Three Critiques of Stuart Olyott on The Trinity

Stuart OlyottA few months ago I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s useful and short book, What the Bible Teaches about the Trinity. In that post I raised two areas where I felt the work fell short: meaningful application and developed understanding of the Holy Spirit. Both of those criticisms may be a little unfair, considering the brevity of Olyott’s book. But upon further reflection I became convinced that some of Olyott’s material warrants more detailed interaction. So under the three points below, I will raise some of my concerns and respond to them.

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

In a section on the full deity of the Holy Spirit, under the heading, The Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and honoured (p47-8), Olyott touches briefly on blasphemy against the Spirit: “Blasphemy is insulting the honour of God, and if the Holy Spirit were not God, it would be impossible to blaspheme against him. As it is, this sort of blasphemy is the most serious of all, and can never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31–32).” While the potential to blaspheme against the Spirit is a convincing argument for his deity, Olyott’s point is both pyric and inconsistent.

For starters, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son of Man will be forgiven. By this logic, we could question Jesus’ full deity. Secondly, Olyott fails to interpret these verses in the context of Matthew’s gospel, resulting in a position that has caused much harm and anxiety over the years. Quoting Isaiah 42, Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Spirit empowered servant, who embodies God’s promised rescue and hope (Matthew 12:17-21). He then triumphs over an afflicting demon, prompting the question pervasive to the Gospels, ‘Who is this? Can this be the Son of David?’ (12:22-23). The reader of Matthew knows the answer, because of the quote from Isaiah, but the Pharisees are predictably suspicious and dismissive claiming Jesus was only capable of such feats because he was a servant of Satan (12:24), rather than the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus highlights the folly of their accusation (12:25-29), and significantly in his defence states that he is empowered by the Spirit of God (12:28).

Mihaly MunkacsyWhat does any of this matter? Just before he mentions blasphemy of the Spirit, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (12:30). The Pharisees failed to recognise the beginning of Satan’s defeat and the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the ‘eucatastrophy’ they longed for. For they opposed the one who had come preaching the good news, partnered by God’s Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is therefore not some abstract offence, or loose word I might have muttered only to never be forgiven; it is the deliberate rejection of God’s Christ, to set oneself up against the Spirit empowered servant. Apart from him there is no forgiveness of sins.

Praying to the Son and the Spirit

In chapter 3, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Olyott writes, “Prayer to God is not to be addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to the one who is distinct from him—the Father” (p25). Later, while discussing the established Trinitarian heresies, Olyott labels thanking God for dying on the cross or for his indwelling presence Modalism (p86). Admittedly Olyott is defending the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, cautioning us against saying of the Father what can be said only of the Son or of the Spirit. But this does not mean we cannot address the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Both clearly receive worship and praise. Why then do we prohibit prayer to the Son or the Spirit?

Richard BauckhamOlyott writes, “The New Testament knows very little of praying to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p91). Yet we can clearly read of prayer being addressed to the Son. “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:12, writes, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus even invites his disciples to pray to him, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As Richard Bauckham points out, in Jesus and the God of Israel, “Acclamations and prayers addressed to Jesus go back to the earliest times…The New Testament evidence for personal prayer to Jesus as a regular feature of early Christianity has sometimes been underestimated.” Even if the prevailing practice was prayer to God the Father, Bauckham goes on to say, “Since Jesus was understood as the active mediator of grace from God…and as the Lord for whose service Christians lived, prayer addressed to him was natural.”

Orthodoxy and Salvation

Of the three points I make in this post, I imagine this last one might draw the most criticism. It also is not one that Olyott makes explicitly. However, he seems to make two contradictory statements about orthodoxy and salvation. Correctly he writes about Sabellius, most likely the father of what would come to be called Modalism, “Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks on our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. And yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God” (p86). I made a similar point in an old post on Origen. But a few pages on, Olyott undoes his generous statement about heterodoxy or heresy, lumping Modalists with Muslims, animists, and pagans (p87). “The only true God is the one who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, and this is what he has revealed…A belief in the Trinity is essential to salvation.” Bringing his book to a close, he states this point more emphatically: “There can be no salvation where there is no belief in the Trinity” (p90). I feel like I might lose my job by disagreeing with such a statement. But should we really base salvation on the grounds of orthodox Trinitarian belief? I know nothing of that in Scripture.

Roman TrialJesus is fully God, as are the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet the salvation he offers, the work he accomplished, was not the overturning of our ignorance about the Trinity but the forgiveness of our sins at the cross. It is ours by faith, not intellectual ascent. Belief is primarily, as I read it in the New Testament, trusting in God’s grace made known in Christ, long before it is believing the right things about God. Surely this is what Jesus means in John 17:3 when he said that eternal life is knowing the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.