Archives For Fred Sanders

The Trinity

Greg Strand – August 6, 2014 10 Comments

The doctrine of the Trinity is the heart of Christianity and the Christian faith. There is a an increasing biblical illiteracy and an emphasis on loving Jesus but not doctrine. This cuts to the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, the statement is often made “Jesus unites; doctrine divides.” It is intended to emphasize Jesus but it downplays doctrine, and in doing that it compromises both. This means that when this sentiment exists, both Christianity and the Christian faith suffer.

Added to this is the rise of Islam that denies the Trinity. This has implications in two directions. First, how do we biblically and theologically articulate the doctrine of the Trinity? Second, how do we defend the doctrine of the Trinity when questioned, undermined or denied? The two go together because one must know something before one can articulate or defend something. As I often say, many Evangelicals could not fight/defend their way out of a Trinitarian paper bag.

Fred Sanders is one who is doing some great work on the doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote the book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, some of which he taught at our preconference to last year’s EFCA Theology Conference. He continues to study this doctrine in preparation for another book, The Triune God in a new series New Studies in Dogmatics, which looks to be excellent.

As a part of his present research, Sanders ponders the unique way the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed, which is not like other doctrines. He believes the way in which the truth of the Trinity was revealed has implications for how the doctrine is taught. Here are the guidelines he has developed to support his thesis: Theses on the Revelation of the Trinity I simply list the theses with an encouragement to read his brief explanations.

1. The Revelation of the Trinity is Bundled With The Revelation of the Gospel.

2. The Revelation of the Trinity Accompanies Salvation.

3. The Revelation of the Trinity is Revelation of God’s Own Heart.

4. The Revelation of the Trinity Must Be Self-Revelation.

5. The Revelation of the Trinity Came When the Son and the Spirit Came in Person.

6. New Testament Texts About the Trinity Tend to Be Allusions Rather than Announcements.

7. The Revelation of the Trinity Required Words to Accompany It.

8. The Revelation of the Trinity is the Extending of a Conversation Already Happening.

9. The Revelation of the Trinity Occurs Across the Two Testaments of the Canon.

10. The Revelation of the Trinity in Scripture is Perfect.

11. Systematic Theology’s Account of the Trinity Should Serve the Revelation of the Trinity in Scripture.

A few questions to ponder:

  • Do you agree with my sense of how some Evangelicals regard doctrine, generally, and the truth of the Trinity, specifically?
  • What do you think of Sanders’ theses?
  • How do you help God’s people to understand the importance of both, which affects both life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16)?

Another book on the Trinity to be released this fall in the Counterpoints series is Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity edited by Jason Sexton. It should also be an excellent contribution to this important discussion.

Fred Sanders has written one of the better books on the Trinity in recent years (The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything). I am grateful he will join us for the preconference to our Theology Conference teaching on the Trinity, “God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.”

Last month Sanders preached a sermon on the Trinity at Grace Evangelical Free Church, LaMirada, CA, where he is a member. He titled his sermon, “The Trinity as Old Testament Book Club.”  The sermon series is through Hebrews. Sanders preached on chapter 7, and his point was that in that text we learn how to hear God’s Word with Melchizedek as an example.

Here is the key to this sermon:

We can learn to read the Bible so well that we overhear in it what the Father and Son say to each other.

Does that sound too mystical? Learning to overhear the Trinity’s conversation? Don’t worry: It’s very high, but it’s not mystical. Mystical means, among other things, secret. And there’s nothing secret about this trinitarian conversation, because the whole thing is published, and has been for a long time.

When you listen to the Father and the Son in the way Hebrews teaches you to do, you know what you’re hearing? Not a single new word, but a host of old words, from the Old Testament. What Hebrews has been training us for since the first sentence is to hear God speak in the living oracles of the Old Testament.

When God says the biggest thing he ever said, he speaks entirely in quotations from the Old Testament.  And Jesus speaks to the Father in OT QUOTES; We are pointed to some of the Psalms as transcripts of what the Son says to the Father: Psalm 40, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you prepared for me. Behold, I come to do thy will, O God.” Once you’ve learned to hear Psalm 40 as a statement of the incarnate Son to the Father who sent him, good luck ever hearing it again as anything less than messianic and trinitarian. Jesus owns that Psalm!

