As evangelicals, we tend to have a vague sense that the Trinity matters but are not quite sure why. As a doctrine, it seems overly speculative and void of practical benefits, and we'd rather get down to the business of getting more people saved. Questions about its coherence haunt pastors and Sunday school teachers, who often give weak-kneed answers that take more cues from eggs and water than from the revelation of Scripture.
Fred Sanders, professor at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University (and a former teacher of mine), argues in The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway) that even though we continue to treat the doctrine of the Trinity as an "awkward guest in the evangelical household," it is the necessary backdrop for everything evangelicals emphasize. As he puts it, "The gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel." His goal is to help evangelicals "embrace the doctrine of the Trinity wholeheartedly and without reserve, as a central concern to evangelical Christianity."
If Sanders accomplished only that, The Deep Things of God would be a notable contribution to the burgeoning literature aimed at helping evangelicals become more thoroughly Trinitarian. But he goes a step further, arguing not only that evangelicals need the Trinity to make sense of the gospel, but that we need it to make sense of ourselves as well. Our current evangelical milieu notwithstanding, Sanders writes that "evangelical Christians have been in reality the most thoroughly Trinitarian Christians in the history of the church."
The claim is a strong one, but Sanders is not capricious. While he acknowledges that the broader tradition of Christian theology has influenced him, Sanders limits himself to specifically evangelical sources to argue that evangelicals' emphases on a personal relationship with Jesus, devotional Bible reading, and conversational prayer are grounded in tacit Trinitarian commitments. Sanders deploys a surprising collage of sources to make his point. He unpacks the Trinitarian commitments of usual evangelical suspects John Piper, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer, but he also incorporates evangelical outliers like Nicky Cruz, the gang leader turned pastor and author of Run, Baby, Run, and reaches back to lesser-known evangelicals, like A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
This charitable and optimistic reading of the evangelical tradition is a refreshing contrast to the constant barrage of criticisms and complaints that evangelicals have grown accustomed to. Sanders is not naïve about evangelical shallowness (indeed, his analysis of evangelicalism's decadence is worth the price of the book alone). Yet the main problem is our alienation from our Trinitarian roots, which extend "not just into the history of the movement, but into the reality of who we are in Christ."
This double dynamic is what makes The Deep Things of God a unique contribution to the ongoing discussion about the shape of the gospel. There is a temptation in the current debate to focus exclusively on whether the gospel includes social justice or not, to ask only who or what God has redeemed, rather than reflect about the nature of the God who redeems. Sanders's contribution is a welcome reminder that regardless of whether the gospel is for society or individuals, its primary purpose is to draw us into the inner life of God. As he puts it, the gospel "not only meets our deepest needs but comes from God's deepest self."
The Inner Life of God
On these grounds Sanders guides us—helped by Susanna Wesley, 18th-century preacher Robert Hawker, and the contemporary praise chorus "Good to Me"—to the edge of one of the central mysteries of the faith, the inner life of the triune God before creation. Before God is the God of the gospel, Sanders contends, he is God in himself. "[The Trinity in itself] is the presupposition of the good news, since 'God for us' makes sense only if there is such a thing as 'God in himself.'?" Sanders knows that unpacking the doctrine of the Trinity doesn't have an immediate practical payoff in terms of converting souls. But as he reminds us, "The doctrine of the Trinity expels a host of unworthy ideas and attitudes about God's glory."
After Sanders guides us through "the happy land of the Trinity," he turns to examine the relationship between the inner life of God and the Good News, arguing that the gospel is nothing less than God's self-giving to us. It is, in other words, the same size as God. At the same time, the shape of the gospel is Trinitarian. The Good News "is that God, who in himself is eternally the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, has become for us the adoptive Father, the incarnate Son, and the outpoured Holy Spirit." Our salvation is unremittingly Trinitarian.
The uniqueness of Sanders's account of the gospel for evangelical Protestants is clear by the relative absence of language about justification. Sanders expands the horizon of salvation beyond justification to include our adoption as children of God, which he dubs "the mightiest of God's mighty acts of salvation." Sanders is explicit that this does not minimize justification but rather puts it in its proper context. Salvation is more, but not less, than justification—and that more is our adoption as sons and daughters of God.
Where's the church?
Sanders's arguments are evocative and ultimately persuasive. Yet there are lingering questions. For instance, it's not clear what Sanders wants evangelicals to do differently—other than read his book—to more deeply embed the Trinity into our movement. His strategy of using resources within evangelicalism, rather than turning to tradition, liturgy, and the sacraments, is promising, but left me wondering whether these resources are enough to produce the tacit Trinitarian awareness he suggests we've had in the past. Must we choose between recovering the Trinitarian basis of our own practices and learning more about tradition, liturgy, and church practices?
On a related theme, because Sanders's focus is on our salvation as individuals, there is little discussion about the relationship between the Trinity and the church, an omission that we can only hope Sanders remedies in future projects. For instance, while Sanders alludes to the Trinitarian grounding of evangelical missionary activity, he does not elaborate. The recent focus on the "missional" nature of the church has often been motivated by Trinitarian claims. So this makes for fertile ground for Sanders's contribution to the conversation.
Pleas for subsequent books and clarifications aside, The Deep Things of God is a "public performance" of evangelicalism desperately in need of repetition and imitation. Sanders has provided a template of careful exegesis of the evangelical tradition that builds on its strengths while gently correcting its blemishes. As a generous appropriation of distinctly evangelical resources, The Deep Things of God moves evangelical theology and church life in the right direction without making it any less evangelical.
More importantly, Sanders helps us peer into the deep things of God without losing our balance and falling into either mysticism or rationalism. His vivid prose doesn't make the topic any easier, but it does make it less intimidating. Sanders writes as he teaches—with a light touch and a joyful concern for his audience's learning and growth, but also cognizant of the dangers that are at hand when we approach the mysteries of God. Sanders is a sober but lively guide to the deep things of God, and evangelicals will benefit enormously from his tour.
Matthew Lee Anderson blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Deep Things of God: How The Trinity Changes Everything is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Other Christianity Today articles on the Trinity include:
The Trinity: So What? | The Shack allegorizes a tricky but foundational doctrine. (May 30, 2008)
In the Word: The 'Shyness' of God | Self-centeredness is cured by looking deeply within the life of the Trinity. (February 25, 2001)
My Views on the Godhead | Jakes responds to Christianity Today article, "Apologetics Journal Criticizes Jakes." (February 1, 2000)
Yancey: Writing the Trinity | Robert Farrar Capon rightly mocks Christians who conceive of the persons of the Trinity as players on the sidelines taking turns at substitution. (July 12, 1999)
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