Smith, Brandon D. The Biblical Trinity: Encountering the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. Lexham Press, 2023. 180 pp. Hb; $22.99. Link to Lexham Press
Serving as assistant professor of theology and New Testament at Cedarville, Brandon D. Smith is a co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal and host of the Church Grammar podcast. He recently published The Trinity in the Book of Revelation: Seeing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in John’s Apocalypse (IVP Academic, 2023; reviewed here). Over the years, Smith taught hundreds of students Trinity, church history, and hermeneutics. This little book is the fruit of that ministry.
Smith’s premise in this book is that the doctrine of the Trinity rises from the fullness of what the whole Bible says about God. To understand this doctrine, we need to follow “the logic and grammar of scripture” (1). He offers basic reading strategies and demonstrates those strategies using select passages. The book provides a canonical, theological reading of scripture. He argues the doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the canonical biblical story. God does not change into a Trinity in the New Testament, nor is the Trinity absent from the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity is received in Christian tradition as a faithful reading of Scripture’s presentation of God.
Smith discusses fifteen New Testament passages that contribute to the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, in the synoptic Gospels, he discusses Matthew 9:1-8 (Jesus forgives sin) and the trinitarian commission in Matthew 28:18-20. There are three chapters on key passages in John (1:1-18; 5:17-28; 8:58). Among several Pauline texts are 1 Corinthians 8:6 (“a New Shema”), Ephesians 1:1-14 (“A Triune Salvation”) and Philippians 2:5-11 (Equality with God). Although he wrote a book on the Trinity in Revelation, he only includes Triune Worship in Revelation 4-5.
The final chapter offers three rules for “reading trinitarianly.” First, Christ is the center of the Canon. Developing Jesus’s claim in Luke 24: 44-45, all Scripture refers to him. Smith sees this as the Christological depth of Scripture. Second, the spirit gives understanding 2 Corinthians 3:4-17. We cannot recognize when the Old Testament speaks about Jesus without the Holy Spirit. Third, the Trinity is the biblical grammar of Scripture. Although Smith wants to read the whole canon of Scripture through the lens of the Doctrine of the Trinity, his chapters focus on New Testament texts. He does look back to the Old Testament in every chapter, but his focus is on New Testament passages that contribute to a biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
The chapters in this book are brief and intentionally written as a devotional reflecting on specific passages. Smith often cites or allusions to early church writers (since the Trinity is developed in early church theological reflection). Occasional endnotes refer to commentaries and other essential studies on early Christian doctrine.
Conclusion: This small book does not pretend to be a detailed scriptural argument for the Trinity, nor a history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in church history. Although it contains those elements, the book is better described as a primer on theological interpretation of Scripture.
The book is an attractive small hardback, 5×7 inches, with a dust jacket. It would be an excellent book for a small group Bible study or personal devotional text.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
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.
Wesley Hill attempts a theological reading of several important Pauline texts with respect to the Trinity in order to find a new way through the “Low Christology” vs. “High Christology” debate. In the introductory section of the book, he suggests a method for approaching Pauline theology that reads later patterns of Trinitarian theology alongside several classic Trinitarian texts. The result is a “Trinitarian retooling of Christological discussions” (p. 31). In order to achieve this goal, Hill suggests follows the work of Francis Watson and others by defining God in relation to Jesus. This theological use of relationships within the Trinity is not new since the early church used similar language in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, although it has been challenge
Hill begins his book by comparing several approaches to Pauline Christology usually designated as “high” or “low” Christology. For low Christology begins with the work of James Dunn and James McGrath. Starting point for low Christology is Paul’s Jewish, monotheistic heritage. Paul simply would not have conceived of the relationship of God and Jesus and Trinitarian terms. McGrath argued Paul expanded or split the shema. God and Jesus together do not constitute a single God, but rather there is “one God” and there is “one Lord.” In both Dunn and McGrath, there is a conscious effort to bracket out later Trinitarian theology, since Nicaea would “allow an alien question…to obscure what was at stake in Pauline Christology” (p. 19).
High Christology, on the other hand, begins with the idea of Jesus and God are equal. As has been pointed out by Larry Hurtado, the earliest Pauline Christians worship Jesus, considering him in the closest possible relationship to God the Father. Hurtado and others have pointed out “worshiping Jesus was for the early Christians actually a requisite demonstration of the reverence for God ‘the father’” (p. 64).
