The Triune God by Fred Sanders

Triune God.jpgFred Sanders has written a book about the Trinity called The Triune God. Yes, he has already written one previously, The Deep Things of God (which you should have already read by now), and dissertation on it (which is too expensive for anyone to read), but this one is different. Coming as the second volume in Zondervan’s promising New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanders isn’t interested in giving a serviceable, “here’s the Trinity in OT, the NT, then the Fathers, now the Medievals, and here’s how to not be a heretic today” structure. Instead, Sanders says,

The goal of this book is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God. Its central contention is that the manner of the Trinity’s revelation dictates the shape of the doctrine: it draws its dogmatic conclusions about how the doctrine should be handled on the basis of the way the Trinity was revealed (19).

Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to construct trinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.

I will just come out and say that if you are anything approaching a theology nerd, serious student, or professor, I would highly recommend this work. Treat yourself for Christmas or something. Sanders is already known for his acumen in all matters trinitarian, but this book ought to solidify that reputation. And rightly so. This is a serious, top-shelf entry within the academic and churchly conversation around the doctrine of the Trinity. Sanders’ writing is clear, lucid, with an astonishing command of the height, depth, and breadth of the Christian tradition (Patristic, Medieval, Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant) of reflection on the Triune God.

That said, if you’re looking for an intro book on the Trinity, I’ll go ahead and recommend you pick up The Deep Things of God instead (which is coming out in a second edition, I hear).

So what is his argument in this book? Well, it’s a rather complex one that I can’t fully cover here. But essentially its concerned that we go about doing trinitarian theology in a way that fits trinitarian revelation. How God has revealed himself as the One who is Three, ought to definitively govern the way we confess (in praise and print, and printed praise) God as the Three who are One. Theologians aren’t in the business of clarifying God’s muddle, but communicating God’s self-manifestation.

To do that, Sanders delves into issues like the nature of revelation. What does it mean for us to talk about the revelation of the Trinity, for instance? Well, it doesn’t just mean that God is incomprehensible and that he is beyond our understanding. That’s what the doctrine of incomprehensibility means. Instead, in keeping with the NT sense of “mystery”, the reality of the Trinity is of a truth temporarily “hidden, but now revealed” in history for us and our salvation.

But how is it revealed? Well, in the act of God sending God, in missions of the Son and Spirit, or the Incarnation and Pentecost. In these historical acts, God reveals himself as Triune. This means that strictly speaking, the New Testament isn’t the revelation of the Trinity. The New Testament is the inspired (and authoritative!) attestation of that revelation. The words of the apostles inspired by the Spirit are necessary to disambiguate the nature of the Word who comes in the power of the Spirit. There is a unity of word and act at that point.

Sanders touches on and attempts to untangle sundry other issues. For instance, the question of how to think about the relationship between God’s reality in himself and his revelation to us in history. In the 20th century it’s been popular to think of this in terms of the unity or identity of the economic Trinity (God seen in history-of-redemption) and immanent Trinity (God in himself apart from history). Sanders’ moves away from this formulation and, along with John Webster, champions the older formulation which speaks instead of God’s internal processions (the Father generating the Son, the Spirit being spirated by Father and Son), as the foundation of his historical missions (Incarnation and Pentecost). The latter reveals the former and the former is founded on the latter. (Incidentally, much of the hermeneutical muddle surrounding the Trinity debate this summer could be cleared up by working through this book).

When we think of the relationship between the Bible and the Trinity, Sanders helpfully covers a broad terrain. He forthrightly faces the problem of the fact that a good many classic proof-texts of the Trinity have been taken away by modern critical, or careful historical-grammatical exegesis. All the same, new reading strategies—which at times are the recovery of older reading strategies—has opened up new vistas for trinitarian exegesis.

For instance, looking at the Fathers and the New Testament authors, there has been a turn to recovering “retrospective prosoponic identification” or “prosopological exegesis”—the practice of rereading OT texts like the Psalms and identifying persons (prosopa) within them—as fruitful field within which we can toil. Think of Jesus appealing to Ps. 110 and asking the Pharisees who God is speaking to when David sings, “The LORD said to my Lord…” Texts like that are regularly appealed to in New Testament, and the Fathers deployed this mode of reading extensively. On that front the harvest is plentiful! But what about the workers?

Sanders covers all sorts of other ground, like what to make of so-called “Christophanies” (hint: something else), or how to go about spotting the trinitarian presupposition of Paul’s theology, and so forth. That said, you should know that Sanders doesn’t write a “definitive” work in this regard. He does plenty of Trinitarian theology and plenty of exegesis at key points, but often it is illustrative of a general point and not an exhaustive treatment of it.

