A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Dalton Bowser
Matthew Bates makes a unique contribution to the field of early Christology with his book, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Bates serves as Associate Professor of Theology at Quincy University and is the author of several books on Paul, hermeneutics, and similar topics. In The Birth of the Trinity, Bates converges several disciplines to make his argument. He shows his skills not only in New Testament studies, but also theology and patristics. This book models well interdisciplinary work.
The Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon make clear the divinity of Jesus and his eternal sonship. He was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed). As the early church fathers articulated it, God is a trinity existing as one God in three persons. Yet, as we come to the New Testament, this precise dogmatic expression is absent. That does not mean that what the later church formulated and expressed in its creeds is not consistent with the New Testament; nevertheless, scholars debate how the doctrine of the trinity developed from the time of the New Testament to the clear trinitarian teachings of the later creeds. Put simply, how do we reconcile later trinitarian dogma with Scripture? Are the later creeds consistent with Scripture? Why did those early fathers come to articulate the deity of Christ in that way?
The questions raised in the previous paragraph are the ones that Bates seeks to answer. His unique contribution to the debate of how trinitarian dogma developed is “[t]hat a specific ancient reading technique, best termed prosopological exegesis, that is evidenced in the New Testament and other early Christian writings was irreducibly essential to the birth of the Trinity” (2). Bates proposes that the early church and the New Testament authors employed what he termed prosopological exegesis. By prosopological exegesis, he means, “assigning dramatic characters to otherwise ambivalent speeches in inspired texts as an explanatory method” (3). Prosopological comes from the Greek, prosopon, meaning face or person. According to Bates, the Old Testament contains dialogue that cannot be ascribed to the original writer. What the New Testament writers and early church theologians did was assign these unclear voices to divine characters (prosopa, or persons) who mutually dialogue with each other. For Bates, the Father, Son, and Spirit are characters (persona) in these speeches and they dialogue about the person and work of Christ.
As Bates explains in chapter one, he departs from other assertions about trinitarian development. Some want to explain the development of the trinity in terms of the encounter with the historical Jesus. The Jews were not looking for such a divine figure, but Jesus clearly demonstrated himself as God, and therefore, they must find a way to explain his divinity. Others would like to say that trinitarian dogma is foreign to Scripture and was imposed by Hellenistic philosophical language. Others would rather assert that the trinity was a natural outgrowth from Second Temple Judaism which saw a rise in mediating agents between God and his people. Bates interacts the most with what he calls “Christology of Divine Identity” whose major proponents are Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright. This view mixes a couple of the above views and asserts that Jesus presented himself as God. This exalted mediatorial figure would not have been foreign to Judaism and so Jesus’s clear assertion of divinity led figures to explain his relation to the Father.
The weakness that Bates sees in these views is that none of them seriously consider the person metaphor that is central to later creedal formulations of the doctrine. He asserts: “prosopological exegesis contributed decisively to the development of the concept of the Trinity, since it was this way of reading that especially led to the consolidation of ‘person’ language to express the three-in-one mystery” (7). The New Testament authors saw the divine persons in dialogue with each other in the Old Testament. These persons discussed the person and work of Christ. Hence, because the New Testament writers, and early church fathers, employed this prosopological reading of the Old Testament, it made sense why person language would be used in later trinitarian creeds. This leads Bates to propose a “Christology of Divine Persons.”
For example, Bates sees Jesus and the New Testament writers as employing a prosopological reading of Psalm 110. The psalm is a theodramatic set in which David takes on the character of God the Father and speaks to the Son. Bates explains verse one this way:
DAVID Himself (reporting the setting): The Lord [God] said to my Lord, David in the prosopon of God (spoken to My LORD, the CHRIST): Sit at my right hand, O Christ, Lord of David, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. (49)
In this psalm, David takes on the person (prosopon) of God and speaks to the Son about his kingship. This reading sees the psalm as a stage where different characters speak about the Son and his kingdom. This way of reading the Old Testament, Bates asserts, was employed by the New Testament writers and the early church.
Bates will employ a prosopological reading of other Scriptures as well. For example, Bates believes we should read the Father’s blessing at Jesus’s baptism prosopologically. After Jesus is baptized, the Father speaks from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11 ESV). Bates sees a clear reference to Psalm 2:7 in these words. We should understand these words by the Father at Jesus’s baptism “not merely as a direct speech made by the Father to the Son, but rather it was taken as a speech within a speech that was originally spoken by the Son, who was reporting the words the Father had spoken to him at an earlier time, all of which has critical implications for how Christology and Trinitarian dogma developed” (64). In Bates’s prosopological reading of Psalm 2:7, it is not David who is the speaker, but David records for us a speech by the Son. In this Psalm, the Son is reporting what the Father had said to him in times past. At Jesus’s baptism, the Father speaks these words that were originally spoken by the Son about what the Father had previously said. The Father uses the Son’s words here to confirm what he has earlier said about him.
