Sanders, Fred. The Triune God. New Studies in Dogmatics. Zondervan, 2016.
1. Attunement: Gloria Patri
Sanders’s point in this chapter is that Trinitarian theology should be all about praise to God. That is the end of this doctrine. By opening the book this way Sanders signals that this book is not merely about logic-chopping. This book, though serious theology, is meant to bring us to worship God.
2. Revelation of the Triune God
The doctrine of the Trinity must be revealed. On how it is revealed in act and word. Pp. 39-40
Sanders argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery in the biblical sense of something formerly concealed, now revealed. Pp. 42ff.
The remainder of the chapter argues that denial of propositional revelation has deformed Trinitarian theology, including that of Rahner and his famous dictum. Sanders argues, following Machen and Packer (and, Vos, though he is not mentioned) that act and interpreting word must be kept together.
3. Communicative Missions
Sanders argues that the Trinity is revealed in the missions of the Son and the Spirit. Further, these missions are self-interpreting—literally—the Son has a “teaching ministry” and the Spirit speaks through the prophets and apostles. 69-70
Sanders grants the danger of reducing the Trinity to mere propositions that people must know, thus abstracting it from soteriology and the Christian life. But while the doctrine is more than verbal, propositional revelation, it is “not less.”
Sanders argues that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be argued from experience. Schleiermacher’s deficient trinitarianism is evidence of this. However, the doctrine of the Trinity should be part of our experience.
He also has an excellent section arguing that the doctrine cannot be based on tradition. Tradition plays an important role, but its role ought to be that of pointing us back to Scripture and explaining how Scripture teaches the doctrine of the Trinity.
He then circles back around to the claim that the Trinity is fundamentally revealed in the missions of the Trinity and that Scripture testifies to the historical revelation of the Trinity. Against the concern that this is a Barthian approach, Sanders notes that it is found in Warfield with safeguards not found in the Barthian tradition. See especially the Warfield quotation on p. 89.
4. Incarnation and Pentecost
Sanders discusses the approach to the Trinity. Should one follow Augustine and “begin the exposition with the temporal missions and reason back from them to the eternal processions”? Or should one follow Aquinas and begin with the processions and work “out and down to the temporal missions.” Augustine’s approach has the benefit of following the biblical text’s way of revealing the Trinity. “The main pedagogical disadvantage of this approach is the mental effort it requires, as those who lean in this order must submit to the difficulty of revising their initial idea of the structure of divine unity in light of subsequent revelation. It may also run the risk of aligning with the modern historicist tendency to think that all meaningful action takes place in the economy and only in the economy” (94).
Sanders, while recognizing the legitimacy of either approach, take the Augustinian path in this book. This leads him to argue that the Bible must be read as a unity with attention to its storyline. He points out that Ephesians 1 provides a biblical example of this, and its telling of the biblical story has a decidedly Trinitarian bent (98-106).
Sanders claims that the working of the Trinity in the storyline of Scripture is not only a revelation of the economy of salvatio0n, but is a self-revelation of the Trinity (106-8).
Sanders notes that at the extremes Unitarians claim that the missions of Son and Spirit reveal nothing about God while Hegelians hold that they reveal everything. Others would argue that they reveal nothing other than three-in-oneness. Others hold that they reveal an order of authority. And still others would hold that it is not just the sendings that are revelatory of God but every aspect of the Son and Spirit’s work is revelatory. Thus the suffering of Christ on the cross would reveal the suffering of God. Sanders rejects all of these approaches.
He holds instead that the missions of Son and Spirit reveal the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit. Sanders sees this as foundational to rightly seeing the Trinity in the biblical text.
I found this chapter a little lacking. I want more argumentation as to why eternal begetting and procession are the right deduction to make from the missions of Son and Spirit. The closest he came was the observation that the incarnation was proper because Christ is “Son of, Word of, image of, offspring of, wisdom of, or radiance of” the Father (115).
5. God Who Sends God
Sanders argues that the missions and processions are vital “for distinguishing the persons of the Trinity” (122). In fact, the names given to the persons are given because of their connection with the missions. The missions reveal the distinctions between the persons, but these distinctions must be eternal, so the missions must reveal the processions. It is for this reason that the concepts of eternal generation and eternal spiration are helpful. Sanders draws on Shedd to argue that these concepts are not extra-biblical speculation but are, in fact, derived from the names, Father, Son, and Spirit. For the Father to be the Father, he must have eternally begetted the son; for the Son to be the Son, he must be eternally begotten; for the Spirit to be the Spirit, he must have been eternally spiriated. Sanders said that Shedd’s observations are not purely grammatical, but recognize also the way the missions reveal the eternal processions.
Sanders also finds the concept of eternal processions helpful because it means that God is eternally active internally and not merely externally. This protects God’s aseity. If God were only active externally, he would need creation in order to be active.
