I’m pleased to run this guest post by Josiah Alexakos.
In the final chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the concluding book of The Chronicles of Narnia series, Lucy Pevensie realizes that the “New” Narnia that Aslan brings into existence is not new, but rather the real Narnia. “Old” Narnia was actually a shadow of the real Narnia, which was now fully visible. Within the shadows, one had been able to see a glimpse of the full reality of Narnia, but none of the characters were aware of this until it had been revealed to them.
The idea of “shadows of the real Narnia” may be the best allegory to describe the central focus of Peter Leithart’s recent book Traces of the Trinity. Leithart describes the purpose of the book as “…to discover and lay bare echoes, vestiges, traces, clues to trinitarian life within the creation” (vii). He focuses throughout on the idea of “perichoresis”, a theological term for “mutual indwelling” or “reciprocal penetration”, one of the core realities of the Trinity. His goal is to look at creation through the doctrine of the Trinity, rather than the reverse; and in this he is successful. The book leaves you with an eye attuned to finding the “shadows and traces” of the Trinity throughout creation, while concurrently feeling more incapable of truly understanding it. In both of these realizations, followers of Christ are led to worship a God who is that much more evident in, and yet apart from, His creation.
The book explores a variety of aspects in the created world, ranging from anatomy to time, from music to hospitality. This diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the book: In each new topic, what once seemed to be a normal part of life proves to speak to a more profound truth. In the chapter on time, Leithart carefully walks the reader through the difficult philosophical challenges of understanding what time really is, and then deftly reveals how the Trinity leads us to a better grasp of time.
He states powerfully, “there can be no present unless past and future inhabit it. Or, to say the same thing, there is no time without the mutual indwelling of distinct times….Past, present, and future are irreducibly different. But they exist as the distinctive times that they are only because of their relations with other times, because each inhabits the other [emphasis in the original]” (62).
The trinitarian lens doesn’t feel forced, but rather feels like the lens that had always been missing; as though we had always had poor vision, and we discover that the Trinity is the proper prescription. On other topics, such as ethics, the idea of “perichoresis” provides us with a coherent framework through which we can act in the world:
“Rules apply to situations, and we conform to rules only when our motives and goals are right. Situations need to be seen in the light of ethical rules, since rules are part of the situation we’re in. We can make sense of our ethical dispositions only when they attend to rules and remain attentive to situations. These three are one, because each is a home for the others; each makes its home in each. Unless each dwells in each, we don’t have ethics at all” (101).
The many topics, initially disconnected from each other, unite in their examples of mutual indwelling. Each is illumined by “perichoresis”, and the reader comes away with a better command of the topics.
While the book deftly examines the idea of “perichoresis”, it would have benefited from a chapter that explains at least the key aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity. Hopefully those who read it do so with some understanding of the Church’s historical understanding of the Trinity; however, there is always the possibility that one could read the book without that teaching, and develop a misguided understanding of the Trinity. This is not to say that the book in anyway teaches a false view of the Trinity.
Rather, Leithart seems to assume that one does have a solid grasp on the doctrine and pushes forward with the intent to deepen that understanding. To his credit, Leithart explicitly states that his “purpose here and throughout the book is neither to explain nor to defend that basic orthodoxy [of Trinitarian theology]” (134). Fair enough, but it still would have benefited the book to take pains to lay basic groundwork. In fact, what we know about evangelicalism suggests that such groundwork is badly needed. In the November 2014 edition of Christianity Today, LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries published survey results showing that 51% of evangelical Christians believed the Holy Spirit was a force, and that 22% of them thought that God the Father was more divine than Jesus. These are foundational truths established in the earliest church councils, and yet Christians still lack proper understanding of them. These issues need to be solved, and a single chapter could clarify them.
A final note about the book, and one that makes it all the more enjoyable: Leithart never claims that Traces of the Trinity should be the final say on exploring “perichoresis”. In fact, he notes in the preface his first aim: “If I do no more than leave my readers in a state of enhanced alertness, if I leave them anticipating that traces of the triune life will meet them under every stone and in every sunset and in the face of every stranger, I will be satisfied” (viii). By establishing that the book is not a massive and comprehensive theological tome, Leithart gives readers the freedom to explore topics more deeply, to look for the traces in everything. This will likely lead readers to greater study of God’s creation, to better see how the Triune God imprints Himself on it. In this, God is rightly and greatly glorified.
Traces of the Trinity is an engaging book. Its ability to bring an abstract concept that has fallen mostly into disuse and make it lively and present is amazing. Leithart’s effort to draw on an abundance of sources prove that he sees the traces in all of creation. While this may not be the first book to give to a new Christian, it can strangely make even the oldest Christian feel as though they’re encountering God again for the first time. That is something that all believers, from the first to the twenty first century, have always delighted in.
Josh Alexakos is studying government and economics at Dartmouth College. He enjoys playing basketball and football, watching all Boston sports teams, reading books on politics, religion, and economics, and talking about politics.