The Table Podcast

Understanding the Trinity

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Dr. Fred Sanders discuss the Trinity, focusing on how a biblical understanding of this doctrine affects the Christian life in a holistic manner.

Timecodes
00:15
Sanders’ work on the Trinity
00:36
The importance of the doctrine of the Trinity
04:52
How do we understand each divine person of the Trinity?
08:01
Do Christians believe in three gods?
0902
Understanding Trinitarian terminology
11:21
How are the divine persons related to each other?
17:42
How do the persons of the Trinity work together in salvation?
22:45
Doctrine, behavior, and emotions
26:32
How does the doctrine of Trinity affect the life of a believer?
28:14
God’s relationship to his creation
35:50
What aspects of Trinitarian theology are often overlooked?
43:35
Key Trinitarian Scripture texts
Resources

Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. New York: Cosimo, 2007.

Fred Sanders, The Triune God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016

Svigel, Michael J. and Nathan Holsteen, Eds., Exploring Christian Theology: Revelation, Scripture, and the Triune God. Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2014.

Horrell, J. Scott, "Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 3 (2004). 399-421.

Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And I my guest today is Fred Sanders, who is professor of theology at the Torrey Honors – is it the Torrey Honors Institute within Biola University? Do I have that right?
Fred Sanders
That’s correct.
Darrell Bock
Well and Fred is gonna help us negotiate our way through a topic that’s probably on the one hand very central to Christianity and oftentimes not sufficiently appreciated within the faith and that is the topic of the trinity. So, Fred, the first question we almost always ask on these podcasts is how did you get into this gig? What – where are you from, by the way, in terms of where you grew up?
Fred Sanders
I grew up in Kentucky.
Darrell Bock
You grew up in Kentucky so what’s a good Kentucky boy like you doing out in California talking about a topic as popular as the trinity?
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] Well, I had a Christian upbringing but I actually got saved in high school. And when I started reading the Bible for myself, I actually have the great advantage of having discovered the trinity there kind of reading Ephesians 1 as hard as I could. And I thought if this salvation is one thing, it must be worked by one God. But this long sentence here in Ephesians seems to be saying that the Father chose us and we’re adopted in the Son and the Spirit seals us so it sort of dawned on me and I made it up myself. And I thought I might have to start a cult with my new doctrine of God, but then I read around a little bit in Christian history and realized oh, this is actually normal Christian doctrine.
Darrell Bock
And so I take it drew your interest. Did you – have you been working on this through your seminary preparation, etcetera, or is this something you picked up after you went to seminary and started teaching?
Fred Sanders
No, this was late in seminary. I went to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and late in that process I sort of really started working on the doctrine of the trinity and have never looked back.
Darrell Bock
Okay so what did you work on at Asbury?
Fred Sanders
I got an MDiv over there and by that time I knew I wanted to teach theology so, yeah, pretty much the trinity. You know, you have to start specializing to go forward in scholarship and I sort of resented that. I didn’t want to specialize. I saw the need for division of labor. I knew you couldn’t read everything, but I kind of wanted to try. [Laughs] So I picked the doctrine of the trinity because it’s such a large doctrine. You have to be a little bit good at every element of the theological disciplines in order to really handle the trinity well.
Darrell Bock
And I can tell by looking at the background that we’re looking at in your office that you do read in your spare time. [Laughs]
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] Yeah.
Darrell Bock
So let’s talk a little bit about the trinity. You walk into an audience and someone says to you, "Tell me the most basic things I ought to know about the trinity and what – and a beginning step on why it’s important” and what would you briefly tell them?
Fred Sanders
Well, my No. 1 thing that I always do is connect the trinity to the gospel, not in the sense of saying you have to believe in the trinity in order to be hearing the gospel, but to explain the gospel in such a way that it just naturally makes sense that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the one God behind the gospel. So I would start with all kinds of biblical sentences like the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Darrell Bock
Yeah and I actually think this is a very underappreciated part of the gospel story itself. I happen to be teaching today in Acts 2 in a class I do on Acts, and there’s no more Trinitarian chapter about the nature of the gospel. The plan is the Father’s. It’s executed through the Son, who mediates the blessing. And the one that is mediated is the gift to those who receive it is the Spirit. So you couldn’t be more Trinitarian than that.
Fred Sanders
And I try to teach it that way in a way that people feel the impact of it and are satisfied in a certain sense to say if you were to ask what is God in himself like if you try to think of this triune structure of God and ask what can I compare that to? What’s it like? I really hope people don’t mainly go for interesting analogies or distracting comparisons but they say you know what the eternal God is like? He’s like the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, the trinity is like the gospel.
Darrell Bock
Okay so you kind of got at another question that I have, which is we spend a lot of time trying to sort of for lack of – I’m gonna use the technical term here – the ontology of the godhead and trying to figure out the relationship between the persons. And certainly that was a major discussion and even preoccupation of theology in the early centuries of the church. But part of what I’m sensing from the stuff I’ve read that you’ve written is an emphasis on the connections both within the personhood or the Trinitarian character of God as well as the connections to us, almost the relational dimensions of how that – the reality of the trinity impacts us as people and the way in which we interact with God. Is that a fair distinction to be making or am I overdrawing it?
Fred Sanders
No, there’s something to that. What I’m always trying to get behind and make progress on is the idea that people have that the trinity is some sort of – the doctrine of the trinity is some sort of strange factual information concerning God that he at some part leaned over the ramparts of heaven and told to us verbally. And then if we’re good at receiving revelation and believing it, we would just write it down and say okay, duly noted. Apparently, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And then all sorts of questions come up. What’s that got to do with me? What’s that like? All the sort of questions people ask that they can never be quite be satisfied with any answer to. I always want to emphasize that our knowledge of God’s triunity is bundled with the fulfillment of salvation. The God the Father promised to send the son and the Holy Spirit. And when he did, that’s when the revelation of the trinity shined forth so clearly.
