Review of “The Triune God” by Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016)
I was recently forwarded a copy of the newest entry in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. The Triune God by Fred Sanders is an important contribution to the study of Trinitarian theology that couldn’t have come at better time.
Sanders lays out in the introduction to this volume, the idea that most Trinitarian studies have a common problem. They spend way too much time looking at the historical development of the dogma, and not enough time exploring the Scriptural foundations. He then proceeds to explain the basic structure of his book, works in reverse of the traditional order.
He begins with the liturgical and doxological practices of the Church by orienting the reader to his study with the Gloria Patri as a scaffolding. This not only sets the tone and stage for the book, it helps the reader understand up front what the stakes are. This is not just an arcane study of some bit of difficult theology, this is the very worship and life of the Christian Church. He then proceeds in chapter two to explain the proper context for understanding what the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, mean by mystery. That is, something that has always been true, was obscured in the past and is now revealed. In this chapter, he also engages some of the Modern era’s most prominent Trinitarian theologians. Chapters three and four engage the biblical data by first establishing that the missions (ie the economic ministries of the Son and Spirit in redemption) are themselves revelatory, and then exploring that revelation with a discussion of the Incarnation and Pentecost as the foci of revelation. Chapter five then explores what these communicative missions reveal about the ontological processions (ie the relationships of origin and identity the Son and Spirit share in relation to the Father). Sanders brilliantly demonstrates how the ontological realities of Generation and Procession not only inform our understanding of the missions of the Son and Spirit (respectively), but are themselves the grounding of the missions in eternity past. Chapters six through eight then lay a foundation for how exegesis must be done in light of Scripture being the self-revelation of the Triune God, and then exploring first the New Testament revelation and then the Old Testament foreshadowing of that revelation. Finally, he closes this volume with a set of eleven theses regarding Trinitarian revelation.
I cannot commend this book to my readers enough. Sanders is, in my opinion, the single most important evangelical Trinitarian theologian doing systematic and dogmatic theology today. My readers may be off-put by the fact that he is not a Reformed writer, but I often found myself forgetting that as I read this book. Sanders fluidly makes use of authors from various traditions and is not ashamed to make use of Reformed writers if they are appropriate sources (which he frequently finds them to be). Additionally, he interacts with modern Trinitarian thinkers that many in my audience probably have not (Rahner, Barth, Wiles). He is appropriately critical but also commends some of the valuable insights these figures have brought to the table of Trinitarian theology.
Sanders self-consciously avoids an in-depth discussion of the historical development of Trinitarian dogma. While I view it as a strength of the book, I can also see how it may be a liability. For those who are looking for a general systematic overview of the doctrine, this may not be the place to go. Sanders foregoes the usual introductory remarks defining terms like Hypostasis and Ousia, and this may be a gap in some reader’s knowledge. Additionally, he manages to avoid the Filioque controversy altogether. I am unsure if it was intentional on the part of the editors of the series, but the previously released volume, the Holy Spirit by Christopher Holmes, may as well have been titled the Filioque as the book is almost entirely devoted to the discussion this aspect of the procession of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, I would recommend the two volumes be read together. Finally, the closing chapter is worth the cost of the book alone. These serve as helpful guideposts for those engaging in Trinitarian theology.
Finally, although he does not address it directly in this volume (this may have been intentional, or merely a matter of timing), this book serves as a useful foundation for those combating the error of Eternal Functional Submission. There is nothing that I recall that directly spoke to these issues, but the book carefully and clearly presents the reality of the unity of nature in the midst of divine processions, something that EFS advocates cannot properly account for. As is usually the case, it is better to understand the truth well, and by properly understanding what is true you will be able to better discern out what is false.
This book makes an important addition to the library of any pastor or scholar. It is probably more technical than the average layperson can benefit from, however it may be useful for a focused study to be guided by someone with theological training. Additionally, if combined with the aforementioned Pneumatology volume and the presumed forthcoming Christology and Theology Proper volumes, it would make an excellent text for a comprehensive look at the theology of the divine Persons.
- Holmes, Christopher. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.
- Sanders, Fred. The Triune God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.