Interview with Fred Sanders, author of THE TRIUNE GOD (NEW STUDIES IN DOGMATICS)

Published on December 6, 2016 by Joshua R Monroe

Zondervan, 2016 | 256 pages

 

Unless you’ve just stopped in from Mars you’re aware that there has been a rather recent explosion of discussion among Christians about the doctrine of the Trinity, and that just has to be a good thing.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance. Few contemporary theologians have sought more to help the discussion than Fred Sanders, professor of theology at the Torrey House Institute at Biola University. He’s written before on the subject, and today he’s talking to us about his new book, just released, entitled, The Triune God.

Fred – welcome, congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us today!

Fred Sanders:
Thanks, it’s good to be here.

 

Zaspel:
First, why a new book on the Trinity? What is the contribution you’re hoping to make? And how does my favorite theologian, B.B. Warfield, figure in all this?

Sanders:
As someone who has been studying the doctrine of the Trinity for some time now, I sit at my writing desk with, I don’t know, 20 Trinity books in front of me and often think why would I add more to that? But, looking at a lot of them, I actually see some recurring problems. Especially in the ones from the last several decades. And so this is a chance to address some of those. And it’s a volume in the series called New Studies in Dogmatics from Zondervan; Scott Swain and Mark Allen are the editors of that series. One of the unique things about it is the idea of retrieval. The idea that we don’t just need to get re-excited or re-energized about old Christian doctrines, but that we actually need to go back into the classic heritage of the church and retrieve many things about the specific ways the church has always argued for those doctrines. So a retrieval volume on the Trinity in the contemporary context I think is something that I was very eager to join in and write. One of the things that jumps out at you try to retrieve the older way of doing the doctrine of the Trinity, and this sounds a little bit weird to people who haven’t read a lot of recent Trinitarian theology, is to make sure that the doctrine of the triune God is connected to the doctrine of the one God. It sounds surely very old-fashioned to say when we’re talking about the three persons of the Trinity that is the Christian way of talking about the one God that we actually do believe in. We are monotheists. Now in a lot of recent Trinitarian theology, just in the last two or three decades, it’s been more fashionable to be sort of radically Trinitarian, trying to start with the three persons and, at some point, maybe get to the fact that this is the one God of biblical revelation. So, one of the things I want to do is to find ways to make it clear throughout that this is a treatment of the one God who is three persons.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s be a little more specific. You pick up on Warfield’s emphasis that the Trinity was not revealed first in word but in deed, or in fact. Explain that for us.

Sanders:
Warfield, primarily, in his little essay that gets reprinted as the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, which I think is 1915, his approach to the way the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed is really helpful. He is writing, of course, this Trinity article for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and he makes this fascinating move as the dogmatics guy coming in to write in it Bible encyclopedia – he says, “oh yeah, Trinity, that’s a biblical doctrine, but it’s not made known in the Old Testament, of course, because that’s not yet revealed there. Everything there is under the form of anticipation and prophecy and looking forward to the definitive revelation. And then in the New Testament, by the time you’re reading the documents of the New Testament, it’s too late for it to have been revealed because Christ and the Spirit already showed up and these are the inspired interpretations and attestations of what had already happened.” So it’s pretty bold, I think. Maybe only Warfield could have done it. To say that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine, but it’s not in either side of the Bible. It was, in fact, first made known in history, in fact, in person, when the Son and the Holy Spirit came.

Now that’s a distinction between event and record of the event which I find really helpful for talking about how the Trinity is made known. One immediate payoff is it tells you what to expect and how to make sense of the way you find statements about the Trinity made in Scripture. Of course, in the Old Testament, it leads you not to over expect clarity. Because the revelation has not yet occurred, because the Messiah and the Pentecostal outpoured spirit have not yet come. But in the New Testament, it helps you understand why the statements about Father, Son, and Spirit are oblique. They are sort of by-the-way statements. At no point does Paul say, “now concerning the three persons and the one God, brethren, I would not have you be ignorant.” He never sits his audience down to inform them as if, for the first time, about this. Because, by the time the first things are being written in the New Testament, no Christian is being informed for the first time. If they have met Christ and the Spirit who came in history, they are already working with the bare materials they need, the raw materials of the Trinitarian revelation.

I’ll say one other thing about Warfield and why he is so helpful in this regard. That distinction between event and record is something you could learn from Karl Barth. I probably did learn it early on from Karl Barth, but Barth doesn’t have quite the tidy doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture that I’m going to want to make use of elsewhere in the book, or in my theology in general. Warfield has such a gold standard, high doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture that it makes it nice to learn that distinction from him. Because in the back of your mind you’re not thinking, “Why are you distinguishing events from the written word of God? Why would you do that?” With Warfield you never fear the other shoe is going to drop. He is on his way to a high Bibliology.

