The Birth of the Trinity

Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament

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Matthew W. Bates
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198779247.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Matthew Bates’s The Birth of the Trinity is nothing short of groundbreaking, with the potential for effecting a paradigm shift in studies of early Christianity. After The Birth of the Trinity, scholars within the history of biblical interpretation—as well as in the history of the development of the Christian dogma of the Trinity—will have to rethink their categories.

Bates discusses the issue of typology throughout his work, importantly showing the weakness in applying typology to all of the Old Testament (OT) passages where early Christians discovered Jesus. Bates demonstrates the ubiquity of early Christian engagement with OT passages that involve conversation, where the early Christian interpreters read Jesus as one of the dialogue partners. Modern scholars typically assume such interpretations are typological. Bates demurs, “the sharing of a type demands that the respective Old Testament and New Testament passages participate in a common image” (182-183), and yet, for so many of these OT dialogue passages, they clearly do not. In what sense is such interpretation typological?

Bates might be misunderstood to be attempting to do away with the category of typology, but I do not think he is doing that. Rather, I take Bates to be adding an important insight into the history of interpretation with keen and perceptive precision. Typology was employed by early interpreters when they saw figures and events in the OT pointing forward to Jesus in the New Testament (NT). This was because early Christians—and Jews—understood history typologically. As Michael Fishbane explained, typology was “a disclosure of the plenitude and mysterious workings of divine activity in history” (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, Clarendon, 1985); typology could be read in the text because it was already found in history.

The significance of Bates’s work, which builds upon his earlier volume, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2012), is his development of what he terms prosopological exegesis, that is, “assigning dramatic characters to otherwise ambivalent speeches in inspired texts as an explanatory method” (3). Such prosopological exegesis is a very different thing from typology. Unlike typology, prosopological exegesis rests on the fact that “the actors do not appropriately share that [common] image” (183). What is more, Bates shows how this specific—but early and widespread—interpretive technique, was one of the factors that allowed early Christians to understand the one God as Trinity. In Bates’s words: “[m]y specific claim is that the church’s ultimate preference for primarily speaking of God’s oneness in terms of distinct persons—rather than, let’s say, powers of luminaries—was predominantly established by a prosopological reading of certain dialogical shifts in the Old Testament, and that this reading strategy was widely deployed by New Testament and second-century Christian authors” (13).

For this reason, Bates prefers to speak of early Christian christology as a “Christology of Divine Persons” (24), rather than high, low, or Divine Identity christologies.

Bates makes his case powerfully through an examination of early Christian interpretations of key OT dialogue passages, for example: Palms 2, 22, and 110, and Isaiah 42. His discussion of Psalm 22 is perhaps the most powerful example (136-146). In addition to the many NT passages where he finds evidence of such prosopological exegesis (Mark 12; Acts 13; Romans 1; 2 Corinthians 4; and Hebrews 2), Bates relies upon a wealth of early Christian interpreters showing precisely how they engage in just such an exegesis: figures including St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. For these interpreters, the dialogue partners in these OT texts, were none other than God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophetic characters.

In his treatment of ancient material Bates is exceptionally careful, whether he is discussing the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, handling textual critical issues, or issues regarding ancient translations. He also displays a humility that I find uncommon in the academy—he readily admits the tentativeness of some of his positions, and communicates his openness to reevaluation.

The only place where I would push him a bit is in his neglect of the liturgical context for early Christian reading—and hearing—and thus, interpretation of Scripture. He addresses this only in passing in his footnote about Harold Attridge, where he seems uncertain as to how Attridge is using the term liturgical (29 n. 47). I would submit that the communal liturgical celebrations, and the Eucharist in particular (but also baptism, etc.), would have been the primary context for early Christian encounters with Scripture. This is the reason why Robert Louis Wilken includes an entire chapter on the Eucharistic liturgy (“An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice”) in his book about early Christian thought (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale University Press, 2003). Wilken suggests (1) most Christians encounter(ed) Scripture at communal worship; (2) most of the early Christian writers, as priests, bishops, deacons, or members of religious communities, were tasked with preaching at liturgies, and frequently had the liturgy in mind; (3) the liturgy was the wellspring of Christian thought; and (4) the juxtaposition of OT and NT at the liturgy provided a natural means for reading OT in light of NT—either typologically, or prosopologically. I think that it is highly likely that early Christian habitual participation in the liturgy played a formative role in their application of prosopological exegesis.

I learned a tremendous amount from Bates’s book and it has caused me to rethink some of what I thought I knew about early Christian biblical interpretation. Perhaps most provocatively, but I think persuasively, Bates has made the case that the early Christians may have read the OT prosopologically because that is the way Jesus read it. Moreover, the early Christians were able to read it this way because “external events and the happenings described in the Scripture are interpreted as part of a seamless holistic, unfolding reality out of which the interpreter lives” (183-184).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey L. Morrow is chair of the department of undergraduate theology at the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew W. Bates (Ph.D., The University of Notre Dame) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois.

Keywords: 

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