Review: The Birth of the Trinity by Matthew Bates
G. K. Chesterton tells the tale of of a man who sails out to discover a new land, only to mistakenly return to England and proceed to plant a British flag in this apparently virgin land. For Chesterton, this allegory captures the adventure of discovery and the familiarity of home. I suspect when studying for The Birth of the Trinity, Matthew Bates had a similar experience to Chesterton’s Englishman, as I certainly did when reading his book.
The Birth of the Trinity
In The Birth of the Trinity, Matthew Bates attempts to prove that the “specific ancient reading technique, best termed prosopological exegesis, that is evidenced in the New Testament and other early Christian writings was was irreducibly essential” to the doctrine of the Trinity (p2, emphasis italicized in original). In other words, what best explains the origin of the Trinity doctrine? For Bates, the answer is the early church engaging in prosopological exegesis of the OT.
However, aside from being a useful term for impressing one’s audience, what exactly is prosopological exegesis? It is a method of interpreting the Old Testament by discovering and assigning persons to the unnamed speakers and/or addressees. Prosopological exegesis (hereafter PE) begins with the recognition that OT prophets climbed through “a divinely ordained tear between heaven and earth” to overhear divine conversations (Isaiah 6, Daniel 7). PE is seen in Peter’s reading of Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-32). Peter recognized David was writing the words of Christ as a Spirit-empowered prophet, and so he read the Psalm as “containing a real future conversation between the Father and the Son” (p6). Peter did not read the Psalm typologically, as if Psalm 16 contained David’s own experience and foreshadowed Christ. Rather, he read it prosopologically: David’s own experience was distinctly unlike that of the speaker in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:29), so David must be enacting the person (Gk. prosopon) of another. Discerning these occurrences is the heart of PE.
After introducing PE and its implications for the history of Trinitarian doctrine, The Birth of the Trinity discovers instances of PE in the New Testament and the early church (e.g. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Ps-Barnabas and Tertullian). Chapter 2 uncovers Trinitarian conversation before creation in Psalm 2, 110, Isaiah 42, and Genesis 1:26. Chapter 3 explores conversations pertaining to the Son’s mission in Psalm 40, Mal 3:1, Isaiah 61:1-2, and Isa 42:1-9. Chapter 4 finds dialogue regarding the Son’s death in Psalm 69, Isaiah 65:1-2, and Psalm 22. In chapter 5, the Son is rescued from death to praise His Father in Psalm 22, Isaiah 8:17-18, Psalm 116, Psalm 18, and Psalm 16. Chapter 6 finds Christ’s enthronement and conquest, in addition to the new creation, in Psalm 2, 110, 45, and 102. Along the way, Bates explores questions related to PE, such as the eunuch’s question regarding the true speaker of Isaiah’s prophecy (Acts 8:32-33; Isa 53:7-8) or the nature of the Son’s forsakenness in Psalm 22. Chapter 7 asks the natural next questions: was this a faithful reading of the Scripture? and even more provocative, ought we emulate it? Bates recognizes that this question is not unprecedented; the early church set forth guidelines for faithful utilization of PE in response to Gnostic PE (yes they did it too!). Bates then answers both questions with a qualified yes, offering his own guidelines.
As for the origins of the Trinity doctrine, The Birth of the Trinity has much explanatory power. I eagerly await the ripples the book will cause in scholarship. For one, theologian Fred Sanders already highly praised the work. Bates’ proposal is provocative and I expect to see many others picking up his baton and running further down the unexplored track.
Bates’ PE approach raises some questions as to how we ought interpret the original OT passage. First, must a passage only have one referent? If for example Psalm 18 is David speaking in the voice of the Christ, then what should we make of the Psalm’s appearance in 2 Samuel 22, where it is (apparently) applied to David’s life? Can David not be speaking of himself and the Christ? Second, if PE is a faithful reading of the OT, should (and if yes, then how should) one go back and read the OT passage in light of the NT’s connections with Christ? Third, if the NT reads a portion of a Psalm as about Christ using PE, ought we consider the whole Psalm as about Christ? These questions are not criticisms of the book so much as evidence of a highly stimulating read that ought to provoke fruitful reflection and research.
Aside from my near-absolute praise for The Birth of the Trinity, I have a few small complaints. First, though Bates is to be applauded for staying focused on presenting his unique thesis, I would have appreciated more representation and even critique of differing exegetical conclusions on a given passage before Bates provided his own. This would have helped clarify Bates’ own views whilst undermining the alternatives; poking prevailing interpretations in the eye before delivering the rhetorical KO of Bates’ exegetical blindsides (all done in Christian love, of course). Along with this, how the NT’s interpretations stood in relation, whether agreement or contrast, with prevailing contemporary interpretations of these same passages would be welcome. How did Second Temple Jews interpret these texts? Can we find instances of PE there? Of course, this would have resulted in a much larger book. Lastly, on that note, I just wish the book were longer; I want more!
The Birth of the Trinity is clearly written, compellingly argued, and for me, a thrilling and stimulating read. I am thoroughly convinced that the NT uses PE, and this has opened up these texts again for me in a refreshing way. Along with insights into the Trinity, virtually every page has creative and provocative exegetical insights. What’s more, PE has vast implications: including the NT use of the OT, Messianic fulfillment, Christology and Trinitarianism. The implications of Bates’ work are not simply intellectually stimulating, however; they reveal a personal Triune God. They reveal impassioned conversations between a Father who, for example, provides a body for His Son to accomplish redemption (Ps 40), and a Son who willingly substitutes Himself to receive the blows directed at His Father (Ps 69).
The Birth of the Trinity is unique for simultaneously discovering a dusty overlooked interpretative tool and also pioneering a bold way forward in scholarship. Much like Chesterton’s Englishman who discovered England, this is both a deeply rooted, traditional, and orthodox reading, and also a creative and exciting new method with “rich Trinitarian fruit […] that has not yet been plucked by scholarship” (p6-7). The fruit is so abundant that this is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year, and surely to be in my top five reads of the year. Though the Oxford University Press hardback is pricey, be on the lookout for the much more affordable paperback edition in September.
Many thanks to Ofxord University Press who provided a review copy.