The Triune God

Fred Sanders, The Triune God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 256 pp. $24.99, paper.

This is a fresh, accurate and compelling study of the doctrine of the Trinity, and should be commended as a text for seminary and university classes, as well as for ministers and other members of the Christian public. Indeed, it should be read by those who do not like the doctrine, as it may well disabuse the minds of at least some of them, who have not heard a clear presentation of why the Church has always professed the Holy Trinity.

Dr. Sanders appropriately states this truth in the context of worship, with the Augustinian injunction to seek the face of the Lord above all else. While it is not unlike any orthodox presentation of the biblical, ecclesiastical Trinitarian study, it may well be unique in how it goes to the heart of what has made the teaching of this doctrine problematic for well over a hundred years: it closely considers the relationship of the concept of divine revelation and Trinitarian truth. In particular, it discusses the onslaught of much ‘higher criticism’ of Scripture, which flowed from the European Enlightenment in general, and Socianianism in particular.

Even otherwise orthodox Christian scholars by the late 19th century were very hesitant to affirm the greatest basis of Trinitarian doctrine: the verbal propositional truths given us in the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments. Dr. Sanders of course accepts, and explicates coherently, the significance of God’s actions within the world of space and time, but constantly shows that without the propositional teachings of Holy Scripture, we cannot really lucidly set forth this doctrine.

To that end, he does a remarkable job in looking not only at the sixty-six books of Scripture, but also at the canonical unity of Scripture, its intertextuality, and the inclination of many modern interpretative communities to cut off one part of Scripture from another. Along those lines, he discusses the larger unity of the twelve prophets, the coherent unity of the Psalter and Wisdom literature, and the underlying relatedness of the General Epistles and the four Gospels.

Echoing both Gore and Warfield, Sanders sees that much of Trinitarian doctrine is more ‘overheard’ in the Scriptures than specifically stated: “Paul never intentionally frames a discussion about the nature of God, or the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit. He is always in pursuit of one of his characteristic themes…when his speech falls into a three-beat rhythm or a Trinitarian cadence…A Trinitarian subplot or baseline seems to underline everything Paul does” (p. 206).

He rightly notes that while the proof of the Trinity must be “piecemeal” in the sense of gathering together the increasingly clear revelation in the history of redemption that God makes of Himself as the One God in three Persons, from a mass of texts throughout the biblical canon, yet another concern is necessary at the same time. “Anybody making use of the piecemeal proof ought to be vigilant about communicating the larger relational structures that bind together the individual theses of Trinitarianism” (p. 176).

While honoring the Church Fathers, and sharing their Trinitarian faith, Sanders rightly insists that the Church’s Trinitarian teaching finally rests on Scripture, and follows the Fathers because of their submissive insight into the sacred text. What he writes about ‘prosoponic exegesis’ opens the right conceptual doors here. According to Michael Slusser, it is “a practice of discerning the speakers or prosopa in reading Scripture” (quoted in Sanders, p. 227). Sanders adds that “Prosoponic exegesis has been almost the exclusive property of patristics scholars for decades…But the church fathers did not invent it; they took it from Scripture” (p. 230). It “…has its ultimate foundations in the New Testament’s use of the Old” (p. 232). He shows how this works in Psalm 110 and others, and (quoting Rondeau) “… the fact that Jesus prayed the Psalms, and New Testament authors put psalms on his lips at several crucial points, concludes: ‘In light of these indications, the exegete, extrapolating from the isolated verse to the entire poem, imputes to Christ the entire Psalm in question” (Sanders, p. 235).

Referring to Ephesians 1:8-9, he states: “It is not an accident that a passage rehearsing the unified narrative arc of salvation history in this way falls naturally into Trinitarian cadences: God the Father has blessed, chosen, and adopted a people who have redemption through the blood of the beloved Son and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise for a future redemption” (p. 105).

With scholarly care, Sanders shows how the Trinity is adumbrated in the Old Testament, though not yet clearly revealed before the Incarnation and Pentecost. One of the strongest points of this book is the way he brings to light the all-important connection of the historical missions of Son and Spirit with the eternal inner life of the Triune God: “The judgment that these two missions are the manifestations of two eternal relations of origin is as central to Trinitarian doctrine as it is fundamental to Trinitarian exegesis… The most holistic interpretive move in the history of biblical theology took place when the early church discerned that these missions reveal divine processions, and that in this way, the identity of the triune God of the gospel is made known”  (p. 113).

Aquinas had seen this long before: “Mission includes an eternal procession, but also adds something else, namely an effect in time; for the relationship of the divine person to a principle is eternal. We speak, therefore, of a twofold procession -the one during eternity, the other during time – in view of the doubling, not of relation to principle, but of the terminations – one in eternity, the other in time (from ST I, q. 43, a. 2)” (p. 125). Or, as Augustine had pointed out much earlier: “missions reveal processions” (Sanders, p. 124).

In this context, he points out a weakness in the epoch-making essay of the great B. B. Warfield’s “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”, which teaching he and I both gladly follow. I had not noticed before he mentioned it, that for all Warfield’s massive insight here, he did not adequately consider “the idea of the relations of origin…” and thus gives “…a weak treatment of the processions, driven by a fear of subordinationism…” (p. 175).

Sanders frequently refers to one of the early Church Fathers, Athanasius, whose writings countered any and all sorts of subordinationism. For instance, he relates the twofold reason shown by Athanasius as to why the Son was sent to be incarnate, rather than the Father or the Son: first, he showed that it was appropriate to redeem creation through the agent of Creation (Christ), and secondly, that “the second person stands in an eternal relation to the first person, which is signified by calling him Son of, Word of, image of, offspring of, wisdom of, or radiance of (Against the Arians 1.28)” (p. 115). “Why was the coessential Son the one who was sent? Because his coessentiality was that of one who stood in a relationship of fromness with regard to the one he is eternally from” (p. 116).

As Augustine said: “Some statements of Scripture about the Father and the Son … indicate their unity and equality of substance. And there are others… which mark the Son as lesser because of the form of a servant, that is because of the created and changeable human substance he too… Lastly, there are others which mark him neither as less nor as equal, but only intimate that he is from the Father (De Trinitate 2.1.2, 98)” (p. 117).

This is altogether a satisfying exposition of the biblical doctrine of the Triune God, and one that I found personally edifying. It might have been interesting to see someone of Dr. Sanders’ theological acuity address more fully perichoresis, and perhaps to have done a bit more exegesis of crucial Trinitarian texts, but then again, that might have made his book too large, and kept it from being the sharp conceptual instrument it is. As it is, it has the twofold advantages of being economic in its size, and utterly clear in its language and concepts.

Douglas F. Kelly
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte