Interview with Matthew Bates on The Birth of the Trinity – Part 2

9780198729563_140This is the second in a two-part interview with Matthew Bates on his recent book The Birth of the Trinity (find the first part HERE)

Matt Bates [MB]: Matt, since you’ve read it, I’ll return the question to you?  What surprised you most?  Anything seem particularly significant to you in addition to what I’ve already mentioned?

Matt Lynch [ML]: Three things stood out to me: (1) You’ve excavated a Trinitarian reading strategy that shows enormous continuity between the NT and early Patristic eras. (2) The idea that this reading strategy goes back to Jesus himself, and in texts that many scholars attribute to the historical Jesus! (3) I loved the reading of Heb 10:6-7, and your description of the Son ‘regifting’ his body back to the Father. As you state, ‘The Father initiates the gracious gift-giving with the presentation of the incarnational body to the Son, yet the Son consummates the gift-giving by offering this very same body back to the father …’ (p.87). This puts the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on a more relational (rather than transactional) footing.

Could you give an example of prosopological exegesis of an Old Testament text?

MB: My favorite example is Romans 15:3.  Paul quotes Psalm 69, saying, “For even the Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The insults of those who insulted you fell upon me.”  Who has Paul identified as the speaker?  The Christ.  Who is the addressee?  God (the Father).  What’s the theodramatic setting for this speech?  Paul probably viewed the Christ as addressing these words to God the Father after his death and resurrection, once he had attained to glory at the Father’s right hand.  From that position, the Christ speaks to God about the purpose of his prior suffering, saying, “The insults of those who insulted you, O God my Father, they fell upon me on the cross.”  The implication is that Paul saw Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as purposed in part to shield God (the Father) from the insults that otherwise would have landed on God.  So, the Son tells God the Father that he acted as a substitute in his place on the cross, bearing the insults that would otherwise have landed on God.

ML: That’s a very personal insight into Trinitarian conversations … as if we’re dealing with … well … persons! If we grant Jesus’ conception of his own pre-existence, as you suggest in the book, how do you move from Jesus’ pre-existence to ontological parity with the Father and Spirit? In other words, how can we say that these theodramatic conversations reveal the birth of the Trinity, and not just belief in the pre-existence of Jesus, a divine being?

MB: Hmmm…  That is a good question.  I can only say that the answer to this question emerges mostly in the detailed interpretations in the book.  But, for instance, when we find in an example of prosopological exegesis in Acts 2:25-28 that the Father is envisioned at the Son’s right hand (reversing the normal positions), it is difficult to escape ontological conclusions entirely.   If you have any additional thoughts about this, Matt L., I’d love to hear them.

ML: Again, you’ve turned the interview around. This is against protocol! OK, I’m just going to control my temper here and answer. … I think this is where the Trinitarian approaches help each other, and in particular, models 3 & 4 mentioned above. Where I find Hurtado & Co. helpful is in understanding how Yhwh devotion was received by Jesus, and with Bauckham & Co. how Jesus does Yhwh stuff. Both of these insights suggest that early followers saw ontological parity between Jesus and Yhwh. In my mind this complements your insights into the pre-existent Jesus and intra-Trinitarian dialogue.

Your book helps give depth to our understanding of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit were seen to be in rich dialogue with one another. Do you think we can read other Old Testament texts theodramatically?

MB: I would say “yes.”  Do you?

ML: I’m not yet settled on this, at least on whether we have sufficient warrant to read any texts in such a way that they provide a previously unseen window into intra-Trinitarian dialogues. Nonetheless, your controls on reading theodramatically (ch. 7) are helpful.

What are the implications of your work for systematic theology?

MB: Well, I’ll be curious to see what the systematicians make of The Birth of the Trinity.  I do believe that my results mesh well with the traditional Nicaean-Constantinopolitan conclusion that God is three persons subsisting in one divine essence, although my work emphasizes the “persons” category.  I wonder if those favoring social models of the Trinity—that is, those who prioritize persons in relationship over one divine essence—will see my book as offering support?  I also wonder if those who emphasize the economic Trinity or the Trinity-as-revealed-in-history will find my work useful for opening up some new scriptural vistas.

