Written by Robert Sherman Reviewed By Gerald Bray

So many books have been written recently about the Trinity that it is hard to believe that a new approach to the subject is possible. Yet Dr Sherman, who has read widely in the recent literature, has managed to find one. The idea that the Trinity should be linked to the atonement is not new, but it has not been explored properly in recent years, probably because of the difficulties that various atonement theories, and particularly penal substitution, have caused. As a result, the renaissance in Trinitarian studies, which is generally positive and affirming towards that traditional doctrine, has taken place Independently of work done on the atonement, which has generally been more hostile towards received tradition.

Dr Sherman is determined to break this particular logjam, and his approach to both doctrines is positive and original. He does not reject, or even criticise, traditional atonement theories, though he does try to put them in their historical context, and to broaden the discussion by suggesting that each major theory has something valuable to contribute. In his view, much is lost by separating different perspectives on the atonement into ‘theories’ which then are expected to compete with one another, rather than to contribute to a deeper understanding of the doctrine as a whole.

About half this book is prolegomena, and Dr Sherman’s forte is his ability to synthesise and critique much of the current literature. He is particularly good on post-Enlightenment theories, and devotes considerable space to a rebuttal of feminist attacks on the doctrine of the atonement. By showing the inadequacies of various proposed alternatives, Dr Sherman gradually brings us back to historic orthodoxy, enhancing rather than denigrating classical Reformed theological perspectives.

His own original contribution is to suggest that the Trinity can best be linked to the atonement by way of the threefold office of Christ. As king, Christ represents the Father, as priest he represents the Son (himself) and as prophet he stands in for the Holy Spirit. In this way, his earthly work, which culminates on the cross, is seen to be tied into a Trinitarian understanding of God, which it reflects in its different aspects.

It is safe to say that no one has taken this line before, and Dr Sherman is to be congratulated for having opened up a new dimension of theological inquiry. At the same time, it must be pointed out that his attempted division of labour within the Godhead is strangely close to modalism, and it seems unlikely that the three offices of Christ can be distinguished by attaching each of them to a different person of the Trinity.

Occasionally, Dr Sherman lets his imagination run away with him, as when he makes a somewhat alarming etymological link between the words perichoresis and choreography, and then goes on to talk about the divine ‘dance’ and Celtic knots (62), but the reader must not judge his work by flights of fancy like this. What we have here is a stimulating and original work which deserves to be read widely, studied, and answered by those whose primary concerns are, like Dr Sherman’s, the edification and worship of the church.

Gerald Bray

Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.