Why do the Father and Son communicate in OT QUOTES? One way to think of this phenomenon is this: It’s like a book club where everybody totally agrees about what the most important thing to read is, and the members constantly communicate with each other by alluding to events and characters from that key text. If you’re into Harry Potter, then you’re on the inside when they start in with their “boy, what a Dumbledore” kind of talk; but if you haven’t read it, you just don’t get it. And “not getting it” is a serious problem, because even when these people talk about other topics, the constant flow of Harry Potter references is the very language that community speaks. Now imagine that kind of like-minded book club, a community of literary engagement that intense and interpersonal, but not annoying at all. In fact, imagine it at a much higher level, with a much greater text, and with salvation as its goal.

Apparently the Trinity is like a really tight book club and the book is the Old Testament.

Here we have a strong reaffirmation of the Word of God and the Trinity. We also have a new illustration of how to understand the relationship. I appreciate both his reaffirmation and his illustration, recognizing its limitations.

What do you think of this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the illustration? What illustration would you use to address the relationship between Father and Son, and between Father and Son and the Scriptures?

Fred Sanders recently preached the sermon (“Stewards of the Mysteries”) as part of the ordination service for Jason Sexton as he was ordained in the EFCA at Tulare Evangelical Free Church, Tulare, CA. Sanders concluded with a story from the life of John Wesley, which he then powerfully applied/challenged/prayed for Jason (emphasis mine).

I close with a story from the life of John Wesley, whose evangelical ministry in the eighteenth century marked him as one of the great stewards of God’s mysteries, as he tried to manage that “surprising work of God” that spread so rapidly in connection with his preaching. In many of the places where he preached, something like riots broke out. By 1749 he had a full decade’s experience of dealing with these disturbances, and had developed a lively sense of how to ride along with the unruly energy of a mob until just the right moment arrived for him to speak up and take command. In a brief note in his journal about one such riot, he describes how he waited for his moment, and then took it. “I called for a chair,” he writes. “The winds were hushed, and all was calm and still.” As he began speaking, he felt the power of God at work, and he recorded what happened within him that enabled him to minister to the mob: “My heart was filled with love, my eyes with tears, and my mouth with arguments.”

May God fill your heart with love: Love for the world that he sent his Son to save. . . . Love for a public that doesn’t always invite love, and is often on the verge of riot.

May God fill your eyes with tears: Tears like those that Christ wept over the city of Jerusalem. Tears drawn not so much by the momentary afflictions or the thousand shocks that flesh is subject to, but by the deeper tragedy of human souls imprisoned in lives that are godless, hopeless, prayerless, comfortless.

And especially as a theologian, may God fill your mouth with arguments: Arguments that take the mysteries of God and make them plain to this generation. Arguments that take every thought captive to Christ, and destroy all speculations that set themselves up against God. Arguments that name connections nobody else has seen, that bring the greatest moral good clearly before the mind’s eye of a city, a state, a nation, a world that needs to be moved by persuasion and not by brute force. Arguments that win, that are faithful, that speak the truth in love, as is fitting for a steward that is found faithful.

My prayer: Merciful and gracious Lord, fill my heart with love, fill my eyes with tears, and fill my mouth with arguments.

My hope: May this be a prayer that is prayed by and for all ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Fred Sanders, “Calvinists Who Love Wesley,” the Scriptorium (June 21, 2012) 

This is a follow up to the earlier post on Fred Sanders. Here Sanders refers to key, well-known Calvinists who affirmed John Wesley, even though disagreeing with him on some theological issues. There was still much to learn from him. This is as true today as it was then: we can and must learn from each other. This is one – of many! – reasons I am grateful to be a part of the EFCA, where we not only have the privilege but also the responsibility to engage in this sort of learning.

Sanders begins,

Calvinists sometimes behave as if their Reformed credentials give them a free pass to forget there ever was a John Wesley, or that he is to be reckoned one of the good guys, or that he, being dead, yet speaks. They keep their distance as if Wesley were the carrier of a theological disease, to be given a wide berth. It’s one thing to say (as any good Calvinist must) that Wesley was wrong about a few important doctrines. But it’s another thing, a little tragic, to consign him to oblivion and imagine there is nothing to learn from him. Here are some Calvinists who know better. Their essentially pro-Wesley tone is striking, possibly because it’s becoming rarer than it once was.

Sanders then lists a number of Calvinists, in the order listed below, who had strong words of commendation, affirmation and appreciation for John Wesley (1703-1791).

John Newton (1725-1807)
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
John Duncan (1796-1870)
George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Henry Venn (1796-1873)
J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)

Finally, Sanders’ concludes the following:

Taking a moment to compare his own ministry [Charles Spurgeon] to that of Wesley’s, he thought the comparison was like a little candle held up in the sun: “For my part, I am as one who can see the spots in the sun, but know it to be the sun still, and only weep for my farthing candle by the side of such a luminary.” If you think your own ministry is like a little candle held up against the light of Spurgeon’s accomplishment, take a moment to imagine an even greater light of conservative, evangelical, Protestant witness in the English language. And then go read something, anything, by or about Wesley.

