Book Review

“The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation,” by Scott R. Swain

Steven J. Duby
Scott R. Swain
Monday, May 2nd 2022
May/Jun 2022


Lexham | 2021 | 144 pages (hardcover) | $19.99

Scott Swain has established himself as one of today’s leading voices on the doctrine of the Trinity and on the practice of reading Scripture to grasp its theological and spiritual substance. In The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation, Swain has gathered together several of his essays on these two subjects, providing an opportunity for readers to benefit more easily from his various contributions.

After opening with a prayer to the Trinity, the first chapter announces that “the primary focus of these essays is exegesis: the act of loving attention we give to the historical and literary shape of scriptural texts in order to discern the singular identity and activity of the Triune God who presents himself therein” (1). For Swain, “the recovery of the Trinity as the subject matter of exegetical attention is downstream from an earlier recovery of the Trinity as the subject matter of dogmatic attention” (1).

The second chapter, “The Bible and the Trinity in Recent Thought: Review, Analysis, and Constructive Proposal,” begins by noting that while we learn from the Bible about the Trinity, the Triune God himself in fact precedes the Bible’s existence. While the Bible is the “cognitive principle” of trinitarian theology, the Trinity is the “ontological principle” of the Bible (9). In other words, in the order of being, the Triune God determines what the Bible is and helps us to understand what it is meant to do in God’s economy. Swain goes on to discuss how the Trinity is present in the Bible, emphasizing that, instead of the Trinity being an undeveloped theme in Scripture, “what we have in the Bible is well-formed Trinitarian discourse” (15–16). In Swain’s account, this trinitarian discourse includes three patterns of “divine naming”: a “monotheistic” pattern establishing that there is but one true God; a “relational” pattern distinguishing the Father, Son, and Spirit by their mutual relations within God’s being; and a “metaphysical” pattern indicating that the divine persons “transcend the categories of creaturely being and creaturely naming” (18–26).

Chapter 3 deals with B. B. Warfield’s account of the Trinity, highlighting some of Warfield’s deficiencies on this topic and offering some constructive points for contemporary trinitarian theology. Though Warfield is in a number of ways duly regarded as a stalwart of American Reformed theology, he failed to give the divine persons’ relations of origin or eternal processions their rightful place in the doctrine of the Trinity. Warfield was concerned that such historic concepts in trinitarian thought might imply an inferiority on the part of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In Swain’s response, he notes that the eternal begetting of the Son is actually what accounts for his equality with the Father and that Scripture is replete with texts that point to the Son’s eternal origin from the Father (e.g., John 5:26; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).

Chapter 4 moves in a more immediately constructive direction and discusses the trinitarian Christology of Mark 12:35–37. The beginning of this chapter reflects on the task of theological commentary on the Bible. According to Swain, “Reading is . . . a living conversation between an eloquent Lord and his attentive servants, a conversation in which the reader is summoned to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:7)” (62). The reflection on the nature of theological interpretation gives way to an analysis of Jesus’ use of Psalm 110 in Mark 12. Swain considers the logic of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12 and makes a case that Mark is envisioning a divine sonship of Jesus that accounts for Jesus being accused of blasphemy later in Mark when he identifies himself as the Son of God (see Mark 14:61–62).

In chapter 5, Swain turns to Galatians 4:4–7 to discuss God’s trinitarian agency. He focuses on the missions of the Son and Spirit to argue that the agency of the Son and the Spirit is that of God himself. Swain makes the point that “certain actions and effects are exclusive to and indicative of certain agents” (91). In the case of the Son and Spirit, their actions and effects indicate that they share the one nature and power of God. The distinction between “God, his Son, and the Spirit in God’s Son-making activity is not a distinction between God and intermediary agents. It is rather a distinction within God’s own immediate, natural agency” (93).

Chapter 6 deals with the presentation of God’s triune name in Revelation 4–5. Swain begins with some notes on the task of trinitarian theology and stresses that “scriptural Trinitarianism” is not “unformed” or “inchoate” but rather “the primary discourse of Trinitarian theology.” “Ecclesiastical trinitarianism,” then, is “the secondary discourse of Trinitarian theology.” The purpose of confessional material on the Trinity is “not to refine or develop what would otherwise be unrefined and undeveloped” but “to promote the church’s greater fluency in reading Scripture’s primary Trinitarian discourse” (98). Swain then examines the ways in which God is named and described in Revelation 4–5. In the “monarchical monotheism” of Revelation, the three divine persons are named as “the one who sits on the throne,” “the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne,” and “the Spirit who is before the throne” (106–15). Within this pattern of trinitarian description, “the three persons of the Trinity share one throne” (116). Thus, “the distinction between the first, second, and third persons of the Trinity in enacting the unfolding kingdom of God is not a distinction between three agencies. It is rather a distinction within one divine agency” (117).

Finally, chapter 7 concludes the book with seven “axioms” on the Trinity, the Bible, and theological interpretation: (1) “Certain material and social conditions are vital to, but not ultimately sufficient for, theological interpretation of Scripture”; (2) “The Trinity’s knowledge of the Trinity is the ontological foundation of our knowledge of the Trinity”; (3) “The Trinity reveals the Trinity by the Trinity; this is the epistemological foundation of our knowledge of the Trinity”; (4) “The Trinity reveals the Trinity by the Trinity in an economy that is first mediate, in the state of pilgrims, then immediate, in the state of the blessed”; (5) “The mediate revelation of the Trinity by the Trinity in the state of grace presupposes and illumines vestiges of the Trinity in the state of nature”; (6) “The mediate revelation of the Trinity by the Trinity in the state of grace comes in the twofold embassy of prophetic and apostolic revelation in Holy Scripture”; and (7) “The immediate revelation of the Trinity by the Trinity in the state of glory is the supreme good and final end of theological interpretation of Scripture” (122). The rest of the chapter unpacks the meaning of these axioms for the fruitful practice of trinitarian exegesis.

There are a number of reasons why this collection of essays will be profitable for the church, three of which I will underscore here. First, Swain nicely sets out the fact that the Triune God himself precedes Scripture and frames how we understand the being and purposes of Scripture. It is certainly the case that we read Scripture in order to obtain knowledge of the Trinity, but in reading about the Trinity, we come to realize that the Trinity comes first in the order of being, which invites us to refine how we think about the practice of reading the Bible.

Second, Swain drives home the point several times that the Bible is already a trinitarian book. It is not made such by the interpretive tendencies of the reader or pressed into a trinitarian mold only by those who already wish to read with the grain of the Nicene Creed. As Swain puts it, the Bible itself actually offers us the “primary discourse” on the Trinity, inviting us into the mystery of God not least by offering a remarkably rich network of names by which the divine persons are revealed. Finally, Swain’s work on the Trinity and biblical interpretation exemplifies the blend of dogmatic facility and textual rigor needed for robust work in Christian doctrine and exegesis. This book illustrates well that historical trinitarianism is native to the pages of Scripture and that careful analysis of biblical texts is possible and necessary for those working in the field of systematic theology.

Steven J. Duby (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of theology at Phoenix Seminary.

Monday, May 2nd 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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