Darrell Bock
You make two other points in writing about this that I think are important to lead off with. One is the association or the idea of the trinity with the idea of mystery and the idea that it’s something that almost had to be revealed in order to be perceived. Again, fair characterizations of the things that you’re trying to say about the trinity?
Fred Sanders
Yeah and I think with mystery everyone is used to talking about the doctrine of the trinity as a mystery, even a revealed mystery. God made it known but we can’t utterly comprehend it or get our minds around it. The main thing I do with that is look at the biblical word “mystery”. And in biblical usage, especially in Daniel and in Paul, it has to do with something that used to be kept secret. It was always true but it was once kept secret and now in this time of fulfillment has now been made known, so a mystery in the Bible has a chronological structure to it. And even when it’s been unveiled, it’s got this abiding mysteriousness about it even when it’s an open secret.
Darrell Bock
And so I mean Revelation is about the unveiling of something so that certainly fits the background of the terminology and I think many people wrestle with the question. And in fact if you go into a world religions context and you talk to a Jewish person or a Muslim, they’ll say, “Well, you Christians, you really believe in three gods” so how do you unpack that kind of an issue and that kind of a problem?
Fred Sanders
Yeah, well, it’s important to step up and say no, we don’t believe in three gods. Trinitarianism intends to be a version of monotheism. Now I understand if other monotheists think it doesn’t count as monotheistic. But it’s important to point out that we’re not trying to set up some kind of compromise between monotheism and polytheism. We don’t think – some people say there’s one God. Some people say there’s lots. We split the difference and say there’s three. No, trinitarianism is a concrete form of monotheism. It’s biblical monotheism that takes account of Christ and the Spirit.
Darrell Bock
Okay so and, of course, technically there’s a huge controversy. I don’t want to spend time getting into this, just allude to it, but that is a huge controversy about the appropriate terminology to connect to the persons of God within the godhead and the way in which they’re related to one another. What’s your kind of way into that conversation?
Fred Sanders
Do you mean just the word “person” and whether it’s appropriate . . . [crosstalk]
Darrell Bock
[Crosstalk] Yeah and “homousian” and some of those terms.
Fred Sanders
Yeah. Yeah, well, as we’re reading the Bible, it becomes clear that there’s something in God that is one and there’s something Threeness that we have to account for. You know, trinity’s just a fancy Latin-derived word for Threeness. And I sometimes wish that when we talked about the trinity, we would instead talk about the Threeness and then we can then have a debate about what is the Threeness of God? When Jesus is baptized in the name, singular, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there’s a Threeness there in the formula he gives us. And the Christian answer to what that Threeness or trinity is it’s a Threeness of persons in the one being of God.
Darrell Bock
And, of course, this got worked out in core creeds and, what, in the fourth and fifth centuries I guess of the early church and really has not been significantly altered since.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, that’s right. We usually look at Nicea in 325 and then the Creed of Nicea from 381 where the key statement is that the son – because it was initially a dispute about the status of the Son of God, not as the incarnate one but eternally in himself. Was he of the same essence as the Father or of a different essence than the Father? And that word “homousios” or in Latin “consubstantial” that’s the affirmation that if Jesus is made – if the Son of God is made of stuff, it’s not other stuff than the Father is made of, right. Now “stuff” is kind of crude language for the divine essence, but that’s what it comes down to is, is whatever God is, is Jesus that or something else?
Darrell Bock
Okay so that’s kind of the technical ontological side of things, which we have covered extremely briefly, but I want to move onto the more relational elements. And first I want to talk about this interaction that takes place within the godhead between the Father, Son and Spirit because I think that aspect of things is something that has come to be more talked about more recently in thinking about the doctrine of the trinity. And it’s something to appreciate because it ends up forming the basis, I think, for how God then relates to that which he creates and the creation. So let’s talk a little bit about that. How do you articulate the internal relationship between the persons and the godhead?
Fred Sanders
Well, you have to start with the complete equality and co-eternity of the three persons, that they stand together equal in ranking and in majesty and glory and power. And basically anything you want to say about the divine essence, about what God is, each of the three persons fully has that. They don’t have smaller versions of it. They’re not each one third of it so that it adds up to one God. But each of them is – all of those omni attributes: omniscient, omnipotent, etcetera.
Darrell Bock
Now, one of the discussions that comes up, of course, is the way in which the Son and the Spirit for lack of a better term I’ll say respond to the Father. And so sometimes you get a discussion of at least language that is associated with subordinationism as you think about the interaction of the persons within the trinity. And very, very recently there’s been a lot of discussion about that element of Trinitarian reflection. Help us a little bit negotiate that space. What’s that discussion about and how should we view those kinds of conversations when we think about the Son or the Spirit being in submission to the Father or there’s discussion or debate about whether there’s subordination or not?
Fred Sanders
Yeah, well, there’s just a ton of recent writing on this and a lot of controversy and I think a lot of confusion. Here’s the bright line or the obvious through line to kind of help keep your perspective on it. If you ask what’s the difference between the Father and the Son and you say well, the Son was sent and became incarnate, took on human nature. You say no, no, before that. Why was the Son – why did the Son become incarnate and not the Father? You say well, the classical answer is that the Son was sent by the Father into salvation history because from eternity in the very being of the life of the living God, the Son is the one who is from the Father. He has a fromness relationship to the Father. The Father’s not before him. The Father’s not older than the Son. They’re co-eternal and yet the Son is from the Father and not vice-versa. The Father’s not from the Son. They are of the same essence and one is of the other.

