Three Steps Toward Rightly Knowing the Doctrine of the Trinity
Fred Sanders has an ambitious goal with his new book The Triune God: securing our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise him.
To get us on toward rightly knowing the doctrine of the Trinity, Sanders outlines three crucial steps, which we’ve engaged below:
to grasp the entire two-Testament canon, to trace its unbroken narrative arc, and to recognize that arc as a self-communicative action with God as its source. (98)
Step 1: Construe Scripture as a Whole
Although space doesn’t permit a complete defense of canonical unity, Sanders spends enough time to show why construing Scripture as a whole is a necessary first step toward rightly knowing the doctrine of the Trinity:
Its implications for Trinitarian theology reach to the very foundation of the doctrine, because it is only the conviction that the God of the Old Testament sent forth his Son and Spirit in the New Testament that provides the doctrinal foundation for construing the canon of Scripture as a unity in the first place. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, there is insufficient reason to bind the two Testaments. (101)
Sanders takes his cues from Irenaeus, who argued against the gnostic vision of a God with split personalities by sketching the equation one two-testament Bible, one three-personed God. “This is why,” Sanders notes, “it is almost a truism to say that the first step toward the doctrine of the Trinity is to read the entire Bible as a whole, and yet it needs to be said” (101).
Although there isn’t an obvious rejection of biblical unity nowadays, Sanders does expose nearly imperceptible forces that tend to dissolve Scripture into discrete units, “making themselves felt as common sense and scholarly decency” (101). Contra trends in modern academic biblical studies, we need to engage Scripture as a single unit.
Step 2: Consider Scripture as a Narrative Unity
Regarding step two, Sanders explains that “Scripture must be understood as a divine economy in which God is the principal agent, who acts with a consistent and unfolding plan” (105).
He draws our attention to the opening stanza of Ephesians, particularly three verses, to make his point:
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:8–10)
Sanders argues that such grand overview passages of salvation history reveal three things:
- God’s wisdom in arrangement
- The unity of the plan carried out across the entire range of biblical history
- The agency of the triune God
Sanders insists the rest of the passage’s rehearsal of salvation history in Ephesians 1:3–14 offers a decided Trinitarian cadence: “God the Father has blessed, chosen, and adopted people who have redemption through the blood of the beloved Son and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise for a future redemption” (105).
When we grasp such a narrative unity, we will be well on our way toward a robust doctrine of the Trinity.
Step 3: Comprehend Salvation as Self-Revelation
One of Sanders more profound contributions to Trinitarian dogmatics is his insistence that the divine economy of redemption is, in itself, “an intentional self-revelation of God” (106). Actually, he goes further, grounding the doctrine’s integrity in this very step:
What is required for the success of Trinitarian theology is the conviction that salvation history is an economy not only of redemption but also of divine self-revelation, in which God makes himself known in a uniquely direct way. (106)
In other words, God’s Self reveals the nature of his eternal essence through the incarnation and Pentecost events; “he was intentionally revealing to us he is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in essence and eternity” (107).
Sanders admits, although this is a natural step from the two previous ones, it isn’t inevitable. “Theoretically speaking, God could have accomplished a kind of salvation for us without especially communicating himself or his identity to us” (106). And yet, this redemption without revelation would have cast a veil over God, making him a sort of Wizard of Oz: unknowable, mysterious, impersonal.
However, it is at this final step toward the doctrine of the Trinity we see something quite different: “It is in the central events of this economy that God has actively and intentionally expressed his character and identified himself” (107). God, in his essence and eternity, is revealed through the sending of Son and Spirit.
“[Without] these presuppositions in place, it is not possible to ask the right questions about the mission” (108) of the Son and Holy Spirit, and what they reveal about God.
Take these three steps on your way toward rightly knowing the Triune God, let Sanders take you the rest of the way by engaging his book.