 

Zaspel:
Excellent. I think it’s a fascinating observation. I think he even goes on further, then, at that point to emphasize that the doctrine of the Trinity is a gospel revelation. That it was revealed in the process of the outworking of redemption and in that sense the revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity is incidental to the revelation of the gospel.

Sanders:
Another great distinction that he is in some ways promoting the doctrine of salvation over the doctrine of revelation. That this kind of self revelation of God as Trinity rides along with or accompanies the accomplishing of salvation. And there are ways I could get nervous about someone playing up salvation over revelation, but you’re never nervous about that with Warfield because you know where he stands.

 

Zaspel:
How is that important? How might our failure to recognize the revelation of the Trinity along the lines of salvation history affect or even skew our exposition of the doctrine?

Sanders:
I think it’s the first step toward treating the doctrine of the Trinity as a mere revealed fact that we’re supposed to now figure out how to do something with. One of the major problems in a lot of the Trinity books is that they approach the doctrine as something that they assemble from scattered statements in Scripture and then anyone who is inclined to accept the testimony of Scripture will then accept the assembled doctrine of the Trinity put together from here-a-verse, there-a-verse. And then this giant question looms, why does that matter; what’s that for; and its related to the question, what’s that like? Once you’ve assembled the doctrine of the Trinity from scattered versus people always want to know, do you have an analogy for that: do you have an illustration; what is that like? I find that if you focus instead on the fact that this is made known in the history of salvation as God’s own self interpretation of who he is and what he is doing in the history of salvation, the “why does it matter” question is already answered. And even the “what is it like” question sort of withers away because you realize, what I just explored was the nature of God on the basis of the Father sending the Son and the Spirit. To ask what that’s like is kind of a strange question. It’s like the Father sending the Son and the Spirit; it’s like the story of Jesus and the indwelling power of God and the Holy Spirit; it’s like the gospel, is what the Trinity is like. It’s a little more edifying than, “it’s like an egg, or an iceberg, or it’s like a shamrock.”

 

Zaspel:
Absolutely. I agree.

How is the revelation of the Trinity in the outworking of redemption reflective of the relationship of the three Persons themselves? You’ve already talked about that a little bit – is there more to say?

Sanders:
This is where in the book I really try to focus on the fact that this sending of the Son and the Spirit by the Father is the central baseline. This is where our knowledge of the triune God comes from. God does this thing in the Father sending the Son and the Spirit and then on the basis of it we ask, “what does this tell us about who God is; if this is what he does, if this is the biggest thing he has ever done, if this is the central line of salvation history and the central meaning, what does that mean about who God is?” I canvas around and try different possible answers, including some wrong answers; and I put those out on a spectrum and say, well, the central answer is: if the Father sent the Son in the fullness of time, the biblical revelation seems to indicate that that’s because the Father was always Father of the Son; that the Father always begat the Son or generated the Son in eternity as his way of being the living God. The life of the living God is the Father’s generation of the Son and their spiration of the spirit.

 

Zaspel:
You’re not as happy with the terminology of “ontological” or “immanent” and “economic” Trinity. Tell us the terminology you prefer, and why.

Sanders:
The immanent trilogy or ontological Trinity, the conceptualizing of God eternally being three persons in himself and then the habit of contrasting that with the salvation historical Trinity or the economic Trinity from the phrase ‘the economy of salvation.’ This goes way back and I wrote my first book on it – it’s an academic book that’s not readable by most laypeople unless they are highly motivated and have read some other stuff. (laughing)

 

Zaspel:
There are not many authors that speak of their own books as unreadable, I have to give you that. (laughing)

Sanders:
Yes, you have to be aware of your audience, and not trick yourself into thinking every book is for every audience. That first book was definitely for a limited scholarly audience. That’s my Peter Lang book, The Image of the Immanent Trinity. So, in that one I used a lot of that terminology. In fact, it was a long essay on that terminology. I never did quite figure out where it came from; where we began talking that way. And I also hadn’t used it for long enough to have developed a real sensitivity to the way it’s misleading. So if you say that the economic Trinity is or reveals the ontological Trinity for the immanent Trinity…for one thing, that’s a mouthful – talk about your audience. I mean, if you are teaching classes on this here you have to, you know, it’s a “students get your notebooks out” kind of moment where they have to write down and master this terminology: economic, immanent, oncological. And then you start doing things with it. But secondly, it sort of sets up a double Trinity. Now, almost nobody has ever believed there are two trinities. That’s not the error that this leads you into. But all of your sentences end up having two trinities in them. All of your conceptual schemas have over here on this hand one configuration of tri-unity, and over here on the other hand another configuration of tri-unity. And then you can say true statements about it. That that one corresponds to this one; that this one presupposes that one; that this one makes known the other one. But it’s a bizarre sort of… I don’t know if it’s like Kantian idom, or it’s a strange way of talking. When what you really want to talk about is that the Father sent the Son because the Father always had the Son. And some of those more straightforward and, frankly, more directly biblical ways of talking are very hard to paraphrase into this modern jargon of ontological Trinity and economic Trinity. I try to get around that in a few ways. I do continue to use it. I use it specifically when I want to make a very abstract and remote statement that makes you feel like you’re looking at this conceptual material spread out on a desktop in front of you in order to move it around. It’s a very cold and abstract way of talking. And sometimes that’s good; sometimes you want to speak very clinically about a range of material, but I find a lot of people use the language and are being used by it. I also did a little bit of deeper genealogy of where the terminology came from and it came from a sort of wild, forgotten theologian named Johann Urlsperger in the 1700s and early 1800s who made this distinction for idiosyncratic reasons of his own. He thought that there were three coequal ‘somethings’ in the eternal life of God; but that when they decided that the Father would send the Son, they sort of added another level to God wherein the Father became Father of the Son so he could become sender of the Son. It’s a very strange system; nobody else has ever believed quite what Urlsperger believed; but his terminological way of distinguishing things definitely caught on and is still running a lot of the show. I’d like to simplify that and get back to talking about the missions in salvation history reveal the processions in the being of God.