That doctrine classically confesses eternal generation, has proven to be a satisfying resting place for the Christian mind to say well, that’s the distinction. That’s the difference between Father and Son. And then, of course, you can add the Spirit and say the Spirit is from the Father in a different way than the Son is from the Father and . . . [crosstalk]

Darrell Bock
Yeah and the son in that configuration, I take it, is seen as the one who mediates the Spirit to the creation if you will if you want to put it in those kind of terms. So that’s a functional distinction as opposed to a distinction in being. Is that a fair way to describe it or does that oversimplify it?
Fred Sanders
Well, it is certainly not a distinction in being. Otherwise, we would not be dealing with one God.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Fred Sanders
Whatever we might want to say about the relations among Father, son and Spirit, we have to maintain the unity of essence and of power and of majesty and of glory. All that has to – and eternity. All that has to remain intact and then we can talk about relations within that. Classically the only relation within that that the Christian tradition has wanted to talk about is a relation of origin, of generation and spiration or procession.
Darrell Bock
Okay so the son proceeds from the Father and then, of course, there’s a debate. I’m not sure we want to get too much into this, but there’s another debate that involves the Spirit’s relationship to both of them, which is been another part of this conversation. And this conversation – show you how simple it is – lasted centuries. [Laughs] It wasn’t something that was decided overnight.
Fred Sanders
Yeah and just in terms of the difference between the centuries-long discussion and the later, the more recent discussion, I would go back maybe as far as the 1970s. Maybe you could push it back to the ’60s. At some point as Christians and our own generation have tried to think through this and talk about it, they’ll offer words, new words like “function” or “role”. And I often when I hear people talk about the trinity and really try to think about it earnestly, they’ll say “Maybe the Father and Son have different roles.” And they’ll say it as if it has some sort of revelatory power like oh yes, roles and people nod their heads and say roles.

