Fred Sanders - "The Deep Things of God"
3:15AM Jun 30, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it's our delight to be speaking with Dr. Fred Sanders. Dr. Sanders is professor of theology at Biola University's Tory honors Institute and the author of the text that we'll be discussing today, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, which has been released from crossway books and its second edition this year in 2017. Professor Sanders, we're so glad to be speaking with you today.
Gonna be talking to you,
Dr. Sanders as we begin, your book represents an exploration of the connection between the doctrine of the Trinity and the gospel, borrowing a phrase from Thomas Goodwin that the quote things of the gospel are the quote, deep things of God. Why and when did you decide to write this book?
Well, this book is my life message and that your summary of it is exactly right is the connection between The Trinity in the Gospel, that's the short version of everything I want to say. opinion that we're our churches are in a terrible situation or in a desperate mess or forgot the Trinity or anything like that. But there is a strange abstractness of our approach to the doctrine of the Trinity a lot of times and we tend to take for granted all the basic things about the gospel and then say, then there's this weird thing where God is three persons in one, which is kind of a different subject, which now we're going to ponder about, and maybe we have some good answers to those questions, then maybe we get to talking about how clear is it in the Bible and things like that. But I noticed that when we do that, we've often put aside the core themes that were into about Christianity at all. So my my whole approach here is just to link the Trinity and the gospel as closely as possible, because of my conviction that to experience fellowship with God because of the work of the sun, and the special It is to be living a Trinitarian salvation. And that's the best entryway teaching wise. That's the best entry way to show people. The significance of the doctrine of the Trinity.
In chapter two, composed about by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you know, the way that traditional liturgy tacitly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity. Are evangelicals from low church traditions that haven't practice perhaps liturgy in a formal way? Are they handicapped in their understanding of the Trinity? Hmm.
Yeah. That that idea of being encompassed about you know, or that's fancy language, we're surrounded, I take that to be crucial in really getting a deep grasp of what's going on in Trinitarian theology. When I'm teaching as a guest teacher in somebody else's church, you know, in a tradition, maybe that's not my own sub tradition within the Christian faith. It's crucial that I be able to say not just, here's some new information for you that I come in as a teacher to tell you It's crucial that I also be able to say, you already kind of know most of this, I need to be able to say, you know, the Trinity, like in your songs, you know, the Trinity, like in the Bible, you know, the Trinity, so that I got those touch points for places where Christians are already in touch with sound Trinitarian teaching. Now in my own church tradition, you know, I'm kind of an evangelical nut with a lot of different things in my background, but overall, they tend to be low church Free Church, not especially self consciously liturgical, certainly not formed by the ancient liturgies. Though, partly as an artist, I would say, I'm open to and sensitive to the beauties of those things. Kind of the interesting question for me was, if I were teaching in a liturgical setting, when I am teaching in a liturgical setting, I can point to the liturgy and say, Look, you're surrounded by Trinitarian touch points, you're immersed in them, they're there, you know replete and evident in these ancient liturgies Is that an advantage for those communities? Yep. It is clearly part of the arsenal of things that can be drawn on, to make Trinitarian teaching go deep. Is it a disadvantage to not have those? In my opinion? No, I think that that kind of an ancient liturgy relates to the well being of the church, but not to the being of the church. I, I don't think you're disqualified or not a real church. If you're on the lower end of the liturgical spectrum. In a Free Church setting, you're going to this sort of self conscious experience of salvation, you know, in awareness of conversion. You're going to emotional worship, authoritative Bible teaching. So part of the trick of the book, what really kind of got me started writing deep things of God back with the first edition was a kind of a glad awareness that there was plenty to work with in low church traditions.
Dr. Sanders, new forms of Christian worship are being formulated every day. And this seems to be a particularly fruitful time as as Christians are forming all kinds of new artistic expressions of the faith. I was listening for the first time, a couple days ago to some Christian hip hop that was explaining actually quite deep theological things. I've listened to about five minutes of hip hop during my entire life, but this was really good. What what type of advice would you give to new Christian artists who are attempting to communicate theology in their various art forms?
Yeah, I think there's a lot of room to move.
