Essay / Theology

Seismic Retrofit Apologia

“When the people in the pew ask the pastor to explain the Trinity, they do not want clever analogies or carefully worded creeds. They want to know what Scripture says about the Trinity.” Carl Beckwith says this in his book The Holy Trinity (Luther Academy, 2016, p. 113), and he’s exactly right. Beckwith goes on to lament the modern relocation of the Trinity: the doctrine has shifted its place from the world of Bible commentary, where it long made its home, to systematic theologies. Beckwith’s excellent book does its part to move the doctrine back into the territory of Biblical exposition.

Wanting to do my part to encourage more and better Trinitarian reflection from exegetes, I devoted at least one chapter of my book The Triune God (in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series, 2016) to explaining some of the opportunities and challenges of trinitarian exegesis. As a systematic theologian doing work in the field called dogmatics, I tried to reach as far as I could across into the territory of Bible scholars. For me, it’s an interdisciplinary move, a Macedonian call from systematics to Bible scholars, asking them to come over here and help. Many have done so, and I remain optimistic that many more will.

But other readers have also read these sections from The Triune God, and have sometimes got hold of them by the wrong end of the stick. The strangest reading, in my opinion, has developed among a few anti-Trinitarians who have taken my work as some kind of admission that I think the Bible does not teach that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Imagine my surprise! But indeed, a florilegium of quotes from my book has begun to circulate in anti-Trinitarian discourse, being presented as evidence that even some “Trinity defenders” admit that the doctrine is biblically weak.

I’ve duly noted but then resolutely ignored arguments like these, because (a) they’re not widespread, (b) my energy is better spent honing my craft as a catechetical theologian than engaging in disputes with people I’m unlikely to persuade, and (c) they seem to be based on a shallow reading of what I wrote, and it’s unseemly for an author to just keep insisting over and over that people should go back and read what you actually wrote. Even when it’s true, it’s a tiresome form of argument.

But recently I was tagged in a surprising conversation on Facebook. The string of quotations was posted, and one reader summarized it as an admission from me that the doctrine of the Trinity has no exegetical foundations left. This was once again presented as cause for concern. That’s not the surprising part; I was in the act of moving on when I saw a name I recognized: pastor Sharad Yadav. Sharad is with the Bread and Wine community in Portland, and we’ve met at a theology conference. Sharad, in a remarkably friendly and respectful way, began explaining what each passage actually meant in context, and how each of them should be interpreted within the argument of my whole book. As I read Sharad’s replies, I moved from appreciating his understanding, to admiring his powers of explication, to wishing I had explained all of this in the book as well as he explained it in Facebook comments! And not wanting such good explanations to fade away into the social media ether, I asked him if I could post them more permanently here. He said yes, so here they are. I’ve edited out a little bit of the Facebook back-and-forth format because it makes for choppy reading, though I kind of wanted to include it because Sharad was unfailingly polite and even cheerful in his greetings and interpersonal connecting. The next voice you’ll read here is his:


These quotes above really don’t give me any cause for concern, because it seems to me like they’re simply not being understood. At all. Whether deliberately or [not], they’re being completely contorted into a prior agenda alien to the actual contexts of each quote. Maybe [Sanders is] wrong about every single claim in the following, but those claims aren’t even being understood in order to be refuted:

“In short, the Trinity is not so much in Scripture as Scripture is in the Trinity…the doctrine of the Trinity is more fundamental and more comprehensive than the doctrine of Scripture.” (Triune God, p. 90)

On page 90 Sanders has been developing an argument that the doctrine of the Trinity is contained in the historically communicative act of God in the missions of Son and Spirit and biblical reflection on the ways that the logic of salvation is worked out. His concern is to ground any scriptural reasoning about those acts of God in the acts of God Himself rather than in the scriptural reporting about them (a move famously made by Barth). And he says that priority is reflected even in theologians that predate or otherwise wouldn’t accept Barth’s neo-Orthodoxy, which is why you get Sander’s summary of B.B. Warfield’s view on page 90, namely that Scripture AS A REPORTING OF THE ACTS OF GOD is contained inside the acts of God themselves (i.e. in Father sending Son sending Spirit, with the logic of salvation being the Spirit uniting us to the nature of the Son which unites us to the nature of the Father).

“And the definition of a biblical doctrine in such unbiblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture.” “If forced to choose, the theologian would have to choose the truth of Scripture rather than the words of Scripture.” (Triune God, p. 157-158)

On pages 157-58 Sanders is trying to point out, again, in a figure as conservative as Warfield, that our priority in understanding Scripture is in what it MEANS not what it SAYS. This distinction between the words of Scripture and the meaning of Scripture is recognized one hundred billion different ways by people who say “yes, it says to wear head coverings but what it means is honor your husband; what it says is not to wear gold in your hair, but what it means is don’t distract in worship by drawing attention to your extravagant clothing” etc. etc. etc. And in literally the next paragraph he says: “Yet Trinitarian theology could not actually advance along some hypothetical path that departed from the actual words in the text of Scripture. Theology should at least keep itself on a short tether connecting itself to the words of Scripture.” No, he’s not talking about the creeds over against Scripture. He’s talking about the meaning of Scripture vs. the words of Scripture (or as some philosophers of language might put it, the “locutionary form” of Scripture vs. the “illocutionary act” of Scripture).

“Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity stands today at a point of crisis with regard to its ability to demonstrate its exegetical foundation. Theologians once approached this doctrine with a host of biblical roofs, but one by one, many of those venerable old arguments have been removed from the realm of plausibility. The steady march of grammatical-historical exegesis has tended in the direction of depleting Trinitarianism’s access to its traditional equipment, until a prominent feature of the current era is the growing unpersuasiveness and untenability of the traditional proof texts that were used to establish and demonstrate the doctrine.” (Triune God, pp. 162-163)

“A great deal of the assured results of modern scholarship in this area simply must be accepted, even when the result is the partial removal of the traditional way of demonstrating the exegetical foundation of Trinitarian theology.” “…The overall trend of sober historical-grammatical labors has been toward the gradual removal of the Trinitarian implications of passage after passage.” “Many arguments that once seemed foundational to Trinitarianism no longer apply.” (Triune God, p. 163-165)

On page 162-165 Sanders is spelling out the obstacles to demonstrating the Trinity from Scripture, but he said just a page before “In contemporary intellectual culture, the full evidential weight of Christian faith in the triune God must fall on Scripture.” What he’s doing is explaining the shift in modern biblical interpretation that RADICALLY shifted the way biblical arguments work because of a way of reading Scripture that people simply didn’t do before the modern period. The modern way of reading Scripture, he thinks, is deaf to the premodern ways in which texts actually work. This whole section is about examining the history of interpretation and how the way people read texts changed in different periods, leading people to favor prooftexting and piecemeal approaches following Reimarus and biblical criticism. In other words, you can’t prove the Trinity by using the same atomistic approach that selected these quotes and fallaciously assembled them as some kind of admission that the Trinity isn’t in the Bible. Instead, the way he says the texts should be read is with constant zooming out and zooming in, going back and forth between parts and the whole, trying to understand the logic, patterns and pressures texts and their ideas exhibit and how they affect the whole. From that, he says, you can see that the texts raise questions of the relation between Father, Son and Spirit which they’re not always interested in answering. The subsequent centuries sought to answer them in ways that made sense of those tensions and questions. But the whole POINT of this section is to say that these modernist “historical-grammatical” approaches to Scripture are incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

“The service that systematic theology can provide in the present state of disorder is not to do the exegesis itself, nor to dictate in advance what the exegetes are required to find.” (Triune God, p. 177)

If you caught the argument above, you’d see the point of the quote on page 177 – namely that systematic theology is supposed to expose the background assumptions of our reading of Scripture, to frame the STRUCTURES OF THOUGHT which are appropriate to a faithful reading of Scripture. Again, reading the next sentence or two helps. “But the theologian can draw attention to the larger structures within which the exegetical laborers might do their skillful work.” Systematic theology is necessary for exegesis because it prosecutes the interpreter’s claims to “neutral objectivity” and attempts to formulate our approach to Scripture according to structures of thought in accordance with the larger patterns, questions and pressures of Scripture itself. It’s a hermeneutical circle.

“After the tectonic shifts of biblical criticism, Trinitarian theology is due for some seismic retrofitting.” (Triune God, p. 180)

The quote on page 180 is a great example of using the words to deny the meaning, since what Sanders is saying is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of what is being implied here – namely that Trinitarian readings of Scripture are somehow determined to go on believing no matter what and reading their prior beliefs back into Scripture, inventing proofs to make it work. Here’s the whole quote: “We all have many beliefs; some of them are true; some of those are justified. A belief can continue to be true during the phase when a thinker has rejected one justification for it and is casting about for another. The thinker cannot demonstrate its truth during this phase, but that is the whole point of pursuing convincing arguments. Buildings that have always stood firm can, on inspection, be found to have less than optimal support, and undergo seismic retrofitting without ever coming down. After the tectonic shifts of biblical criticism, Trinitarian theology is due for some seismic retrofitting.” What is being retrofitted? BETTER ARGUMENTS than the ones provided by prooftexters beholden to historical-grammatical naivete generated by the advent of biblical criticism in the 18th and 19th C.

“Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity laid out on the table and being made a matter of doctrinal reasoning and formulation.” (Triune God, p. 186)

The quote on page 186 is absolutely what I believe and why I have a more foundational problem with the ways anti-Trinitarians read the Bible. Yes, we don’t find the doctrine of the Trinity (or the atonement, or creation, or salvation, or the church, or eschatology, or ANY significant synthesis of Christian thinking) “laid out on the table” as a matter of doctrinal reasoning and formulation. Because that’s just not how the Bible works. The authors are not interested in doing that. This isn’t a devastating admission. He’s been arguing why it doesn’t work that way for, like, the whole book. He goes on to say:

So is the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament or not? “In so far as a doctrine is an answer, however fragmentary, to a problem, there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. In so far as it is a formal statement of a position, there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament.” If “doctrine of the Trinity” means the word Trinity, that does not appear in Christian writing until the second century, in authors like Theophilus (trias) and Tertullian (trinitas). If it means the philosophical method of adjusting the various truth claims to each other within a comprehensive framework, that does not happen until Irenaeus and Origen. If it means the set of technical terms that grow up around these basic moves (person, essence, etc.), that is a much more extended conversation with semantic shifts occurring in each usage over the course of several centuries . . . Taken together, the material, the patterns, and the pressure are enough to support a bolder claim that we can find a doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. Of course, having said this, we must distinguish it from the elaborated form that Trinitarianism took on in the developing tradition of Christian doctrine. That form of the doctrine, with its panoply of technical terms, summary judgments, and philosophical distinctions, is obviously not in the New Testament. But a doctrine of the Trinity is. To say less is not to say enough. As long as “the sense of Scripture is Scripture,” and the sense is present in its raw material, its patterns of reflection, and the pressure it exerts, there is such a thing as biblical Trinitarianism. (Triune God, p. 186-188)

TL/DR – Honestly, it’s hard to take any discussion of the book seriously when posts like the above so badly misrepresent the author. There’s a hundred things about these biblical, theological and hermeneutical claims that Sanders is making that might be up for some really fun debate, but first there has to be an attempt to understand them, and I don’t see that here at all.

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