Fred Sanders is likely the best-known name in recent theology concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and rightly so. He has addressed the topic at the academic and popular levels, providing hermeneutical advancements and introductory treatments.1 His most recent book, Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology, serves to connect his work on the Trinity to the wider topics of systematic theology, specifically soteriology.2
The book is an effort in more advanced systematic theology to coordinate doctrines in order to refine the conceptual bounds and mutually informing input between the Trinity and aspects of soteriology. That point bears repeating because readers could easily come to this book looking for an exposition of how the Trinity accomplishes and applies various aspects of our salvation. The purpose of this work, however, is to look at how these two major doctrines, Trinity and soteriology, shape one another in ongoing dogmatic reflection.
In this respect, Sanders provides reflections in the tradition of John Webster (1955–2016) for how the Trinity and salvation are mutually informing categories. Webster was a prolific theologian, famous for reasserting the theological emphasis of academic theology. University theology had become entranced with theology in the vein of recent intellectual trends—e.g., feminist theology, liberation theology, etc.—focusing on how theology interacts with wider cultural concerns. Webster advocated theological theology, doing theology in order to explain God and his works directly rather than immediately trying to intersect theology with outside ideas.
Webster was also a master of coordinating doctrines. Most of his books are collections of essays rather than monographs properly speaking.3 These essays were what he often dubbed “working papers in theology.” In other words, he wrote in order to develop his thought towards a theological statement. When Webster died in 2016, tragically early, he had finally begun working on an actual multi-volume project in systematic theology. His prior essays, then, were not outlines of doctrines but were more endeavors in methodological posturing, working to see how theology was entirely a statement about God himself but then noting how other traditional Christian doctrines ought to shape our formulations concerning God so that we also account for all of God’s works in relations to God.
This excursus about Webster importantly informs this review of Sanders’ book because Sanders’ essays focus mostly on that same sort of methodological posturing that characterized Webster’s body of work. There are very few statements and defenses of specific doctrines. Rather, in the tradition of dogmatics as a discipline slightly distinct from systematics, Sanders takes traditional doctrines for granted and works to see how they refine our understanding of both doctrines.
Sanders has often argued that redemptive history is one of the key factors for interpreting the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet, he strikes a good balance by rejecting the idea that redemptive history constitutes the Trinity, along with any historicized version of theology proper, while still recognizing that the scope of salvation history provides a revelation of the triune God. More concisely, the divine missions reveal the divine processions.
Works like Sanders’ are emminently valuable but also invite further contributions along the same lines. Sanders is a master of trinitarian categories, deftly implementing and explaining them. The depth of trinitarian theology will prompt every reader unto greater thoughtfulness about how to coordinate their soteriology with a rich and traditional theology proper with all its metaphysical details and entailments. At the same time, the soteriological side of Sanders’ arguments is often less detailed. The trend in contemporary systematic theology, especially those focused on the recovery of classical theism, is to leave these details often more vague than their theology proper in order to enable readers coming from a variety of stances to appropriate the arguments within their understanding of salvation. Nonetheless, Sanders’ book ought to spark theologians to write more specifically about the intersection of trinitarian theology and their tradition’s view of soteriology. More particularly for this space, there is still much work to be done in drawing the lines from a growing body of essays about methodological posturing concerning the theology proper to how it informs the specific categories of Reformed theology, such as covenant, effectual calling, justification, sanctification, glorification, and ecclesiology.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1 Thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. for providing a review copy for this post.
2 Fred Sanders, The Triune God (New Studies in Dogmatics; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016); Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).
3 E.g. John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2016); John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2016); John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology Volume 1: God and the Works of God (London: T&T Clark, 2016); John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology Volume 2: Virtue and Intellect (London: T&T Clark, 2016).
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In doctrinal areas where Roman Catholics and Protestants agree, the Catholics have often done some fine work. One area of doctrinal agreement is the Trinity, and a Catholic work, just out, that I can recommend is “The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God” by Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2022), xvi + 715 pp. I’m sure you know about this work already, but I just thought I’d mention it.