Especially if you think about newer art forms, things that haven't been tried. My own undergraduate training is art. My I was an art major drawing and printmaking. With a lot of interest in church history and the history of Christian art. I'll save If you look back at what previous generations have done in the long tradition of Christianity, with regard to the Trinity, it's largely a bunch of cautionary tales. I mean, I mean, mostly you look at things and say, well, then then there's this image of the Trinity, you know, and, and that surfaces a few things that are worth thinking about. But mostly the message is don't draw the Trinity that way. And then there are of course, things in and music. So there are lots of things have been tried. And I guess one thing to say is, none of them have succeeded in becoming sort of canonical or definite, or the right way to do it. The closest thing you might have is Andre, rube loves Old Testament Trinity painting, which is so widely used. It's almost a cliche. And you can actually learn some things from it. One of the reasons Ruby loves Trinity icon works fairly well is it's explicitly not a painting of the Trinity. It's the three angelic visitors to Abraham So we've lived doesn't put himself in the business of painting God. Instead what he's doing is painting an Old Testament image, which has a depth of mystery to it, which can be explored meditatively and textually. Because it takes the burden off if you've got this other thing like, here, I'm going to paint God the Father sitting over here on a throne with a big beard. Then over here on the other corner, I'm going to paint Jesus the Son looking like you know, the incarnate one. Now the hard part, I gotta paint the Holy Spirit. Is he a man? Is he a dove? Is he a fire? I just say there are so many obvious mistakes in history of Christian art and thought that i think i think the doors are still wide open for doing things that are helpful, educationally.
Dr. Sanders, in your view is the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox because the Bible teaches it or because it's affirmed in the historic Creed's or neither or both.
I only got to be taught as a biblical doctrine. The easiest proof of that is Is that if you ask the church fathers, and the Creed's themselves or the formulators of the Creed's, why do you believe these things to be true? They will all uniformly answer because they are biblical. So to for us to ground, the doctrine of the Trinity in tradition in any way is just a half measure. It's, as soon as we go there and say, I believe in the Trinity because the church fathers did. Well, if they are alive and speaking to us, they will say, don't do that. They were robustly confident that God has revealed himself in Christ and the spirit as recorded in Scripture as being eternally the Father, Son, and spirit.
I come to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Really, having discovered it for myself in Scripture, I had received a little bit of Christian theological teaching, but when I got saved as a teenager, I started reading the Bible for myself. I was just knocked over by the fact that wow, God must be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In order for this great salvation that he's worked out to be one unified work of salvation, that must be grounded in the eternal unity of Father, Son and Spirit who together in an undivided way work this salvation out. So I have some of the joy of discovery of it in the Bible, which is why plausibility wise I'm always thinking, yeah, course it's easy to show the Trinity from the Bible. That's where I found it.
Huh? Thank you for that reflection, Dr. Sanders. And if you'll permit me to ask two thorny subsidiary questions. So following your conclusion that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine, as we as we study the doctrine as it's formulated by the church fathers in the fourth century. The subsidiary questions would be Does this mean that a we either need to reclaim patristic biblical study methods or be Would it be possible to improve on the doctrine of the Trinity based on modern biblical study methods?
Yeah, yeah, that's a good question. Um, I think there are some Certainly some patristic Bible Study Bible interpretation methods that are worth retrieving. I tend to think of this in kind of a cross cultural way. Excuse me. Um, you know, other cultures, when you're in a culture, it has certain things that it takes for granted and is good at and have some blind spots about. And then you cross into another culture and realize, Oh, they see things, they see the same things, but differently. Well, the ancient church is kind of another culture, you know, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. When you're reading one of the church fathers, they are strong where we are weak. And I would say vice versa. But what they're especially strong at that we need to recapture one way or the other is whole ism. They, they can read the entire Bible and make statements about what the entire thing means. And we are just not good at that as moderns we can take stuff apart all the way down to the atomistic bits and pieces. But when it comes to any movement of thought, any intellectual posture That would allow you to say, here's what the whole thing means. Boy, we just really need to learn that from another culture. And one of those cultures we could learn from is ancient patristic, culture, pro Nicene theological culture. They really were reading the entire Bible and saying, here's the main point, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, of course, they do that in some ways that are not available to us. We can't just play costume and dress up as patristic and pretend we're in that culture or something. When a Gustin or someone like that, you know, john chrysostom, when they grab ahold of a passage of scripture, but even Aaron as these are some of my heroes, but they'll grab ahold of a passage of scripture and just do things that look insane to us, you know, they'll begin exposing it. And they'll say things that are not at all in the text in front of them. And given our given our precision, and our modern historical grammatical awareness, we're just very alert to the fact that when you're in as says, The Good Samaritan picks up the man fallen among thieves and takes them to a an M and gives the innkeeper two coins. Well, the man fallen among thieves is humanity. And the Good Samaritan has God the Father and the two coins he leaves with the church or the son in the spirit. You know, reread that and think, I don't know what you're doing my friend here and as but that is not exegesis, you did not find any of that in that passage, you brought it from somewhere else. True enough. That's one of the exercises of whole ism that he's doing is that conviction that the entire Bible means this. So parts can be read, hold, the whole can be read into any discrete part. That's the kind of thing we might look at and say, maybe you could get away with that towards the end of a sermon. But certainly you would not do that in commentary. Well, for Iran as what's the difference between sermons and commentaries, these are modern distinctions that they didn't make. So now to flip that that's where they're strong and where we can we can Learn whole ism in interpretation from the fathers. I'm also really happy about grammatical historical interpretation, it keeps me grounded, it keeps me from making stuff up. It helps me sort of frame the framework of plausibility within which I might get a meaning out of a text. I, you know, I really care. Could Paul have meant that? You know, could john have had these things in mind? Could he have expected his original audience to perceive the things that I am currently perceiving? You know, after 14 hours in my study, staring at a text and beginning to see things in it, I want some reality check to say, am I hallucinating? Or is that really there? So yeah, I'm optimistic about the possibility that some of our modern reading techniques, including the dividing things up historically grammatically, including narrative modes of reading, that are ways that the Church Fathers didn't always speak. I'm optimistic that those could have a contribution. To make to the doctrine of the Trinity,
thank you Dr. Sanders.
