Who needs the Trinity? A Review of Fred Sanders, “The Deep Things of God”
“Dear heavenly Father, we thank you for dying for us.”
I winced. The church elder meant well of course. He certainly didn’t mean to endorse patripassianism. He was just aiming to provide an offeratory prayer in a sleepy suburban evangelical congregation. But that didn’t change the fact that he had committed a blunder so serious that in an earlier age he would have been pulled in front of the bishop Monday morning. God the Father did not die for us. As unfortunate as that may be, the most tragic part of the story is that nobody in the sanctuary seemed to notice the indiscretion. Nor is this an anomalous case. I have heard countless similar prayers offered at many different evangelical churches. The trinitarian faith, once fiercely defended as the core defining doctrine of Christian identity, seems to have faded into the background like the worn and forgotten hymnals that now sit unused in countless pews.
Enter Fred Sanders, an erudite evangelical theologian and professor at Biola’s Torrey Institute. Having established his academic trinitarian credentials with a well reviewed academic monograph on the Trinity (The Image of the Immanent Trinity, Peter Lang, 2004), Sanders has now penned a much more accessible book on the Trinity for a general audience. And that audience will not be disappointed. The Deep Things of God is a bold exposition of trinitarian faith for evangelicals (though everyone else is invited to listen in too). Why evangelicals in particular? Sanders has a bold claim:
“Deep down it is evangelical Christians who most clearly witness to the fact that the personal salvation we experience is reconciliation with God the Father, carried out through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. As a result, evangelical Christians have been in reality the most thoroughly Trinitarian Christians in the history of the church.” (9, emphasis added)
Really? Evangelical Christians are the biggest Trinitarians? And how’s that s’pposed to work? According to Sanders the gospel is above all a trinitarian gospel, a fact which makes evangelicals as those Christians who have a unique emphasis upon the gospel the most thoroughly trinitarian of all Christians. To be sure, Sanders is not denying that other traditions have their own unique insights and contributions into the nature of the faith. But evangelicals have much to bring to the discussion of understanding the Trinity.
Sanders starts off in the introduction with a critique of evangelicalism which reveals both his incisive and objective assessment as well as his warmth for the evangelical tradition and confidence in the resources it brings to bear. However, Sanders is well aware of evangelical ambivalence and confusion about the Trinity as with the elder’s offeratory prayer. He observes that evangelicals have often manifested a “coldness toward the Trinity” (11) coupled with shallowness, “ten miles wide and half an inch deep.” (12) Thus evangelicals presently only have part of the evangel:
“When evangelicalism wanes into an anemic condition, as it sadly has in recent decades, it happens in this way: the points of emphasis are isolated from the main body of Christian truth and handled as if they are the whole story rather than the key points. Instead of teaching the full counsel of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming), anemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!).” (16)
As Sanders observes, an incautious “emphatic evangelicalism” (one that emphasizes only part of the gospel story) soon becomes reductionistic evangelicalism in which “everything you hear is right, but somehow it comes out all wrong.” (17) The solution to the siren song of this kind of reductionism is the Trinity, that doctrine which brings in all the elements of the gospel story in one comprehensive whole. The fact is that evangelicalism, properly understood, brings to the wider church an emphasis on the gospel which, rooted as it is in the doctrine of the Trinity, amounts to a clear teaching on the doctrine of God and the economy of salvation. Thus, for evangelicals to return to the Trinity as revealed in scripture is for them to return to their roots.
