The Triune God (Fred Sanders)

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John The Baptist

Puritan Board Freshman
Let me preface by saying two things about this book, one in jest and one in seriousness:
1. Who knew a Wesleyan could be such an excellent theologian? :banana:

2. This book is certainly not for those taking the first steps in their trinitarian journey. As I understand it, this series (New Studies in Dogmatics) acts as some sort of bridge between introductory texts and 'advanced theological monographs' (from the series preface). I think this particular work does a great job of doing that, assuming some knowledge from the reader, but not so much that they get lost in the argumentation. It does feel like jumping in on a conversation midway, but in an appropriate manner. It also does a great job introducing readers to the sources and doing some rudimentary interpretation of said sources. I think this is crucial in order to act as a 'dogmatic bridge' of sorts.

Attunement: Gloria Patri
Sanders helpfully reminds us why we do theology: so that we may glorify God. As students of theology, we do not need convinced of this, but we need reminded from time to time. Theological practice also reminds us not to praise God merely for what He has done, but for who He is in and of Himself. This is one of the issues with more modern models of trinitarianism: too much focus on the works of God and not enough focus on how God's works tell us about Himself. "Trinitarian theology is the fulfillment of biblical praise because it thanks God for an event so great that its praise has nowhere to terminate but in eternal relations within God" (29).

He sets our expectations for the rest of his work, focusing on the eternal relations within the being of God:
“The doctrine of the Trinity stands or falls with the right understanding of the relations of God” (35)

I will be honest, he almost lost me on this chapter. I have never taken a good hard look at the doctrine of revelation and I am certainly not familiar with either the liberal theology or the 20th century reactions against it. With that being said, this chapter was great at catching me up.

Sanders sets us up with an important premise: it is the doctrine of the Trinity which actually determines the doctrine of revelation, not the other way around (42). And again, “The Trinity is in the Bible because the Bible is in the Trinity” (44).

He works through Rahner’s overreaction against a merely verbal understanding of revelation and accepts Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, an act-verbal unity which makes the appearing of Christ and the words he spoke of equal importance. He compares the roman doctrine to that of protestants like Machen and Packer and find them comparable.

Communicative Missions
Now we come to the main argument of the book, that the missions of the Son and the Spirit reflect, without constituting in any way, the eternal processions within the divine essence. Recognizing this fact in turn stabilizes our interpretation of the missions of the Son and Spirit: “The eternal triune conversation behind the salvation-historical triune revelation is the dimension of depth that alone can orient us to the right interpretation of what God does and says in the economy” (72). This is also the way in which it can be said that God gives us Himself in the gospel; not only does He save us be he reveals things about Himself through the very same missions that save us. God’s inner life, His knowledge of Himself, is in some way reflected and shared in the missions of the Trinity.

This leads to something which caught me off guard at first, but eventually was found to be appropriate and convincing. When it comes to trinitarian theology, Sanders reserves the term revelation for the missions themselves, not for scripture. He calls scripture a divinely inspired attestation to the missions, but not revelation. By framing it this way, Sanders strengthens our defenses as Trinitarians, cogently arguing that the New Testament does not lay out propositions to believe concerning the Trinity because trinitarianism is assumed by the authors of scripture. No Peter, Paul, and John did not use the terminology we use, but the direct revelation of the Son and the Spirit in time taught them that which is assumed in their writings. I think this is a good move on Sanders’ part. Of course it is not original to him, but he highlights it and the appropriate sources.

Sanders spends some time ‘shutting the doors’ on two other potential foundations for the doctrine of the Trinity: experience and tradition.

Incarnation and Pentecost
Do we teach the Trinity by starting with the processions and work down and out, or do we start with the missions and move up and in? Sanders explains the benefits and drawbacks of both methods, using Augustine and Aquinas as the chief examples of each method.

Sanders encourages us, with the fathers, to read the Bible as a canonical whole, not falling for the modern tendency to sift it into smaller and smaller sections until it cannot tell us anything about God in Himself.

Sanders here writes some things that may make conservative evangelical readers uncomfortable. He openly admits that reading the missions back into the processions (in a reflective way) was an ‘interpretive decision,’ but that it was the “most holistic interpretive move in the history of biblical theology.” He goes so far to say that “without this judgment, the doctrine of the Trinity can never be fully elaborated and can have only a brittle and abstract nature” (113).

This is the crux of the issue: how do we approach the scriptures? What presuppositions do we allow ourself to have? We cannot say that we have none. I may be put in the hot seat for saying this but this is the problem with those who reject the use of Aquinas in theology proper. We cannot simply appeal to the ‘plain sense of scripture’ without recognizing that even this plain sense is grounded in some sort of presupposition. We cannot go wild here, but we must be ready to acknowledge our presuppositions, and modify them as needs be.

God who sends God
Sanders spends some time with Aquinas and his unfortunately named ‘double procession.’ The meaning here is that the missions of the Son and the Spirit ‘move through’ their processions. That is why we can reason back from the missions into the processions. A useful analogy: if there were to be a line drawn from the Father to the missions of the Son and the Spirit, it would pass right through the processions of the Son and the Spirit (125). Similarly, Aquinas calls the missions ‘processions in time.’ This of course sounds dangerous to us on the other side of the modern fascination with historizing God Himself, but Aquinas had no such thing in mind. Sanders spends much time working through some details of the persons of God and how we ought to understand them.

Trinitarian Exegesis
This chapter brings many of the points of the book together. The only thing I want to mention is his critique of Warfield’s famous 1915 essay. Warfield makes no mention of the eternal processions, simplifying the doctrine to three basic prepositions:
1.One God
2.Father, Son, and Spirit is each God
3.These three are distinct persons.

I notice the similarity to White’s Forgotten Trinity, if I am remembering correctly. This, Sanders argues is a rather brittle way to understand the doctrine. “The doctrine of the Trinity stripped of the eternal relations is brittle and abstract” (175). This ‘piecemeal’ proof can be used to support a doctrine which includes the processions, but it is not the most natural way to include them.

New Testament Attestation and Old testament Adumbration
These last two chapters do less exegetical work than I would prefer, but they point us top the proper way to understand the trinitarianism of the NT and how the OT does not directly reveal the Trinity, but by ‘rereading’ we can see shadows of the future revelation in the sending of the Son and Spirit. This was helpful. In NT, he spent time at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ baptismal command, and Paul’s assumed trinitarianism. Again, it is important to realize that it’s assumed in their writings because the actual revelation are the missions. This does not mean the Bible is deficient in its trinitarian content. It simply means we cannot approach it as a set of propositions to be accepted, but as an attestation to the revelation of the missions.

This was a phenomenal work, even if I got lost at times. I wish there was more time with the scriptures, but Sanders’ purpose in writing was not to exegete for us, but rather to retrieve the trinitarian tools of our fathers that lead to a robust doctrine of the Trinity, not the brittle and abstract doctrine many of us inherited. I would recommend for anyone who wants to sure up their trinitarian exegesis, or anyone unsure of how to show that the Trinity is a truly ‘biblical’ doctrine.

I’m looking forward to looking back through the sources of this book and eventually getting to Horton’s Justification in this same series.
Thanks, Jacob! Does Sanders go into things Barrett does not? I.e., does he add to what Barrett has made clear?
Sanders explains the missions-reflects-processions paradigm more thoroughly. I’m not sure Barrett even mentions it. Sanders also teaches back for more sources, classical and modern.
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