 

Zaspel:
We have to mention the contemporary debate: does all this have anything to say about the question of authority and submission within the Trinity?

Sanders:
This book doesn’t say much about that at all. I think, on various sides of that debate, and it broke out into a discussion on a lot of different fronts including egalitarian versus complementarian and credalist versus biblicist and a number of other directions. I think a lot of the confusion that surrounded that debate is the result of a disordered Trinitarian language and conceptuality that we had let creep in. So, if this book is contributing to that debate at all, it’s not firing on the front lines but is launching mortars way back into the supply lines far back from the front. In particular, I should say that the classic tradition, if we are retrieving that, has been very satisfied with the teaching that the Son is eternally generated from the Father. And when I say satisfied, I don’t just mean persuaded that it is true that eternal generation is the relation between Father and Son; but I mean they quit looking for other explanations of the difference between the Father and the Son. For the classic tradition, for the Nicaean way of reading Scripture, once you’ve said that the foundational difference between Father and Son and the unity of the one God is eternal generation, that’s it. You are not also looking around to talk about roles or subordinations or submissions or anything like that.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, a personal touch: you dedicated the book to your daughter, Phoebe, and you mention that day when she wrote four times as many words as you did. What’s that all about?

Sanders:
My daughter, Phoebe, who is now 14 is a creative powerhouse. Right now she is making a lot of stuffed animals, but back duing the time I was writing this, I was really jealously watching my word count. I needed at least a good thousand words a day; so I was trying to do that. And you always feel, even if you’re writing a book to serve the church and to serve other Christians, the experience of writing a book has a very selfish feeling to it; you’re always clawing away to get your own me-time to sit at your computer and think thoughts only in your own head. So it goes awkwardly with having a family sometimes or being a decent human being. (laughing) Even with the best purposes of the world, trying to serve people with what you write, it’s still a selfish day of getting alone time. Well, my daughter was working on a short story at that time and the ideas were coming to her so fast that she wanted help typing them out. She’s not a fast typist. So my wife had typed some of it and she was just exhausted and had to go to bed so I clocked in and began taking transcription and typing the rest of the story. And it was fun; it took quite a while; and in the back of my mind I’m thinking I ought to be writing my own stuff, not somebody else’s. And when we finished it all up we looked at the word processor count and she had 4000 words that day, and I thought, wow, I’m going to have to stay up a little later to even make my thousand. Phoebe’s short story about a terrier dog running a punting service in Cambridge England and gossiping with pigeons was also a lot more fun to read that what I had written that day.

 

Zaspel:
That’s a great story.

One more – you’ve written other books on the Trinity – can you tell us about them?

Sanders:
Yes, my main book, in which I think my life message is written down is The Deep things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. That’s a Crossway book from 2010. It does well in academic classes but it’s also had a pretty good life in churches among laypeople. Crossway is bringing out a second edition and that in April 2017. It’s the same exact content, but we’ve broken down some of the really long chapters so that they’ll be shorter and more bite sized; and then I wrote an extensive study guide that’s included at the end.

In the Theologians on the Christian Life series from Crossway, I wrote the Wesley volume, so I spent some time there in the 18th century. Then every year we have the LA Theology Conference and with Zondervan and with Oliver Crisp I edit a volume of the papers that come out of that.

 

Zaspel:
Alright, and give us the title of your initial book on the Trinity again.

Sanders:
That’s with Peter Lang; it’s The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Fred Sanders, author of the superb new book, The Triune God. It’s a helpful contribution to the discussion that deserves a place in every theological library. We encourage you to get a copy. Fred, thanks so much for your good work and for talking to us today.

Sanders:
Alright, good to hear from you, Fred.

Buy the books

Triune God

Zondervan, 2016 | 256 pages

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