Chapter 12, which is titled praying with the grain reminds us that Christian prayer is, quote to the Father through the Son, and by the Spirit. Is it right for Christians to pray directly to Jesus or directly to the Holy Spirit?
That's a good question. It's a question I get in churches all the time, especially when I'm guest teaching in a church, I want to make sure that I don't drop in and say something that confuses people or disorients them, tells them that they're praying wrong or something like that. So I used to be very cautious about this and say things like, keep praying the way you're praying. You know, you can pray to any person who's God. So you've got at least three options there. And I still believe that and I'll come back to that in a minute. But I began teaching several years ago that in fact, there is a most biblical mode the lawn is a way of praying It attends to the natural logic of mediation built into Trinitarian theology that is, as efficient says, by Christ, we all have access in the spirit to the Father. So it's that towards the father, through the son, because of or in or with the Holy Spirit. That's just the structure of salvation. And it's the structure of our access to God. It's not just that God is over there being a trinity, and then we have some means of access to them. God is over there being a trinity, and in a Trinitarian way has made access possible through the son to the Father. So that means our prayer should go with the grain or with the current or, or with the logic of mediation. And when we do that, every actual prayer to the Father through the son in the spirit is a little microcosm of the very spiritual structure of the Christian life. Now, the follow up question is, can you pray to the sun or the spirit? Absolutely. You can you can pray to any person who's God. So you've got three options. Believe it or not, you might have four. Not because there are four persons of the Trinity, but because Trinitarian thought in your head, but you just say, God help me. Well as a Trinitarian, Christian, you're still praying to the Trinity, even though you're not consciously doing Trinitarian theology at the moment. Yeah. lots of examples of prayers to Jesus and the Bible, very presented in the New Testament in a very parallel way. Just as at the end of Luke, Jesus says, Father received my spirit. At the beginning of Acts. Stephen, the first martyr says, Lord Jesus received my spirit. It's hard for me to meditate on the resurrection of Christ and the fact that he is present to us now spiritually, he's not 2000 years ago, long gone, I just think about him. He's actually here. I can't meditate on that without talking to him. Same with the Holy Spirit, though there are no biblical examples of prayer to the Holy Spirit. As far as I know, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. That would be kind of a struggle. way of reading the biblical evidence to say since there are no examples, we should not do it. There are some people actually use that rule. But I would say if you're trying to pray biblically, if you want your prayer life to be informed by what God has made known about himself and about salvation, then you would want to attend to the proportions of your prayer life. And they're, I would say, mostly pray to God the Father, because prayer to the Father in the name of the Son and the power of the Spirit is sort of the theologically normative, right way to pray.
Dr. Sanders, I formerly taught a series of classes at Moody Bible Institute Spokane on church history. And one of the things one of my personal goals that I had for my students in the first term as we would cover Trinitarian theology, is I wanted the students to be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to a friend, perhaps on a napkin, so I called it the nap contest. at a cafe with a friend, I want you to be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. And may I ask you to take the napkin test, how is it Do you have a preferred way of explaining the Trinity in a short, concise manner. Yeah.
So my preferred way of talking people through the doctrine of the Trinity is actually to describe the broad outlines of the the history of salvation, that you know, the economy of salvation. So I talked about how the main thing that the Bible is about that the whole Old Testament looks forward to, and all the documents of the New Testament look back to the coming of the Son and the spirit in person. So you can say, like the Incarnation and Pentecost, these special appearance of these two persons of the Godhead in their unique central missions. Once you've got a real focus on the Incarnation and Pentecost, the coming of the Son and the spirit from the Father, that's when you can say, Oh, this is actually why we believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is why all through the Old Testament It was not clearly manifested the try unity of God Because it's sort of need to know information, it's bundled with the accomplishment of salvation. And so when the sun and the Spirit come, that's when you get the revelation of the trinity of God. And so the follow up question, which I think a lot of people come to the doctrine of the Trinity with, in the front of their mind is what's that? Like? Is it like an egg? Is it like sunlight? Is it like water? I really push that question off the ontological question, because I don't think there's much to be gained. From any answer to the question. What's it like? My answer is always, you know, what the eternal being of God is like, it's like the father sending the son in the spirit. That's that's what it's like, partly because that's what it is. It helps give you kind of a concrete grip on why we believe in the Trinity what we know about the Trinity, and it gets you out of a fairly fruitless quest. To find an analogy for the Trinity. I, I just think the true unity of God is one of the things about God that we can say a few things. about what it's like, but it's mostly there to be uniquely God.
