Theologian Clears Up Misconceptions About the Trinity, Avoids Analogies

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(Photo: Biola University)Fred Sanders, professor of theology at Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University

Though many Christians tend to create analogies to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity (think ice, liquid, vapor), one expert avoids comparisons altogether, calling them "distracting."

"If you try to think of this triune structure of God and ask what can I compare that to? … I really hope people don't mainly go for interesting analogies or distracting comparisons …," said Fred Sanders, professor of theology at Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

Sanders, author of The Triune God, acknowledged that there is a "mysteriousness" to the Trinity that people have a hard time comprehending. And some pastors have even come up with "newer language" to explain the Trinity, saying the Father, Son and Spirit had different "roles" or "functions."

Clearing up common misconceptions about the Trinity — or what he called a "fancy Latin-derived word for threeness — Sanders stressed that Christians do not believe in three gods.

"Trinitarianism intends to be a version of monotheism," he explained on The Table Podcast, hosted by Darrell L. Bock, executive director of Cultural Engagement and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. "We're not trying to set up some kind of compromise between monotheism and polytheism … [Trinitarianism] is biblical monotheism that takes account of Christ and the Spirit."

He also clarified that each person of the Trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is not one-third of God and thus add up to one God.

"You have to start with the complete equality and co-eternity of the three persons — that they stand together equal in ranking and in majesty and glory and power," said Sanders, who has never looked back on studying the Trinity since he started in seminary.

Each person fully has the divine essence of God (including omniscience, omnipotence, etc.). "They don't have smaller versions of it," he noted.

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Sanders further clarified that the Father did not come before the Son, nor is He older than the Son. "They're co-eternal," he said. "They are the same essence."

The only difference is, "the Son is the one who is from the Father" and not vice versa. The same can be said of the Holy Spirit.

"We have to maintain the unity of essence and of power, majesty and glory and eternity. All of that has to remain intact. Then we can talk about relations within that," he added.

To gain a better understanding of the Trinity, Sanders pointed Christians to the Gospel.

"You know what the eternal God is like? He's like the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Trinity is like the Gospel," he summed. "Explain the Gospel in such a way that the Trinity just naturally makes sense."

"There's a trinitarian structure to the way God works salvation," the Kentucky native said. "The Father plans salvation, … the Son carries out salvation (accomplishes it), and the Holy Spirit fulfills (by applying that accomplished salvation)."

"The idea that everything God does, the Father does through the Son and the Spirit is a really helpful way of kinda getting into trinitarian ways of thinking."

Providing an example, Sanders said he often teaches the trinitarian nature of prayer:

"We come to the Father not in our own names or by our own rights, but the Christian approach to God is an approach to the Father, mediated through the Son, and empowered by the Spirit."

So the theologically correct way to pray is to pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, he added.

For Christians interested in studying the Trinity for themselves, Sanders offered two key passages: Galatians 4:4-6 and John 1:1-3.