Fred Sanders’ new book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything doesn’t launch till the end of the month, but is already generating considerable buzz. More than a mere crowd-pleaser, Deep Things clearly demonstrates that Sanders understands not only what perplexed Christians want (and who doesn’t long to understand the Trinity in simple terms?) – he knows what they need. For an evangelical generation enamoured by The Shack and Joel Osteen, Sanders argues that both our neglect of the trinity and our aversion to theological detail is rescued by first realizing that the trinity is not a complex idea, but an immediate reality. We don’t need to be talked into the theory, he suggests, but shown that, as Christians, we are already deeply involved and shaped by the triune life.
While most approaches view the trinity as a doctrinal formula in search of an adequate analogy, Sanders suggests that this can be unhelpful:
“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. The principle is, first the reality, then the explanation. What goes wrong in so much popular discussion of the Trinity is that Christians approach the doctrine as if it were their job to construct it from bits and pieces of verses, arguments, and analogies. The doctrine itself seems to lie on the far side of a mental project. If the project is successful, they will achieve the doctrine of the Trinity and be able to answer questions like “why have three persons?” and “what is the Trinity like?”
But the right method would begin with an immersion in the reality of the triune God, and only then turn to the task of explaining. The words and concepts would then find their proper places in the context of a life that was marked by the recognized presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kind of teaching about the Trinity would not be a project of constructing a complex idea, but of unpacking a comprehensive reality that we would already find ourselves in the midst of as Christians.”
How do we break the evangelical jinx and go from a belief in the Trinity that simply doesn’t matter, to one that changes everything? By digging deeper into the Gospel itself. Sanders isn’t driving a wedge between experience and explanation, words and reality, but between what is explicit and implicit in our theology. Evangelicals, therefore, can embrace a deeper trinitiarianism, because the Gospel is trinitarian:
“anybody who has experienced the gospel and is living in fellowship with God is already living in the midst of a trinitarian reality. There’s no other way to account for the Christian life than to give a trinitarian account. For instance, to say that you’re saved is to say that the Father has adopted you as a son in the image of his only begotten Son, and has sent the Spirit of the Son into your heart. To pray to God is to come to the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. So these living realities of the Father, Son, and Spirit are already surrounding us as Christians. When we begin to understand them accurately, we begin to understand the Trinity…
I call that reality our tacit Trinitarianism, tacit meaning unspoken or unexpressed. When a person first comes to know God in Christ, they are already trinitarian without necessarily being able to express it. As they grow in their spiritual experience and, above all, in their understanding of Scripture, they ought to become articulate about it. Tacit trinitarianism is a rich, fertile ground, and it ought to bring forth understanding. If it doesn’t, something has gone wrong. You can get into a lot of trouble if you know something, but don’t know that you know it. You can stay lost for a long time, driving around the same landmarks but never assembling the big mental map that would get you home. I think the doctrine of the Trinity is that big mental map that locates all the doctrinal landmarks and shows how they go together.”