like to thank the fine people at Fortress Press for a copy of this book.
In his book, The Christian Vision of God, the highly regarded theologian Alister McGrath has combined his reflections of the trinity with Christian artwork. If I had to describe this book in one sentence, it might be this: “theological reflections of the Trinitarian God laid upon the canvas of Christian art.” I like theology but I’ve never been into art; however, I find this combination quite enjoyable. Also, this is a short book that can be read in one sitting.
His Trinitarian reflections are enhanced by his artwork. The artwork gives him a starting position from which to lead into some discussions about the trinity. It blends very nicely because it adds a bit of color to his theological reflections. McGrath’s reflections of Christian art is not the main emphasis. His commentary on the artwork sort of hangs merely as a backdrop; and it leaves his theology of the trinity standing out very boldly on the forefront within the pages of his book.
McGrath has chose to draw his Trinitarian reflections from seven items of art:
- Pearl of Great Price, by Daniel Bonnell (b. 1955)
- The Kiss, 1907-08 by Gustav Klimt
- The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633 by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
- Pentecost, by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli
- Moses and the Burning Bush, by William Blake
- The Holy Trinity with St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdelene, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1490-95 by Sandro Botticelli
- Icon with the Trinity, by Andrei Rublev
I also wish to share a few insightful comments from this book. How can one describe the Trinity? The author puts it this way:
“… something incomprehensible, combining mathematical absurdity with theological obscurantism. We can do without this sort of thing, can’t we? Perhaps it is not surprising that most Christians rarely talk about the Trinity, even though they talk about God rather a lot” (p. 62).
I am glad the author understands the difficulty inherent in this doctrine saying that: “It is clear that many need reassurance that this doctrine is well grounded in the Bible, and that its apparent nonsensicality masks its capacity to be profoundly helpful in matters of faith” (p.74).
This question of the Trinity was perhaps the first question I struggled with in the beginning of my faith formation. I remember asking a pastor about the different theology the Jehovah’s Witnesses were teaching as compared with the theology he was teaching. He provided me great pastoral care and teaching that solidified my faith in the Trinitarian God who gave me salvation, life, and forgiveness.
Perhaps something that will help those who have trouble wrapping their heads around the Trinity is to develop a fuller model of a combination of a:
1) transcendent God who lies beyond the world, as its source and creator;
2) immanent God who is present and active throughout his creation; and
3) human face of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
McGrath believes that we need these three ways of visualizing God together if one is to have an authentically Christian view of God. I have heard some people argue for a predominantly transcendent God…and some for an immanent God. The debate goes on and on; but I believe this debate is endless and absolute useless because God’s character can include all three. I am glad I was able to figure this out early on in my Christian walk.
In The Holy Trinity, by Botticelli, the author insightfully recognizes that:
“The Spirit is represented in a curiously understated manner by a dove, hovering between the dominant figures of the Father and the crucified Son… Botticelli seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit is less personal, less important, and somehow less connected with us than the two central figures of the great drama of salvation” (p. 63).
I could not agree with McGrath more. I would also add that our theology of the Trinity has understated the importance of the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we do not think it is kosher to pray to God the Holy Spirit. I believe we can and should also include God the Spirit in our prayers. Moreover, I also sympathize with the thought that our limited human understanding of the Spirit prevents us from painting an accurate picture of the Holy Spirit in a way that does not even come close to glorifying and worshiping the Holy Spirit in a way the Spirit deserves to be glorified and worshiped.
On the Icon with the Trinity, McGrath states:
“their heads are slightly bowed towards the Father, in acknowledgement of his ultimate authority. The Father’s hand points toward the Son; the Son’s toward the Spirit. It is a symbolic representation of the great pattern of revelation that we find in the New Testament, especially in John’s gospel: the Father sends the Son; the Son sends the Spirit” (p. 80).
Since this is item of art is Orthodox in origin, I find it interesting that McGrath did not mention Vladimir Lossky and the Orthodox Trinitarian doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit (or more specifically, the issue of filioque). An Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit’s procession is different from that of the Western Church. This can be an endless debate of “who” proceeds from “whom”. On one hand, since the trinity is a mystery, maybe less commentary is better? On the other hand, though difficult to read, I do like Augustine’s prolific treatise, De Trinitate, which is a major writing on the Christian understanding of God. McGrath does not go as deep as the early church fathers but does give his readers many reflections to think about.
Concerning William Blake’s Moses and the Burning Bush, the author says:
“Blake appears to depict Moses as somewhat underwhelmed by his experience. He seems unmoved by what he observes; he gives little more than a sideways glance toward the ‘burning bush’; and he makes no attempt to remove his sandals as a sign of reverence. Blake seems to suggesting that Moses failed to realize the significance of what he observed, and challenges us to appreciate its mystery more fully” (p. 53).
In my observation, I would suggest that Moses was not unmoved by emotion. Blake may have depicted the specific moment in time when he first noticed the burning bush. Though this may be McGrath’s personal interpretation of Blake’s artwork, he does use his reflection as a lead into further theological discussion into the mystery of God.
This book is well done, and it will be a book that I will open up again, not just to admire for its artwork but also to further ponder upon the author’s Trinitarian reflections. Alister McGrath has adeptly used art to enhance his scholarly theological discussion on the Trinity, which I am sure will benefit others who are on a quest of forming one’s Christian vision of God.