I’m left kind of looking at the Bible and the tradition and saying I don’t know what “role” means. I don’t know where to map that onto the classical Trinitarian grammar. I know there’s eternal generation and that the Father sends the Son to save us because in the internal life of God the Son is eternally of the Father. I don’t know what to do with roles or functions or any of that newer language. I’m open to hearing how it would fit under the classical model, but I don’t see what lifting it does.

Darrell Bock
Okay and it may be that we’re still early enough in that conversation that that hasn’t entirely sorted itself out.
Fred Sanders
It does seem that the people who have really pushed that language have, when directly challenged and confronted about it, have moved their position around a little bit and seen a need to modify it or clarify it.
Darrell Bock
Okay so that’s kind of the overview. Let’s move in the direction of what this means once God begins to act in his creation because we’ve talked a little bit about who he is in his essence and the Threeness and the way in which they are described in the Bible and in the tradition to relate to one another. Let’s talk a little bit about what this looks like in the creation so how do you articulate the value of the trinity as we think about salvation history. And I think I have in mind here some chapters that you’ve written on this that are – that discuss the way in which the Father, Son and Spirit work together in relationship to the program of salvation.
Fred Sanders
Yeah because we have sort of a revelation of the life of God as a living God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, when we look at salvation history, we see that same thing sort of mapped out. There’s a Trinitarian structure to the way God works salvation. There’s also the salvation although it’s clearer in salvation history because salvation is in some ways more personal, profound or goes deeper into communion with God so that the Father planned salvation, loves, chooses, organizes, ordains. The Son carries out salvation, is the one who becomes incarnate, and the Holy Spirit is the one who fulfills, yeah, I’ll just say fulfills.

There’s a really helpful image that Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century theologian, used of the Father’s two hands with which he does everything. Now, it’s a crude image in some ways, right. God doesn’t literally have two hands. The Son is not one of his hands, but the idea that everything God does the Father does through the Son and Spirit is a really helpful way of getting into Trinitarian ways of thinking.

Darrell Bock
Yeah and, of course, one of the major roles that the Son, gets attributed to the Son is he mediates the salvation. He’s the one whose activity forms the basis for being able to enter into salvation. He’s the one who mediates the blessings that come of salvation. The picture I have in mind here, of course, is the very profound picture in Acts 2 where the promise comes from the Father mediated through the Son and the gift is the Spirit. And I actually think that we underestimate the relationship between the presence of the Spirit in the life of the person and the meaning and significance of eternal life. That we so focus on the cross and forgiveness that we forget that we don’t ask the question what is forgiveness for? Well, forgiveness is actually for providing a means of cleansing the person so the Spirit can in-dwell the person and be connected in a relationship, in an empowering relationship, in an enabling relationship with God so that you can now walk in his ways. I think we sell that very short.
Fred Sanders
I think that’s right. There’s a sense in which the son and the Spirit are kind of always deferring to each other in our salvation. So in one sense the son accomplishes the salvation and then the Spirit sort of shows up to help by applying that accomplished salvation, and you kind of see the Spirit serving the work of the son there. But in the way you just described, there’s a sense in which all the work of the son to cleanse the temple of humanity is to make way for the Spirit to move in and in-dwell it.
Darrell Bock
That’s right and, of course, the roots of that come in the promise and hopes of new covenant, the idea that I’m going to forgive sins and either put the law on the heart of people or think about being a circumcision not with hands or think about being sprinkled clean so I can put my Spirit in you. All those are – all that’s Old Testament language looking forward to the realization of this period that we’re talking about.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s odd to talk about the work of Jesus Christ as being a means to an end and we might want to be careful how we phrase that. But I think it is the case that the atonement is a matter of clearing the deck for the fulfillment in the work of the Holy Spirit.
Darrell Bock
Right. Yeah, there’s a very famous passage in Luke 3. I like to point this out and Luke is the only one who frames this passage this way. It’s Luke 3:16 and it says the crowd was considering whether John the Baptist might be the Christ and his answer is “Not me. I baptize with water, but one coming after me. Not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He’s gonna baptize you with Spirit and fire.” And so really what John the Baptist is saying is the way you’ll know that the promise has arrived, the Messiah’s here and the new era is dawning is when the Messiah brings the gift of the Spirit, which in the rest of the New Testament is very clearly interpreted as the gift of life.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, nice.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well, let’s turn our attention to the trinity and I want to talk about the trinity and how it impacts Christianity and helps to bring a balanced faith. But to do that I think I’ve got to do some groundwork. So you have a discussion at one point in some of your writing where you discuss what you call “head Christianity” which deals with notions, “hand Christianity” which I think you attach to the idea of volition, and “heart Christianity” which talks about emotions. And I take it you’re talking kind of about where the stress is in these particular manifestations of the faith: one dealing with the doctrine, the second, hand Christianity, dealing with behavior, and the third heart Christianity dealing with emotions. Talk about the strengths and weaknesses of Christianities that are working through one of those three H’s.
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] Yeah, well, ideally these are emphases. Everyone ought to have a little bit of all of them going on. But you can find varieties of Christianity that are really sure that if you get the doctrine right, everything else will be okay. And even if it’s not okay, well, at least you’ve got doctrine right and that’s the main thing. And, you know, if you travel a little bit in Christian circles, every now and then you’ll run into one these sort of head Christians who discovers in one way or the other that there’s an emotional impact of Christian faith that can transform their feelings and bring them into a felt sense of intimacy with God, and that’s a great renewing thing. It’s wonderful when someone crosses one of these lines and discovers more of what’s available in Christ.