Bates has made a unique and important contribution to the field with this book. This work has several strengths. First, Bates raises an awareness to an important issue; namely, how did trinitarian dogma develop around person language, and offers a plausible solution to it. For many Christians, the articulation of the doctrine of the trinity seems foreign to Scripture. They do not deny the doctrine, but, in their minds, they separate the Scripture from later doctrinal formulation. They may not understand how these doctrines developed, but trust those who formulated them. However, when examined closely, we should wonder why the doctrinal articulation of the later church seems foreign to the Scriptures. Why does ‘person’ become so important to the articulation of the doctrine of the trinity?
Bates shows the likely solution that this understanding of ‘persons’ was not some foreign concept that the early church imposed to express its understanding of the trinity. They already read the Scriptures prosopologically, and therefore, it made sense to use person in their dogma. One must admit that there are many Old Testament passages where it is unclear who the speaker is. For example, many times in the psalms David speaks about himself. However, at other times it is clear that he was not. In Psalm 16, David says, “you will not let your Holy One see corruption.” Peter, in his Pentecost sermon shows that it does not apply to David, but is a prediction of the One to come. Although this may be construed as mere prophecy, often other passages have voices different from the psalmist. Hence, prosopological exegesis, as applied by the early church, is a plausible way to read these passages.
Another strength of The Birth of the Trinity is that it critiques a common assumption in scholarship that sees a wide chasm between the New Testament and its early interpreters. As Bates puts it: “The irony is that in spinning stories of Christian dogmatic development, scholarship has by and large significantly overvalued the evidence of the hypothetical pre-history and redactional layers that we do not actually possess … but has undervalued the non-hypothetical coeval and subsequent Christian texts that we do actually have” (58). Or to say it another way, “hermeneutical continuity in scriptural interpretation between the historical Jesus, the synoptic writers, and the early church is prima facie historically more likely than discontinuity” (67). Bates rightly asserts that we should expect that early Christian interpretation to have much more continuity than discontinuity with the New Testament. Scholars often assume this narrative: there is the New Testament and its writers, then almost immediately, the early church vastly departs from the interpretive perspective of the New Testament authors and creates new techniques with novel doctrinal formulation. Bates seeks to show that this is not the case, but rather the early Christian interpreters are a helpful guide to see how the New Testament authors understood the Scriptures.
This work also rightly seeks to unite biblical studies and theology. For too long these fields have been separated. Post-Enlightenment biblical studies became very fragmentary. Old Testament work was separated from New Testament. Often those disciplines focused on finding the “text behind the text” rather than interpreting the text as it is. Theological synthesis was seen as bad, and, according to some, impossible. However, Scripture must be read holistically. The Bible is one book and should be read as such. Furthermore, because it is one book with one message, theological synthesis is right and necessary. Moreover, we are not the first to interpret Scripture and so are wise to look back in the past to see how other Christians have interpreted these texts. Bates heads the right direction in this book by trying to be exegetical and systematic, while also listening to the voices of the past.
In many ways, The Birth of the Trinity offers a helpful critique of modern scholarship. Although it seems at times Bates does cave to some of its methods, he nevertheless pushes back at some of its assumptions. For example, he helpfully critiques adoptionism. This view has been espoused for a long time. Scholars often point to ancient Near Eastern sources as proof of its development. However, as Bates asserts, as we search the Scriptures and the early church writings, we find nowhere where Jesus’s sonship develops. Modern scholarship’s assumptions prevent it from seeing this.
Although the basic path and assertions of this book are right, it does fall short in several places. Most notably, in adopting prosopological exegesis, Bates rejects typology. He contends: “contrary to a widespread consensus in biblical scholarship, the interpretive strategy employed by the earliest church with respect to these conversations was not generally typological but rather prosopological or theodramatic” (9). For example, Bates rejects the common consensus that Psalm 22 should be read typologically. It is often asserted that the psalm is first and foremost about David’s suffering and then typologically fulfilled in Jesus. However, Bates asserts, “the earliest church did not read this psalm as if it was really about David at the first level, but secondarily about Jesus at a second deeper level as fulfilled the Davidic pattern of suffering while serving as a symbol of corporate Israel,” but rather the psalm “was read with the Christ as the speaker” (127).
To outright reject typology because of the existence of prosopological readings seems too much. Both may exist together. To comment on whether the early church rejected typology is beyond the reviewer’s knowledge. However, it seems clear that we cannot reject typology outright in Scripture. If we do, what then is the point of the Old Testament? Why do we have the tabernacle, temple, feasts, and a Davidic king? They must point to something. That something is the person and work of Christ. Although the Old Testament does record theodramatic dialogue concerning the Son, it also shows the importance of its institutions and people for the future. In fact, as the Old Testament itself predicts the future, it uses the language of these Old Testament events (new exodus, new monarch, new covenant) revealing that the Old Testament itself saw typological significance in them. To deny this is to strip the Old Testament of its rich typology and make it a mere record of divine speeches.