The one example I use this,
people say, okay, God created everything out of nothing. What's that like? Well, I mean, it's kind of like I made a sandwich yesterday. But it's mostly not like that. I can't give you two examples of making everything out of nothing. There's one example of that. And I would say the same thing about the true unity of God. It's not a general principle of three and oneness. It's a strong statement of what is unique about this one God.
Dr. Sanders, some say that Crichton Trinitarian theology is, at at heart what divides Christian theology from Islamic theology? In your view, is Christianity a monotheistic religion? And if so, in what ways? Is it like or unlike Islamic monotheism? Hmm,
yeah, good question. I think Christianity is absolutely a form of monotheism. I'm just baffled. When people try to do some sort of creative rethinking of that, and, you know, try to frame Christianity as belonging to some other category, I don't know what that would be like halfway to polytheism, like, low number polytheism. I just don't I can't get my mind around that. Clearly, if you're categorizing views of God, you know, belief that there is exactly one God, when you use the modern term monotheism to describe that, yep, there's that and Christianity and Judaism and Islam, obviously are in that category with differences among them about the identity of that God. And so I would say Trinitarian monotheism is what sets Christianity apart. And as much as I like talking about the Trinity. I think the clear move to make there is always just to switch to the subject of Christology because it really comes down to who is Jesus Christ? It's a deity of Christ question that really distinguishes among the MonaVie isms. And then if you just think that through in light of all the biblical evidence, you end up with trinitarianism.
Dr. Sanders, if I can close our discussion today with an interview question that I've been asking all of the guests on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in john 17?
Yeah, it's a good question. And and I'm, I'm a bit of an expert on the Trinity and not a bit of an expert on on church unity. And you know, the way you're asking it, but but in your question you talked about, is it recognizing unity and pursuing unity? And those are the two sides right, that that there is some way in which Ephesians For the oneness of the body of Christ, you know, one faith, one church, one baptism. That is something that is true of a global Christianity and historic Christianity. You know, those two sort of echoes chemical elements all around the world and all the way back through history. There is a spiritual unity that is true of us even in the remarkable divided pneus and differences and diversity, some of which just has to do with being different sorts of people in different places and phases. And some of which has to do with sort of intractable disagreements that we couldn't just set aside, but we actually are committed to these for various reasons. So there's the the task of what we need to recognize the unity that we already have. There are various ways to do that. In an American context, it's easy to get distracted by the sort of rampant denominationalism and the sort of, I don't know if it's a consumer mentality. It's the idea that the religious marketplace is kind of a mall with lots of competing stores. Right? You can kind of have that sense. And even as I drive to my church by driving by six other churches, it's easy to think we're competing For a market share, and you know, this is my brand, this is kind of a default mentality to get past that and say, No, if there are churches with whom I am in substantial doctrinal agreement in my church, we are sort of different outlets culturally for the same thing. And so you can see that in some ways, and this kind of shifts over to your church unity is it's a reality that we need to learn to recognize. And it's a task that we need to work on. And there may be some ways forward in cultivating greater unity. So anytime that I have a chance to speak or teach or preach in another church, that's not my denominational home, I think, well, that's great. And it would make sense that I would do that because we are in fundamental agreement about the basic things.
Yeah, I would just say start to so personally,
working on those smaller division, where they're just living, I believe in believers baptism Can I happily go into teach an infant baptism context. Yes, as long as we're not specifically talking about our differences on baptism, boys, they're a huge field within which we can agree and, and teach teaching on the Trinity all the time gives me a special angle on that, because we all agree about that. So I can cross a lot of boundaries. Now, there are larger boundaries. Various, you know, believers baptism to infant baptism, it's another thing to cross from the Protestant platform to the Catholic platform. You have to be realistic about where those large divisions are. But it's it's reconciling the fact that church unity is a gift and a task, I think is the way to get our bearings on any way forward.
It's been our pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Fred Sanders, professor of theology at Biola University's Tory's honor Institute and also author of the texts that we've been discussing today. The deep things of God how the Trinity changes everything. Dr. Sanders, thanks for your time this morning. Thanks for having me.