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I Understand
Volume 5.1 / The Triune God

Book Review

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The Triune God

Book Author: Fred Sanders
Publisher: New Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 256 pages. $24.99, paper.
Reviewed by Cameron Crickenberger South Carolina, USA

Fred Sanders is a systematic theologian on faculty at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University in La Mirada, California. He has written a number of articles, dictionary entries, and books concerning the debates surrounding trinitarian theology in the church today. As wide-ranging as the topics in that debate are, Sanders often focuses his contributions on the Scriptural grounds and historical expressions of trinitarian theology that the church has consistently affirmed as orthodox. Much of the debate surrounding the Trinity today revolves around the methods utilized to construct various theological proposals.

Sander’s goal in this particular book, The Triune God, is to “secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God” (19). This is a lofty ambition, not only because of the subject matter but due to the polarization in the current debates around the Trinity. Sanders roots his claims in the manner of the Trinity’s self-revelation, saying that we ought to make “dogmatic conclusions about how the doctrine [of the Trinity] should be handled on the basis of the way the Trinity was revealed” (19). The whole of the book attempts to explain both the basis and the route forward for these conclusions. It is an excellent example of a theological work that is balanced in its interactions with theologians from various historical eras and theological perspectives.

Sanders does not begin with the abovementioned revelatory basis for doctrinal thinking about the Trinity. Instead, the first chapter attempts to reorient the heart and mind of the theologian, saying that theology is “not itself” if it is not doxological, seeking its “point of arrival in the Transcendent One” (28). Trinitarian theology for Sanders aptly serves “that spiritual quest” since it is the very study of the being of God (34).

Chapter 2 takes up the discussion of the relationship between knowledge of God and the nature of revelation, and introduces topics that Sanders will develop throughout the book. Knowledge of God as triune is located properly within God’s own life (without being defined by what is not God) and revealed only by those three persons who exist together as God in one essence: Father, Son, Spirit. This knowledge is rightly understood within the biblical concept of mystery, “concealed-then-revealed across the span of Scripture” (45). God reveals himself primarily by the “personal and eloquently self-interpreting missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the topic of the third chapter. Neither tradition nor human experience are sufficient sources for Trinitarian knowledge, but both serve to point people to Scripture. To this end, Sanders restricts (for the purposes of this conversation) the term revelation to the personal missions of the Son and Spirit.

Chapter 4 takes up these two events as the “most direct forms of revelation” (21). These two events only become clear as communicative events when Scripture is understood to be the unified narrative of God’s intentional self-communication through the story of salvation. The next chapter contains a careful discussion of the ways that the names of God (which Sanders calls “revealed metaphors”) relate to the internal processions that the missions reveal. The last three chapters complete the circle by returning to the biblical witness and proposing a way towards a Trinitarian exegesis in both testaments that is faithful to its dogmatic task and stands up to more modern criteria of exegetical theology.

Chapter 5 is the densest and arguably the most important chapter of the book. In it, Sanders shows his capability in interpreting and applying the Christian tradition for the sake of modern conversations. Although he defends the traditional conception of God as pure act, he is willing to leave room for an account to be made to the contrary as long as it does not sacrifice core tenets of our understanding of God, such as aseity. As he traces the traditional understanding of how the Trinitarian missions reveal the processions of God’s inner life (the Father begetting the Son; the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son), Sanders ably demonstrates what is at stake in saying these things. While keeping the two guardrails of God’s incomprehensibility and the Scriptures as divine revelation in place, Sanders slowly reroutes the modern Trinitarian conversation back into traditional categories without wholly rejecting the modern frameworks. His discussion of the term person as used in Trinitarian discourse is a clear example of this. After citing widely from Augustine to John of Damascus to Francis Turretin, Sanders then draws on Gilles Emery to argue that the traditionally accepted definition of person from Boethius “guarantees [the] foundation” of attempts to further understand the personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rather than excluding those attempts (141).

Most helpful in this chapter is the challenge to the current reigning terminology of immanent and economic Trinity. Sanders’s previous work on Karl Rahner now leads him to suggest that the immanent/economic dichotomy that Rahner popularized (and which has been adopted by both liberal and more conservative scholars alike) has actually created a roadblock between the Christian church and the traditional expressions of Trinitarian actions. His claim is that the modern idiom of immanent (God’s inner life) and economic (God’s works of salvation) trinities cannot quite express what early Trinitarian theology sought to express so carefully. For instance, the immanent and economic categories make it quite awkward to say that the immanent Son came economically and took on human nature. Sanders asks a barrage of questions: Is there an immanent and an economic sonship? Is sonship simply both immanent and economic? In creating “two referential planes, each with its own network of relations,” the immanent-economic schema invites such dichotomization and abstraction that the identity of each in the one God can slip away in matters of speech. Adding to this that the origin of the schema includes potentially unorthodox views of God’s inner relations (per Johann August Urlsperger, who said, “For in the essence of God there is no Father, Son, and Spirit… In short: one essence, no first, no second, no third, no greater, no lesser”), Sanders makes a solid case for rethinking our Trinitarian vocabulary in this area or at least becoming much more methodologically aware.

