A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)
Brad East’s Review of Fountain of Salvation
I was glad to see a review of my 2021 academic book Fountain of Salvation: Trinity & Soteriology appear in one of the liveliest of theological journals, Pro Ecclesia; even more glad to see the review is by Brad East, a keen-eyed observer well worth hearing from; and even even more more glad glad to find the review so very positive about my work.
But beyond those gratifying (to me) elements of the reading experience, I think it’s the best book review one of my books has received because by the end it definitely rises to the level of talking not just about the book, but about the very things the book talks about: Trinity and salvation.
Brad does some careful observation and description of my work, locates it among some other recent studies, and then ends the review with the suggestion that the kind of work represented by my book is “best understood as the provision of resources, to pastors and scholars both, for the preservation and transmission of the doctrine of the Trinity in stable and determinate continuity with historic Christian teaching: patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern.” This is well said: preservation, transmission, stable, continuity. We hear a lot these days about retrieval and recovering “classical” doctrines; there is even a kind of intellectual churn in which retrieval projects have postured as the next big thing. I’m all for it; I have indeed retrieved stuff and fully intend to do so again, classically. But Brad’s way of describing this as “the provision of resources” for continuity is especially apt. “Let me outline a few of these resources,” he offers, and then he delivers these three killer paragraphs:
First, Sanders wants to show why Christian claims to knowledge about God ad intra are essential to claims about God ad extra. Though he approves of Calvin’s axiom that “God, to keep us sober, speaks sparingly of his essence,” he does not interpret it to mean that we should limit our gaze to the economy. For if the economy is the work of God, and if the economy reveals not just what God does but who God is, then God precedes the economy absolutely: “There is more to God’s life than the saving of creatures.” This precedence is ontological, a sheer fact, and in turn grounds the gratuity of the gospel: “Hypothetically, and counterfactually, God would be God without having freely taken on the administration of redemption; though thanks be to the God of salvation, we have never known a God who prescinded from saving, who withheld his sovereign covenant faithfulness to his uncompelled and unexacted promise.” In a word, “The God whose story is told in the Bible is the God who is caught in the act of rescue” (p. 89). Yet even the glory of this rescue is no match for the perfect beatitude that is its source and end. God is God in God’s acts. But God’s acts take us, by God, to be with God. And to be with God, face to face, is beyond compare—even with God’s own mighty works in this world.
Second, the temporal missions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit have their ground in the eternal processions of the same from the Father. Their comings in time are suspended from, projected by, or rooted in their relations of origin in eternity. This is but one way to conceptualize the previous paragraph’s point. But Sanders argues not only that this follows necessarily from healthy trinitarian doctrine; he insists that this is the Bible’s own teaching. Not that St. Paul or St. John had subsistent relations in mind when they wrote; not that the Cappadocians were reading for the biblical authors’ original intent. Rather, as Sanders puts it, “it takes the whole Bible to make this point” (p. 134). “The doctrine of the Trinity is,” in this sense, “a conceptual foregrounding of the entire matrix of economic revelation” (p. 49). Ergo, “Christians read the Bible as the book of the Trinity, or we don’t read it at all. If the canon of Scripture is not the coherent book of the Trinity, it is not really itself.…The two-testament canon, in other words, is wrapped around the salvation historical advent of the Trinity in the Father’s sending of the Son and Spirit” (p. 150). There are important implications here for Christian exegesis. As the quote with which I began above observes, the last two centuries have not been kind to traditional ways of reading the Trinity in Scripture. Biblical critics and modernist hermeneuts—but I repeat myself—view patristic and medieval and even much reformation interpretation of the Bible as an irredeemable mix of pious fiction and willful fraud. Sanders judges some of these criticisms valid; others, not. But he is not just thinking of secular scholars. He also has in mind the extreme biblicism regnant in some evangelical quarters, a biblicism that, absent proof texts for (say) the eternal generation of the Son, disgorges the doctrine without a second’s thought. On both sides, then, Sanders sees a worrying hermeneutical constriction. Through and beyond the strictures of modernity, he is hopeful that the church, led by her pastors and teachers, can emerge with a newly strengthened mode of responsible theological reading of the Bible as God’s word: to wit, as the living word of the triune God.
Third, the revelation of the God of Israel as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the events running from Annunciation to Pentecost is an act of identification: it identifies the God of the gospel as this God and no other. Sanders quite charitably takes this lesson from Robert Jenson, with whom he otherwise has serious disagreements. As Sanders writes, “The doctrine of the Trinity serves to identify God by the gospel, or to specify the identity of the God of Christian faith. It does so primarily by insisting that God is the author of two central interventions into the course of human history, the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit” (p. 29). In a lovely synthetic moment, Sanders draws the pieces together:
picture the rise of the church’s confession of trinitarian doctrine as the result of reading the full canon of Scripture left to right, Old Testament to New Testament, and then pursuing the question, “If these promises, and this gospel, go together and are true, what must we say about who the one God is?” If we say he is the God of the Bible’s gospel, we have to say he is the One God who gave his Son because he has a Son—there is no Sonless God. He sent his Spirit because he has a Spirit—there is no Spiritless God. Commitment to the gospel of the Bible’s God leads to praise of the God of the Bible’s gospel. (p. 134)