The Deep Things of God begins with two chapters of introductory matters. Sanders starts in chapter 1 with a discussion of the trinitarian theology of Nicky Cruz. Yes, that Nicky Cruz, the author of Run Baby Run, a book that every genuine evangelical of 1970s vintage had on their shelf wedged in between The Late, Great Planet Earth and Joni (Joni Eareckson’s autobiography). Apparently Cruz’s literary career didn’t stop within Run Baby Run for Sanders informs us that he wrote another book called The Magnificent Three, a book which was on, of all things, the Trinity. Sanders draws this lesson from a quick summary of Cruz’s book: “His radical Trinitarianism did not come from an advanced theology lesson; it came from thw gospel and then led him to an advanced theology lesson.” (33) In other words, the Trinity is first an experience and only after becomes a matter of theological reflection. That’s a good lesson. But I picked up a couple other lessons: first, Nicky Cruz is smarter than I remember; second, Fred Sanders is delightfully (and intentionally) eclectic in his choice of interlocutors. From there Sanders moves to a brief historical survey of evangelical opinion on the doctrine, concluding that “from Bunyan to [Amanda] Smith and down to the present, the doctrine has shrunk to a set of propositions that are to be held in the mind as verbalisms, remote from any possible direct experience or relevance.” (43) The antitode is to familiarze ourselves with “the deep, Trinitarian roots of our own history as evangelicals.” (44) And that task is precisely the goal of The Deep Things of God.
The second chapter, titled “Within the Happy Land of the Trinity,” lays the essential foundation for any and all practical reflection in the concrete reality of God as triune. As Sanders says, in a much appreciated distancing from the prevalent pragmatism in much recent theology, “the Trinity isn’t ultimately for anything, any more than God is for the purpose of anything.” (61, emphasis added) This is an especially important point for those Christians who are driven by the spirit of pragmatism. (And that spirit is alive and well, I assure you, as evidenced in the number of times I get asked as a professor the question “How can I use ______ doctrine in ministry?”) Sanders emphasizes that God is essentially trinitarian (that is, he is Trinity apart from the economy of revelation), and so before the doctrine is a revelation of God for us it is a revelation of God in himself: “Balanced evangelical Trinitarianism does not just throw itself into the river of good news and swim away downstream; it also acknowledges the fountain from which that river flows.” (69) In response to the incipient pragmatism that simply prefers to go with the flow, Sanders points out that even the most practical facts of salvation inevitably push us back to who God is. For example, we begin with the practical fact “I am saved by Jesus.” But that forces us to ask “How did Jesus bring about this salvation?” And that in turn leads us to ask “Who must Jesus be, if he is capable of saving in this way?” And that in turn leads us to ask: “Who must God be, if that is true of Jesus?” In other words, a faith that is serious about the practical facts like “I am saved by Jesus” inevitably takes a reflective journey back to the question of who God is in his essential nature. And so we are brought back to the fact that “God is not just the Trinity when he chooses to go out to do things, but that he is Trinity ‘at home,’ as it were, in the happy land of the Trinity.” (83) The essential triunity of God means that God is, in himself, community. And this supports a concept of divine aseity over-against popular kenotic and process views where God creates and/or redeems out of need. As Sanders writes: “The tri-personal love of God is not a love that needs any completion. Consequently, we should avoid presenting the gospel in a way that suggests God is begging us to come back home so he can finally be happy again….” (95-6)
The next three chapters explore the relationship between the Trinity and the doctrine of salvation.
Chapter 3 introduces the trinitarian action of salvation in history as Sanders continues his practice of engaging with a broad range of voices from the evangelical tradition from Charles Spurgeon to J.C. Ryle to Henry Scougal. Incidentally, you might be wondering: why does Sanders always engage evangelicals? The point is an intentional one: Sanders does not mean to deny the value of the contributions of Augustine and Aquinas to trinitarian thinking. Nonetheless, his focus is to acquaint evangelicals with the richness of their tradition and in this goal he succeeds in spades.
The discussion of chapter 3 leads naturally into the following chapter which explores the notion that the gospel “has had this threefold shape impressed on it by the triune God.” (127) In other words, Sanders explores how the revelation of God the Father sending the Son and Spirit into the economy reflects back on the triune being of God. In this way, chapter 4 links the soteriological discussion of chapter 3 to the theology of chapter 2. It culiminates in the soteriological concept of adoption into the Trinity with a fascinating discussion of the famous series of essays published as The Fundamentals (from which the term “fundamentalist” derives). This is especially interesting since The Fundamentals has often been lampooned by critics for lacking trinitarian depth. In an engagement with an essay from the work by Charles Erdman, Sanders demonstrates hows how this is not the case.
