One of the highlights of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting for me was seeing two of my intellectual heroes of Middlebrow fame, Dr. Fred Sanders and Dr. John Mark Reynolds, give interesting papers. It is a lofty compliment. Dr. Reynolds ably defended “Constantinianism” while Dr. Sanders, well, raised a few questions for those who deploy the Trinity in their position papers on gender issues. I didn’t take notes during Reynolds’s paper, so here is a (very) rough outline of Dr. Sanders’s paper.

Dr. Fred Sanders. “As Above, So Below: Appeals to the Trinity in Theological Accounts of the Human Family.”

Dr. Sanders begins with some reflections about the state of the Trinitarian question with respect to gender. Specifically, it is sad that gender questions have produced the most literature on the Trinity in recent years by people hijacking the Trinity to refute their opponents in the gender debate. Complementarians see hierarchy in the Trinity as they focus on the Majesty of the Father, while egalitarians see the equality of essence with respect to the persons. But the Trinity is interesting for its own sake: it is interesting for more than the partisan question.

Sanders then moves into the bulk of his argument. He begins by pointing out that it is not self-evident that the doctrines of human community and the Trinity impinge upon each other. Each has its own internal logic. Specifically, the doctrine of the Trinity falls under the doctrine of God, while accounts of gender belong to the doctrine of creation. And it is the doctrine of God that theologizing is properly about: the Trinity is, in a sense, too big for the creed. Accounts of gender, however, are not important enough to make it into the creed.

The two doctrines are often related through the imago dei, which is used to create a threefold relation between man and God: imaging, reflecting and imitation. In other words, “As above, so below.” They attempt to explain what is seen–gender and human relations–through what is unseen. This sort of logic, though, exposes the doctrine of God to projections. The mystery serves as a mirror: there is no way to judge between competing visions of into the mystery.

Sanders points to, for instance, Miraslov Volf who sees in the Trinity a grounding for a free church ecclesiology. He points out a number of other examples of theologians who see in the Trinity positions they already hold to. Sanders point? In employing the Trinity for doctrines other than the doctrine of God, we tend to find what we want to find.

But the nature of the “imago dei” relationship, though, makes us see similarity with God when we maybe should be looking for difference. For instance, the doctrine of perichoresis, or the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity, is sometimes invoked to explain the communion of the members of the Church. But is that a similarity with human relations, or a property that God has that we do not? To claim it is a similarity is to make a category error: it is to ascribe to humans something that is properly God’s.

What, then, is the proper image of God? It is the image He has given us in the economic Trinity. God is not different with us than He is in Himself.

How, then, are the doctrines of the Trinity and theological anthropology related? They are not in an imaging relationship. Trinity needs to be thought out independant of the gender question, while the gender question needs to be thought out independant of the Trinity question, and then they need to be related. They are independant of each other. In addition, answering the Trinity question through the gender issue runs the risk of not recognizing the exclusivity of the economic image. Finally, removing the imago dei relation with respect to the Trinity question undercuts imitation projects.

Those are my notes. No doubt Doc Sanders will reel in horror when he sees how I butchered his paper. Ah, blogging. Dr. Sanders, though, was most impressive in his delivery and argumentation. This paper was absolutely fantastic, as it made both sides in the gender debate reflect very carefully on their appeals to the Trinity to defeat the other side. I am hoping that it gets published very soon so that it will be available in print for all of us to read.

Two other thoughts: Dr. Sanders did, if memory serves me, point out the difference in importance of the Trinity and gender questions by highlighting their respective presence in the creeds. In other words, while the Trinity is of chief importance, the doctrine of theological anthropology does not get a mention. However, I might argue that the creeds, like Scripture, assume a theological anthropology that has currently come under attack. If this is right then while the center is still the Trinity, gender questions might be only two steps away from the center in a direction the creeds did not go because they presumed a certain position on the issue.

In addition, what was not clear in Sanders’s presentation was how revelation plays in to our understanding of the relationship between the Trinity and theological anthropology. At the core of the debate of the gender issues is a question about what has been revealed about man in Scripture. While Sanders’s main point, I think, is to drive a wedge between the gender and Trinitarian questions in order to keep them as separate theological issues, the bridge between is revelation. If Paul or Scripture assumes a certain position on theological anthropology because of its theology, then the chasm must be crossed. Sanders seemed to agree to this in the Q&A time.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

4 Comments

  1. When I’ve heard complementarians invoke the Trinity, its not done to argue from the Trinity to gender issues, but rather to point out that Egalitarian arguments sometimes undo theology elsewhere. For instance, egalitarians tend to imply that any form of leadership/servitude implies that there is necessarily a difference in value. In other words, the wife must be less than the husband if the husband is to lead. But, having worked out the gender issues separately, we bring this to bear on the Trinity, we see that Jesus must be less than the Father because he is obedient to being sent by the Father. Clearly, this does not square with the doctrine that the members of the Trinity are co-equal in glory, power, holiness, worth, etc.

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  2. […] ecclesiastical struggles, we run the risk of discovering in the vertical what we set out to find. As Dr. Fred Sanders once pointed out, in recent years evangelical discussions about the Trinity have largely been motivated by gender […]

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  3. […] But she doesn’t stop there:  she also examines briefly the effect of Lewis’s work on our own time, highlighting the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate that has caught up evangelicalism the past decade and locating Lewis’ view within its context.  It’s worth pointing out that Van Leeuwen’s move here is anachronistic, and not free of difficulty.  It depends upon an explicit linking of Trinitarian theology with gender relations, a link that she never demonstrates Lewis to have made (and which there might be good reason to reject). […]

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  4. […] But she doesn’t stop there:  she also examines briefly the effect of Lewis’s work on our own time, highlighting the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate that has caught up evangelicalism the past decade and locating Lewis’ view within its context.  It’s worth pointing out that Van Leeuwen’s move here is anachronistic, and not free of difficulty.  It depends upon an explicit linking of Trinitarian theology with gender relations, a link that she never demonstrates Lewis to have made (and which there might be good reason to reject). […]

    Reply

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