Turning to the theological interpretation of Scripture, Sanders critiques both the history and status quo of the current separation between disciplines before demonstrating a way forward. Throughout the book, Sanders aims to bring the disciplines of biblical and exegetical theology closer together. From citing G.K. Beale and Benjamin Gladd to develop a biblical theology of mystery in which to place Trinitarian revelation, to discussing of the role of critical scholarship in the development of modern Trinitarian theology, Sanders strives to bring together what ought not to have been separated. His chapter on Trinitarian exegesis and the two following chapters on the testaments of the Bible provide ready examples of this kind of exegesis. However, it would have been helpful to the reader if Sanders had included extended excurses throughout the book highlighting specific passages in which these foundational doctrines can be seen, especially in the section entitled “The Canonical Hinge” in chapter 8.

One example of this Trinitarian exegesis that stands out in the book is prosoponic reading, the “practice of discerning the [divine] speakers of prosōpa in reading Scripture” (226–235). This is the practice of identifying the particular speaker behind respective texts of the Old Testament, whether it be the Father, the Son, the Spirit, or the church. (The word “prosoponic” is derived from the Greek term prosōpon, “person”.) Sanders provides multiple examples of this, the first being from the opening of Mark where the Evangelist identifies God the Father as the speaker in Isaiah 40 (which Sanders suggests is the kernel of the quotation compiled from numerous texts).

Additionally, in his chapter on the Old Testament, Sanders refutes the centuries-old practice of identifying Christ in the Old Testament theophanies. His rejection of this practice may seem at first to be unnecessary and his argument too brief. However, his suggestion that the Son being the fitting messenger in Old Testament theophanies “would only dictate that the … theophanies of the Old Testament must mean, but not be, the Son” is especially intriguing. Although he admits with Augustine that, “based on his inner-Trinitarian status as the one who is eternally from the Father and expresses the Father, [the Son] might be the appropriate messenger of God even in the old covenant,” Sanders also wants (again with Augustine) to protect the “unrepeatable uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son” (225). As a via media, Sanders suggests seeing the Old Testament theophanies as created manifestations which may signify the presence of one of the divine persons without that divine person assuming the nature of the signifier, as in the incarnation. A potential New Testament parallel to this, he says, is the dove which descends during Christ’s baptism, which signifies the Holy Spirit “operating under the form of an economy of signs but not in a personal mission” which would be parallel to the incarnation (226). Subsuming theophanies into the “economy of signs and intentions” brings together many different disciplines of exegesis and theology, most notably typology, retrospective prosoponic reading, and Trinitarian theology proper. Regardless of whether this point is ultimately convincing, Sanders has opened the way for more constructive theological partnerships to take place across the theological academy that has become so disintegrated.

Sanders closes the book with a shorter chapter containing eleven theses on the “revelation of the Trinity and its implications for a well-ordered doctrine of the Trinity and the overall shape of a theological system” (23). These theses point clearly to the distinct aim of this book. It is not principally focused on constructing a doctrine of the Trinity through exegetical or dogmatic argumentation, nor is it mainly concerned with retrieving the very best of Trinitarian theology throughout the history of the church, although it does both of these things quite well if not comprehensively. Instead, Sander’s aim is to help us to understand how we ought to go about arriving at a doctrine of the Trinity, namely, through the revelation of God in the Scriptures. Trinitarian doctrine is neither a fanciful abstraction from the words of Scripture nor a doctrine that is expressed explicitly and semantically in them. Instead, “the revelation of the Trinity is bundled with the revelation of the gospel” (239).

Sanders writes with characteristic clarity, avoiding both rigid prose and complicated digressions. Any person interested in learning more about Trinitarian theology would benefit from this book, although some of the concepts will prove challenging to those without a basic knowledge of the doctrine already. Although there are many sections of the book that could serve well as introductions to certain areas of Trinitarian theology, there are also numerous sections of the book that move clearly beyond the introductory level and attend to some significantly higher-level concepts. Footnotes are kept to a minimum, while there are generous indices for Scripture references, topics, and authors referenced. This book could therefore be used profitably in both a church’s Sunday school class or a college / seminary classroom. But for those studying at the seminary level, it will best serve simply as a starting point for further and deeper study with other sources, both primary and secondary.

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