Reviews of

The Birth of the Trinity

In Christology, Early Christianity, Madison N. Pierce, Matthew W. BATES, New Testament, Oxford University Press, Pneumatology on October 17, 2015 at 3:19 pm


2015.10.20 | Matthew W. Bates. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 256. Hardcover. ISBN 9780198729563.

Review by Madison N. Pierce, Durham University.

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

While in previous decades it has been imprudent to speak of the “Trinity” prior to the fourth century, a number of recent works have set aside the stigma to re-examine the extent to which the NT is Trinitarian. Implicit in those studies is the question: What did the fourth century glean from the first? For Matthew W. Bates in The Birth of the Trinity, one of the most significant contributions is an explanation of the exegetical method termed “prosopological exegesis” (PE). This method re-interprets Jewish Scripture by identifying an otherwise ambiguous or unspecified participant in the text, a prosopon or character. This monograph draws upon Bates’ previously published thesis, The Hermeneutics of Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2013). In his thesis, Bates demonstrates how this method contributes to Paul’s theology. In The Birth of the Trinity, his primary aim is to show how the technique not only contributed to, but also formed, later Trinitarian thought.

In the first chapter, after surveying dominate “storylines” of the history of the Trinity, Bates offers his own plan: “Trinitarianism by Continuity in Prosopological Exegesis” (pp. 26–27). Unfortunately, Bates never defines this explicitly, but in my estimation, it begins with the person-centered exegesis found in the NT that identifies a person (i.e., the speaker, addressee, or subject) within a Jewish text as the Christ (or in some instance the Church). This reading strategy often creates a conversation among the divine persons that illuminates their interrelationship. In later prosopological readings of similar texts, this conversation was found to indicate a differentiation among the participants (see esp. Tertullian, Prax. 11). Persons, according to Tertullian and others at this time, did not speak to themselves, and thus these texts portraying divine conversations suggested the Father and Son had to be distinct in some way. The fact that the same reading strategy that led these later authors to this conclusion is found in the NT seems to suggest similar assumptions might also be implicit in the earlier exegesis.

In the next part of chapter 1, Bates discusses both the (likely) Greco-Roman origins as well as the study of prosopological exegesis in more recent decades. Modern research pertaining to PE is most common among those scholars interested in early Christian studies where the phenomenon is most prevalent. After offering a few representative examples in the NT and patristic literature, Bates suggests the potential settings implied within prosopological readings (pp. 35­–36):

  • Prophetic Setting: when the speech was “performed” by the human medium (e.g., the Psalmist or Isaiah)
  • Theodramatic Setting: to when the speech refers
  • Actualized Setting: when the divine person spoke the speech

For Bates, the interplay among these settings is key to understanding the use of PE in the NT. Since this chapter contains quite a bit of (likely new) information, readers might find it useful to scan it more than once before moving on to more extended examples of PE in the subsequent chapters.

In chapter 2, Bates addresses the fact that Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels utilizing PE. Offering a brief background on evaluating the “historical Jesus,” Bates concludes that a number of these accounts should be regarded as historically plausible: Jesus actually used PE. The remainder of this chapter focuses on two base texts (or citations): Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. Bates begins with the interpretation of these texts found in the Gospels and then moves to other interpretations in the NT and other early Christian literature, arguing that the prosopological readings of these Psalms envision a conversation that took place “before the dawn of time” (the theodramatic setting). He contends that later readings (e.g., in patristic authors) should be used to understand earlier ones (e.g., in the NT), and vice versa. Bates uses this principle to structure his subsequent chapters as well, arranging each chapter around readings of multiple texts, as well as their history of interpretation, with similar theodramatic settings.

In chapter 3, Bates explores readings where the theodramatic setting refers to the “incarnation, preparation, and earthly mission of the Son” (p. 85). His primary focus is “servant” texts in Isaiah (e.g., chaps. 42 and 61) as well as the reading of Psalm 40 in Hebrews 10.5–7. In chapter 4, Bates focuses on where the theodramatic setting is trial and death of Jesus. Chapter 5 looks at texts where the Son praises the Father for rescuing him from earthly distress. His primary focus is on Greek Psalm 21.22–25 and Isaiah 8.17–18, both texts found in Hebrews 2. In chapter 6, Bates examines texts depicting the theodramatic setting of Christ’s coronation. After setting aside his prosopological focus in a discussion of Romans 1.3–4, Bates examines texts that praise Christ in his exaltation: first, returning to Psalms 2 and 110, then moving on to Psalm 45.6–7 and Psalm 102.25–27, both found in Hebrews 1. Chapter 7, finally, examines when a prosopological reading strategy is a “good” or “valid” method of approaching Scripture.

The most valuable contributions of this monograph are its introduction to the prosopological reading strategy and a number of valuable examples. For instance, the application of this method to the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) sheds light on a rather curious exchange. When other scholars examine their NT texts of interest, they are likely to find additional applications. Further, Bates is engaging and is forthright about his perceptions of the theological implications of these readings. Conversely, setting aside this book’s numerous contributions to the discipline, at several points I found myself wondering if Bates was forcing a text or interpretation into a predetermined category. It also seemed that several texts (e.g., Psalm 2) were being read more in light of their history of interpretation than their immediate context. I, similarly, found the description of the Spirit as “inspiring agent” to be far more cohesive with exegesis of the patristic texts than the NT (see especially Bates’ explanation of the Spirit in Hebrews). But my qualms with the application of Matthew Bates’ work should not overshadow my praise for his primary thesis in Birth of the Trinity. Bates has adequately demonstrated that prosopological exegesis is found in the NT and that this person-centered reading strategy contributed to fourth-century Trinitarian theology. This monograph will provide countless insights to any interested in the New Testament’s use of Jewish Scripture, patristic exegesis, or the exegetical roots of Trinitarian theology.

Madison N. Pierce
Durham University
m.n.pierce [ at ]

  1. […] N. Pierce at Biblical and Early Christian Studies reviewed Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian […]

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