Unmasking Prosopological Exegesis: Defining a New (and Improved?) Way to Read Scripture

rosary and face mask on top of a bible

Prosopological exegesis.

Have you heard of it? If not, that’s alright, I suspect this technique for reading Scripture will run its course in the next decade and be replaced by another interpretive fad in the 2030s. In the mean time, however, this way of (mis)reading Scripture will find its way into articles, book, commentaries, and pulpits. And for that reason, students of the Word and especially teachers who rely on the scholarship of others (read: all of us), should be( a)ware of this approach to reading the Bible Christologically. 

To those who have been stuck in hermeneutical circles that deny typology and the need to read Scripture canonically, prosopological exegesis (PE) may sound like a great gain, as the voices of God are “unmasked” in certain parts of the Old Testament. But as Peter GentryJim Hamilton, and Jim Dernell have each argued, this ostensibly Christ-centered approach to the Old Testament misreads God’s Word. Instead of following OT texts and types until they come to their full revelation in the New Testament, as God the Father, Son, and Spirit are revealed as the one God in three persons, PE takes a shortcut to the persons of the Trinity. For this reason, it is a “naughty” way to read Scripture, as Michael Carlino argues in his new piece at Christ Over All:Give Diamonds, Not Coal: Why Prosopological Exegesis is Not the Gift You Are Looking For.”

Tomorrow, I will share my own concerns with prosopological exegesis. But today, I will offer an explanation of what PE is. What follows, then, is part of my Southern Baptist Journal of Theological article, “Reading the Psalms with the Church: A Critical Evaluation of Prosopological Exegesis in Light of Church History.” You can find this SBJT article here, along with another article that gives a constructive proposal for reading the Psalms. In both articles, I show why PE is not a reliable method to reading Scripture, and what follows is the start of that argument—namely, defining what prosopological exegesis is.

What Is Prosopological Exegesis?

In this excerpt from “Reading the Psalms with the Church: A Critical Evaluation of Prosopological Exegesis in Light of Church History” SBJT 25.3 (2021): 85–87, I explain what PE is and is trying to do. Based on the works of Matthew Bates, Craig Carter, and Madison Pierce, PE

  1. Derives its origin from ancient literary and dramatic practices
  2. Rejects typology as a modern invention of the Enlightenment
  3. Offers a theological explanation for the trinity, i.e., it is critical for undergirding classical Christology
  4. Appeals to Hebrews a guide for interpreting the Old Testament

Here is the full text.

In his seminal work on the subject, Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, Matthew Bates picks up the Greek word prosōpon (“face,” “person”) and defines prosopological exegesis as “a reading technique whereby an interpreter seeks to overcome a real or perceived ambiguity regarding the identity of the speakers or addressees (or both) in the divinely inspired source text by assigning nontrivial prosopa (i.e., nontrivial vis-à-vis the ‘plain sense’ of the text) to the speakers or addressees (or both) in order to make sense of the text.”[1]

This definition suggests that in Scripture, there are places, especially in the Psalms, where we hear the voice of God directly. Or, to put it more precisely, “Prophets, such as David and Isaiah, were enabled to overhear conversations between God the Father and God the Son. The prophets took on the prosopa of the members of Trinity and spoke in character in their writings.”[2] In Craig Carter’s “primer” to PE, he depends entirely on Bates and his development of this hermeneutical approach.[3] And in his summary, he outlines four facets of PE, which I will engage with here.[4]

First, PE derives its origins from “ancient literary criticism, classical Greek drama, and classical rhetoric.”[5] This means, that the authors of New Testament employed this Greco-Roman method of interpretation, applying it to divine speech in various Old Testament passages. Moreover, ancient readers, and this would include the Apostles, would have known to look for speakers interrupting the flow of thought in ambiguous texts. On this point, Bates observes three kinds of “markers” found in ancient texts (e.g. “explicitly introduced,” “marked,” and “unmarked” prosopological exegesis), each of which provide more or less clarity about who is speaking in the text.[6] Carter builds on Bates, as well, arguing that Paul’s “Greco-Roman milieu” is as important as the background of Second Temple Judaism.[7] The rationale for this “diachronic intertextuality” is based on Bates’ belief that a full contextual reading includes what came before the text, what comes alongside the text, and what comes after the text.[8]

Second, PE rejects a typological reading of Scripture as a modern invention of the Enlightenment. As Hans Frei, Frances Young, and others have defined typology, it was a “bridge” invented by Enlightenment scholars to fill the gap between the literal sense of the text and the theological/ethical meaning of the text.[9] Because the ancient authors assumed the historical veracity of the (supernatural) events they reported, and critical scholars do not, typology is an acceptable way to turn history into theology and ethics.

