The beginning and the end of Trinitarianism: a response to Fred Sanders

In a recent article on the Christianity Today site Fred Sanders argues that “We Actually Don’t Need a Trinitarian Revival”. He has heard widespread rumours of the death of Trinitarianism and he thinks that they are “grossly exaggerated”. Where the “everything-you-know-is-wrong diagnosis” fails is in not recognising a basic distinction between primary and secondary forms of Trinitarianism—a distinction which Sanders attributes to Robert Jenson.

Primary Trinitarianism is “the underlying reality of the presence and work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the life of the church”. It is grounded biblically in the idea that the person who is “born of the Spirit… testifies that the Father so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son”. That person, therefore, is “giving an account of the triune structure of salvation history itself in the Bible’s own language”.

Secondary Trinitarianism is the theologising that we do on top of the basic biblical testimony, using further layers of post-biblical language—words like Trinity, persons and essence in the first place, and then more sophisticated terms to explain the relation of the three persons to the one God and how they appear in the course of salvation history: “procession, consubstantiality, perichoresis”, and so on.

In sum:

Primary Trinitarianism is the life of God in the soul of the redeemed; it includes the actual history of salvation, the biblical witness, and the spiritual reality of meeting the Son and the Holy Spirit. Secondary Trinitarianism is the ability of the redeemed to articulate who God is on the basis of what he has done; it includes doctrinal statements, theological awareness, and church practices by which we respond to God’s grace.

The rest of the article is a defence and reaffirmation of what Sanders takes to be the largely intuitive—and often muddled—primary Trinitarianism that is at work in the routine worship, ministry and spiritual experience of evangelical churches.

At the heart of the argument is a dismissal of three forms of negative or false thinking about the Trinity: 1) the revivalist view that the Trinity is making a come-back after a long period of error and neglect; 2) the tendency to try to rehabilitate Trinitarian thinking by grounding it in social analogies; and 3) the habit of emptying out the traditional theological content and using the concept for some entirely different purpose.

The analysis seems to me to be correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough—either backwards or forwards. I think we need to consider what comes before Sanders’ primary Trinitarianism and what comes after his secondary Trinitarianism.

Sanders’ primary Trinitarianism is already a theological abstraction. For a start, it is based entirely on John’s Gospel. The “born of the Spirit” language comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:5-8), and, of course, it is John who tells us that the Father who so loved the world that he gave his “only-begotten Son” (Jn. 3:16).

Secondary Trinitarianism was largely a rationalising development of John’s redemptive-logos Christology. In other words, it was constructed on a small outlying corner of the biblical witness,

There is a narrative shape to this Trinitarianism, but it is a drastically truncated or condensed narrative, forcibly reduced to a supposed “triune structure”. The Father sends the Son to redeem and the Spirit to bear witness. This is a salvation-history directed towards the redemption of individual souls through an event that is only in a very idealised and limited sense historical.

Most of scripture, to the contrary, is preoccupied with telling a quite different story about the historical existence of Israel and its conflict with the nations. In this narrative it is not the world that needs to be saved but Israel (Gentiles are included only incidentally), and the redemption of Israel is in any case secondary to the expectation that YHWH will sooner or later rule over the nations. This is not a salvation-historical narrative but a kingdom-historical narrative.

In this storyline the Father sends the Son, anointed with the Spirit, to the dysfunctional vineyard of Israel. The Son is killed, but he is raised from the dead, vindicated for his faithfulness, and given the right to judge and rule not over Israel only but also over the nations. The Spirit is then poured out on the community of those who confess that Jesus is Lord in order to empower them for life and witness in the chaotic and dangerous period leading up to the glorious day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations.

This is what troubles me about Sanders’ appeal to our “Trinitarian birthright”: it is an avoidance of historical accountability.

It would be an oversimplification to say that this narrative has a “triune structure”, but it is clear enough that in New Testament terms the eventual victory of the creator God over the Greek-Roman world (as I see it) cannot be accounted for without differentiating between Father, Son and Spirit.

It is in this sense that Paul’s “gospel” was Trinitarian: God (the Father) declared or appointed Jesus to be “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4). Coincidentally, I preached on more or less this theme at Crossroads International Church in The Hague last Sunday—a narrative-historical introduction (just about) to a series on Romans.