Bates’s prosopological reading also leads him at times to conclusions that seem scripturally wanting. For example, his prosopological reading of Romans 15:3, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me,” leads him to this conclusion:
Here Jesus suffered not so much because of his love for humanity… but rather he suffered gladly primarily in order to spare his Father, to take the insults that would have otherwise landed upon the Father, to shoulder them himself in place of his Father. Thus considered, Jesus the Son is not just a substitutionary sacrifice for the sake of humanity (Rom 3:25), but a substitutionary sacrifice for the sake of the Father, a sacrifice that absorbs and deflects the vehement God-hatred of the world, so that God the Father is shielded from its malignant and poisonous force (124-125).
In one way, the quotation from Psalm 69:9 can be understood as Jesus bearing the reproach of God. As the experience of all followers of the Lord, we face the reproach that people give to him. However, to say that Jesus’s death is a “substitutionary sacrifice” for the Father that shields him from reproach goes too far. Nowhere do the Scriptures suggest that Jesus’s death makes some sort of sacrificial provision for the Father. Rather, Jesus’s death is a sacrifice for sinners to make them right before God.
Although prosopological reading may be a valid way to read many Old Testament texts, I believe it fails as providing the most solid foundation for the use of the Old Testament in the New. The problem I see is that prosopological exegesis is less historically rooted and more subjective. Bates seeks to provide criteria for doing legitimate prosopological exegesis. He does not believe that it is an exegetical free-for-all that can be applied to any passage. He has unique categories that must be filled in order for legitimate prosopological reading to take place. Nevertheless, even with these limits, I believe they do not give us as sure a ground as needed.
As noted before, in accepting prosopological reading, Bates rejects typology. Typology necessitates history. In prosopological exegesis, I see less historical rootedness. Yes, these divine speeches have occurred in the past. But why do we need the Old Testament context for these speeches? Why is the Old Testament not a set of recorded speeches? Furthermore, because the historical situation is not typological, there is more opportunity to be free in one’s reading of the text. The historical rootedness of typology restrains free readings. It must be consistent with the historical situation. On the other hand, prosopological exegesis does not have those restraints. That is why Bates can read Psalm 69:9 as a speech from Jesus to the Father about how he will bear the reproaches of the Father on the cross. Whereas if we read this typologically, David, as a type of Christ, bore reproaches of God. He suffered because he was godly. Jesus, the anti-type is the ultimate righteous sufferer. He died an innocent death. Hence, his death is not a sacrifice for the Father to spare the Father of reproaches, but rather is the ultimate example of the righteous sufferer who is mistreated for his devotion to God. He bears the reproaches of God in obedience to provide salvation for sinners, not to shield God from evil.
My final critique has to do with the usefulness of the Bates’s work in the church. My assertion is that his language and argument are too complex to be profitable in the church. The Scriptures are for the people of God. If the reading strategies that Bates articulates are what the New Testaments authors used, that should be able to be shared in the church. However, one could never (or should never!) use the terms “prosopological” or “theodramatic” from the pulpit. Bates’s arguments are quite complex and would be very difficult to explain to the church. That does not mean what he is saying is necessarily wrong, however, at the least, the way it is explained needs to be reworked.
The Birth of the Trinity offers a unique explanation of how trinitarian dogma developed. Bates asserts that early Christians read the Old Testament prosopologically, meaning they saw in the Old Testament divine persons taking on speeches that could not be clearly ascribed to the original author. In this way, the trinitarian formulation of person language was not something new but was seen in the way that the New Testament writers saw the persons of the trinity in conversation with each other in the Old Testament. Bates’s work is stimulating and may prove helpful in clarifying our understanding of the development of the doctrine of the trinity. His work is complex and takes slow reading. Ideally, this book is for someone wrestling with how the trinitarian formula aligns with the Bible, especially if he is not satisfied with some of the current answers. Bates provides a unique solution that seeks to root trinitarian dogma in the Scriptures.
Dalton Bowser is a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 For example, I believe Bates gives too much credence to modern scholarship in his comment on Jesus’s baptism: “So even if some today are disinclined to accept the precise historical details of the words spoken and the happenings at the baptism and transfiguration, it would nonetheless be historically hazardous, apart from compelling evidence to the contrary, to suggest that the basic tenor of the historical Jesus’ overall convictions were substantially misremembered on this point” (66). Is not the most important point about this event the fact that the Father has spoken, and, namely, what he spoke (Jesus’s sonship), rather than Jesus’s consciousness of it?
Buy the books
THE BIRTH OF THE TRINITY: JESUS, GOD, AND THE SPIRIT IN NEW TESTAMENT AND EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, by Matthew W. Bates