Book Review – The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything
In The Deep Things of God, Dr. Fred Sanders has taken aim at what he describes from the outset as an elusive target within modern evangelical Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity, he argues, has been uprooted from its deep historical foundation within the church’s emphatic teachings and tragically, has fallen into neglect and even misplaced and ignored. What Sanders is calling evangelicals back to through Deep Things is an awakening to not only our Trinitarian heritage, but also to the Trinitarian foundation that continues to undergird our current faith and practice today. His overall goal is “not a change of emphasis but a restoration of the background, of the big picture from which the emphasized elements have been selected” (19). Furthermore, Sanders says that when we can manage to refocus the lens of our faith to its proper Trinitarian strength, we will “change everything in our theological understanding” (45).
From the introduction to the final chapter, Sanders goes out of his way to emphasize that he is not being novel in teasing out a Trinitarian thread from historical evangelicalism, but in fact is highlighting what has long since been acknowledged and esteemed. However, as he points out early on, evangelicals have in recent years fallen into two problem areas when it comes to how we view the Trinity. First is that for too long we have been implicit in our acknowledgement of the Trinity vice explicitly emphasizing its significance, and second, that evangelicalism has grown very shallow in its teachings across a broad range of doctrines. These two factors have combined to create one bigger problem for evangelicals, namely, a small and even distorted view of the gospel. Nevertheless, Sanders believes that the remedy for this lies not in external sources, but deep within our own evangelical foundation of belief.
The structure of the book is set up in such a manner as to accommodate the excavation of this foundation. In the introduction, Sanders addresses his use of a broad brush with the label “evangelical” and the emphatic nature of evangelicalism, but more importantly he makes his first attempt in describing the framework for why this topic matters. The doctrine of the Trinity does not exist outside of Christianity as some secondary and mysterious issue, but in fact forms the very core of the gospel itself.
With the main argument in mind, Chapters 1 and 2 open the topic by way of a bit of stage-setting in addressing how Christians are already immersed in the doctrine of the Trinity whether they realize it or not. Sanders argues that we do not need to seek out new information on the Trinity; instead, as followers of Christ, “we need only to reflect on that present reality and unpack it” (28). Chapter 2 explains why it is important for Christians to know that the Trinity is at work on a magnificently larger scale within the “happy land of the Trinity” than merely in their own lives. The broader point he makes is summarized by “God minus the world is still God the Holy Trinity” (63). His argument is that understanding this will have far-reaching implications for the way we view God’s completely unmerited act of free grace in salvation. When we are able to think rightly about God and the Trinity, which means from a “center outside ourselves,” we begin to see the ultimate canvas of God’s freedom on which the gospel is painted (82).
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 make up the core component of the book by tackling exactly how the trinity and the gospel relate to each other, i.e. “the Trinity is the gospel” (98). By describing first the gospel’s size, then shape, and finally the Christological nature of our salvation, Sanders attempts to present the gospel in its true God-given Trinitarian dimensions. In looking at its size and with the premise that “a true account of the thing itself will have to start with the living whole,” it quickly becomes clear that the evangelical aperture needs enlarging (111). What this means is that instead of merely being about the moment of conversion, the gospel is “God-sized, because God puts himself into it” by becoming our salvation in order to “worship the God of the gospel” (117).
The shape of this action, which Sanders refers to as the “economy of salvation” is defined by God the Father extending himself through God the Son as a means of reconciling us to himself by the initiative and outworking of God the Holy Spirit. This economy is of great significance when we view how we are literally adopted into sonship through the “two hands of the Father” (159). Furthermore, keeping Christ properly situated in his relationship to Father and Spirit is central to seeing him in truth. Sanders summarizes concisely by saying “the Father puts all the blessings of salvation onto the incarnate Son, and the Spirit unites us to that” (173).
The final two chapters are practical in nature and describe how a correct orientation and application of the doctrine of the Trinity play out in both the personal reading of the Bible and praying. Sanders puts forth both of these activities as strong components of evangelical church practice but argues they are in need of a proper Trinitarian treatment. If understood as ways to commune directly with the Trinity, these two practices can help restore our faith to its proper Trinitarian depth.
While in large measure, Sanders has preempted many expected responses to his points, there are a couple of areas that need addressing. For instance, in the first chapter he argues that our approach to the Trinity as evangelicals should be one of immersion into Trinitarian reality. This sounds promising, but he then submits that we should accomplish this not by studying doctrinal truths, but by experiencing the reality (33). The argument is convoluted in that Sanders seems to want to explain deep things without deep words, or any words at all for that matter. He states, “the doctrine of the Trinity is not, in the first instance, something to be constructed by argument from texts” (33).
I understand him to mean that we have to be brought into the gospel and thus the Trinity as born-again believers in order to have something more than an academic awareness of this 3-in-1 mystery. Yet he goes on to say that we should first “recognize as Christians we find ourselves already deeply involved in the triune life and need only to reflect rightly on that present reality” (34). How then are we to reflect on reality without knowing truths about the reality? Again Sanders states that what is needed is an approach “to the doctrine of the Trinity that takes its stand on the experienced reality of the Trinity, and only then moves forward to the task of verbal and conceptual clarification” (34). Ultimately, it seems as though he is declaring that Christians must be Christians in order to even begin thinking rightly about the Trinity.
Also, in an effort to get at the “primal” nature of God, Sanders goes out of his way in guiding us behind the foundation of the world. His point is that when we can imagine God eternally existing within the perfect triune relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit and without adding creation or redemption (his acts) to our thoughts of him, we are more likely to get a clearer picture of his ultimate and unhindered freedom in carrying out those acts. Sanders states, “thinking away the world, makes it obvious that God didn’t have to make a world” (64).
He certainly did not have to, but he did. So while this is surely a worthy exercise and my point is probably more philosophical than doctrinal, if we begin to linger behind the curtain of creation as Sanders suggests, we may run the risk of inadvertently challenging God’s character. More precisely, we may begin to forget that God has granted a double gratuity in creation and redemption. Sanders does well to stress the canvas on which God paints his actions, but when we minimize God’s acting, we minimize his character, because he is a God who acts.
The book The Deep Things of God has truly been a blessing to me this semester. I am not currently in formal ministry in the sense of on staff at a church, but I view my daily life with my family and coworkers in the military a mission field in itself. Within this context and on two different occasions, I have had the privilege to share with others direct gleanings from this book. On a personal level, I said to my wife recently that this book has been one of the most helpful I have read in quite some time with regard to how I think about a certain doctrine.
Fred Sanders desires to launch evangelicals back into the once familiar depths of our Trinitarianism heritage. If his endeavor with this book is successful, “the doctrine of the Trinity can and should subsequently recede from the foreground of our attention, back into the background” (19). And O’ what a background it is! The importance of having a clear picture of where the gospel came from and where it is transporting us to cannot be overemphasized. When we as Christians stand firm on gospel truths as we should, our feet rest solidly on Trinitarian footing. I will be recommending this book to friends and family with the highest of commendation.
Fred Sanders is the type of theologian you should follow on social media. Always pithy and willing to converse on subjects, he has a rare talent for packaging his thoughts in such a manner as to leave them lingering in your mind well after an interaction. Dr. Sanders is currently an associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University where he has been teaching on a wide range of Christian doctrine, though focusing specifically on the Trinity, since 1999. He has authored several other books including Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, The Image of the Immanent Trinity, Dr. Doctrine’s Christian Comics, and most recently, Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. His educational background includes a BA from Murray State University, an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and a PhD in Systematic Theology from Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California.