An Interview with Fred Sanders

Greg Strand – September 19, 2012 2 Comments

John Starke, “You’re a Calvinist, Right?,” The Gospel Coalition Blog (June 25, 2012)

Fred Sanders teaches at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. He is a first-rate theologian, who has done excellent work on the doctrine of the Trinity, cf. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He is an excellent theologian who thinks, speaks and writes well. For those of us in the Free Church who live with the “significance of silence” on the soteriologial question of “does faith precede regeneration?” (Arminiamism/Wesleyan) or “does regeneration precede faith?” (Calvinism) (I only included Arminianism/Wesleyan first because it begins with an “A,” just so no one misunderstands!), it is important for us to have a position, to know the best argument for the other position, and then, by God’s grace, to covenant to live life together.

Sanders is an Arminian/Wesleyan. There is much you can learn in this interview about Fred and his theological position, regardless of  your own personal position/conviction, so I encourage you to read the whole interview. I am, however, going to include a number of questions and answers that were part of the end of this interview, when Fred was asked to “finish these sentences . . .” He delineates a good primer on Arminian/Wesleyanism, and offers some wise counsel in the discussion/debate.

Finish these sentences:

You haven’t really considered Wesleyanism unless you’ve read . . .

  1. John Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The first 14 are the most important to read as a set, though all 52 are classic. This is where you get to see Wesley putting first things first, emphasizing the most important elements of his message. God changed the world through this instrument.
  2. William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, or at least his Higher Catechism of Theology. Pope was a conservative British Methodist of the 19th century. I think he is one of the finest theological minds in Protestant history, sadly neglected.
  3. I should probably recommend a controversial book that addresses the five points, though that’s not my favorite genre. Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell’s Why I Am Not a Calvinist is a pretty good presentation of the position.

If you think Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, then . . .

You need a more flexible vocabulary of heresiology. John Wesley’s longest treatise was on original sin, and he affirmed it, right down to the bondage of the will. He put a sermon on the subject into his Standard Sermons. The Wesleyan emphasis on sinners being enabled to respond to the gospel has nothing to do with a high view of human abilities, and everything to do with an optimism of grace and a trust in the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work.

Perhaps anti-Wesleyans do this because they are hoping to make the error of Arminianism more obvious by exaggerating it into its supposedly logical conclusion. But if you think Arminianism is an error, you should just call it “the heresy of Arminianism.” If you have to exaggerate its flaws to make it seem terrible, you probably shouldn’t.

It may also be that some anti-Wesleyans are tempted to characterize Wesleyans by their worst exemplars. There have indeed been Pelagians and semi- demi- hemi- Pelagians in the Wesleyan tradition. I don’t know any other way to interpret Charles Finney. But it’s a basic rule of fair discourse that you should meet your opponent’s views at their strongest and most central, not their weakest and most peripheral. Calvinism has generated its fair share of antinomians, determinists, theocrats, anti-evangelicals, and formalists. Anti-Calvinists shouldn’t attack on that front, but at the places where the tradition is strongest.

The one thing I wish Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of is . . .

Being anthropocentric in their soteriology. Caring more about human free will than God’s glory.

I also wish Calvinists would resist the urge to think of Wesleyanism as the secret to Reformed self-definition. I don’t mind sharpening a position by contrast, but Calvinists need a better foil than Wesleyanism. Only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism. A more instructive opposite for Calvinism probably ought to be Roman Catholicism, if we’re going back to origins. About 200 years ago, I believe the Reformed in Europe still thought of Lutherans as their opposites. I would think today’s evangelical Calvinists would think of liberals as their opposites. But if you think “there are two kinds of people, Calvinists and Wesleyans,” you’re on a false trail; your devil is too small (to paraphrase J. B. Phillips). That will lead you to pick fights with other conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christians who really are on your side of the net in the game that counts.

Sure, Calvinists have J. I. Packer, but Wesleyans have . . .

Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism and more recently The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. This is a one-volume, popular-level introduction to Christian doctrine that is systematically oriented to evangelism in every doctrine. Sound good? It is.

I could also pile up a lot of influential non-theologians here (C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Bill Bright), but I’m assuming your question was probing for a theological communicator of Packer’s stature.

But it’s hard to beat J. I. Packer in any theological camp. He once called Wesley an inconsistent Calvinist. That’s a cute and feisty way of affirming the common ground we share. I like to think of Packer as an inconsistent Wesleyan. He won’t read this, will he?