The Triune God
Series: New Studies in Dogmatics
- ISBN: 9780310491491
- Published By: Zondervan
- Published: December 2016
This learned volume on Trinitarian theology is part of a new series—New Studies in Dogmatics—edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. This is second volume to be released. The aim of the series is “to retrieve the riches of classical Christian doctrine for the sake of contemporary theological renewal,” and “it follows in the tradition of G. C. Berkouwer’s classic series, Studies in Dogmatics, in seeking to offer concise, focused treatments of major topics in dogmatic theology that fill the gap between introductory theology textbooks and advanced theological monographs” (15).
This is a timely work, since Trinitarian theology and the legacy of Nicaea have recently been subjects of public debate. Apart from the “liberal” and “conservative” takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, intramural debates between evangelical scholars are making waves online and at recent gatherings, such as the Evangelical Theological Society.
Fred Sanders is one of the more congenial, intelligent, and good-humored participants in these debates who is committed to the pro-Nicene view of the Trinity, and for solid biblical reasons. He writes “Trinitarianism is a gift of revelation before it is an achievement of the church” (23). Sanders has written other books on the Trinity before this (The Deep Things of God, Crossway, 2010, and The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner's Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Peter Lang Publishing, 2004).
The stated purpose of the present 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).
Notice the language of “praise.” This is important for Sanders. He argues that “Trinitarian theology … is essentially a doxological movement of thought that gives glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by beginning with confession of the work of God in salvation history and then reasoning back to its antecedent principles in God” (20).
The manner of Trinitarian revelation is the sending of the Son in the incarnation and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These “missions”—acts that are later expressed in the words of the New Testament—reveal eternal processions in God, according to Sanders. That is, the sending of the Son and Spirit in salvation history reveals a “mystery” about God that has always been true. Namely, that God has always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit, with the Son eternally generating from the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeding—or “spirating”—from the Father and the Son. The three persons are revealed to humanity once the Son becomes incarnate and the Spirit is poured out. This revelatory action does occurs in real history, between the Old and New Testaments, though the two testaments point towards this revelation in different ways. The revelatory action is intrinsically linked to these words of Scripture for Sanders. He understands the Old Testament to point towards this mystery by means of “adumbration,” or shadowing forth. This means that the Old Testament can be reread with glimmers of a future Trinitarian revelation, but there is not a full revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The New Testament bears witness to the three persons within the Godhead by “attestation.” The New Testament itself does not reveal this mystery as much as it attests to something already revealed in history. The propositions in the New Testament bring clarity to what is revealed, but the revelation has already happened. Thus, thus New Testament writers seem to assume the revelation of the Trinity, and thus make references in an oblique and casual manner.
In discussing the doctrine, Sanders prefers the language of “missions” and “processions” over the more common “economic” and “immanent” Trinity. He does not discard the latter completely, but prefers to argue that the missions reveal the eternal processions—or relations of origin. This avoids thinking in terms of two distinct forms of Trinitarian life and provides a more unified understanding of God’s internal and external actions. For Sanders, the missions—the sending of Son and Spirit—reveal eternal processions (of “fromness”). The missions do not establish the processions, but reveal a mystery that has always been true: that God is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit. “God sends God for our salvation, making known to us that God is the kind of God who can do so” (134). Sanders summarizes his argument in the following: “The Father’s sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit makes it possible and necessary to discern distinctions within the life of the one God. The distinctions drawn by Trinitarian doctrine are the ones that must be presupposed if it is true that the two missions are the ultimate self-revelation of God. There are, therefore, in the eternal essence of God three distinct persons” (121).
Sanders is a good writer who uses engaging syntax. This is important since he also applies an analytic method to his argument, which might not be as interesting to those readers who prefer a more poetic or lively prose. However, this approach makes sense because his aim is to clarify the language used in speaking of the Trinity. Sanders does not want to write in the same manner that Richard Rohr has recently done in his book on the Trinity (Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Whitaker House, 2016), which Sanders find too loose on language and too short on substance.
Evangelical scholars who hold to classical expressions of Christian doctrine will especially appreciate this volume. But every Christian theologian and theology student should read it if they want to understand and/or make a case for or against a biblical doctrine of a triune God. I highly recommend both this work and this new series. It is off to a stellar start and should prove to accomplish its aim of “renewal through retrieval.”
Jonathan Huggins is a reasearch associate in religion at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.Jonathan HugginsDate Of Review:February 20, 2017