Evangelicals often see the doctrine of the Trinity as an abstract intellectual problem better left to the musings of theologians. Although officially affirming the doctrine as a matter of orthodoxy, we wonder, “Is the Trinity really significant at the street-level of our Christian life? Fred Sanders, professor of theology at Biola University, answers a resounding “Yes” in his book the Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. He shows how cultivating awareness of our participation in the Trinity opens glorious, new vistas for evangelicals. According to Sanders, reclaiming our Trinitarian roots will enrich our understanding of the gospel, deepen our spirituality, and renew our mission in the world.
Sanders’ book offers one expression of his plan to revive Trinitarianism within evangelical life and thought (66). His central argument is that “the gospel is Triune and the Trinity is the gospel” (15). This means that evangelicals, as gospel people, are “Trinitarian deep down” (17), and need to bring what is tacit to the level of awareness. According to Sanders, the way we perceive and live-out the gospel inevitably changes when we see the gospel is the Triune God drawing us into his life (198).
Therefore, Sanders calls evangelicals to consider the irony of their present situation. Although their beliefs and practices presuppose the deepest Trinitarianism, these deep things of God remain dormant rather than fruitful for their lives (17). Sanders traces the origin of this state of affairs back to thinkers like Schleiermacher, Watts, and Bunyan, who either leave legacies of denying the Trinity’s place in the Christian life, or of viewing the Trinity as a coherence problem, instead of the central mystery of salvation (45-48). As a result, evangelicals who affirm the Trinity often reduce it to an issue of authority and intellectual obedience, rather than seeing it as the source and ground of the gospel (51).
Sanders offers evangelicals a better approach. He knows teaching about the Trinity usually evokes good questions (Is it biblical? Is it reasonable? And is it relevant?). But Sanders also knows the quest for answers routinely derails into a mere verbal project. When this happens it’s almost impossible to answer the relevance question affirmatively (40-41). But if we start from our experience of the Trinity, and only then move toward conceptual clarification, we can escape this pitfall. Sanders’ principle is “first the reality, then the explanation” (41). In other words, Trinitarian concepts mesh better with the life already aware of communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (161-62).
Throughout the book Sanders highlights the benefits of cultivating explicit Trinitarianism. For one, it keeps us from embracing an anemic gospel. Seeing our lives within the Trinity broadens our appreciation for the whole economy of salvation, and saves us from narrowing the gospel to one of its aspects, like the cross, and forgiveness of sins (22). Similarly, awareness of communion with the Trinity keeps us from embracing Jesus abstracted from the Father and Spirit (137-38; 174-75). At the street level, Sanders shows how the Trinity keeps us from Bibliolatry in our Bible reading (203-07), and enables us to pray with the grain of Scripture (222-24).
By way of evaluation, I didn’t need much persuasion regarding Sanders’ central argument. The gospel is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing their life with us. Take away the Trinity and the gospel disappears. Even so, the effectiveness of Sanders’ overall argument resides first in the fact that he knows his audience. He anticipates and effectively addresses the typical evangelical concerns (39-40; 104). Second, and more importantly, Sanders offers a fresh and edifying approach to Trinitarianism that successfully turns the relevance question on its head (41). His compelling examples from the lives of Nicky Cruz and others show that the Trinity is not primarily about wrestling with mental puzzles or word schemes, but is rather the context in which believers live, move, and have their being (34-39; 171).
Even so, I’m not convinced of his corresponding big claim that evangelicals “have been the most thoroughly Trinitarian Christians” in Church History (15). I can’t see how those he cites are more thoroughly Trinitarian than, say, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril, and Augustine. Certainly, Sanders does cite some rich examples, but even he acknowledges that his “evangelical Trinitarianism” is somewhat restrictive (28). I understand his desire to utilize evangelicalism’s own sources to draw his audience into deeper Trinitarianism. But doesn’t this approach unwittingly reinforce chronological snobbery regarding pre-Reformation voices? Evangelicals already incline toward individualism and historical autonomy. We need more solidarity with what came before, not less, especially in cultivating our Trinitanianism.
One significant aspect of Sanders book, not to be missed, is that he indirectly provides valuable arguments for our non-Trinitarian friends. Certain Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Sikhs all tend to emphasis the implausibility of a Triune God, while resting in the conceptual ease of a strictly unitary God. Even if they dismiss the obvious Trinitarian implications reflected in the conversations between the Father and Son in the New Testament (85, 86), it’s harder to dismiss the same implications expressed in our common belief that God is eternally good and loving (74; 98-101). Sanders effectively shows how only a Triune God, not a unitary one, can posses these attributes eternally. Evangelicals need to digest these arguments and use them in loving conversation with their non-Trinitarian friends.
Overall, Sanders’ ecumenical tone contributes to the effectiveness of his argument. He expresses a clear appreciation for the great tradition (29-30), and conveys a positive view of mysticism similar to certain strands within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (107-10; 168). Also, his proposal that we relocate assurance within the Trinity instead of justification, offers a timely balancing of the Reformers’ necessary focusing maneuver, and bears obvious ecumenical implications (194-99). Finally, although Sanders remains firmly “evangelical” he appreciates the larger liturgical traditions (62). His assessments are mostly fair and charitable, even playful at one point, suggesting a contest to see who can cultivate the richest Trinitarianism (66). His ecumenical tone obviously commends his book to a broader audience.
Sanders book is rich fare and I plan to return to it often. Not only does this book inspire me to join the quest to revive Trinitarianism within my own circles, but it also provides a fresh perspective on how to engage the task. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who wonders if the Trinity is still relevant for the Christian life. If, like Schleiermacher, you still think the Triune God is an optional appendix to your faith, Sanders will help you see the Trinity as the defining context that illumines everything else.