Full text of the talk: The Trinity Is Not A Problem with Dr. Fred Sanders.
Does the Trinity contradict? Was it invented at the council of Nicea? In this discussion, Dr. Fred Sanders, author of The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, addresses these questions and other top questions about this unique Christian view of God.
SEAN MCDOWELL: Does the Trinity hopelessly contradict? Is it an example of how pagan thought has creeped into the church? Is it necessary to believe in the Trinity to be saved? And does belief in the Trinity have any practical application for my life or your life today?
Our guest today, Dr. Fred Sanders, is a colleague of mine at Biola University, and one of the leading experts on Trinitarian thought. He’s the author of a book called The Deep Things of God, How the Trinity Changes Everything. Fred, it’s great to have you on. This is long overdue. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
One thing I’ve never asked you in our conversations is why have you committed so much of your professional life to studying the Trinity?
DR. FRED SANDERS: Yeah, it’s good to be here, Sean. You know, it’s a good question. When I discovered theology, you know, I originally started out as an artist, and then when I found out there was such a thing as theology, I just fell head over heels in love with it, just can’t get enough of it. And as you go further along in graduate education, you have to specialize. You can’t do everything.
So I, you know, resenting the need to specialize, I thought, what’s the thing I could study that sort of requires me to study everything anyway? You know, it’s going to have me have to be sharp at philosophy and know my church history and be able to do biblical interpretation and understand how it applies spiritually. And so the doctrine of the Trinity has just been that for me.
SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s interesting. I didn’t know the backstory in that. Now, let’s start with kind of what you might call certain low-hanging fruit, so to speak, the kind of questions that you get asked, and then as we work through this, we’ll get tougher and tougher questions.
But the word Trinity is not in the Bible. Why believe in the Trinity when it’s not even explicitly mentioned in Scripture?
DR. FRED SANDERS: Yeah, well, it’s a good distinction between what’s explicitly stated or summed up in a single word as opposed to what’s taught in the Bible throughout Scripture, but without the technical term.
So yeah, when you make that distinction, there’s no requirement to be an Orthodox believer in the Bible. There’s no requirement that you use the T-word, you know? And if someone asks, if someone asks, is the Trinity in the Bible, and they literally mean, is the T-word in the Bible, well, that’s a short answer. Just get a concordance, you know? And no, the word is not there. But it’s that distinction between a concept being taught or a truth being established as opposed to the one word for it.
The one word is super handy. I think it might’ve been John Calvin who said, you know, I use extra biblical terms like this to specify what I mean, specifically because it saves so much time. It concentrates a broad teaching of Scripture down into a single word.
SEAN MCDOWELL: So the word is extra biblical, but the concept is not extra biblical.
DR. FRED SANDERS: Yeah, and I don’t want to push this too far, but when we say Bible, of course, we’re referring to the Old Testament plus New Testament canon of Scripture. The word Bible doesn’t occur in the Bible, right? As something that points to that particular canon of Scripture. But it’s a very useful word, because I say it and you know what book I mean.
SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s excellent. I like that. A term I often use is aseity, which means God’s self-existence is taught in the Scripture, but the word is not. So we’re talking about the concept. Okay, good.
Now I’ve heard different debate about this. Some say that Tertullian first used the word Trinitas, obviously kind of late second century, maybe early third century. Is that true? Or when was the first time this term starts showing up referring to God’s character as being Triune?
DR. FRED SANDERS: Yeah, good question. It does show up around the year 200 in Tertullian, who uses that Latin word Trinitas. A nice thing about the Latin word is you can tell that it’s kind of an abstract word. That is, it doesn’t mean three, but it means something like threeness. And so it’s one thing to talk about three, but it’s another step back of abstraction to say, I don’t mean three, I mean threeness. You can get how that’s like an abstract category. So every language is talking about three all the time, but when do you have the occasion to talk about threeness? Tertullian does that right around the year 200. He also comes up with the formula: ONE SUBSTANCE in THREE PERSONS. So he just nails it all right there in North Africa, you know, end of the second century. It’s really great.
Of course, now in Greek, you would say something like trios and one of the Greek apologists, maybe 40 years before that or 30 years had already used trios in that sense. And while we’re doing the language thing, I got curious one time about the first occurrence of the word Trinity in English. English is a relatively young language globally speaking, compared to things like Latin. I found it in an Anglo-Saxon homily way back in the — around a thousand or something like that or 800, I don’t know.
But the thing is the Anglo-Saxon word, you know, old English proper for Trinity is threeness. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that right, because I don’t really know Anglo-Saxon, but you can just look at the word and say, oh, all it says is threeness. So the first occurrence in English of the word Trinity, it comes into our language just as the word threeness, because that’s what it means, right? Not three, but the threeness of the one God.
SEAN MCDOWELL: Okay, so anybody sitting here going, there’s no way you spent all this time to track down the first English version or use of the Trinity. I say, look behind the man, look at all the books that he has. He is a nerd just like I am, but you even have more books. This is part what we professors do.
Now, I’m curious, Christians seem to differ over this, whether or not the triune character of God is explicitly or implicitly taught or hinted at in the Old Testament. What’s your take on the Old Testament view of the character of God insofar as we mean God being Triune?
DR. FRED SANDERS: Yeah, it’s a great question. And when I teach the Trinity, so I’ve got a bunch of books on the Trinity in here, and a lot of them start with the Old Testament and then move forward to the New Testament, and they do a lot of good things. The problem is that the evidence for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the one God in the Old Testament is the least clear evidence. And I think the reason is that this is sort of need-to-know information. It’s always been true of God, that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.
But until the Father sent the Son, and the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, it would have been just sort of like an abstractly interesting thing to know about God. Until God puts it into action for our salvation, it doesn’t become sort of like insider or need-to-know knowledge. As a result, you can go back to the Old Testament and find all kinds of really interesting phenomena, like who is the Angel of the Lord? He’s not just any old angel. He’s some kind of messenger of the Lord who, he is God’s presence, but he seems to be sent from God in some way where it’s not just God showing up. Word of God and wisdom of God are, they sometimes seem like personified attributes of God, but then they seem like more than that.
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