3 Books on The Trinity (Of Course)

On of my abiding reading interests is books on the Trinity. Ever since I took Trinitarianism as a course at Dallas, I keep coming back to try to understand the biblical teaching on God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Recently, I finished three (of course) new volumes that each engage in theological exegesis to some extent. They are rooted in a close reading of the New Testament, but for the purpose of enhancing our understanding of doctrine. Each contributes to the advance in understanding in significant ways.

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Matthew Bates’ monograph The Birth of The Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament was until recently cost-prohibitive. Thanks to Oxford University Press, I got my copy for free. You can now get the hardcover for just over $40 on Amazon and you can pre-order the paperback edition for less than $25. I say that because were this a $90 book, I imagine that most of you reading this would pass regardless of what I tell you about it.

While not a long book (just over 200 pp), it will surely be significant. It is a book for “general readers of theology, history, and religion, as well as professional scholars and students.” The argument of the book, as Bates explains, is that “a specific 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.” He goes on to say that, so far as he knows, no one has “ever systematically explored Trinitarian inner dynamics of Christology  in the New Testament and second-century Christianity from this angle” (2).

At this point, you are probably wondering two things: (1) what is prosopological exegesis and (2) what does Bates mean by “birth of the Trinity”? To the latter, Bates means “the arrival and initial sociolinguistic framing of this doctrine in human history by the nascent church” (4). To the former, Bates spends the better part of the opening chapter explaining the nature of prosopological exegesis. It is borrowing from a Greek theater called “prosopopoeia” (“character-making”) to then read the Old Testament theodramtically. While many people acknowledge Paul’s use of prosopopoeia, Bates’ significant contribution is to argue that latter part about how New Testament authors read the Old Testament.

As such, this study not only studies the development of Trinitarian doctrine, but uncovers a hermenuetical practice through the study of the New Testament’s use and reading of the Old. Like a good extended argument that is worth your time, it can’t be neatly summarized in a short post like this. Rather, I would encourage anyone seriously interested in the study of the Trinity or New Testament interpretation (or both) to get a hold of this volume. It might need to wait until the more accessible paperback is available, but the dip in hardcover price certainly helps.

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The next book worth noting is Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters. I received this one thanks to Eerdmans and it was the first book I finished in this new year. It is similar to Bates in that it overlaps study of Trinitarian doctrine and New Testament interpretation. However, Hill is focused closely on Paul (you might have known that from the title) and restructuring the understanding of Jesus’ divinity in relational terms rather than the typical “low” or “high” polarities. Ultimately Hill’s study is more Christological focused throughout as we seeks to construe our understanding of Jesus in terms of his relation to the Father, not necessarily how high or low he is on the vertical axis toward divinity.

The opening chapter charts the general lay of the land, both in terms of Pauline Christologies and Trinitarian theologies. Since Hill’s work intersects the two, this makes perfect sense. He is writing to theologians and exegetes, and that is no easy task. But, Hill shows he is grounded in both worlds before his study proceeds. As a caveat, he concludes the first chapter saying “Although my argument is largely aimed at the guild of biblical and Pauline interpreters, the conviction underlying the argument – and, it is hoped vindicated (in part) by the argument – is that theology and exegesis are, or ought to be, mutually dependent” (46-47).

In chapter 2, Hill looks first at God in relation to Jesus, particularly focusing on Romans 4:24; 8:11, and Galatians 1:1. In the following two chapters, Hill turns to Jesus in relation to God. The first focuses primarily on Philippians 2:6-11, the second on 1 Corinthians 8:6, and 15:24-28. The final chapter turns to the Spirit in relation to God and Jesus, looking closely at 1 Corinthians 12:3, Galatians 4:4-7, 2 Corinthians 3:17, Romans 1:3-4, and 8:11 among others.

In his conclusions Hill, referring to other interpretive efforts argues that,

Instead of starting with God and attempting to fit Jesus and the Spirit in alongside or underneath him somewhere on an axis of nearness, it is better – these interpreters have posited – to see neither God, Jesus, nor the Spirit as enjoying primacy on their own but to see them as all equally primal, mutually determinative, relationally constitued (168).

Hill suggests this was the “perspective of the mainstream of mature fourth century (and later) trinitarian doctrine” (169). His work as a whole seeks to defend this approach, while also showing that “exegesis of Paul does not reach its full potential without trinitarian theology” and “trinitarian theology is impoverished if it neglects biblical exegesis in general and exegesis of Paul in particular” (171). He concludes by saying that “Theology and the reading of Scripture belong together. And that belonging is both a description of the history of Pauline and trinitarian studies and a summons to practice those disciplines in a renewed form today” (172). If that is something that intrigues you, or something you are already pursuing, then you need to grab a copy of Hill’s book sooner rather than later.

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Lastly, Rodrick Durst’s Reordering The Trinity: Six Movements of God in The New Testament is worth checking out. Durst argues that we should pay closer attention to the “ordering” of the persons of God when they are mentioned together in the New Testament. There are, obviously six potential combinations:

  • Father-Son-Spirit (18x)
  • Son-Spirit-Father (11x)
  • Son-Father-Spirit (15x)
  • Spirit-Father-Son (14x)
  • Father-Spirit-Son (9x)
  • Spirit-Son-Father (8x)

Each of these orders gets its own chapter of exposition where Durst looks at each occurrence briefly. Before getting to those chapters, there are 4 chapters of background dealing with the status of Trinitarian doctrine in modern theology, basic issues in New Testament interpretation as it relates to the Trinity, triadic presences in the Old Testament, and the traditional development of Trinitarian doctrine.

When it comes to unpacking the orders, Durst sees a theological significance to each:

  • Missional sending
  • Formational shaping
  • Evangelical saving
  • Christological indwelling
  • Liturgical standing
  • Ecclesial uniting

In other words, Durst suggests and argues that the order of the divine persons relates to the function the particular New Testament author is highlighting. He supports this with exposition, numerous charts and diagrams, and concludes with the practical significance this might have for one’s prayer life or preaching.

I found the argument intriguing, and I think well-defended. The strongest counter-argument might be that there is not the level of intentionality on the NT author’s part that Durst suggests. However, he has gone to great lengths to demonstrate the patterning, and if one believes in an over-arching divine author, it’s not really that much of a stretch. Instead, it is a practical strategy for reading the New Testament more closely so that you come to understand the Triune God better.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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