Trinitarian theology has always fascinated me, primarily because the subject seems to find a way of connecting to every other subject under the banner of theology. It would seem that to do Christian theology is to do Trinitarian theology. Secondly, the city that I live in has a large number of people who hold to “Oneness” theology (United Pentecostal) and I’ve discussed the subject with a great deal of Evangelicals who have been rendered speechless by the accusations made by those who hold to the apparent modern expression of the ancient heresy known as Modalism (Sabellianism, Monarchism). Those are big words for some, but you’ll see why this matters soon.
Enter Fred Sanders, at times a hilarious communicator and a very engaging writer who knows well the power of words. While being an active blogger at The Scriptorium, he also serves as a systematic theologian and professor at Biola University (Torrey Honors Institute).
Sanders starts the book off with an intriguing quote. He writes,
“The doctrine of the Trinity has a peculiar place in the minds and hearts of evangelical Christians. We tend to acknowledge the doctrine with a polite hospitality but not welcome it with any special warmth. This book shows why we ought to embrace the doctrine of the Trinity wholeheartedly and without reserve, as a central concern of evangelical Christianity.” (p. 7)
The Trinity, according to Sanders, is of a central concern. Yet many Christians have given the impression that if a person does not fully ascribe to every jot and tittle of every nuance of orthodox Trinitarianism, they are probably going to hell. This theological pressure is not only found within the bounds of those who hold to the doctrine of the Trinity but is probably the most often used method of those who hold to Oneness theology to interact with Christians in order to have them abandon the doctrine of the Trinity. To this, Sanders makes an excellent point when he writes,
“Heavy-handed theological pressure like that is about as helpful, in the long run, as tying shoelaces tighter to make up for a bad-fitting shoe.” (p.8)
For Sanders, many Evangelicals are “shallow and weakly Trinitarian” (pp. 11-13) even though they would, in his opinion, fare well at an “imaginary ecumenical Olympics” in the area of Trinitarianism (pp. 21-21). In other words, “Evangelicals are profoundly Trinitarian whether they know it or not” and “reality comes first, and understanding follows it” (p. 27). This is where the book begins to take us on a journey through Evangelicalism and how the Trinity does change everything.
The book then begins to explore how a vast number of Evangelicals have been shaped by a rich appreciation (even when subconscious) for the Trinity. Included are the likes of Nicky Cruz, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, John Owen, J. I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, and more. In fact, Sanders even shows how Friedrich Schleiermacher, considered the to be the father of Liberal Protestantism, played a role towards influencing many to deemphasize the Trinity’s role in theological thinking (pp. 38-41).
Let me transition to the strengths of this book and then offer several mild criticisms.
First, this book should be read by everyone who claims to be an Evangelical Christian. Strong words, I know. As a pastor, I am going to recommend that everyone I know take the time to dive into this book. For me, the strength lies in how practically important this book is. It’s practical because it’s true and discusses the most important subject of Christian theology – God.
Second, this should be read by everyone who isn’t an Evangelical Christian. Again, strong words. But if those who held to Oneness theology would actually take the time to read a book that was written by a Trinitarian and for Trinitarians, perhaps they would stop with the straw man arguments and illogical circular discussions. I mean, how many times have I been told that Trinitarians worshiped three different gods? Too many to count, which is laughable at best and an evil misrepresentation at worst. For those outside of Evangelicalism (Catholics & Orthodox, specifically), this book will certainly contribute to their traditions too.
Third, Deep Things offers some of the most reflective thinking on Nicky Cruz and the role of the Trinity in his life, ministry, and writings that I’ve ever found! And this coming from someone who (a) really enjoyed the story in Run, Baby, Run as well as being in the denomination that was a major part of his and David Wilkerson’s ministries. Seeing how the Trinity worked into the salvation and ministry of a past gang member was really interesting.
Fourth, Sanders should be commended for expressing in the most practical and, for me, the most influential sections of the book – how the Trinity plays a part in both the gospel and in prayer. Building on Piper’s concept that God is the gospel, Sanders writes, “This God who is the gospel is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit” (p. 125). For many, their gospel is simply too small. If our gospel becomes God sized, the gospel moves from just forgiving sins to empowering life transformation. He goes on to note that prayer is “to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit” and then creatively offers the following metaphor to help our understanding of this:
“The act of prayer has, metaphorically speaking, a grain to it. Prayer has an underlying structure built into it, complete with a directionality that is wroth observing. This grain is Trinitarian, running from the Spirit through the Son to the Father. It is a built-in logic of mediation, designed that way by God for reasons deeper than we are likely to fathom. But we do not need to understand it in order to benefit from its solid structural integrity. Nor do we need to take special lessons in praying in a properly Trinitarian fashion. The possibility of praying in a more Trinitarian way is all promise and no threat, all invitation and no danger. Christian prayer is already thoroughly, pervasively, structurally Trinitarian whether you have been noticing it or not. The only thing you have to add is your attention, to begin taking notice of what’s Trinitarian about prayer.” (p. 212)
Fifth, the book will make you want to read it again and again. In fact, I plan on rereading it now that I’ve been thinking on it.
So what are my criticisms, mild as they may be? Easy. The book has endnotes. I
despise hate loathe really do not like endnotes. It’s just really annoying to constantly have to keep one finger in the back of the book and constantly going back and forth. I wish Crossway would make a universal rule that they will not print books unless they are footnoted. In fact, endnotes should be illegal.
Secondly, I wish there were a chapter or section that would have adequately discussed Oneness theology and how Evangelicals can best interact with such thinking. Yes, I know, I’m being picky and criticizing something that is ridiculous to criticize because I could just as easily say that I wish he had written on the subject of glossolalia or what kind of movies Christians should watch. Sanders obviously had a reason for writing what he wrote and leaving out what he did. But I can dream, can’t I?
Thirdly, on page 58 he discusses worship and briefly addresses the realm of music. I would have loved to read more on this. The page left me hungry and desiring more.
By all means you need to get this book. Sanders will, Lord willing, continue to offer fresh and encouraging thoughts in the area of Christian theology and this is probably a great place to begin. I actually suspect that we’ll eventually see a Systematic Theology from this guy… at least we can certainly hope so. If he does write one, I’ll be the first to purchase a copy!