This might seem like a drag at first. Part of you wants Sanders to work it all out across the Gospels, Paul, even Revelation. Or even though he touches on how to think of the Christophanies, it would be fun to see him work with a story like Abraham and the angel of YHWH at Mamre. But he doesn’t. Besides probably being limited by word-count, I suspect there’s something generous about Sanders’ reticence to give an exhaustive, run-down: it forms something of an invitation to others to discern the glory of the Triune God in Scripture alongside him.

So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

12 thoughts on “The Triune God by Fred Sanders

  1. Hi Derek, I am sad to know that I haven’t read either of the books by Sanders that you noted, but in what ways are they different, if they both deal with the Trinity? Have you read books like “Between Cross and Resurrection” by Alan E. Lewis, or “Being as Communion” by John Zizioulas re: the Trinity, and wonder what you think of these works? Thanks for your review – very likely to get goth of Sander’s books.

    • Try their amazon descriptions for a summary?

      Have not read Lewis but read Zizioulas was a while back. Kinda skeptical of communion ecclesiologies. I think Zizioulas was brilliant but made some moves that haven’t aged well over the last 20-30 years.

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  3. I know I am a bit late to the party, but maybe you will see this and have something to say. I’ll try to keep this brief, but we will see (also, I am here focusing on differences, so this does not mean I see no value in the book). I figure you might be able to shed light since you are pursuing a degree in Systematic Theology and (from the books you mention) interested in more exegetical and philosophical views (name-dropping not intended, just for purposes of brevity).

    I suppose I am not as enthusiastic about this work as you (and pretty much everyone else seems to be) are. Here I think the Newman quote in the book is relevant, “Never do we seem so illogical to others, as when we are arguing under the continual influence of impressions to which they are insensible.” The point isn’t to say that you are insensible to these impressions, only to emphasize that they are impression on my part.

    Anyway, I guess the impression I get from quite a bit of theology is that it is a mix of above-average laymen but below-average professional exegesis and philosophy (obvious caveat about how this can be understandable given specialization and contrasting this impression with early church fathers). In reading the book, I just got a sense that it is either just a statement of his own views (which is fine, but not what I was expecting) or philosophical/theological/exegetical arguments that aren’t very well stated and defended. None of this is to say that I think this of all theology. I really enjoyed and benefited from books like The Nature of Doctrine (Lindbeck), The Drama of Doctrine (Vanhoozer), and Exclusion and Embrace (Volf) (also, I really enjoyed the narrative readings of Scripture in Wandering in Darkness (Stump), but that’s not quite theology–only saying that to say that she isn’t a Bible scholar but it was still valuable).

    I’m sure part of this is tied into a number of other views. For instance, I tend to read works primarily by Bible scholars. Philosophically, I’m heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and somewhat wary of (what I would call detached) theory-building, like van Fraassen worries about (less so than him, though; see The Empirical Stance). I guess I agree with a lot of what he says, but not for the reasons he gives (I agree with the procession of the Son and Spirit, but this is more due to its attestation in church history over any particular biblical/philosophical arguments I would point to–and I now know that Sanders would not be happy with that).

    So maybe the book just isn’t aimed at me since conversations happen in certain contexts, but maybe I am missing something too. Let me know if you have any thoughts.

    • Brett,

      I wonder if you came to the book with a certain set of questions that you expected to be answered and then got a very different sort of book. Also if you are used to the sorts of arguments that are present with Biblical Scholars, a different mode of reasoning won’t be as initially appealing. I think that I might have been less satisfied with this book about 5 years ago given the shape my theological reasoning was taking. I was probably closer to you and that I appreciated the work of biblical Scholars as well as philosophers and systematic theology was sort of a hybrid halfway between the two, whose arguments never seemed to reach the particular specificity of either. I don’t know if that answers your question except to say that given time my sensibilities shifted. Also the questions that interested me in a work like this.

      • Derek,

        Thanks for the response. Maybe you are correct. I did expect a sort of defense of the procession viewpoint and I think Sanders sort of does this, but I didn’t find it particularly satisfying.

        So what does the difference in mode of reasoning amount to in your view? Is this something you can explicate or only something that can be gestured at? Maybe this can be explained even though I have benefited from certain theology books. I think part of why I like Lindbeck and Vanhoozer is because we were already going in similar directions (they before me, of course), while I think there is a certain hermeneutical strength in Volf and Stump that isn’t as obvious to me in Sanders.

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