I have attended many evangelical churches which were, for all intents and purposes, christomonist. Prayers are prayed to Jesus in Jesus name and praise is primarily directed to Jesus. If the Father makes an appearance it is often garbled as the Father who died for us (see above) while the Spirit is often incautiously referred to with the impersonal “it”. Chapter 5 discusses this problem and how to avoid it. Sanders laments the notion that ”Jesus becomes my heavenly Father, Jesus lives in my heart, Jesus died to save me from the wrath of Jesus, so I could be with Jesus forever.” (171) He counters this christomonist tendency forcefully by arguing that we can be Christ-centered without being “Father-forgetful” or “Spirit-ignoring”. Indeed, that is the only way to be truly Christ-centered.
The final two chapters discuss a trinitarian understanding of scripture (chapter 6) and of prayer (chapter 7). While I found these both to be engaging chapters, I especially appreciaed the discussion in chapter 7 as I am convined that there is no place in the daily life of a Christian where a healthy trinitarianism can make a more significant ongoing impact than in one’s prayer life. As I said above, many churches are functionally christomonist, directing prayers to Jesus in Jesus’ name. That is simply inadequate for “If the Spirit unites us to the Son and reconciles us to the Father, we have an invitation to pray accordingly: to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.” (212) As Sanders puts it in an evocative metaphor, praying in this way is “praying with the grain instead of against it.” (212)
I heartily commend The Deep Things of God. Fred Sanders is among the brightest and most articulate of the younger generation of evangelical theologians. He has a great, wry sense of humor and is eminently capable at turning memorable phrases. He also knows the evangelical tradition intimately and maintains that rare balance of being an astute critic while retaining a sympathetic, pastoral touch. There is never any doubt that he loves the evangelical tradition and wants to renew it from the inside out. His book also ably achieves its central goal of demonstrating the essential importance and practical relevance of this central doctrine as well as the impressive resources of the evangelical tradition (with interlocutors ranging from Susanna Wesley to Francis Schaeffer) in reclaiming it. And if you think that is all just fluff, then you should know that I have adopted The Deep Things of God as a textbook for one of the seminary classes I teach in systematic theology. And if that’s not high praise, what is?
Now that I’ve piled on some accolades let me note that the only books I review without criticism are my own. So I have to lodge some objections here. To conclude this review I’ll note three problems with the book: first, its conflation of two different senses of the word “Trinity”; second, the fact that it fails to live up to its own subtitle; and third, its tolerance for obscure theological formulations. Let’s consider each of these points.
Okay, first off, in what sense is the book guilty of a conflation of terms? Consider for a moment another word: “evolution.” This word can refer either to the theory of evolution or to the actual processes operative in nature that the theory purports to describe. Sometimes the actual referent of the word will be ambiguous (as in “I think evolution is elegant”). But it is important to be clear where possible on how the term is being used. And the reason for that should be obvious: there is a HUGE difference between evolution (the theory) and evolution (the natural process the theory describes).
“Trinity” functions like “evolution” in that the word can refer to the doctrine of the Trinity or the God that is triune. More fully we can define these two, very different senses, as follows:
Trinity (the doctrine): a theoretical framework for understanding biblical revelation and Christian experience according to which God is essentially and eternally three distinct and equally divine persons.
Trinity (the divine being): God, a being that is essentially and eternally three distinct and equally divine persons.
I hope it is obvious why we ought not conflate these two senses. But if it is not obvious perhaps I can bring out the problem by noting some rather glaring differences.
Trinity (the doctrine) is a set of propositional claims which aim to describe God accurately as understood within Christian revelation. The doctrine is mutable (it has changed over time) and contingent (it might not have existed).
Trinity (the divine being) is an agent who is immutable and exists necessarily.
I take it it should be obvious why we ought to avoid, where possible, the conflation of a theological doctrine (i.e. a set of propositional claims) with an agent (divine or otherwise), for they are completely different kinds of things.