Hill thinks the high/low Christology discussion is not particularly helpful for understanding “Paul’s God.” Therefore in the the second part of the book Hill discuss is God’s relationship to Jesus. In order to do this, he examines a series of texts in which God is identified by actions done by/to/in Jesus primarily through Paul’s description of the God of Abraham as the same as the God of Jesus. The same God Abraham trusted is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Galatians is not only a battle for the right interpretation of Abraham’s faith, but also for a right identification of God himself. As Hill concludes, “There is no ‘monotheism’ with Christology” (p.74).
In the third section of the book Hill reverses the direction of the relationship and examines Jesus’s relationship to God in the most significant Pauline texts for understanding the Trinity, Philippians 2:6-11. Hill argues the identities of God and Jesus are “mutually determined” (p. 77). After careful exegesis of Phil 2:6-11, he concludes there is both a unity between God and Jesus in the text as well as distinctions between the two. The Trinitarian pieces are on the table, so to speak, and by applying the insights of Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, and Augustine, Hill concludes the two aspects of Phil 2:6-11 are “irreducible to one another, equally ultimate and non-overlapping” (p. 108). Yet there is a kind of asymmetrical relationship since Jesus is subordinate to the Father in some ways. But for Hill, this does not render the relationship any less mutual.
In the fourth section of the book examines Jesus’ relationship to God in two important texts from 1 Corinthians. First, in 1 Cor 8:6 Paul affirms there is but one God, but also that there is one Lord, Jesus. Hill considers this interpretation of shema to contain the same unity between God and Jesus found in Phil 2:6-11, but also a distinction between Father and Son. Dunn would see this as an example of Paul “splitting the shema” to emphasize the distinction between the two. McGrath rejects this as an unwarranted division since the same kind of formulation appears in 2 Sam 7:22-24. Bauckham, on the other hand, find this statement to be a strong affirmation of the unity between the Father and Son. Hill sees this text as an example of “non-competitive and mutually complementary” Trinitarianism. God the Father and Jesus belong together as the “one God” of the shema as distinct agents.
He finds the same elements in the “second Adam” Christology of 1 Cor 15:24-28. Hill concludes that this asymmetrical mutuality or “redoublement” does justice to both the priority of the Father (who sends the Son) as well as their unity, since the Father depends on the Son in order to be identified as the Father. The Father and Son are interdependent, but they are not interchangeable (p. 135).
The final section of the book examines the role of the Spirit in relation to God and Jesus. Just as the Father and the Son are asymmetrical mutual, so too the Holy Spirit conveys the presence and activity of the risen Lord and is therefore God- and Christ-determined. Texts such as 1 Cor 12:3 indicate the activity of the Spirit is dependent on the Father and Son since no one can confess Jesus as Lord unless through the Spirit. Yet when Paul speaks of the Spirit, it is the Spirit of God who identifies the Father and Son through their mutual relationships. Hill wants to avoid so-called “binitarianism” associated with C. F. D. Moule, although this perspective itself is guided by the high/low Christology discussion. It is the relationship For Hill the Spirit is the “means whereby Jesus mediates his power or presence to and among believers” (p. 164).
Conclusion. Hill recognizes early on that his method can be described as a projection of categories on to the Pauline texts, resulting in exactly the kind of results he expected in the first place (p. 45). This is of course the danger any theological reading of the New Testament faces, since in many ways the conclusion is assumed from the beginning of the project. By treating Pauline theology and later Trinitarian theology in a kind of dialectic, he opens himself to the charge of petitio principia, begging the question. Fourth century dogma can guide exegesis, or as Hill puts it, “theology and exegesis are, or ought to be, mutually dependent” (p. 47).
There are therefore two things going on in this book. First, Hill offers a correction to the high/low Christology discussion. He think both sides fail to adequately describe Paul’s view of the relationship between Father and Son primarily because they consciously ignore later theological discussions of the Trinity. Second, Hill demonstrates a theological exegetical method which balances the historical critical method with a kind of “rule of faith” common in these sorts of studies. His exegetical discussion of Phil 2:6-11 is excellent. Although I personally would not look to Augustine as an exegetical guide, Hill does a good job showing how later Trinitarianism sheds light on the passage. While Hill achieves his goals, scholars who have been active in the high/low Christology debate may not consider Hill’s goals their own.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.