Sanders further argues that this approach is necessary: “Our argument began in chapter 4 with the claim that the canon of Scripture is a unified story centered on the definitive self-disclosure of God as Trinity when the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then traced, here in chapter 5, the argument that those missions reveal processions, which are internal actions of God that constitute the divine life in itself, in distinction from God’s free outward actions toward creation. Because this is the actual basis of the doctrine of the Trinity, we must clarify its character as an ultimate claim. It does not // constitute merely an angle of approach, perhaps one among others, to a doctrine that can be viewed from many angles. God sends God for our salvation, making known to us that God is the kind of God who can do so. Trinitarian theology has other kinds of arguments and analyses to correlate with this central claim, but unless this central claim is true, there is no good reason for believing that God has revealed himself as he truly is through the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit” (133-34).
Sanders then moves to a discussion of the term person. Sanders notes, “We cannot safely start any phase of Trinitarian theology by subjecting the term person to analysis and deriving information from that analysis. We must always return to the generative dynamics that resulted in our talking of persons in God” (142). He leads readers to James Ussher’s definition: “A person of the Trinity, Ussher says, ‘is whole God, not simply or absolutely considered, but by way of some personal Properties. It is a manner of being in the Godhead, or a distinct subsistence (not a Quality, as some have wickedly imagined: // For no Quality can cleave to the Godhead) having the whole Godhead in it.’ They are called ‘persons’ because they have ‘proper things to distinguish them,’ and these distinctions are made ‘not in nature, but in relation and order.'” (143-44).
Sanders closes the chapter with a critique of the terminology of economic and immanent trinity. He notes that the terminology came from an unorthodox source, that Rahner’s Rule sought to guard the terminology from being pressed in an unorthodox direction, but that it has not been entirely successful. Sanders would not ban the use of the terminology, but he seems to argue that it should be used sparingly and carefully.
6. Trinitarian Exegesis
Sanders begins this chapter by making the case that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine even though it is not articulated explicitly in Scripture. This part of the chapter is a pretty standard Christian argument that has been made, and continues to be made, since the time of the early church.
In the next part of the chapter Sanders deals with the difficult reality that the exegetical arguments of the church fathers are not always considered valid by the standards of modern exegesis. Some of the problem, as Sanders indicates, is with modernist exegetical assumptions. But some of the problem also lies with illegitimate exegetical moves made by the fathers. Sanders appreciates what the Fathers were trying to do, and he approaches their exegesis with generosity. But he does not think that that exegesis should be replicated. With this in view, Sanders rebuts the charge that Trinitarians have a preconceived doctrine that they will find Scriptural proof for in whatever way they can.
Sanders also addresses different ways that theologians can demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity. One approach is the piecemeal proof, which is exemplified by Augustus Strong:
1. In Scripture there are three who are recognized as God.
2. These three are so described in Scripture that we are compelled to conceive of them as distinct persons.
3. This tripersonality of the divine nature is not merely economic and temporal, but is immanent and eternal.
4. This tripersonality is not tritheism, for while there are three persons, there is but one essence.
5. The three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are equal.
6. Inscrutable yet not self-contradictory, this doctrine furnishes the key to all other doctrines. (173)
Sanders recognizes the legitimacy of this approach, but he argues that it is in danger of minimizing or obscuring the eternal processions of Son and Spirit. In fact, he notes that Warfield, who adopted this approach ended up denying the eternal processions.
7. New Covenant Attestation
Sanders points out that the Apostles’ Creed is actually a Trinitarian account of the life of Christ. He uses this as a starting point for tracing the Trinitarian shape of Christ’s earthly ministry as presented in the Gospels. He emphasizes that the Gospel of John is especially important for beginning to give shape to the doctrine of the Trinity. Though Trinitarinism is latent in the Synoptics, John “formulated the story of Jesus in ways most obviously congenial to dogmatic exposition” (193, n. 4). Sanders then turns to the importance of Jesus’s baptism and the threefold name in the Great Commission for Trinitarian theology before concluding the chapter by demonstrating that Trinitarian theology is presupposed everywhere by Paul in his letters even if it is not the topic of his teaching.
8. Old Covenant Adumbration
Sanders, in the penultimate chapter, comes to the Old Testament shadows of the Trinity. This order is deliberate. Sanders is concerned that when theologians begin their treatment of the Trinity with the Old Testament with the Old Testament evidence, they end up presenting their weakest evidence first.
Key to seeing the Trinity in the Old Testament is rereading the book through New Testament eyes. Just as when the best novels are be reread and earlier scenes have greater because of the reader’s knowledge of what will come, so also the Old Testament, read in the knowledge of the New has greater depths with regard to the Trinity. Sanders argues that one of the best ways to see the Trinity in the Old Testament is to look at how the New Testament uses the Old. Another approach is to layer up Old Testament predictions regarding the Son and the Spirit. For instance, the Old Testament creates an expectation for “a messianic son, a suffering servant, a prophet greater than Moses, and the Lord himself.” The New Testament reveals these expectations are all met in Jesus. By carefully attending to these Old Testament passages read together, evidence for the Trinity emerges from the Old Testament. Finally, Sanders commends what he calls prosoponic exegesis. That is, from the perspective of the New Testament identifying who is speaking/being spoken to in Old Testament texts (e.g., The LORD said to my Lord). One strategy that Sanders is skeptical of is Christophanies. He is hesitant to tie these appearances to only one person of the Trinity.