Meet the Speakers: Fred Sanders
Today, we're sitting down to talk with Dr. Fred Sanders.
Dr. Sanders is one of the speakers for our 2022 Spring Theology Conference on the Trinity. If you haven't registered yet, make sure you do so by clicking this link—it's free!
For the last several years of my life, I've made a rule: if Fred Sanders says it about the Trinity, you should take it seriously. He is a picture of a theologian who loves the local church, and I am so excited to bring him to FBA. He has written several excellent books and is one of my absolute favorite theologians in the evangelical world today. I hope you enjoy our chat with him!
Dr. Sanders, thanks for talking to me! It's hard to put into words how excited I am you are part of this conference. Could you share a little about your background, especially as it pertains to your research and work on the doctrine of the Trinity?
I grew up Pentecostal in Southern California, but got saved in a Methodist youth group revival in Kentucky at age sixteen. From the very beginning of my Christian life, I knew I wanted to study the Bible and maybe even teach it. In fact, a deep hunger for God's word was one of the first clear signs of regeneration in my life. But the only people I knew who worked with the Bible full-time were pastors, and even at a young age I could tell that pastoring was not a good vocational fit for me. So I continued to study the Bible privately while pursuing art (drawing and printmaking) in college (Murray State University). I was a first-generation college student with no academic or professional network to draw on, so I was a little disoriented for a while. Here's the thing: I didn't even know there was such a thing as theology! As soon as I learned that theologians existed, I knew I wanted to try to be one.
In the meantime, the more I read the Bible, the clearer it became to me that the one God behind salvation was somehow simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that this threeness in God explained why the gospel was what it was. I barely knew how to talk about it at the time, but I increasingly saw it as the main point of Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Gospel of John. To be honest, I sometimes worried that my private Bible reading was turning me into a weirdo who was inventing strange, new doctrines. Imagine my relief to read people like C.S. Lewis and J.I. Packer, and discover that my strange, new doctrine was in fact plain old normal Christian belief. I sometimes say that one reason I am so committed to the doctrine of the Trinity is that I invented it myself in high school. But in all seriousness, the fact that I found the Trinity in Scripture with pretty minimal guidance from traditional authorities does tend to make me pretty skeptical when somebody claims the Trinity isn't scriptural. I really do think I found it there. (I freely admit that I recited the Apostles' Creed at church and sang hymns by Charles Wesley, so I can't pretend there was no theology at all getting pumped into my thought life.)
Seminary training (at Asbury Theological Seminary) cleared up a lot of confusion for me, and gave me a chance to explore just how central the doctrine of the Trinity is: central both in the history of the church, and in the structure of Christian faith. I don't claim that all roads in theology lead to the Trinity, but I will definitely say that from the Trinity there are roads out into every part of Christian theology. From that insight, my path as a theologian has been very clear: I got a PhD on the topic in Berkeley and have been studying and teaching it ever since.
Relatedly, fill us in on how you got to Biola and what all you do there.
Biola was my first job after grad school, and I've stayed here since being hired in 1999. My full-time teaching position is in our Honors College, which means that I teach undergraduates at the general education level. My students are getting majors in every field at the university, but they come together to read a common curriculum on the Great Books model: Homer, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and so on. It's an unusual job for a systematic theologian, and it means there's a pretty big gap between what I do in my day job and what I write about as a scholar, but I love the breadth of it, and I've been formed by getting to spend all this time with classic texts and sharp college students. Our class sessions are three-hour group discussions of great books, in which we professors are supposed to lead Socratically, that is, by only asking questions. We like to say the books are the teachers (so come study with Plato and Aristotle and Moses and Paul) and the faculty are the guides or tutors who help the students engage with those classic texts. I also helped design the M.A. in Classical Theology at Biola's Talbot School of Theology, and I teach in that program as well. It's a short master's degree that basically applies our Honors College approach to seminary work: classic primary texts, processed in group discussions, focused on grasping the organic unity of all theology.
Tying in to the conference theme, you'll be speaking on the Trinity and Salvation. I know it's a broad topic, but how do you see the doctrine of the Trinity specifically relating to the ways we think about the idea of "salvation?"
My life message is that the Trinity and the gospel go together. If I could do one thing to help people understand the doctrine of the Trinity, it would be to get inside their minds where the habits of associative thinking are rooted, and make them associate Trinity and gospel so closely that every time they think of one, they immediately think of the other. Everything we believe about salvation makes so much more sense when we consider what it has to do with the Father (who so loved the world that he gave his Son, John 3:16), the Son (who loved me and gave himself for me, Gal 2:20), and the Holy Spirit (who we received so that we may understand what God has freely given us, I Cor 2:12). When I say salvation makes more sense in Trinitarian terms, what I mean is that what you already understand is true so far as it goes, but that when you let trinitarian theology illuminate it, your understanding of salvation deepens; it takes on greater depth.
Outside of your theological work (and your top-tier social media game), what do you spend your time doing? Tell us a little about yourself, your family, your church life, etc.
I read for fun, which includes reading all sorts of theology: my wife points out that it's a very good thing I am employed doing what I would do even if it weren't my job. But I also read P.G. Wodehouse and comics, especially vintage newspaper comics (Krazy Kat, 1930's Popeye) and the great Disney duck artist, Carl Barks. I like to visit art museums (I have really missed being able to do this during the pandemic), and I get a lot of energy from being in the presence of great visual art. I can probably outlast anybody on a museum day; no brag just fact. I don't watch much TV or follow sports, so comic books and art are kind of my equivalent.
My wife Susan and I met when we were 11 years old, and have been married for 31 years. She's a math teacher and is the director of children's ministries at our home church, Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. Grace has been our home since we moved to southern California, and while I don't want to suggest that it's perfect or anything, being involved in a good, Bible-teaching church is the main thing that has kept me sane and balanced in this wild twenty-first century. We have two adult kids, both in college and both living at home with us. And a variety of pets indoor and out; it's complicated.
Last, what is something that excites or encourages you about the theology conference we're putting together here at FBA?
I'm looking forward to meeting the people who come to a church-based theology conference on the Trinity: these are bound to be my kind of people. It'll be great to be in Tennessee for a bit. And I'm a fan and admirer of both Madison Pierce and Brandon Smith, so it's an honor to get to collaborate with them on an event like this. Thanks for putting it together!