Prosopological Exegesis: Four Reasons Not to Buy This Modern Approach to Scripture

books on the table

Yesterday, I explained in four points what Prosopological Exegesis (PE) was and is. Today, I offer a point-by-point examination.

This excerpt comes from the following from “Reading the Psalms with the Church: A Critical Evaluation of Prosopological Exegesis in Light of Church History” SBJT 25.3 (2021): 87–91. The larger article engages various approaches to the Psalms, and compares older modern versions of Psalm studies to the new approach found in PE. Suffice it to say, I am concerned with what PE offers. And here are four reasons why:

  1. PE’s use of Greco-Roman literary tools and dramatic practices are anachronistic, and should not be used for interpreting Scripture.
  2. PE’s rejection of Enlightenment typology misses the way Scripture employs typology; we need to go back and evaluate what true biblical typology is and is not.
  3. PE’s defense of orthodox doctrine comes at the expense of biblical unity, an interpretive practice that will ultimately undercut orthodoxy.
  4. PE’s interpretation of Hebrews is mistaken; we need to evaluate how Scripture interprets Scripture.

Here is the full text, explaining each point in detail.

For the four reasons listed above, I do not find PE a tenable option for reading the Psalter. More generally, I contend that PE, while advertising itself as a pre-critical method of interpretation, continues to proffer a thoroughly modern reading of the Psalms. As evidenced by a comparison with the critical tendencies of modern interpreters (e.g., Gunkel, Mowinckel, etc.), PE continues to look behind the text for a pristine word from God. It also divides up the Psalms into smaller, disconnected units, with the effect that it eliminates the unity of the Psalter, which in turn misses the message of the Psalms. As more recent

In attempting to retrieve pre-critical methods of interpretations, the purveyors of PE are still pursuing modern and postmodern methods of interpretation. By looking for voices behind the text and meaning in theological community who is reading the text, PE combines ancient practices with modern and postmodern hermeneutics. Additionally, by changing the way authorial intent is pursued, and by inserting divine speech that may or may not fit the context of the original psalmist, PE is dividing the canon of Scripture and creating a caste of proper interpreters (e.g., hermeneutical priests) who can rightly see the voices behind the text. These are just a few of the problems that PE creates, as I will show in the four following responses.

First, Peter Gentry has rightly observed that the Greco-Roman origin of PE is anachronistic for the prophets of Israel and the first generation of Christians. Concluding his evaluation of PE, he writes,

First, it is unlikely that the Apostles were aware of the methods promoted in the rhetorical handbooks. This is anachronistic. Certainly, the Church Fathers were trained in these techniques, but the evidence that Jews in the First Century interpreted texts this way is untenable. The evidence from the Aramaic Targums is also anachronistic. And why should we look for inspiration from Greek and Roman handbooks on rhetoric popular from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD and favor this over evidence, for example, from Second Temple Judaism?[1]

Even if it can be proven that PE was practiced concurrently with the New Testament, as Dernell cautiously allows in his appraisal of PE, the influence on the New Testament writers remains a question.[2] Moreover, the influence on Old Testament prophets is even more unlikely. If the provenance of PE proves anything, therefore, it proves that PE is a method of reading, more than a self-conscience practice of the Old Testament prophets. For those who uncouple divine authorial intent from human authorial intent,[3] and for others who understand typology and allegory as methods of interpretation, as opposed to the way Scripture is written, this may not be a problem.[4] But, if we believe that there is a meaning in the text, and that meaning is found in the words of the original author, then such a method of interpretation cannot work without doing damage to the Bible itself.[5]

Because PE places meaning in the mind of the interpreter, instead of the original author, we have returned to modern approach to the Bible. Equally, because PE engages in a “non-contextual form of exegesis,”[6] it opens the door to a postmodern reading where meaning is supplied by the community who holds the text. Currently, scholars like Bates and Carter offer a theologically correct interpretation in the texts where they find personal ambiguities. While such orthodoxy, governed by the Great Tradition, may appear valid, it means the reader must supply the meaning. And that meaning will depend upon the tradition (i.e., the Great Tradition or something else) from which the reader comes.

As Bates understands interpretation, it is appropriate to read the text of Scripture in light pre-texts, co-texts, and subsequent-texts, which he defines the latter as “any sociohistorical discourse that emerges in the wake of the text.”[7] Pushing the envelope of interpretation which only depends on pretexts, Bates opens the door to understand passages based upon the way they are used by later readers. He calls this approach “diachronic intertextuality,” and it is a bedrock for his hermeneutical method.[8] In other words, he builds his entire approach to Scripture on the fact that later texts and interpreters (i.e., reception history) can and should inform the meaning of earlier texts.[9]

Again, this is anachronistic, but worse, it threatens the canonical enterprise of interpreting Scripture with Scripture. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura leads us to read the text on its own terms and not to define the terms of Scripture by the later traditions of the church. This dependence on later traditions (i.e., reception history) is what the Reformation stood against, and it is something that stands against PE too. We will consider this further below, but for now, it is important to recognize how seismic Bates’ proposal is. What is at stake is not just the interpretation of a few verses, although interpretation of the Psalms is at issue. What is at stake are the principles of the Reformation itself.

Second, if a typological reading of Scripture is a modern invention, created to resolve the fact-value problem that exists between a Bible replete with supernatural claims and anti-supernatural scholarship, then PE is absolutely correct to reject typology. However, there is another approach to typology which arises from the text of Scripture itself. As Graeme Goldsworthy, Ardel Caneday, Steve Wellum, Brent Parker and others have demonstrated, typology is not just a method of interpretation, it is the way Scripture is written.[10] Therefore, to prefer PE over against all kinds of typology, because one typology is errant, is a red herring.

The first question that needs to be answered is: What is typology? And who gets to define it? In the case of Bates, he is championing PE by condemning typology fabricated by men and women who deny the divine inspiration of the Bible and the supernatural work of God.[11] At the same time, he does not consider other advocates of typology who share his supernaturalism and commitment to Scripture as God’s Word.

So, Bates rightly affirms God’s action in the world and the supernaturalism of Scripture. But he does so ignoring the way typology is found in Scripture, and has been articulated by Protestants for centuries. Sadly, by only interacting with modern interpreters and then retrieving interpretive practices from the Greco-Roman world, he throws the baby out with the bathwater. And worse, by not engaging with the principles of the Reformation, he conjoins ancient and modern methods of interpretation, with the result that the clarity and unity of Scripture is undermined.

Indeed, the entire project of PE depends upon ambiguity in the text. Instead of letting concentric circles of biblical context inform our interpreation of difficult texts, PE suggests that there is voice behind the text that we can and must identify.[12] This move is of a piece with higher criticism. In source and redaction criticism, the question is: What community, school, or human voice is speaking behind the text? In PE, the question is similar: What member of the Trinity is speaking behind the author? By his own standards, he judges critical scholars as errantly seeking a “indubitably pristine” pre-history. But he does the same thing in the annals of eternity.

Comparatively, PE is far better than JEDP, but is it true to the nature of God’s Word? Does PE rightly uphold the unity and clarity of Scripture? Moreover, for those who still claim to be courageously Protestant, does it permit the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura, where Scripture interprets Scripture? I would argue not. Instead, it requires creedal statements to provide the orthodox interpretation of passages like Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. Theologically, this may maintain theology proper, but only for so long. Ultimately, bad hermeneutics undermine good theology.[13]

The third point follows directly from the second—namely, that it is impossible to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy when biblical unity is compromised. For a time, the church may be able to confess the creeds without proper biblical exegesis, but for those creedal statements to endure and have their intended effect—to maintain the faith of the saints—they must draw life from God’s Word.

Ironically, many of those who are appealing to PE simultaneously criticize advocates of eternal functional subordination (EFS) for proof-texting their views on the Trinity. But what is PE but a more elegant attempt at proof-texting? When PE suggests that Psalm 2:7 or Psalm 40:6–8 are divine speech, independent of the surrounding context, they are finding texts to support true doctrines, but without finding meaning in the texts themselves.[14] To put it differently, advocates of PE are permitting (or affirming) ambiguity in the text of Scripture, instead of showing how apparent tensions are resolved in the text itself. Again, this may work in the short term, but in the long term, it castrates the clarity of Scripture and bids an uncertain Word to produce clear doctrine. It cannot work that way. Clear doctrines depend upon a clear Bible, not the other way around.

Fourth, Hebrews gives us a model for interpreting the Old Testament. On this point all sides agree. The question is: How does Hebrews use the Old Testament, and especially the Psalms? As noted above, PE sees in Hebrews a direct connection between the Psalms and the Messiah. Downplaying typology, advocates of PE prefer to see Psalm 40:6–8 and other texts as immediately placed in the mouth of the Messiah.

In other words, instead of seeing the Incarnate Son taking up these Psalms and putting them in his mouth, they perceive that these verses were always and for eternity the words of the Divine Son. Again, this approach denies the progressive nature of revelation and biblical typology as a predictive reality in the Old Testament. Simultaneously, it affirms the rhetorical use of divine persons and anachronistic reading of the text.

Such an approach fails to appreciate the original unity of the Psalms, as well as, the progressive nature of Scripture that leads from the prophets to the Incarnate Son (Heb. 1:1). It also raises more questions about the unity and clarity of Scripture. If we learn anything from Church history, it is the fact the Roman Catholic Church came to formulate doctrines based upon apostolic tradition, the magisterium, and papal authority. In short, what PE offers in a pre-critical reading of Scripture, it takes away in its appeal to the Great Tradition, which is not located too far from Rome.

To put it more sharply, if sola Scriptura means anything, it means we must go back to Scripture and evaluate what it says, what it means, and which interpretation best handles all the biblical data—from the smallest unit of meaning (the sentence or stanza) to the largest (the whole canon). This Reformation principle of interpretation, often maligned and misunderstood, does not deny the place of tradition in the ministerial sense. It only denies Tradition in the magisterial sense.[15] And as it relates to interpreting the Psalter and the use of the Psalms in places like Hebrews, we need to be unashamedly Protestant—which is to say, we need to let Scripture have the first and last word. This is what PE does not do.

Instead of leading the reader to see what the Scripture says at the textual, epochal, and canonical levels, or to see what the Psalms say at the level of psalm, Psalter, and canon, it permits and requires the interpreter—for the sake of theological orthodoxy—to look behind the text, remove verses from context, and espouse ambiguity in the Bible.[16] To be fair, Bates and his followers argue for a canonical reading of the Psalms too. That canonical reading, however, does not proceed through the various concentric circles in context.[17] Rather, their canonical reading is closer to a “ruled reading” that lets the regula fide (rule of faith) govern the final interpretation of a passage.

Again, this may be doctrinally helpful for those who are new to Scripture, just like a Study Bible provides instant understanding (rightly or wrongly) of the Bible. But methodologically, this is the way to Rome and its first-order dependence on Tradition. For this reason, I am arguing that the pre-critical reading strategies espoused by Bates, Carter, and others is not as helpful as they submit. Nor does their method of interpretation best interpret the Psalms or any part of Scripture.

Like any number of modern architectural styles, the new interpretive system of Prosopological Exegesis is as modern (and postmodern) as it is ancient. And as I have tried to show above, it is alien to the natural and beautiful setting of Scripture. For that reason, I believe it will dated and quickly left behind. Or at least, I hope and pray so. But until then, it is important students and scholars recognize what it is and demonstrate its biblical inadequacies.

If you want to consider this subject more, I would encourage you to read the articles by Michael Carlino, Peter Gentry, and Jim Dernell. Or you can read the other half of this article, which presents a different approach to reading the Psalter, one that gives better attention to the human and divine authors. Here’s the title: “Reading Psalms 2 and 110 with the Grain of Scripture: A Proposal for Reading the Psalter Canonically.” Let me know what you think.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] Gentry, “A Preliminary Evaluation and Critique of Prosopological Exegesis,” 119.

[2] Dernell, “Typology, Christology, and Prosopological Exegesis,” 139–40.

[3] See Carter, Great Tradition, 44.

[4] For an appraisal of making allegory and typology a matter of interpretive method, see Brent Parker, “Typology and Allegory: Is There a Distinction? A Brief Examination of Figural Reading,” SBJT 21.1 (2017): 57–83.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Bates, Apostolic Proclamation, 54.

[8] Bates, The Birth of the Trinity, 58.

[9] Engaging with critical scholars in his The Birth of the Trinity, 56–58, Bates criticizes the tendency to look for an “indubitably pristine” history behind the text. “The irony,” he writes, “is that in spinning stories of Christian dogmatic development, scholarship has by and large significantly overvalued the evidence of the hypothetical pre-history and redactional layers that we do not actually possess (and about which there is lack of scholarly agreement), but has undervalued the non-hypothetical coeval and subsequent Christian texts that we do actually have” (58). He then qualifies himself, but further discloses his commitments to higher-criticism, “This is not a drumbeat for uncritically back-reading later ideas into earlier texts, nor is it a rejection of source, form, and redaction criticism, but it is a call for methodological rebalancing by incorporating early reception history into our historical-critical toolbox” (58).

Importantly, Bates is describing the way doctrine is developed in church history more than way Scripture speaks. But that is the point. He does not make a sufficient allowance for the difference between the way we read Scripture and Tradition, which only reaffirms my concern that his method list towards Rome.

[10] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006); A. B. Caneday, Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured: “Which Things Are Written Allegorically” (Galatians 4:21–31), SBJT 14.3 (2010): 50–77, esp. 65–66; Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 102–08; Parker, “Typology and Allegory,” 57–83.

[11] It is striking that among the scholars he chooses to interact with in his first book, none are advocating typology in the Reformed Protestant tradition. Accordingly, he is responding to critical scholars with an approach that maintains many critical presuppositions (e.g., looking behind the text, denying authorial intent, and dividing the unity of the text), even as he affirms (thankfully) the divine inspiration of the Bible and classical theism. This is worlds apart from critical scholarship, and yet, because it methodological origins are reacting to certain tendencies in the academy (not unlike Neo-Orthodoxy), it is not wholly divorced from critical practices of interpretation.

[12] On the three contexts of Scripture, see Nicholas G. Piotrowski, In All the Scriptures: The Three Contexts of Biblical Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021).

[13] Ironically, this is a driving concern for Bates too. Raising the question of PE’s validity, he writes, “As this question is posed, much of Christianity itself is suspended over a precipice, hanging by a slender thread, for the question touches upon matters of supreme concern to all it holds dear. For if the thesis argued throughout this book is correct, that a specific theodramatic reading technique, prosopological exegesis, was irreducibly essential to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, then if this method cannot find adequate hermeneutical footing, Trinitarian dogma as central as it is to every dimension of Christianity as currently conceived—might be undermined.” (The Birth of the Trinity, 176)

Bates question is vital, as it rightly understands a connection between biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. But his answer jumps the shark, as it puts too much weight—indeed the whole of Christianity—upon his hermeneutic proposal. Is it true that if prosopological exegesis is wrong, the whole doctrine of the Trinity collapses? I think not. Dernell’s assessment of the Early Church is far better, in large part, because it is more modest:

The Fathers often intuited biblically warranted connections, but the warrant is better explained in the trajectories established in Scripture itself. These are the ancient paths we should tread, and we honor the legacy of the Fathers by holding their methods accountable to the Scriptures they sought to explain and defend. (Dernell, “Typology, Christology, and Prosopological Exegesis,” 154).

In agreement with Dernell, we should search for and make plain the trajectories of Scripture, with appreciation for but not enslavement to the Patristics.

Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity depends upon the triune God who speaks in Scripture and a Spirit-led reading of the whole canon. It moves too quickly, and in the wrong direction, to say that PE is that right reading, just because the Patristics arrived at the right doctrine. If a wrong method resulted in a right doctrine, we can give thanks to God for his abundant mercy and providence. But we dare not hold fast to an errant method of interpretation if the Scripture leads us to a different conclusion. And that is the point at issue—What does Scripture say?

[14] This is not to say, advocates of PE do not care about sensus literalis, it is only to say that like the Early Church, there is permission for the text to have multiple meanings. The question at issue is one of authorial intent. For those who affirm the need to find the author’s intent, as I do, PE cannot be adopted without significant qualification. On various forms of PE, see Dernell, “Typology, Christology, and Prosopological Exegesis,” 141–42.

[15] On this difference between tradition as ministerial and Tradition as magisterial, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 151–85.

[16] On the importance of reading Scripture along the lines of textual, epochal, and canonical horizons, see Richard J. Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 293–310. Applied to the Psalms, see John C. Crutchfield, Psalms in the Their Context: An Interpretation of Psalms 107–118 (Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2011).

[17] So Lints and Crutchfield.

One thought on “Prosopological Exegesis: Four Reasons Not to Buy This Modern Approach to Scripture

  1. Thanks for this, Dr. Schrock. This was very helpful. I’ve heard of PE and haven’t yet read Bates’ book on it, yet I was never convinced by what I did hear. Glad to be able to read this and to read further articles.

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