Book Review: Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John's Gospel

Köstenberger, Andreas J. and Scott R. Swain. Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel. New Studies in Biblical Theology 24. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008. 224 pages. Softcover. $22.00.

(Review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press.)

Father, Son and SpiritPurchase: IVP | WTS | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 0830826254 / 9780830826254

Table of Contents

Andreas J. Köstenberger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He is also coauthor of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth and author of the article “Mission” in IVP Academic’s New Dictionary of Theology.

Scott R. Swain is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Book Review Editor’s Foreword: It has been both forcefully stated and denied that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith. 1 Köstenberger and Swain show with precision and lucidity how that the Trinity is indeed not only central to the Christian faith, but also central to the mission of God (missio Dei) and to “the love and unity among Jesus’ followers and for their mission to the world” (p. 43). Although the term trinity is a theological expression devised by the early Church Fathers in countering various heresies, such as Gnosticism, Sabellianism, and Arianism, and not to be found explicitly in the Bible, it is everywhere assumed and alluded to. 2 With regard to the question of the role of the Gospel of John in the doctrine of the Trinity, Timothy George states,

Had the Gospel of John never been written, there is sufficient evidence in the rest of the New Testament to confirm the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it is in the Fourth Gospel that we find “the supreme biblical pattern of Trinitarian thought.”3


Having recently attended the debate on the Trinity and eternal subordination 4 between Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem vs. Tom McCall and Keith Yandell,5 I read Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel with anticipation. I was not disappointed. I had previously read Salvation to the Ends of the Earth by Köstenberger, and this volume intentionally builds upon some of its conclusions. This volume is distinct in that it was co-written with Scott R. Swain, professor of systematic theology from Reformed Theological Seminary. This partnership reflects the goal of both authors to fill the void of scholarship with a book-length volume on John’s trinitarian theology.6 As the authors indicate, this void reflects the unfortunate and enduring bifurcation between dogmatics (“theological reflection”) and exegesis (“biblical interpretation”). This collaboration between disciplines is exciting to see because it demonstrates what type of work is possible when scholars are willing to be humble enough to see their name next to someone else’s. I hope we see more volumes such as this!


The structure of the book is fairly straightforward, and the reader will likely understand how the layout flows from focus on the Trinity in John’s gospel. Methodologically, the authors lay out an approach guided by salvation history and narrative criticism. Put another way, the Gospel of John is viewed as a story (or narrative) that is the continuation of the Old Testament history of redemption. The three sections of the book include the following: (1) an endeavor to locate John’s trinitatianism in its historical context (i.e., Second Temple monotheism); (2) an exegesis of John’s trinitarian theology tracing the occurrences of God (theos), the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; followed by (3) theological and practical reflection.

Those looking for relevant data and discussion on the Trinity and eternal subordination debate will also be pleased. The authors essentially take the same position as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem when they state, “Temporal missions reveal and are rooted in eternal processions” (p. 180). The footnotes interact with a range of sources including patristic authors 7 and Reformers.8 The book engages other issues such as the Son’s status as autotheos (p. 184), the meaning of parakletos (pp. 193ff), the meaning of monogenes (“one-of-a-kind Son,” pp. 75-79), the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son (pp. 177-79), and the background of saliah (messenger, pp. 118ff) terminology.

One issue that was left unresolved in my reading of this volume was whether the authors understand “in” language (e.g., the son is “in” the Father and Father is “in” him) to refer to unity of purpose or unity of being. On page 71, John 14:10-11 is understood in terms of unity of purpose while the discussion of John 14:17, 23 on page 177 is understood in terms of mutual indwelling. This may simply reflect the respective positions of the authors.


I highly recommend this volume for pastors as well as those interested in more technical debates regarding the Trinity. The conclusions and theological reflections will provide the reader with a solid basis to begin thinking critically about issues such as missions and evangelism. Although this volume is the work of two scholars from two disciplines, it is largely a work of biblical theology rather than systematic theology. The content is very readable, and the stylistic differences between the authors are not distracting. The footnotes open up areas for exploration, but the text is short and relatively easy to read.9 The book will also provide small group leaders and Sunday school teachers with great curriculum ideas.

Co-Reviewed by:David WenkelDavid H. Wenkel graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with an M.A. in Christian Thought: Systematic Theology (2004) and from Bob Jones University with an M.A. in Bible (2006). He returned to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (2008) to do a Th.M. with a focus on the New Testament.jb.jpgJason Button received a B.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He serves as the Book Review Editor for SharperIron and is the creator of TheoSource, a project to compile comprehensive lists of recommended books for Bible study. He is married to Tiffany, and they have two children, Caris Joelle and Asa Livingstone.

Click here to learn more about SharperIron book reviews.

1. According to Millard Erickson, not only is the doctrine of the Trinity “one of the truly distinctive doctrines of Christianity,” but also that “The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial for Christianity” (Christian Theology, [2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000], 347). Wayne Grudem states that “The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith” (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], 226). Charles Hodge stated that the doctrine of the Trinity “underlies the whole plan of salvation, and determines the character of the religion (in the subjective sense of that word) of all true Christians” (Systematic Theology, Originally Published 1872. [Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997], 1:442-443). Hodge goes on to quote Meyer, who states that “the Trinity is the point in which all Christian ideas and interests unite; at once the beginning and the end of all insight into Christianity” (G. A. Meyer, Die Lehre von der Trinität in ihrer historischen Entwicklung, [Hamburg, 1844], 1:42, quoted in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [1872], 1:443).
2. See Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd revised edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 206.
3. Timothy George, “The Nature of God: Being, Attributes, and Acts” in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 186, with a quotation by Arthur W. Wainright, The Trinity in the New Testament, (London: SPCK, 1962), vii. Millard Erickson adds that “It is in the Fourth Gospel that the strongest evidence of a coequal Trinity is to be found” (Christian Theology, [2000], 357).
4. Definition: “There is, then, an eternal and immutable equality of essence between the Father and the Son, while there is also an eternal and immutable authority-submission structure that marks the relationship of the Father and the Son” (Bruce Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society) [Download MP3]).
5. This debate was held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on November 5, 2008. The question debated was: “Do relations of authority and submission exist eternally among the Persons of the Godhead?” For further information about the Trinity Debates, click here. Listen now, download, or play video.
6. The authors cite Royce Gruenler’s The Trinity in the Gospel of John: A Thematic Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986) as the only exception. Gruenler’s work, though “full of excellent insights” left “much work to be done” (p. 20, n. 5).
7. Especially Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John of Damascus.
8. Particularly John Calvin. The authors also interact with many contemporary authors, particularly D. A. Carson, Richard Bauckham, Marianne Meye Thompson, L. W. Hurtado, A. T. Lincoln, Leon Morris, Herman N. Ridderbos, M. W. G. Stibbe, D. F. Tolmie, and N. T. Wright.
9. I found one typographical error in the text worth noting: in footnote 32 on page 85, the second to the last reference ought to be 34 instead of 24 (i.e. 12:34). One other complaint would be the lack of a subject index. (Book Review Editor)
1187 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.