Perhaps you’re skeptical. Does it really matter? Aren’t I being too nitpicky? Don’t we have the degree of precision necessary to carry on a conversation, even if sometimes the referent of Trinity is ambiguous? While I understand the force of that response (there is always ambiguity in language) to attempt to suggest that the conflation has no significance would be mistaken. Consider one simple example. Should I use the impersonal pronoun when refering to the Trinity? Clearly I should if I am referring to the doctrine of the Trinity. Picture the dazed seminarian walking out of one of Dr. Sanders’ classes who mutters: ”I don’t understand the Trinity. It doesn’t make sense.” Within that context the person is attempting to understand the doctrine (with a final exam looming) and it is appropriate to refer to a doctrine with an impersonal pronoun. To borrow from Martin Buber, a doctrine is an “it” rather than a “thou”.
But now picture that same seminarian planning a missions trip with his youth group to Nigeria. At the eleventh hour their visas are denied and the trip falls through. Again he mutters, “I don’t understand the Trinity. It doesn’t make sense.” In this case he’s referring not to a doctrine but to the divine being the doctrine purports to describe. Given that fact, is it appropriate to refer to that being with an impersonal pronoun? It would seem not. After all, if any entity is a thou rather than an it, then God surely is. And you refer to Thous with personal pronouns. But this raises an interesting puzzle. Which personal pronoun should the seminarian use when referring to Trinity the divine being? Should he use the male singular “he”? Or the plural “they”? To be honest, neither one seems quite appropriate. (And that difficulty handily illustrates some of the inherent tensions in the doctrine of the Trinity.) But one thing is clear: it is no good masking those inherent tensions by referring to the Trinity as “it” because we’ve conflated these two very distinct senses.
This finally brings me back to the book. There are many places where Sanders conflates these two different senses. Consider a section which runs from page 61 to 62. Sanders begins by referring to Trinity as doctrine: ”the Trinity makes all the difference in the world for practical things such as salvation, spirituality, prayer, Bible study, and church life. The doctrine of the Trinity is a practical doctrine….” (61) Skipping down a few sentences we find Sanders still referring to the doctrine: ”the Trinity isn’t ultimately for anything, any more than God is for the purpose of anything. Just as you wouldn’t ask what purpose God serves or what function he fulfills, it makes no sense to ask what the point of the Trinity is or what purpose the Trinity serves.” (61-2) Again, the referent seems to be clear: Sanders is talking about Trinity the doctrine.
But then something perplexing happens, for in the very next sentence Sanders writes: “The Trinity isn’t for anything beyond itself, because the Trinity is God.” (62) Thus we see that in this final sentence, an identity claim, Sanders switches to referring to the Trinity as divine being. This is really unfortunate. And here I’m going to put on the hat of an analytic philosopher even though that might make me seem churlish. But clarity on these issues really is important. Consider:
(1) By the transitivity of identity if A and B are identical then anything true of A is true of B.
(2) The Trinity is identical to a set of propositions.
(3) The Trinity is identical to a divine agent.
(4) Therefore, a set of propositions is identical to a divine agent.
Obviously Sanders doesn’t believe that God is a set of propositions. But then the elder whose prayer opened this review didn’t really mean to say that God the Father is God the Son. But good intentions don’t excuse bad confusions. Not only is Sanders the theologian guilty of a conflation of trinitarian concepts, but Sanders’ conflation is, if anything, more egregious than that at the opening of this review. While the elder conflated two different persons, Sanders conflated a divine being with a set of propositional claims. Coming within a book challenging evangelicals on their weak trinitarian thinking that lapse is, to say the least, disappointing.
This brings me to my second complaint which centers on the lofty claim of the book’s subtitle, “How the Trinity changes everything.” (Incidentally, the subtitle is referring to the doctrine of the Trinity.) Let me preface this complaint with a recognition that book editors often sacrifice precision in book titles on the altar of marketability. I think here of the egregious hyperbole in the subtitle to Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great, that is, ”how religion poisons everything.” I understand how that subtitle could catch the eye of the weary traveller scanning titles at the airport bookshop, but that doesn’t make it any more likely to be true.
