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

Five Practices for Actually Doing Theological Exegesis

bibleA couple of weeks ago I wrote a brief introduction to the idea of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. For class I was recently assigned an excellent little article on the subject by Hank Voss, “From ‘Grammatical-Historical Exegesis’ to ‘Theological Exegesis’: Five Essential Practices” Evangelical Review of Theology (213) 37:2, 140-152, which I figured would be worth examining as a follow-up to it.

In the article, Voss points out that while there’s been a good amount of theological argument for the necessity of what he calls “theological exegesis” (TE), there has been less practical elucidation as to how it’s actually supposed to work. People agree that theological interpretation is important, that simple grammatical-historical exegesis (GHE) is not enough, but there’s less direction and clarity as to how we’re supposed to go about moving from GHE to TE.

Voss wonders,

“How do global theological educators equip leaders in the church to practice theological exegesis? More specifically, how do we balance an emphasis on the human and divine authorship—which has tended to an evangelical strength—while paying greater attention to traditional Evangelical weaknesses: readers, their contexts, and their interpretive communities?” (141)

In order to address the gap, Voss proposes five practices that together constitute a framework and practical pattern for teaching pastors, preachers, and future theologians the exercise of theological exegesis (142).

So what are these practices?

1) Faith Seeking Understanding – First, theological exegesis recognizes that our reading of Scripture flows from faith. Theological exegesis assumes you already believe in Christ and want to know him in Scripture. For that reason, you treat the Bible as a different sort of text than Shakespeare or the New York Times. You read this text already believing in order that you might understand, not reading to understand and then maybe believe. Voss sees two implications of this principle.

  • First, sin is an epistemological category. We must reckon with the fallenness of our interpretive efforts and come to the text dependent on the Lord.
  • Second, dependency on the Lord implies “common hermeneutics” will be turned on its head (143). Reading with faith seeking understanding is prayerful reading, singing even, of the text, that acknowledges the spiritual dimension as prior.

2) Faithful to the Original Contexts —  Second, none of this rules out grammatical-historical exegesis. Voss suggests we must listen to original authors as we would want to be listened to; the golden rule applies here as well. Paying attention to the Divine Author doesn’t mean ignoring the human authors when reading the text. In fact, listening for the former happens as we pay attention to the latter. This means we will avail ourselves of all possible literary, historical, and contextual tools and helps as possible in our exegesis (144).

3) Analogy of Faith – Third, theological exegesis will operate in line with the Reformation emphasis on analogy of faith as a correlate of Sola Scriptura. (145) By the analogy of faith, Voss here is referring to the analogia totus Scripturae. In other words, comparing all the relevant biblical material in order that Scripture might interpret Scripture. This practice relies on the assumption of whole-canon discourse by God through human discourse in the various texts comprising the canon. For this practice, Voss appeals to Jesus’ own reading of Scripture in conversation with the Pharisees as an example (Matthew 22:29-32; 145-146). Jesus’ own practice shakes up some of the “rigidity” of modern reading practices. Voss sees hopeful developments in this area with the proposal of canonical-linguistic readings such as those of Kevin Vanhoozer as well as the renewed interest in the New Testament use of Old Testament in Biblical studies.

4) Rule of Faith – Fourth, Voss suggests that theological exegesis will adopt reading along with the Rule of faith (ROF). This principle is a necessary “Christian” and “catholic” way of reading. In some sense, it is best of thought of as a further subset of Analogy of faith in that the Rule of Faith is an “authoritative summary of Scripture’s message” and so entirely consistent with Evangelical convictions (147), Voss further specifies that the ROF reading implies at least three things:

  1. First, the ROF reads Scripture as the single story of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. All Scripture is read in that frame. (147-148)
  2. Second, the ROF finds Christ at the center of Scripture’s story. Christ is the point of the whole of Scripture, though the details here aren’t always quite spelled out in each text. (148)
  3. Third, the ROF reads Scripture trinitarianly (149). This is not a ham-fisted sighting of the Trinity under every bush, but recognizing the Trinitarian shape of the narrative of the whole and reading in light of it.