Biblical Trinitarianism belongs to a long drawn-out story about rebellious Israel, subjected over centuries to pagan imperial domination, being delivered and transformed through the faithfulness of Jesus, who is given a “political” authority that will find fulfilment in a distant but foreseeable and realistic future when YHWH will inherit the nations (cf. Ps. 82:8).

This is historically prior to the condensed—and probably even then misconstrued—“Johannine” narrative about the eternally begotten Son coming into the world to die for people’s sins. Hence we have to call it a “pre-primary” Trinitarianism—unless anyone can think of a better term.

But it is not just “prior to”. It is massively more significant, not least because it locates the story about Father, Son and Spirit in the real world, in real history, where real outcomes matter. It is the story of how the people of God went from being an oppressed and rebellious state to being a royal priesthood for the nations, serving the living God, who had overthrown the whole pagan world and established, through his Son, his own kingdom.

If that’s the case, however, then the post-secondary, post-Christendom narrative is no less significant, and my argument is that what we need is not a Trinitarianism designed to sustain a Christendom worldview but one that generates a new narrative awareness. This is what troubles me about Sanders’ appeal to our “Trinitarian birthright”: it is an avoidance of historical accountability.

It’s not the condensed narrative of Johannine Trinitarianism that will save us but something much more like the historically meaningful, forward-looking, extended narrative Trinitarianism that underpinned the traumatic mission of the church during the death-throes of classical paganism.

Philip Ledgerwood | Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:47 | Permalink

Thanks for this, Andrew. My official stance on Trinitarianism/the divinity of Jesus has come down to “Maybe, but I don’t see how it matters that much.”

Also, looking forward to listening to the sermon. If I might make a suggestion, it would be cool to have a tab on this site where you collate the other things you’re putting out there — books, classes, sermons, stele, etc.

Hi Andrew, Nice post! This particular sentence caught my eye because I’ve been wrestling with the function of God’s Spirit in the Church:

The Spirit is then poured out on the community of those who confess that Jesus is Lord in order to empower them for life and witness in the chaotic and dangerous period leading up to the glorious day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations.

If we say the nations did confess Jesus as Lord with the conversion of Rome, is it absurd to suggest God’s Spirit is no longer poured out on members of the church like it was following Pentecost? It seems to me God simply directs people today by ordering the circumstances they encounter, i.e. Divine Providence.

I have sometimes wondered whether there isn’t an argument for cessationism in this more historical reading of New Testament eschatology. But I think not, for two main reasons.

First, the gift of the Spirit is not merely eschatological. It is also, as a replacement for the Law and the mode of the new covenant, the means by which the continuing life of the people of God is ordered, and the presence of the Spirit cannot be reduced to circumstantial providence.

Secondly, I see no reason why the church should not in other periods or during different crises experience the supernatural charismata of the Spirit. For example, we might see the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements as specific manifestations of the renewing and sustaining power of God in the face of secularism.

Hi Andrew, thanks for your reply.

I don’t find your first point very persuasive because I think the pouring out of God’s Spirit in the first century could well have been intended for a limited time to confirm the new covenant and mark the end of the old. And I see no reason circumstantial providence couldn’t adequately achieve God’s purpose in the Church today.

I think your second point is a good one and we shouldn’t limit what God might do within the Church in the future. He could find it useful to pour our his Spirit (with signs and wonders) on the Church again to achieve his purposes.

Hi Ben,
I certainly see “circumstantial providence” as the work of God (or you could say the work of God’s Spirit); however, it happens behind the scenes and appears unremarkable—no signs, wonders, people speaking/interpreting foreign tongues, etc.

I believe God created this world in such a way that supernatural interventions are unnecessary since the daily interactions and circumstances were designed into creation according to God’s foreknowledge (Molinism). So miracles have only been used at certain points in history to confirm to us God’s will and involvement.

God poured out his Spirit on Jesus so Jesus could do miracles and the people would (should) know that he was God’s anointed one. He poured out his Spirit on the apostles and early Christians to confirm them and to mark the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant according to prophesies.