Thanks, Matt L., for your excellent questions.  It’s always great to talk with you, whether in person or via the keyboard—and it has been a delight chatting with you about the book.  A final remark:  Research-writing is always arduous, but the time I spent penning The Birth of the Trinity was often an exciting and (dare I say) worshipful experience.  What pleases me most is that a number of readers and reviewers have remarked that the book has enhanced their love for the triune God.  May God be praised: Father, Son, and Spirit.

ML: Thanks Matt. Always a pleasure.

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Interview with Matthew Bates on The Birth of the Trinity – Part 1

bates-matthew9780198729563_140In this post, I interview Matthew W. Bates about his recent book, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2015). Matt received his Ph.D. from Notre Dame, and has served for the past four years as Assistant Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois. In addition to his recent book on the Trinity, Matt has written a book on Paul’s method of interpreting Scripture: The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2012). He has also written articles for Journal of Biblical Literature, Revue biblique, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and The Journal of Theological Studies. Matt has been a good friend since we met at graduate school at Regent College, in Vancouver, B.C.

ML: Matt, thanks for being willing to do this interview with the Theological Miscellany blog.

MB: Thanks, it is a pleasure to be invited.  This is my first “author interview” so my palms are sweating.  Are you are going to hit me with a tricky question that is wrong no matter how I answer:  “So, Matt, since it is clearly heretical to think that the Trinity can be born, why are you so determined to defend this view?”—so that I fumble for words, awkwardly clear my throat, start over several times, and then finally break into tears saying that this isn’t my view at all….  Oh wait, this is a blog interview?  And I can spend as much time as I wish crafting a reply?  Oh, okay, I guess I’m not nervous anymore.

ML: Matt, I’m glad you pulled yourself together. It looked for a moment like this interview was headed for disaster! OK, what’s the big idea in your book?

MB: The big idea is that the concept of the Trinity emerged in earliest Christianity to a large degree because the first Christians were reading their Old Testament in a specific person-centered fashion.  They were in the habit of searching the OT for unmarked dialogical shifts and then seeking to tease out the identity of the speaker.  The technical term for this is prosopological exegesis (combining the Greek word “prosopon” for person or mask and “logos” for word or divine-inspiring agent).  So, the idea of Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct divine persons capable of conversing with one another in a time-transcending fashion emerged in connection with a specific reading strategy.  Christians of the New Testament era were reading their OT in such a way that God was differentiated as persons in conversation.  Moreover I think that it can be demonstrated that this divine differentiation was not an arbitrary way of reading the OT, but is a “good” reading strategy.

ML: Has anyone argued this before?

MB: Not for the earliest Christianity of the New Testament.  A few scholars of the patristic era (roughly the second to the fifth century) have suggested that prosopological exegesis was vital to Trinitarian developments (e.g., Carl Andresen, Marie-Josephe Rondeau, and Michael Slusser).  But these scholars generally begin with Tertullian and Origen and move forward in time to show how prosopological exegesis functioned in the third and fourth century and beyond.  No other full-scale study of which I am aware has ever traced this back into the NT time period.

ML: Prior to your work, what were the common historical data points for plotting the development of belief in the Trinity?

MB: The three main ways other scholars currently plot the development of the belief in the Trinity are as follows: (1) Trinitarianism by encounter with the historical Jesus—the assertion that earthly Jesus was so obviously divine that the doctrine of the Trinity more or less emerged instantly around him; (2) Trinitarianism by Hellenistic philosophical imposition—the notion that the Trinity emerged when Jewish monotheism gave way to Greek philosophical categories of thought;  (3) Trinitarianism as the outgrowth of mediated Jewish monotheism—the idea that within Judaism certain intermediaries served to broker God to the world (e.g., angels, wisdom, logos), and that as Jesus and the Spirit came to be described in terms of these intermediaries, they came to be regarded as divine.  Now within these three broad streams there are all kinds of off-shoots.  For example, Larry Hurtado insists that Jesus was worshipped from the beginning, but nevertheless mediatorial categories were important.  Meanwhile Richard Bauckham (followed by N. T. Wright and others) thinks Jesus and God shared a unique personal identity (usually called a “Christology of Divine Identity”).  So my model could be considered a new model that does not obviate, but supplements and corrects various dimensions of these other models:  (4) Trinitarianism by continuity in prosopological exegesis—that is, the reading strategy that allowed our NT authors to differentiate the one God of Israel was the same strategy used by the later Fathers of the church when they more definitively framed the doctrine of the Trinity.