I have a similar reaction to Sanders’ subtitle. Understanding the concept of God within a trinitarian framework doesn’t change everything. This is clearly evident in the fact that Christian theologians have shared with other western monotheists (Muslim; Jewish) a significant degree of overlap in their understanding of the divine nature. (For example, compare Aquinas and Maimonides on the divine nature and attributes.) The fact that Christians believe God is triune doesn’t change our shared confession with other monotheists that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, or that he exists a se, created and sustains the world, governs it with providential intention and so on. To be sure, there are many places where a Christian conception of God as Trinity will lead to a divergence from other monotheistic theoretical frameworks. But to say that the Trinity changes everything is nothing if not gross overstatement.
I can sense the eye roll. If I recognize that editors have a penchant for marketable titles over accurate ones, then why am I even bothering to complain? Why don’t I just accept the subtitle as marketing? I’m complaining because I find some of the examples where Sanders does argue for the Trinity’s relevance to be unsuccessful. Consider Sanders’ treatment of the doctrine of assurance which concerns the question of how people can know they are saved. The debates over assurance are perennial and have often broken down along Calvinist/Arminian lines. Calvinists often argue that Arminians cannot know they will ultimately be saved because they cannot know that they will ultimately persevere in faith since they could freely apostasize tomorrow. As John Wesley warned, a man may be “a child of God today, and a child of the devil tomorrow.” The Arminian retorts that while on the Calvinist view the elect will persevere in the faith, the very question is whether any particular person is, in fact, one of the elect. After all, many people have thought they were elect who later fell away thereby revealing, on Calvinist strictures, that they were never saved to begin with.
In other words, the debate over assurance is the debate over whether any particular individual can know the “assurance claim”:
Assurance claim (AC): I will ultimately end up reconciled with God in a redeemed, glorified state.
The Calvinist claims the Arminian has a defeater to this claim:
Calvinist defeater to Arminian knowledge of AC: many people who choose to follow God later choose not to follow God and there is no reason to believe that you might not be one of those people.
The Arminian replies by pointing out a defeater to the Calvinist:
Arminian defeater to Calvinist knowledge of AC: many people who believe they are of the elect will later be shown never to have been one of the elect.
In each case the defeater seems to decimate claims to assurance. In a replay of the cold war, Calvinists and Arminians have achieved mutally assurred assurance destruction.
In the midst of these smoldering debates Sanders makes a bold claim: “I will show that assurance has a home in the Trinitarian salvation we have been exploring.” (188) Sanders argues that “the movement of thought required for describing assurance is not the movement of focusing but the expansive and inclusive sweep of reciting the many blessings of salvation.” (190) Sanders goes on to explain how the believer should focus on God acting in history as Father, Son and Spirit to reconcile people (190-92).
Unfortunately, Sanders’ claim that we need to focus on God as Trinity does not deal with the Arminian and Calvinist defeaters to assurance. The Arminian can reflect on God as Father, Son and Spirit as much as he likes and still worry that he might be a child of the devil tomorrow. And a Calvinist can reflect on God as Father, Son and Spirit as much as she likes and still worry that the hidden decree might have reprobated her from eternity. The Trinity, it would seem, doesn’t change everything. At the very least, it certainly doesn’t change the parameters of the debate over assurance.
(For another example, in his chapter on prayer and the Trinity Sanders observes: “I do not know how unitarian theists pray or how they think the all-determining God can leave open a space in his eternal counsels to take their wills into account.” (223) Claims such as this are a double-edged sword since Jewish monotheists never seemed to have a problem praying to God understood as a non-trinitarian monadic deity. Nor did the writers of the Old Testament.)
This leads me to the third and final complaint which relates to the fact that Sanders has a higher tolerance for obscure theological formulations than do I. Well there’s actually more to the complaint than that. To be frank, I think Sanders accepts certain theological formulations which are incoherent. I’ll note one example of the problem.
