Trinitarian Reading: Fred Sanders’ “The Trinity” from Mapping Modern Theology edited by Kelly M. Kapic & Bruce L. McCormack

Fred Sanders contributes the chapter on “The Trinity” in Kapic and McCormack’s Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. Starting with Hegel and ending with the contemporary “surge of interest in all things trinitarian” (22), Sanders outlines what people have been saying about the Trinity for the past 200 years. A the story goes, many theologians chose to criticize the doctrine of the Trinity: when those criticisms are at their worst, Sanders’ history accounts for a twisting and honest denial of the deposit handed down; and when those criticisms are at their best, Sanders’ history accounts for theologians who were trying to find new modes of expression (oftentimes faulty) for presenting a doctrine considered pre-modern and antiquated. This history, however, has a plot change (according to some).

The retrieval of the doctrine of the Trinity is oftentimes oversimplified–as are all pocket summaries–and attributed to Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, the latter who was able to successfully “put the Trinity back on the agenda of self-consciously modern theology, specifically among the liberal mainstream of academic theology in Europe and America, and specifically among those for whom history and experience were decisive modern categories dictating the conditions of Christian thought” (41). For many, Barth is a theological hero. They believe he conducted theological CPR on the dying doctrine of the Trinity; it was as good as dead until Barth worked his magic fingers and rubbed Church Dogmatics Awesome Sauce on the blue corpse and said, “Rise. Be resurrected.”

Sanders is not so easily convinced. He doesn’t really see this as a plot change or a paradigm shift. He doesn’t think the historical evidence points to motif where retrieval can be interpreted as a form of resurrection. Rather, Sanders believes it was a normalistic retrieval, what some call conservation.

There is an oft-told tale of how the doctrine of the Trinity was marginalized in the modern period, until a heroic rescue performed by one of the Karls (Barth or Rahner). But for theologians like [British Methodist William Burt] Pope, [American Presbyterian Charles] Hodge, [Dutch Calvinist Herman] Bavinck, and [American Episcopalian Francis J.] Hall, as for most Christians, there was no need for an absolute retrieval of a completely lost doctrine. Retrieval is a normal part of responsible theological method, and theologians were actively engaged in a kind of low-level, ordinary retrieval throughout the modern period, a retrieval so incremental as to be indistinguishable from conservation (44). 

Sanders ends his historical analysis of what people have been saying about the Trinity during the past 200 years with a suggestion for how theologians riding the wave and wake of modernity might navigate forward:

As trinitarian theology continues to be discussed and developed, theologians will do well to carry on the modern trinitarian project by articulating this classic Christian doctrine in such a way that the doctrine is not an opaque monolith of inherited terminology, but is transparent to history, transparent to human experience, and transparent to biblical foundation.