Smith, Brandon D. The Trinity in the Book of Revelation: Seeing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in John’s Apocalypse. Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022. 221 pp. Pb; $35. Link to IVP Academic
Brandon D. Smith is assistant professor of theology and New Testament at Cedarville University. He is also a co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal and host of the Church Grammar podcast. The Trinity in Revelation is a “somewhat condensed version” of his Ph.D. dissertation at Ridley College under Michael Bird. In this new volume of the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, Smith uses tools and reading strategies (both ancient and modern) which will help engage in a trinitarian reading of Revelation. The method uses biblical theology, systematic theology, church history, and patristics (34) all under the umbrella of a theological, canonical approach.
Daniel Trier and Kevin Vanhoozer edited the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series (and contributed the first volume, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account, IVP Academic 2016). The series contributes to systematic theology from an evangelical perspective. The volumes aim at a fresh understanding of Christian doctrine through creative engagement with Scripture. As they observe in the introduction, the series seeks to engage Scripture but also promotes dialogue with Catholic tradition. This series addresses a weakness in evangelical theology: a relative lack of interest in the church’s shared creedal heritage.
Smith gives an overview of Christology and the book of Revelation in the first chapter. Does Revelation portray Jesus as an angel (Adele Yarbro-Collins, Loren Stuckenbruck)? Or does Revelation present Jesus as a divine being (Bauckham, Hurtado, Ian Paul)? Or, as Udo Schnelle suggested, is the Christology of Revelation “more blurry”? For example, Schnelle sees the lamb as subordinate to God, but the lamb is primary in the theology of Revelation. He sees this as a tension that cannot be resolved. As Smith observes, this shows that both extremes make good points. He, therefore, suggests that “this debate proceeds from what is largely undebatable” (11). John has a theological commitment, an intense messianic devotion, and a pneumatic experience.
In the first chapter, Smith sketches the Theological Interpretation of Scripture and acknowledges his debt to Daniel Yeago’s 1994 article on the New Testament and Nicene Dogma. Essentially, a pro-Nicene reading, or Scripture (to use Lewis Ayres’s term), refers to the culture of the fourth century, which resulted in the orthodoxy recognized at the council of Constantinople (381). A “trinitarian reading of Revelation” observes how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature yet are distinct persons (16). Some readers will object to this as anachronistic since it reads later Christian theology back into a Jewish Christian document like Revelation. Nevertheless, Smith disagrees. The orthodoxy that finally appears in the creeds is based on a close reading of the Scripture. Or, to put this another way, what would have “counted as evidence” in Revelation for the orthodox understanding of the Trinity that emerged at the council of Constantinople? “If one investigates the roles and descriptions of the Christ or the lamb and the spirit in Revelation, a trinitarian dynamic is clear and thus must be engaged” (23).
By a close reading of the text, Smith says this includes textual, grammatical, and neurotypical choices that illuminate his theology (22). However, this is not a historical-critical method or a “stunted historical-grammatical approach.” This sort of modernist approach finds the sole meaning of the text in the modernist idea of sensus literalis. By close reading, Smith seeks the sensus plenior, the “full sense of the text and the deeper theological meaning” (23). Once again, many scholars find this theological reading (or confessional reading) to be anachronistic and eisegetical. It is a non-starter in many parts of the academy. There is a great deal of suspicion when a writer begins to read later trinitarian theology back into the New Testament.
However, Theological Interpretation of Scripture people do not care about that objection. The method is based on reading the final creedal forms back into the New Testament. Smith thinks “Revelation is arguably the best case study for whether these patristics concepts work (184).
This method recognizes the Bible as a theological book, and any theological statement should include the whole canon scripture (not just the New Testament). Smith points out that one cannot read Revelation rightly without a canonical approach since the book is “rife with Old Testament intertextuality” (28). He argues that in Revelation, what John is doing is what early Christians did: attempting to explain the roles and relationship of Jesus and the Holy Spirit with respect to Jewish monotheism (32).
Chapters 2-4 work out this method for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each chapter begins with a short introduction, followed by the patristic conceptions of the father, son, or Holy Spirit. Smith builds a “pro-Nicene grammar,” a patristic lens through which he will read Revelation. The key theme in this section is how the fathers expressed both unity and distinction within the Trinity.
Following this section is an interpretation of select passages in Revelation which contribute to the orthodox view of the Trinity. It should not be surprising that the chapter on Christology is the most extended section since this is where the controversy is. No one argues that God the father is not God. The chapter on the Holy Spirit is the briefest, the select passages only concern Revelation 1-3. John’s pneumatology “bears a family resemblance to the Jewish traditions of the Old Testament, Qumran, Philo, Josephus, Enoch,  Ezra, and even the Greek poet Hesiod” (169).
The book concludes with a final chapter, a constructive account of the Trinity and Revelation. He reviews the evidence of chapters 2-4 and then interacts with Bauckham and Hurtado, suggesting a theological interpretation of Scripture helps move beyond high/low Christology and binitarism (178). Smith argues that historically driven methods still do not satisfy the need for clear categories of unity and distinction. High/low Christology puts Jesus on an axis, introducing a tension between monotheism and Christology. Smith believes his pro-Nicene reading of Revelation overcomes those tensions by offering more precise categories about unity and distinction.
Conclusion. Smith provides an excellent example of Theological Interpretation of Scripture by demonstrating how the Book of Revelation contributes to later Christian theology on the Trinity. Readers who do not care for the methods of Theological Interpretation of Scripture will struggle with the book, but that should not detract from the contribution Smith has made to a theological reading of Revelation. I wonder: could someone read Revelation using the methods described here but chose Arius instead of Nicaea? Would the results be equally valid?
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.