But often they’ll describe it as “Oh, I found the secret. This is the answer.” And then they’ll start kind of evangelizing or proselytizing other head Christians to try to turn them into heart Christians. And, of course, people work back and forth across the lines. Someone who grew up in a merely emotional form of Christianity suddenly discovers serious theology or even apologetics and says “Hallelujah, this is it. All my life I was just a heart, but now I’ve learned that there are things to know and understand.” Similarly with the hands or action, especially for justice and service in the world.

When I’m teaching the doctrine of the trinity, I’ve got to be very careful going into it that I don’t commend the doctrine as filling one of those three things. What I’m trying to say, following Henry Scougal borrowing a phrase from Henry Scougal’s book The Life of God in the Soul of Man is that with a Trinitarian view of the gospel, we’ve got the life of God himself moving into the structure of the human soul. And that’s where I say that head, hand and heart that’s really we’re talking about the human soul there. That’s kind of a tripartite way of talking about what happens in the human soul.

So rather than looking for the trinity in one of those or even in adding up three of them, what I’m trying to say is God moves into the human person, so the life of God in the soul of man is what we encounter when we experience the God of the gospel.

Darrell Bock
And you see – now I’m putting words in your mouth. If I’m not doing it well, let me know. And you see God manifesting himself in all these areas and not prioritizing one or the other but more integrating the three. Is that – would that be a fair way to characterize what you’re after?
Fred Sanders
I think that’s right. Ideally that’s what ought to happen because what you get if you lift your eyes to God himself instead of trying to locate the truth about God in one of those zones of your soul and realize it’s not about my soul. My soul will be renewed when I get a little bit of leverage on this and God himself moves in. So it ought to be the kind of leverage or the kind of outside fulcrum that would enable you to actually be renewed in the heart and in the head and in your hands.
Darrell Bock
Okay, now I’m gonna ask you a horrible question and I’m gonna label it as horrible before I ask it and that is, okay, so how would you articulate the difference having a robust doctrine of trinity makes for the Christian. In other words, where does it show itself in significant and powerful ways?
Fred Sanders
Well so here’s the thing. There’s a real temptation when you write a book to say that it will change absolutely everything, not just that the trinity will but that buying my book and reading it will change everything. So I try to avoid that kind of advertising language about it and try to catch myself when –
Darrell Bock
Okay, we’ll offer a 20 percent discount as we talk about it. [Laughs]
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] That’s right. I try to avoid that temptation. And mainly what I think I’m trying to communicate about the trinity is that to understand it can bring you to a deeper awareness of what you are already experiencing in Christ. So over and over what I’m trying to do is take something that’s in your Christian experience and show you that if you reflect on what it really is and why it’s there and how it works, you’ll hit the trinity. That is anywhere you dig in an evangelical Christian life you’ll strike Trinitarian gold. Even if someone’s view of salvation is fairly narrow or thin, if they just think “I heard that if I believed in Jesus and trusted him, I wouldn’t go to hell. I’d be forgiven.” Okay, that is true and there are reasons why that is true. And so not telling you that you’re wrong but saying that if you dig a little deeper into what you’ve got, you’re gonna find out all this works because the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit to bring about our salvation.
Darrell Bock
Now, the thing that I consistently hear as both I read what you’ve said and listen to you is this highlighted – I don’t know how else to describe it – this highlighted relational dimension that both exists within the godhead and then from the godhead extended in grace towards the creation. Something, you know, and of course when I talk – teach the New Testament, we talk about things like the fruit of the Spirit. I love to point out how relational that – those attributes are, that we’re not talking about things described in abstraction. But they really are designed to reflect the fact that we’re engaging with the creation, with other people in a healthy way that reflects the character and the ways of God. Is that relational heartbeat, am I hearing that right?
Fred Sanders
Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean it’s … this starts with a fundamental intuition based on scripture that the life of God is greater and richer and fuller and deeper than the ideas that we bring to it and the kind of projections we make toward it and then to come into an encounter with that God through his stated means and through believing in Christ and the gospel, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And the encounter of this person who has, for lack of a better description, depth because there is Father, Son and Spirit opens up the richness of what this relational encounter with God can be.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, there’s the phrase in the Old Testament where God says, “I will be your salvation.” Or the psalmist responds, “The Lord my God is my strength and my song and has become my salvation.” It’s a really striking phrase on Old Testament terms. It’s not – God doesn’t say “I will make your salvation” or “I will arrange or delegate your salvation” or “I will cause your salvation.” He just directly posits himself as the answer to our need and says, “I will be your salvation.”

