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10 Principles You Need to Know about Trinitarian Dogmatics

Categories Theology

9780310491491_imageWhile celebrating Christ's incarnation is fresh on our breath, it's apt we contemplate the Trinity. After all, the God-with-us event is inherently Trinitarian: the Father gave the world his only-begotten Son, by the Holy Spirit.

Here to help is Fred Sanders with his new book The Triune God. In it he contends:

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)

He offers an extensive set of dogmatics principles for Trinitarian exegesis to shepherd Trinitarian contemplation. They offer “systematic help for reconstructing the plausibility structures of biblical Trinitarianism” (19).

We've briefly shared those principles below to deepen your understanding of the triune God.

1) A Doxological Movement

When contemplating the Trinity we begin with praise, for 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). Such attention is an historical one, for writers from Irenaeus to Owen illicit such praise.

2) A Disclosed Mystery

The Trinity has always been a biblical mystery. Yet its a disclosed mystery. Sanders explains “God has made his triunity known through salvific actions joined inwardly to explanatory words” (20). Unfortunately, by disconnecting our understanding of the Trinity from such words (i.e. Scripture), “Trinitarian exegesis has become detached from divine revelation and has often floated free, vulnerable to prevailing winds of doctrine” (20).

3) A Communicative Mission

And yet God’s divine self-disclosure didn’t end at words, for he also sent. Sanders reminds us that the two “sendings” of the Son and Spirit “have made present among us a communication that overflows from the eternal conversation of the triune life” (21).

4) Revelation as Only Knowledge Source

Sanders wants us to take seriously that the revelation attached to the missions and sendings of both the Son and Spirit are “the only source of our knowledge of the Trinity” (21). As we contemplate and study the Trinity, the revelation we find in these two events should supersede historical and experiential considerations.

5) Experience and Tradition as Lesser Status

Sanders insists that when it comes to Trinitarian dogmatics, experience and tradition need to be demoted “to a lesser status.” He explains that, by themselves, each are unable to open a means of access to the doctrine; they are “placeholders for appeals to revelation.” However, they do carry benefits “when handled ministerially rather than magisterially” (21).

6) Actual Triune Revelation

This brings us back to God’s divine self-disclosure through the incarnation and at Pentecost. As Sanders describes, “it is the visible mission of the Son and Holy Spirit that constitute the actual revelation of God’s triunity.” Such missions “must be kept central in all of our thinking about the Trinity” (21). When they haven’t been, “disorder and distraction” has marred Trinitarian dogmatics.

7) Divine Procession Attention

What does the Trinity reveal about God? Attending to the divine processions, “those internal actions of God that mark the divine life as triune” (21), reveal the one God as three persons. "This is the God of the gospel," Sanders asserts, "the one who has made himself known when the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit" (21).

8) Theological Judgments, Exegetical Task

When it comes to Trinitarian dogmatics, theological judgments must be connected to the task of exegesis. “The church has always known that the doctrine of the Trinity is profoundly biblical” (22), although perhaps not straightforwardly so. Given recent shifts in biblical interpretation, Sanders urges us to double-down on this task in order to put biblical Trinitarianism on a more secure footing.

9) New Testament and Old Testament Dynamics

When it comes to the Old Testament, Trinitarian interpretation “is an exercise in rereading, applying to the earlier part of a text what is learned from the later part,” and “it is best not to press the Old Testament to make it yield to Trinitarian revelation” (22). This “later part,” of course, is the New Testament, our “irreplaceably primary theological witness” (22) to the Trinity, given its salvation-historical mission.

10) Biblical vs. Historical Discussion

Although the history of the doctrine of the Trinity is rich, often its discussion has overshadowed that of the Bible. Sanders’s book models a different approach: although it engages the doctrine's history, it gives extensive attention to scriptural issues “in the hopes of giving the impression that Trinitarianism is a gift of revelation before it is an achievement of the church” (23).


With The Triune God, Sanders’s goal “is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God” (19).

Engage it yourself to plumb the depths of Trinitarian dogmatics

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