ML: What is the most surprising or significant find of your book?

MB: Personally, I was surprised that the study proved to be so exegetically and theologically generative.  The NT is such heavily worked ground that it is unusual to be able to offer an interpretation of a passage that has never before been proposed by another scholar.  But numerous novel interpretations of specific biblical passages emerged.  I’ll be curious to see how other scholars assess these.

I would identify three things as especially significant: (1) a new historical model for how the doctrine of the Trinity first emerged; (2) the suggestion that “Divine Identity Christology” and other NT Christological models need to take into account NT data showing that Jesus Christ was understood to be a divine person who conversed with other divine persons—i.e., we find what I term a “Christology of Divine Persons” in the NT; (3) when Jesus Christ was regarded as speaking in the OT this wasn’t because our NT authors were reading “typologically” (contra Richard Hays) but rather prosopologically.

Part two is available here.

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Schizophrenic Jesus?

Schizophrenic Jesus?

Imagine you were facing an inquisition and, on pain of torture, mutilation, and exile, they asked you to answer the following question correctly: ‘How many ‘wills’ does Jesus have – one or two?’ Apart from thinking you’d stumbled into a Monty Python sketch, what else might go through your mind? Is that even a question? Isn’t the answer obvious? Is it a trick question? But you’re being pressed now for the correct answer – one or two? And they’re serious. So what’s your answer?

I’m guessing, if you’ve never studied theology, you’re going with one. One will. Jesus had God’s will didn’t he? He always did what the Father wanted him to do, and anyway, he was God, even though he was a man, and it makes no sense to say that he had two, so we’ll go with one. I’m saying one – one will. Am I right?

Well, if you’d given that answer to your inquisitors in Constantinople in 662 AD they’d have slapped you on the back, given you a commendation and a piece of cake and sent you on your way. You were right. Phew! That was lucky.

Only if you’d given that answer in Constantinople in 681 AD, less than 20 years later, you’d have been………..wrong. The answer was two – and it still is.

What? How and why did that happen?

This did actually happen. An elderly monk called Maximus faced a trial where he was told that if he didn’t agree with the emperor’s ruling that Jesus only had one will (a divine will), that he and his disciples would be exiled. He couldn’t agree. Maximus believed that as the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human will. He was exiled to Thrace in 655 and told to keep his subversive ideas quiet, except he didn’t. He was hauled back in 661 and cross-examined. He dug his heels in. Jesus Christ had two wills. As a punishment, he had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off so he could no longer speak or write his dreadful heresy. He was exiled again and died soon after on August 13th, 662. Shocking, hey?

What’s more shocking is that less than 20 years later, a council was called, and they changed their minds! Maximus was right after all. Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human one – and so it stands. No wonder he was made a saint.

There were politics involved. Of course there were politics. This time between the East and the West, the Roman and the Byzantine church, and Maximus was on the wrong side of the political divide. But it wasn’t just that. In amongst the political wranglings this was a row about who God is in Christ, and how he saves us. This is why Maximus dug his heels in, and why he was prepared to lose his precious tongue and his precious hand – all for the sake of an idea.

What is it about Christian doctrine, what we believe about God and why, that becomes a matter of life and death – literally? This is a fascinating question. In following posts, I’ll explain why Maximus was prepared to die for his idea. I’ll look at why the idea of Jesus having two wills wasn’t and still isn’t a dry and fusty academic debate, and why the Eastern church made a decision in the end that this was, in fact, the correct answer.

To read further, click HERE.

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