In the New Testament what we get is the opening up and the revelation of what that really means that the Father will send the Son and the Spirit and what’s always been going on in God – Father, Son and Spirit – is opened up in the gospel for our experience so that we can come into alignment with it so that God will be our salvation in this exact way trinitarianly.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, I like to say that when we talk about salvation, it’s not a matter of receiving something or avoiding something. Sometimes when we hear the gospel presented, it’s like well, the good thing about salvation is I’m not going to a very warm place for a very long time. [Laughs] No, it’s actually about gaining someone. It’s not about gaining something. It’s about gaining someone. And the reconnection with the one who made you in his image to reflect who he is and what he’s about and to – with a calling originally to manage the creation well out of a skill set that he provided for us because he made us in his image where life is about a healthy kind of stewardship, if I can say it that way, that honors and keeps that creation in connection with each other. That’s really a very fundamental piece of what we’re supposed to be all about.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, in the book I talk – in the book Deep Things of God I talk a little bit about emphatic evangelicalism, the idea of emphasizing something. I think it’s part of the evangelical genius is to pick things and emphasize them so they can be communicated clearly and popularly.

The thing about being emphatic is you have to – you’re selecting one element to really put in front of people. And let’s say it’s trust Jesus for forgiveness so you miss hell and hit heaven. I’m all for missing hell and hitting heaven, but if you only emphasize that and neglect to ever mention or make felt all the fullness of the Christian reality that’s behind that, what you end up with is a real sense of shallowness, narrowness, emptiness. And you forget oh, just because I’m emphasizing one element doesn’t mean I’m neglecting the rest of it. A knife is not all about its cutting edge. It’s also about the heft behind it.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, I think that’s fair. The interesting thing about the conversation when you frame the gospel in terms of heaven and hell is that the risk is I think you miss the relational dimensions of what it means to walk with and know God, that all I’m concerned about is the destination point. Of course, when you get to the destination point, there’s a little bit of a lingering period you’ve got to deal with that also is about relating to God in the context of an eternal future, so that’s never gone.

But when you flip it and make the emphasis the relational dimensions of what it is to be connected to this God, there’s a power and an enablement of you, etcetera, and emphasize and highlight these relational dimensions that we’ve been talking about. All of the sudden the destination’s there but it recedes in the light of the quality of what it is that you gain in this walk with God that emerges as a result of what it is that he’s given you and why he’s given you his Spirit. He’s given you his Spirit to bring you into union with him. I think you use the phrase in some of your writings “soul union” which I think is a nice way to put this.

And to emphasize, I mean, one of the key doctrines in the Pauline letters is the idea of being in Christ. There’s this placement that you have and this relational dimension. “Adopted son” is another key metaphor that picks up the same thing and adds a family image to the whole picture. All these things are designed to show the intimacy and access as well as the provision that God gives us.