Accordingly, PE rejects a typological reading of Scripture as a product of anti-supernaturalism. Channeling Bates, Carter inveighs, “In the end, typology is a modern solution to modern problem and we would be wise to heed Bates warning not to ‘foist our peculiar modern notions of history and referentiality onto Paul.’ Modern concepts of typology serve more to mask the problem then to solve it.”[10] In the place of typology, a prosopological reading is offered, which rejects the modern practice of typology and affirms the divine nature of God’s Word.

Third, PE offers the reader a theological explanation for trinitarian orthodoxy. This is why Psalm 2, 45, and 110 are three of the passages most commonly cited when explaining PE. In these passages, we find proof texts for eternal generation and eternal relations of origin, so it is argued. Accordingly, theologians like Bates, Carter, and Madison Pierce, have appealed to PE over against biblicist interpretations that deny classical theism.[11] In truth, PE lends itself to a robust theological interpretation of Scripture, but at what cost? We will have to consider below.

Fourth, PE appeals to Hebrews as the biblical model for reading the Psalms. As Bates notes about the citation of Psalm 40 in Hebrews 10:8–10, there is considerable ambiguity about who is speaking in Psalm 40.[12] Defending Bates’ interpretation, Carter writes, “The words of Psalm 40 make perfect sense when read as the words of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which is exactly what the author of Hebrews does. But how can Jesus Christ be speaking in Psalm 40, a millennium prior to the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus? This is the question answered by prosopological exegesis.”[13]

In fact, in her chapter on the “Son” in Hebrews 1, Madison Pierce says the same thing concerning Hebrews 1:5: “In each of these quotations from Scripture, first Psalm 2:7 and then 2 Samuel 7:14, the author of Hebrews capitalizes on an ambiguity or tension within the text or its subsequent interpretation in order to identity the addressee of the speech as Jesus.”[14] This ambiguity in the text is what permits the author of Hebrews to employ PE, so she argues.[15] Similarly, in his book on the Trinity, Bates makes the same case, showing how the New Testament, including Hebrews, reads Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:1 and other passages as “divine dialogues from the dawn of time.”[16]

Without describing every detail of PE, it is clear PE will have a significant impact on the Psalms—how they are read, interpreted, and applied theologically. Therefore, the question becomes: Will PE improve our reading of the Psalms and the unity found therein? Or will PE actually have the negative effect of analyzing the Psalms by separating them into various stratifications of speech? My questions frame the answer. Without intending to, PE undermines the unity of the Psalms, which impacts its message, meaning, and theology.

With this definition in view, I go on to respond to each point. Tomorrow, I’ll share those reflections here. But if you can’t wait, you can read them here. Also, I would encourage you to read Michael Carlino’s appraisal of proposological exegesis, as it gives a short but substantive response to PE.

In both of these evaluations, we are calling for students and scholars to read Scripture on its own terms, and not to go looking for meaning behind the text. This is a basic premise in biblical hermeneutics. And it is one we should keep, even as new methods of interpretations are promising diamonds quarried from the past. I’m not convinced. And I don’t think you should be either.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] Bates, Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, 218. This definition has been followed by Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 192. Cf. Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Carter, Great Tradition, 193.

[3] Carter, Great Tradition, 192–201.

[4] While I will engage Bates throughout this section, I cite Carter to show how other are depending upon and using his methodology.

[5] Carter, Great Tradition, 194.

[6] Bates, Apostolic Proclamation, 218.

[7] Carter, Great Tradition, 200. The

[8] Bates, Apostolic Tradition, 54–55. Actually, he lists nine different “inter-texts” that readers should consider in their interpretation (53–54).

[9] Carter, Great Tradition, 195.

[10] Carter, Great Tradition, 196. Cf. Bates, Apostolic Proclamation, 135.

[11] Madison Pierce, “Hebrews 1 and the Son Begotten ‘Today,’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 117–31.

[12] Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christians Interpretations of the Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1.

[13] Carter, Great Tradition, 194.

[14] Madison Pierce, “Hebrews 1,” 120.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bates, The Birth of the Trinity, 41­–84. For my response to this chapter, see my second article.