Leithart, Peter J. Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015. Pp. ix + 165. Paper. $17.99.
As I sit here at my desk thinking about what to write concerning Peter Leithart’s latest offering, I’m struck by how the end of the book has completely reshaped my view of its beginning. To start, I had assumed that this would be one kind of book and yet it ended up being another. I expected an apologetic for how “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation” (CCC 237), which I got, but not in the way that I thought I would.
Leithart spends 8 chapters talking about the physical world, personal relationships, time, ethics, love, music, logic, and language while employing the terminology and concept of perichoresis, i.e., “interpenetration” or “mutual indwelling.” It’s not until the 9th chapter that he really turns his attention to God and even there it’s not so much to speak about God qua God, but rather believers being in God. Well and good. Really good in fact.
But as I read through the book, taken by Leithart’s way with words, I couldn’t help but think, and write in the margins, that the things he was describing fell short in every way of the perichoretic relationship that exists in the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then I arrived at the postscript. Leithart had anticipated my objections; he said so right there in the final pages of the book. And yet he didn’t go back and revise the main contents before publication in order to allay my concerns. He left things as they were, waiting to address the issues that were so bothering me right at the end.
And now I can’t think about the book the same way I did while working through it from the beginning. It seems that Leithart was correct when he said, “there can be no present unless past and future inhabit it” (62). In the present of the past I viewed Leithart’s descriptions with suspicion. But in the future of the now past and then present he had anticipated all that I would disagree with and had an answer ready and waiting. Once that future became present I could no longer view the past in the same light. But all of these moments converged; they all inhabited one another.
Leithart tells us that we inhabit the world just as the world inhabits us. Things are what they are in relation to other things and without some sort of mutual indwelling nothing could ever be what it really is. This goes for parents and children; husbands and wives. It’s true of property and owners or the way we treat others. Language, music, and everything else all the way down the line until we get to the Creator of it all, the God who is Trinity.
Paul told the Romans that God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen and understood in and by his creation (Rom 1:19-20). Leithart has taken the time to get us thinking about how this is so. For years I’ve been leery about using certain (really any) analogies to describe the Trinity. I once wrote a book (never published because it was ultimately unpublishable) in which I panned the use of love, time, the universe, a family, or even eggs as analogies for the Trinity.
But I see those analogies in new light now. I’m still not convinced that they’re helpful in making sense of how God can be both one and three simultaneously, but perhaps they help to make clear, even if just a bit, how Father, Son, and Spirit can inhabit the same divine space. Leithart has helped me to understand that even if the analogies aren’t a perfect match (if they were then they wouldn’t be analogies) they can still help us say and know something of God. He rightly says that “there is no impropriety in calling God Rock, Sun, Father, or in suggesting that there are analogies between father-son relations and the eternal relation of the Father and Son” (152).
Past redeeming Trinitarian analogies for me, Leithart has got me thinking about the relationships I have with things I hold dear. For example, as I sit down to “get into” the word of God, the word of God “gets into” me. I bring certain presuppositions to the text, which influences my interpretation of the text, and yet the text manages to shape, refine, and at times completely overhaul those presuppositions. On the rare occasion that I read a Bible with notes or commentary I see how the comments illuminate the text while the text illuminates the comments.
The sermons I’ve preached have all been inhabited by my experiences but also by the books that I’ve read, other sermons I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had, or thoughts that I’ve pondered. And while it might not seem obvious how interpenetration works in such an instance I’d just say that as I’ve read, conversed, thought, and experienced, I’ve always had in mind, even if subconsciously, that this thing or that would make good sermon fodder. My sermons inhabited all of these things, even if in nuce.
But the real game changer has not been the redemption of Trinitarian analogies or even me thinking about how I inhabit the world and the world inhabits me. It’s in Leitharts all too brief comments on perichoresis in John’s Gospel; particularly Jesus’ high priestly prayer where he prays that his disciples be one “even as” Father and Son are one. I’ve discussed this passage with Unitarians aplenty and they’re quite fond of pointing out how the oneness that exists between Father and Son can’t be a oneness of substance or nature based on this passage. If it were then we’d also share in the divine nature and the Trinity would be a much larger number. And yet we are described as partakers of the divine nature. We are called into a relationship that has existed from eternity. It is “in Christ,” to use Paul’s language, that we can be one with each other and with Father and Son. Leithart brings this out much more clearly that I have, and he does so with an eloquence of speech that I simply do not possess.
So I’ve said all this to say that you should read this book. I can think of no plainer way to say it. Read this book. That’s all.