Fred Sanders is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, La Mirada, CA. He received a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) in 2001.

Dr. Sanders discusses his book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

Edited transcript

Michael Morrison: Fred, thanks for being with us today. We’re glad to have you on the program.

Fred Sanders: Glad to be here.

MM: We’d like to talk today about the Trinity. You’ve written a couple of books on the Trinity, and I’d like to explore with you a little about the significance of this doctrine for the Christian faith. In some ways, it sounds like it’s just about God. There is three, there is one, and that’s about him. What’s it have to do with us?

FS: The doctrine of the Trinity is a statement about who God eternally is, and essentially is. The doctrine of God, in a way, is irrelevant to who we are. It’s not about us, but about God. Connecting that which is true (and is what the doctrine of the Trinity is) to the gospel (or the message of our salvation, and God’s tur­ing toward us, and being himself for us as the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit) is my life message. That’s the thing I’m all about, the connection between God and the gospel.

The Trinity is the doctrine of God. That’s important to safeguard. It’s not just about how God deals with us — it’s about how God would have been if there had been no “us.” It includes the doctrine of salvation within it, like the expansive biblical way of understanding the tri-unity of God, as the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit. If the doctrine of the Trinity were already a big doctrine to take care of as a theologian, it gets even bigger when you open it up to include also the message of salvation.

MM: It’s not just a thought experiment about somewhere “out there.” It has an effect on us today?

FS: Yeah.

MM: Historically, it’s been a big controversy. Many of the controversies in church history have been about the Trinity. Why is it a controversy?

FS: The main controversy would be the fights around the establishing of the doctrine of the Trinity. If you’re persuaded that it’s a biblical doctrine, as I am, then of course it was always there, as soon as the apostles began teaching and writing. For the church to come to the next level of clarity about it, as they did through the first few centuries of Christian thought, and classically jelling and coming together at the Council of Nicea, that was the main fight.

Christianity had gone along for some time trusting Jesus for salvation, and confessing the Lordship of Christ. In some ways, nobody had really asked the question of being. No one had raised the question about the essence of God. Think about even today: a normal Christian can go for a long time in a successful, productive Christian life, and never raise the more or less speculative question about, “What is the being of the Son of God?” That doesn’t naturally occur to everyone.

MM: They’re used to having a relationship with God, but not asking what’s God’s relationship with himself?

FS: Exactly. All the wonderful richness of relationship thought, and relational thinking, for all that’s good about it, can obscure thinking about “being” itself. You can go a long time in your Christian life being a good Christian, and not raise the question of being, but once you raise it, you’ve got to answer it the right way. It was raised in the early fourth century, clearly and explicitly and thematically, with a little philosophical help, and an answer was given by Arius, the priest in Alexandria… His answer was that the Son is of a different being than the Father. That’s the wrong answer. Once that wrong answer has been given, the right answer, once the question has been raised, must be given. The Son is of the same being with the Father. In Greek, homoousios, in Latin, consubstantial.

MM: The wrong answer actually helped produce the right answer.

FS: Right.

MM: How is it important for Christianity now, as the question basically was resolved at Nicea in 325? Is it still a live question?

FS: It’s still a live question, partly because the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God. It’s the biblical doctrine of God, if by Bible, you mean the whole Bible, Genesis to Revelation. Read the whole thing. Take a step back and ask yourself, what does this disclose to us about the eternal identity of God? The Christian answer is that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s the short answer. It’s why the early creeds have that basic Trinitarian shape as the most conspicuous thing about them.

Yet, it’s not stated clearly in any one passage of Scripture. It’s a vast, comprehensive synthesizing kind of a doctrine. You don’t get it clearly stated with all the details and particulars tagged onto it in any one place in Scripture. Jesus doesn’t show up and announce, “I come to you preaching the Trinity of God.” He preaches the kingdom of God. He does so in such a way that he is the one who has the authority of God and the proclamation of the kingdom of God, and he does it in the power of the Spirit.

When you look at that and think about it, you end up coming up with the doctrine of the Trinity. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity is not on the lips of Jesus, nor does Paul stop in the middle of a letter to the Corinthians and say, “Now concerning the eternal being of God in three persons, I would not have you ignorant.” There’s never a place where you get a chapter-length, Rabbi Paul treatment of this doctrine.

MM: He does, at the end of 2 Corinthians, have a three-part benediction. But he doesn’t use the word Trinity. Just talking about three things doesn’t necessarily mean these three are one.

FS: That’s right. Similarly, though Jesus doesn’t go from town to town preaching the message of the Trinity, the Gospel of Matthew has 28 chapters of a lot of teaching from Jesus, and the key events narrated in his life. It ends with a surprise ending: “Go and baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” — it’s stated in those terms. Not the Father of the Son, but the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit. That either is a bad ending for the Gospel…. “Who put that in?” (There’s no textual or critical evidence that it was added at any point. It’s got full textual integrity as belonging there.) You either think that’s a bad, weird ending for the Gospel, or you think, “The whole point of what Jesus was doing and saying naturally culminated in this statement by the risen Lord: of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the name of God.”

MM: Is Jesus saying, “I’ll take this a new direction,” or is he saying, “This is the direction I was going all along?”

FS: I like to think of it as the direction he was going all along, though that does get us to the fact that, when you’re dealing with the ministry of Jesus, and the New Testament witness to it, it is the turning of the ages. It’s the moment in the progressive revelation of God where all the promises reach their fulfillment, and a mystery is made known. A mystery that was kept secret from long ages is now revealed. There is something exciting about the New Testament as the point where that mystery is made known and reflected on.

MM: Jesus said, “After I’m resurrected, then you’ll understand” [see John 13:19]. There is this watershed moment at the resurrection, and this passage of Matthew comes after the resurrection, so he’s saying, “Now I can tell you what it’s been about.”

FS: Yeah, it’s not a total surprise, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that language. In Matthew 11 is a point in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is reflecting on the failure of his message. It’s an odd thing to talk about Jesus’s failure, but he’s reflecting on the fact that the word is going out, and it is not being received fruitfully. There’s lots of stuff there. Quotes from Isaiah, it’s the theme of that middle part. He talks to his Father about how God has revealed these things to babies, not to the wise and the educated. Then he says (This is right before he says, “Come to me you who labor, and I will give you rest.”), “No one knows the Father except the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father” [Matthew 11:27].

Some critical commentators say, “This is a bolt from the Johannine sky. Why is the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew talking like that? No one knows the Father, but the Son.” I think there are two reasons. One, the historical Jesus probably talked like that. You just don’t get a lot of the reporting of it in Matthew. Secondly, literarily, it sets up what’s going to happen in Matthew 28. Jesus is talking about the not-yet receivedness of his message. It’s a mystery locked up in God. No one knows the Father but the Son. No one knows the Son but the Father. The only way to get into that club, and get to know either of them, is to get an invitation from one of them.

We’re talking about how clearly the Trinity is revealed in Scripture. It’s interesting to me that, at that point, Jesus does not explicitly name the Holy Spirit. He says the Father and the Son. “No one knows the Father but the Son. No one knows the Son but the Father.” Then you have to wait another 17 chapters to get it rounded out, or filled out, with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

MM: There’s a new element in the proclamation.

FS: When it’s completed, yeah. When it’s fully made known… You could do neat things, like saying, How does one get in on this divine secret, if only the Father knows the Son, and only the Son knows the Father, how do you get in? The answer, unspoken in chapter 11, is spoken in chapter 28. It’s the Holy Spirit.

MM: When Jesus was there in person, it would be him, but now that he’s left, you need the Holy Spirit.

FS: Yeah, there’s some sense in which Jesus in the course of his ministry was sort of hogging the Holy Spirit. [laughing] There’s that sense in which the descent of the Spirit on Jesus in the Jordan was kind of a pre-Pentecost, or a down payment on Pentecost, or it was the indwelling of the Spirit in the one, in the God-man, that would then be vouchsafed to us in the completion of his work.

MM: Some of the church’s understanding of that came about as they began to understand that Jesus was God. What sort of person was it who spoke this, and who did this? That was what Arius was denying. He had the name “God,” but Arius was saying that Jesus wasn’t really the same God. What kind of evidence helped the early church come to a conclusion that Arius was wrong on that?

FS: Arius had a peculiar belief. We’re used to a “Jesus is either God, or he’s just a man” dichotomy, but Arius opened up a middle territory. He would not have said that Jesus was merely a man. He thought that Jesus was a highly exalted creature, kind of the ultimate creature, the creature through whom all other creatures were made. It’s a strange middle zone. It maps more onto the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses today than it would to someone who thinks that Jesus is a great teacher, but merely a man.

It’s tempting for me, as an evangelical, to go to the Bible and find passages which demonstrate the deity of Christ. I think they’re there. I’m spoiling to have that argument. I think I can win it. The early church fathers also knew those verses, and had lived with them, and could argue from them, and did argue from them in the debates around Nicene theology.

The real, crucial doctrinal breakthrough was when they argued that salvation itself was at stake in the recognition of the full deity of Christ. That is to say, let’s imagine that Arianism is true for just a minute. Sometimes when I do a thought project like this, I’ll switch chairs. When I’m teaching, I’ll go stand in another corner. I’ll say, “I’m going to spend five minutes explaining a damnable heresy here for a minute. This is not me talking as myself. I just want to do justice to it, and spin it out for you.” I did that after I saw some student notebooks where they wrote down everything I had explained as if I were teaching it.

I won’t move chairs here. Let me just say that if Arianism were true, the situation would be that the one high God, who is too exalted to be among us, sent this great creature, through whom he had made everything else, the Logos (not the eternal Word, but the very, very old Word), and that this mighty spirit being undertook salvation for us, suffered for us. If you step back from that and say, “If that’s the case, what kind of salvation was made available to us through the sacrifice of this other creature?” It raises all the problems that people tend to raise these days with regard to classic atonement theology. If Arianism is true, then God is punishing a third party for something between himself and the second party.

It also raises questions about what would that kind of punishment do? What would the experiences of this incarnate not-god accomplish? You could say it would accomplish some kind of salvation, just not the kind of salvation envisioned by the Christian faith.

To put it personally, if sin is, among other things, a personal problem with God, and we need to be forgiven and personally reconciled with God, then only God can do that. Right? It would make no sense… It’s an issue between us, this guy over here doesn’t have anything to do with it (even if this guy over here, the Logos, is somehow, in some sense, my creator, like if everything was created through him). It just gets into a strange mythological situation that doesn’t solve the problem that we’re talking about. We’re talking about personal reconciliation between God and humanity.

MM: That third party just doesn’t fit.

FS: Yeah. The doctrinal insight that if Jesus brought about salvation, and if salvation is what we think it is, then Jesus had to be fully God. It’s interesting that the breakthrough and the clarity of the doctrine of the Trinity, of confessing it well doctrinally, is also a breakthrough and an insight into the gospel. It’s not “we know what salvation is, but let’s talk about the being of God for a while, and anathematize each other over those kinds of things.” No, this insight into the nature of what Christian salvation is helped drive this greater clarity about who the Christian God is.

MM: Could you explain a little more about how that clarifies salvation? Is it what we’re saved from, or what we’re saved for, or how we’re saved?

FS: It probably has effects in all those areas, but I was just thinking about the personal character of salvation…. If we had other problems, we could have other solutions. If the human predicament were that demons were oppressing us, then God could have sent Michael the archangel to solve the human predicament and bring us salvation. We would call that salvation. We’re beat up by demons? God beats up the demons that were beating us up. Now we’re saved. But that’s not our problem. There’s demonic stuff happening, but that is not the root of the human predicament. The root of the human predicament is personal estrangement from God, and so only God can save us. He can’t sent Michael. He can’t empower us from within to solve our own problem. There’s all sorts of things that God will not do as salvation, because they don’t address what we need saving from.

MM: Since Jesus is our Savior, and only God can save, therefore Jesus is God. It’s not a proof-text approach, but more of an overview.

FS: Yeah. It gives you a commanding position from which to be able to view the proof-texts properly. You can go to passages that talk about the deity of Christ, and say, “That’s why it says that. That’s why John’s Gospel starts up in the stratosphere, because it’s going to talk us through the nature of salvation.”

It’s stronger. There is kind of a blind way of moving around proof texts in order to construct a doctrinal edifice. That has its weaknesses. When you get inside the doctrine and have some understanding about why it’s doing what it’s doing, most of the proof texts stay in place. You have a better understanding of why they’re there. It’s the difference between checking the boxes on something, and understanding why you’re checking the boxes.

MM: At the council of Nicea, the Holy Spirit wasn’t discussed much. It was mainly about Jesus. The Holy Spirit entered the discussion later, toward the council of Constantinople. How does the Holy Spirit figure into that same kind of reasoning, that they concluded that the Holy Spirit is God? Was that also because of his role in salvation?

FS: I think so. You don’t have a lot of this in the creeds themselves, so the creed of 325, the creed that’s actually at the Council of Nicea, just says, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s it. It was a very eventful 60 years or so between that and the second ecumenical council, Constan­tinople, in 381. There you get what we now call the Nicene Creed (which is actually the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, but nobody wants to say that, so we all say the Nicene Creed, and by that we mean the 381 creed), and it has a much fuller, robust theology of the Holy Spirit, especially with an eye on his divinity.

What does it say? You could just take the idea of Nicea, that the Son is of one substance with the Father, homoousios with the Father, and you could apply that to the Holy Spirit and say, “There’s God the Father, and the Son is homoousios with him, and so is the Holy Spirit.” For lots of reasons in the busy fourth century, there was a resistance to doing that. Negatively, politically there were groups within the church who weren’t sure about the deity of the Spirit when it was argued in that way, and the orthodox (Gregory Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea) and those guys (especially Basil) wanted to be able to build a consensus and say things that everyone could agree with. Gregory Nazianzus got mad about that and said, “You need to use the homoousios, or you need to be clear on the deity of the Spirit here.”

There might be a good reason for not doing another homoousios in the creedal language: it seems to make the Spirit sort of the next Son. It seems like, Take all the decisions you made in Christology, and port them over to pneumatology… Some of it is transferable. The Son and the Spirit are both God. But if you use the same exact creedal, doctrinal language about it, it obscures the difference of the Holy Spirit, the distinctness.

In the Nicene Creed, we end up with, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord…” You move this heavy, divine name for the one God and put that in the Holy Spirit’s category. “…and the giver of life.” Wonderful biblical theology. The Spirit is the one who gives life, “…who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” “Lord and giver of life” clues you into the fact that there’s a similar soteriological motive for the inclusion of the Holy Spirit in that argument.

Here’s how I might describe that doctrinally: It’s not just that God the Father and God the Son incarnate worked out a transaction of salvation between them which somehow gets applied to us in some human way. The inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the soteriological argument means the application of redemption is also a divine act, without which we couldn’t have the gospel as we understand ourselves to have the gospel.

MM: You said that they wanted to maintain the distinction of the Spirit as different from Jesus. Why is that difference important? If they’re all God, why have this distinction, or why is it important?

FS: You could ask that question about the Father and the Son as well. If they’re all God, why have the distinction? Some people ask, “Why did God make it hard? Why not have a simple theology?”

MM: Well, because he’s up there, and Jesus is down here…

FS: Yeah. Then with the Holy Spirit in particular, it’s important to recognize the distinction between them, because if you’ve got a Father-Son distinction, and then you loosely or sloppily lump the Holy Spirit into that with some parallel language, you get the deity of the Holy Spirit, but it comes at the cost of not attending to his hypostatic distinctiveness, to his personal particularity. Bluntly, you could end up with “God and Sons.”

If it’s just parallel, there’s the Father, and his Son, and his other son who’s not a son, but is a Spirit for some reason… If you have that, a number of problems result. One is we’re Trinitarian, and we’re Christo-centric, and those things shouldn’t be in tension with each other.

We’re focused and centered on Jesus Christ, the God-man incarnate. We do that in a way that doesn’t de-centralize the Trinity, right? We’re centered on Jesus, who is centered on the Trinity. There’s only one way to the Father. There’s no way to the Father, except through the Son. Well, if the Spirit is simply a parallel other son (who we don’t call a son for some reason because we know better), it seems like he could be another way to the Father, and they all get along and everything, and it’s all one happy triangle. Still you would have that problem of the Father. Should I get to him through the Son, or through the Spirit? That would be a problem.

MM: Very interesting. Thanks very much, Fred. We look forward to seeing you again.

FS: Thanks, Mike.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 11:45 AM