Fred Sanders
Yeah, I think that’s right and anyone of those places is, again, one of the things where you could dig deeper there and you would get to the underlying logic of Trinitarian theology if you say well, what Christian life really is being adopted as sons. I think a lot of people use that language and think it’s pure metaphor, you know, that God goes from treating us as merely creatures to treating us as if we were some sort of adopted offspring. And I think well, that’s partially true but there’s a depth under that that you really need to get to, which is the eternal son became the incarnate son so he could die the death to trade places with us and that we could be adopted sons in that son. Our sonship is embedded in his sonship, which was eternal, goes all the way back and was made open to us for our salvation at great cost to God who bore the cost personally.
Darrell Bock
Yeah and if we use the picture of the gospels, something like the prodigal son picture, then there was a relationship that was severed, if you will, that’s been recovered through the return and the provision that’s made, which is the motivation at least in Luke 15 for why. Jesus explained, “This is why I take the initiative in this regard. This is why I reach out to those who are lost and who are sinners because I’m in the business of recovering something that was lost and that was originally designed to be.”

Well, let’s – we’ve got about ten minutes left. Let me ask you a couple of other questions and of which the first is so what are some of the things about the trinity you like to talk about that generally don’t get highlighted, I mean, beyond some of the things that we’ve already covered. I mean I guess I’m asking if I missed anything, but what are the things you like to highlight as we think about the trinity?

Fred Sanders
You know, if I’m guest teaching in a church or a setting like that and I’ve only got a short amount of time, if I’m only gonna be there once, I want to try not to do any malpractice or introduce any dysfunction in my one guest time there. I’ll generally start with prayer and worship that is by teaching about the Trinitarian nature of prayer and worship, that we come to the Father not in our own names or by our own rights but that the Christian approach to God is an approach to the Father mediated through the Son and empowered by the Spirit and that anytime you’re worshiping God whether you’ve got a Trinitarian thought in your head or not, if you’re a Christian worshiping God, there’s a Trinitarian reality going on there. That is to say, you know, we drive our cars around and don’t necessarily think about what’s under the hood anymore but –
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I don’t meditate on pistons when I’m stepping on the accelerator.
Fred Sanders
That’s right. You’re thinking about the up-and-down motion of that accelerator and not what’s happening under the hood. Nevertheless, internal combustion in a controlled way is what is making it all go. And I want to say that whatever you happen to be thinking about in worship, what’s really making it work is that you’re approaching the Father on the basis of the son in the power of the Holy Spirit. So then the invitation is to know that and to have your act of worship be an actual conscious participation in that Trinitarian mediational structure.
Darrell Bock
And a gratitude that is expressed to the entirety of the person of God as that’s taking place.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, yeah.
Darrell Bock
So that –
Fred Sanders
That can also –
Darrell Bock
Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Fred Sanders
I was gonna say then I can also work out into actual individual acts of prayer where your mind and your thoughts and your words are involved. As an expert in the trinity who visits widely in a lot of churches, I hear a lot of sort of terrible prayers from a Trinitarian perspective.
Darrell Bock
Okay, tell us what those sound like.
Fred Sanders
Well, you know, the ones I’m talking about. They’re something like “Thank you, Father, for loving us so much that you would die on the cross for us” or “Thank you, Jesus, for sending your son to save us.” I mean you hear these things and I kind of want to blow a whistle and say everybody out of the pool. We’ve got a heresy here.
Darrell Bock
So you do have a tilt button. [Laughs]
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] Yeah but I don’t, of course, because I try to be polite.
Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] And I’m a guest in those settings. But I also think there’s something healthy going on where somebody is mentally making kind of a journey around the persons of the trinity as they think about God and his salvation and they just haven’t updated their sentence. I think if you could stop them and ask them the right set of questions in the right order like if you ask them do you think God the Father died on the cross, they would say “No, of course not.” Then you could play the tape and say well, you actually said that in your prayer.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Fred Sanders
We go on a journey in our prayer. Prayer is a journey into God. And when you start by thinking about the electing level of the Father, you begin by speaking to him. And oftentimes people mentally move onto the next phase or aspect of what salvation is and don’t take the time to actually get their grammar and their sentence correct. I’d love to have it all be correct. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
Yeah so when we pray that prayer, what kind of things should we be praying?
Fred Sanders
Well, here’s the thing: Also when I’m a guest in a church, I used to spend most of my time saying don’t worry. There’s not a magic formula for prayer. I’m not telling you that your prayers haven’t been working if they haven’t been explicitly Trinitarian enough. You can pray to the Father or the Son or the Spirit, whatever you want to go there. But then at some point I decided, you know, the New Testament pattern is actually very clear that the theologically correct way to pray is to pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. And so I began teaching that as normative and then making allowances to say, you know, the rule is you can talk to any person who is God so you got three options there.