Sanders agrees with Augustine that the Holy Spirit should be viewed as the love shared between the Father and Son. He starts by quoting C.S. Lewis: “The union between the Father and Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable.” Sanders then unpacks this claim:
“Love between humans is not like that; when I invite a couple to my house for dinner, I set two extra plates on teh table; one for him and one for her. I do not set a third plate on the table for their mutual love, because their mutual love is not itself a person. The Father and the Son are more real and more personal than us, however, and in some ineffable way, the Western church affirms, the love between them is itself a full, distinct, subsistent person.” (233)
This Augustinian view of the Spirit as the love of the Father and Son has long been criticized for depersonalizing the Spirit (a critique which has grown in recent years to something of a crescendo). While I am very sympathetic with that critique, I think it misses the mark. The problem isn’t simply that Augustinians depersonalize the Spirit, since they readily affirm three persons in the Godhead. Rather, the problem is that they provide no clue as to what it is supposed to mean for a person to be a relation which is precisely what they are claiming when they say the Holy Spirit is the Father and Son’s love. (And here is where I share the retort of a new atheist: a thousand years or more of people confessing something which is incoherent doesn’t suddely make it coherent. )
Consider the passage again. Sanders starts off with the problem: the love between two human persons is not itself a person (let alone a human person). So why would the love between two divine persons be itself a person (let alone a divine person)? This is as close as Sanders comes to providing an explanation: “The Father and the Son are more real and more personal than us….” That’s the explanation. Sanders thus seems to be invoking a principle like this:
Agent Relation Principle (ARP): When agents of a sufficient degree of reality and personality are in loving relation with one another, that love relation itself becomes an additional person of the same kind as the first two persons.
In the case of the Father and Son, since they’ve always existed in this kind of relation, the Spirit has always existed as a third token of the same kind. In other words, this principle does not commit us to binitarianism at any point in the divine life. (I am speaking as if God is sempiternal. Of course, if God is atemporal there never is a threat of binitarianism to begin with.)
Now I have two problems with ARP. The first problem concerns what it is supposed to mean. That is, what does it mean to be more real and more personal such that a third token of the same kind would be generated? I honestly don’t even understand what the nature of this claim is. The second problem is why anybody would think ARP is true. For example in the future the elect will be fully conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom. 8:29) At that point it is plausible to think we will be more real and personal than we are now (while admitting I’m still not quite sure what more real and more personal means). But will that make it more likely that when two of these glorified, resurrected human beings love one another that that love will constitute a third person? Of course not. And the problem is surely not simply that we will still not be quite real and personal enough. The problem, rather, is that the claim represents an elementary confusion. Persons are not subsistent love relations.
Ultimately it would seem the weight of Sanders’ Augustinian claim is borne by his very next affirmation that this generation occurs “in some ineffable way….” Here I’ll simply note two points. First, the line between “ineffable” and “incoherent” is perilously thin, and second, even if we tend to err on the side of ineffability where it comes to divine revelation, no such courtesy need be extended to human formulations of divine revelation. In other words, I find no reason to extend this Augustinian formulation the charity that Sanders gives it. I must conclude that Augustinian pneumatology is incoherent and unhelpful and it does no heavy lifting in Sanders’ book.
It is an unfortunate fact that in a review like this there is an asymmetry between compliments and critique. You see, it doesn’t take many words to say you agree with something. But justified disagreement takes time to explain and defend. It is for that reason that a review that is generally positive can end up looking generally negative. But please don’t be beholden to the tyrrany of word counts. And if it helps, redress the imbalance by rereading my opening laudatory remarks. This is a good book with some forgivable flaws.
I am not sure whether book reviews are supposed to have an appendix but this one does. Here I’d like to note two additional points in closing.
To begin with, I cannot help but note that in addition to being an accomplished theologian, Fred Sanders is also an accomplished cartoonist. Unfortunately his series of “Dr. Doctrine’s Christian Comix” has been out of print for a few years now but I managed to find a copy of one of them at the Regent College bookstore in Vancouver a couple years ago and it was very well done, a wonderful, engaging and eccentric amalgam of Millard Erickson meets Stan Lee. I can’t wait for the day when all of Dr. Doctrine’s Christian Comics” are published in a single omnibus.
Second, and finally, I’ll give the last word to Fred: