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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 226–229 

Book Review

Traces of the Trinity: Signs, Sacraments and Sharing God’s Life

Andrew Robinson. Cambridge, UK: James Clark, 2014. 178 pages.

Reviewed by Justin Neufeld

Not too long ago a close friend told me that his ten-year-old asked, “If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?” This friend, not a theoretical physicist, now has Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos sitting on his nightstand. In my own home, our middle child, almost seven, deeply preoccupied and at times troubled by death, is now lobbing question after question at her mother and me. Her questions are our own, and they are being “returned” unevenly. In the opening of The Symbolic Species, a book very influential on Robinson’s approach in Traces of the Trinity, Terrence Deacon recounts how an elementary school student’s blunt question—Why don’t animals have simple languages?—ended one and began another path of research into the evolution of language.

The best and most important questions bookend and quicken our lives. Unlike these examples, however, the “doctrine” of the Trinity often seems like an answer to a question no one is asking. Sure, people ask if there is a Supreme Being and what its nature is, but the doctrine of the Trinity does not seem to answer to anything that motivates those {227} questions. As an answer, it feels as though it comes out of nowhere, its application to regular life is mystifying, and making sense of it—one God, three persons!?—is head-spinningly difficult. If it is valued still, it is often, sadly, as a privileged piece of insider information: we don’t know what to make of it or what its practical value is . . . therefore it must be revealed! That no one could arrive at it independently becomes, strangely, a merit of the doctrine—and our own merit for believing it.

Traces of the Trinity sets out to show that this view of the Trinity is mistaken. Robinson’s claim is that affirmation of God as Trinity is an answer, of a kind, to these childlike questions, and that living trinitarianly is fundamental to our becoming children of God.

Robinson contends that a major obstacle to our appreciation of the triune nature of God is that our questioning begins in the wrong spot. Specifically, we overlook the glaringly obvious fact that our approach to God begins in and with language. We live in a sea of signs, Robinson says (9), and his goal in the first section of his book is to reveal the important features of the medium of signification, of representation and interpretation.

This may seem like a poor place to start for a book that aspires to aim for the interested general reader (xi). However, a massive strength of this book is the clarity of its prose. Robinson makes the complex accessible, interesting, and usable for the reader. He breaks things down so that you might build them up with him. However, this also makes the book demanding in a particular way. There is little fat here. Chapters are focused, purposeful, and build upon one another. The book does not reward haste or offer shortcuts. For those prizing a certain image of a medical doctor, which Robinson is, alongside being Honorary University Fellow in Theology at the University of Exeter, this precision makes the chapters especially pleasing. Yet they are not detached or “clinical,” and the final chapter is a series of exercises meant to offer a pattern for prayer and meditation that reflects the understanding of the Trinity that has been offered. It fits.

Robinson’s tour through the sea of signs is not limited to spoken language. It makes stops at portraits, circuit diagrams, weather events, physical symptoms as well as thoughts, feelings, and actions. He provides several diagnostic tools that both unite and distinguish these phenomena, but the crucial point he wants to highlight is twofold: all life is immersed in sign-use and all signification rests on the mutual indwelling of the three irreducibly distinct “elemental grounds” of Quality, Otherness, and Mediation. There is a triunity to every act of representation {228} and interpretation.

You can see where this is going. “The ‘kaleidoscopic’ patterns of Quality, Otherness, and Mediation, as they play out in the multidimensional process of signification, offer a way of picturing the eternal . . . dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit” (158). Robinson unpacks this claim over three chapters, in part through dialogue with some of the more “classic” formulations of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rooted in Augustine, and he argues that his “semiotic” model of the Trinity preserves the good but not the bad of the “relational” and “psychological” models of the Trinity. I found the argument convincing and the sum effect quickening, the “sea of signs” made manifest, negotiable, and yet also more mysterious in its very intimacy to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yet it is fair to say that Robinson’s heart lies somewhat elsewhere. The book’s dedication is, “For my friends who, like me, are wondering about their place in the church and about the church’s place in the world,” and it is (primarily) in the book’s second section where he addresses these questions, offering provocative interpretations of the incarnation, the atonement, the sacraments of eucharist and baptism, and the church. The overall goal to which Scripture points, Robinson claims, is that we are to become partakers of the divine nature (67), and the divine nature is best understood as the Spirit’s eternal interpretation of the Word as a perfect sign of the Father (29). In these chapters, then, Robinson employs his semiotic model to show how through these events, elements, and institution we “strongly participate” in the divine life because we are being “adopted into the place held by one (or more) of the persons of the Trinity within the process of God’s self-knowing” (69).

These chapters are dense yet brief, and so readers will find many places where they want more development. There are also “controversial” readings. Depending on one’s denominational loyalty and one’s attitude to docetism, ebionitism, and penal-substitution, for instance, Robinson’s interpretation of “real presence,” “fully human-fully divine,” and “sacrifice” may delight or annoy. Yet it is also clear that Robinson thinks his semiotic approach is an improvement over the frameworks that have made for some of these battles, and so he will resist some of the terms these expressions of delight or annoyance take. This is most evident in the “paradigm-shift” (58) reading of the incarnation that Robinson offers; it receives the most ink yet it still asks for the most elaboration to clarify just how it differs, what is gained (or perhaps lost) by it, and how it integrates with Scripture more broadly.

Nevertheless, I believe even those most opposed to some of {229} Robinson’s interpretations will leave with an appreciation for his semiotic approach, including, perhaps, its potential to address their misgivings. More importantly, I hope readers will come to the end of the third section open to Robinson’s claim that concern for sharing the triune divine life is inseparable from childlike delight in the communicative richness of our world and the Word that claims it as its own.

Justin Neufeld
Lecturer in Philosophy
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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