But I think when I started teaching people that the right way to pray, the biblical pattern is clearly demonstrated and if you want your prayers to be biblical rather than not so biblical, you would talk to the Father. Jesus said, “When you pray, say Father and say that because of him in the name of the Son.”

Darrell Bock
Yeah, you’re free. In fact I think it’s interesting to think about this that you’ve got the address to the Father certainly is the example Jesus gave us in the Lord’s Prayer. You’ve got the closing that’s very, very common particularly in evangelical circles that we pray in the name of the son or in the name of Jesus or however you want to express that portion of it. And then there’s this wonderful phrase in Romans 8 that’s sitting in the background that the Holy Spirit groans for us as we pray in expressing even what we aren’t consciously capable of expressing as we engage in prayer. And so I think that threefold imagery helps us get the pieces right, if you will, of what it is that you’re talking about.
Fred Sanders
Yeah, I think that’s why though you can pray to the son and you can pray to the Spirit and we can talk about that. But the reason it’s more powerful to pray to the Father in the name of the son and Spirit is that then your prayer is mapping onto the actual Spiritual reality that’s happening. We’re actually coming to the Father because of the son as empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Darrell Bock
Okay so you’ve talked about worship. You’ve talked about prayer. You have any other areas where you think the trinity, the discussion of the trinity really helps us think through aspects of our walk?
Fred Sanders
Well, I mean, so this is to go back to the Bible and to treat Bible study as part of our walk. If I’m teaching in a church where I don’t think the people are real big Bible readers, then I’ll teach one way because I think this might be most of what they get with regard to clear teaching on the trinity. But if I’m teaching in a church where I know people are reading the Bible as part of their daily Spiritual discipline and they’re gonna be in the text, then I have a different set of strategies because then I know I just have to point out some key markers of where they’re gonna find Trinitarian notes in scripture in general the kinds of places those are gonna be.

You know, if you ever take a walk through the woods with a trained naturalist, you might walk through the woods on your own and say well, it’s beautiful here. I wonder why some of these things are like this. But someone who’s really knowledgeable about it biologically will tell you, “Well, those trees are like that because the hillside is like this. And these bushes are like that because the prevailing wind patterns go like this, and underground here here’s what’s going on.” Well, the next 20 times you walk through there you’re gonna say I see all the same trees, but I see them differently now because I have a better understanding of why all this is here.

I try to point out the sorts of phenomena that you’re gonna find in passages of scripture. And I can just be totally confident that God’s on my side there and the Bible’s on my side. And reading the Bible on your own then can be a real treasure hunt for the Trinitarian riches that are there that we do often overlook.

Darrell Bock
And I’m gonna close by kind of asking this question. If you were to think about – this is another bad, horrible question.
Fred Sanders
[Laughs] I’ll try to give you a horrible answer.
Darrell Bock
[Crosstalk] The two or three passages that might be some of the most powerful Trinitarian texts we could think about, what would be on that list?
Fred Sanders
For the salvation historical matrix, I would go with Galatians 4:4-6 “In the fullness of time God sent his son and sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts crying Abba, Father.” That really gets for you the structure of how God worked out salvation.

John 1:1-3 really gives you the grammar for unity and distinction in God that the Word was both with God and was god. You can go around that about 100 times, and by the time you’ve found satisfaction with it, you can say okay, there’s unity. The Word was God. There’s distinction. The Word was with God.

And then maybe one that really takes you deep into the Christian life might be the closing benediction of 2 Corinthians. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. You know, Paul ended a lot of his letters with the grace of Jesus Christ, but he decided he had to go longer with the Corinthians there in the second letter, and he gave them this full Trinitarian benediction.

Darrell Bock
Well, I think that’s a great place to end. I thank you for taking the time to kind of walk us through the trinity, Fred. I wish you well in your ministry. We thank you for being a part of our conversation today, and we thank you for joining The Table and being a part of our discussion. We look forward to seeing you again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Fred Sanders
Fred Sanders is a systematic theologian who studies and teaches across the entire range of classic Christian doctrine, but with a special focus on the doctrine of the Trinity. He teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
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