5) Community of Faith – Finally, Voss suggests we adopt a rule of reading with the “whole” church (catholica regula) . Exegetes ought to read in light of the “Pentecostal plurality” of the history of interpretation in the Church catholic. If we truly have a Pauline and New Testament understanding of the Church (1 Cor. 12), we’ll set ourselves to listen the Spirit’s voice speaking in illumined readings of Scripture throughout the whole body (150). This involves at least two dimensions. First, the church is a historic, present, and eschatological reality, and so we must listen to the voice of historic church as well, paying attention to readings of Scripture that come from patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras. Second, we must attempt to take a step outside the West to hear the global church–the bulk of it, currently–reading Scripture.

With these five practices, Voss invites the church to begin practicing a theological reading of Scripture that acknowledges we are not simply reviewing a dead letter, or an important cultural artifact, but are reading to discern–to be discerned by–the Voice of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Theological Interpretation of Scripture? Three Dimensions

Jesus and the BibleWhat is Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS)? It’s kind of a hot new thing in the theological academy–at least among those of a more conservative orientation–but despite the various publications and authors laying claim to it, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, unified usage of the term. At least not that I’ve heard or read.

What I’d like to do in this (brief) post is simply note three threads, or types of TIS, I’ve seen in my little bit of reading on the subject as a bit of a quick reference to the interested, and then invite others to add what they’d like in the comments.

Theological location of the Text. The first thread or theme I’ve seen highlighted in theological interpretation is the idea that we read the text of Scripture in a theological context. By that I don’t simply mean that most of us read it in our churches. No, the idea is that the Bible is not just like any other book that we might happen upon in the library. It’s a book that is the result of God’s own saving activity. It is not only the story of redemption, but part of the activity of the Triune God’s “economy” of salvation. It is part of how God gets his saving work done, not only an informational book about it. In which case, we need to understand that we don’t approach this book like any other, treating as a mere product of history, but as the result of divine activity. What’s more, as Christians, we are to understand ourselves as readers dependent on the gracious illumining work of the Holy Spirit. Along with that, different accounts will place more or less emphasis on the community of faith as the proper location of interpretation in the “economy of grace.”

Reading for Theological Content. Second, either flowing from this, or separate, theological interpretation of Scripture means trying to read the text for, you know, actual theology. Instead of treating it as a bit of interesting history or “religious thought”, to be picked apart for the light it sheds on the beliefs and the experiences of ancient Jews and Greeks, we read it in order to learn about God. So, when we read Paul speaking of Christ as the Image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation, and so forth, (Col. 1:15-20) it’s not enough to simply speak of the way his conception of Christ may or may not be related to Philo’s thought on Pre-existent Wisdom, or that of other 2nd Temple Jewish thought. We need to speak of what that text is actually telling us about the nature of the Triune God we worship. It’s not simply a text for there and then, but the revelatory self-attestation of the Triune God, meant for the church today. In other words, theology is not something we do after or in addition to exegesis. Exegesis is aimed at theological truth.

Reading with Explicitly Theological Presuppositions. Third, theological interpretation of Scripture also often means reading the text with explicitly theological presuppositions in mind. In other words, instead of acting as if we can come to the text “objectively”, without presuppositions, as neutral scholars, we come to the Bible openly acknowledging that we’re reading it as Christians, as Trinitarians, and so forth. For some, that means using a certain understanding of redemptive history to guide our reading. Others would emphasize a regula fidei “rule of faith” reading that takes its orientation from the Apostles’ Creed. For others, a “Christ-centered” hermeneutic is involved, or perhaps a more comprehensive confessionalism is called for. In any case, it’s not only a matter putting our theological cards on the table, but putting them to work, allowing our reading of Scripture to be shaped by what we believe to be true on the basis of Scripture, in order to arrive at more holistic interpretations. Hopefully, then, we will be reading in a way that honors the intended purposes for which God gave the Scriptures: a saving knowledge of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Obviously, as I noted before, this is incomplete, so I welcome further comment and correction. For those interested, it’s hopefully been a start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

By the way, if you’re really interested, I’d point you to Todd Billings The Word of God for the People of God, Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, Scott Swain’s Trinity, Reading, and Revelation and John Webster’s The Domain of the Word.