While many contemporary theologians are receiving Prosopological Exegesis (PE) as a good Christological gift, it is better to say that PE is more like a lump of coal. To put it cheekily, PE is a naughty way to read Scripture, because it does not give the human author his due. Instead, in trying to arrive at certain Christological conclusions, it takes away from following the contours of God’s progressive revelation. This is the problem at the heart of PE—you cannot formulate biblical doctrine if you undermine the Bible. And more, we do not need to. In this article, I will explain what Prosopological Exegesis (PE) is, and then I will respond to the error of using PE to read Eternal Generation of the Son into Psalm 2:7. In this case they get the correct doctrine, but not from a correct interpretation of a biblical text.
What is Prosopological Exegesis?
One leading advocate for the recovery of PE is Madison Pierce. She describes how this ancient exegetical method “interprets texts by assigning ‘faces,’ or characters, to ambiguous or unspecified personal (or personified) entities represented in the text in question.” So, PE advocates capitalize on ambiguity in certain texts and seek to put a “face” or “person” to these alleged ambiguous speakers behind the writings of the inspired authors. But they do not merely assign a person to the text; PE advocates believe that the New Testament authors “move beyond” the original biblical context. According to them, we as interpreters must do this as well in order to identify the divine addresser and/or addressee.
1. Madison N. Pierce, Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Recontextualization of Spoken Quotations in Scripture (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 178; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 4.
Prosopological Exegesis and Psalm 2:7
A crucial proof text for PE proponents is Psalm 2:7, a psalm that the New Testament attributes to David (Acts 4:25). Psalm 2:7 reads as follows (with the two speakers marked in different colors):
“I will tell of the decree:
Yahweh said to me,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’”
PE advocates allege that the speaker of this text is ambiguous. Matthew Bates, a leading figure in this movement, concludes: “David was not merely speaking about him [Jesus], but rather this yet-to-be-revealed Jesus was making an in-character speech at the time of David through David.” Thus, PE maintains that Psalm 2:7 is a pre-incarnation declaration of the Son in which he reports of the eternal relationship with the Father that is always in effect. In essence, PE makes Psalm 2:7 a prooftext for eternal generation, the orthodox doctrine that the Son relates to the Father as “Son” from all eternity past. I have no disagreement with PE regarding the reality of the eternal generation of the Son (see biblical support for this doctrine in John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 5:26; 6:57–58; 1 John 4:9). Eternal Generation is a vital and necessary doctrine to uphold—but not directly from Psalm 2:7.
2. Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 153, emphasis original.
I maintain that Psalm 2:7 speaks to Christ’s human nature and incarnational obedience. In its textual, epochal, and canonical horizons, Psalm 2:7 prophesies that a son of David, one of David’s heirs, who is entitled to the throne by virtue of God’s covenant with David (see 2 Sam. 7:14) will be installed on Mount Zion (Ps. 2:6). But even in the Old Testament it is clear that this son is no normal man, as eternal and universal dominion are promised to him and the son that is given will be called “mighty God” and will establish a kingdom of peace from the throne of David, which will have no end (Ps. 2:8; Isa. 9:6–7; 10:21).
3. For an explanation of these horizons see David Schrock, “The Three Most Important Words I Learned in Seminary: ‘Textual, Epochal, Canonical,’” 9 Marks, last modified March 31, 2020. Also see Stephen Wellum, “Kingdom through Covenant-Interview with Stephen Wellum, Part 1,” Credo, last modified May 17, 2012.
Thus, it is entirely fitting that God the Son incarnate is enthroned as messianic son in fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to David in his resurrection and session at the Father’s right hand in the New Testament (Rom. 1:3–4; Acts 13:32–33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). According to his human nature, he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). Christ was enthroned at the Father’s right hand, being given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and he will never die again because death no longer has dominion over his now glorified humanity (Matt. 28:18; Rom. 6:9). This reality is central to the biblical storyline: Adam infamously fails in subjecting everything under his feet as the son of man (Ps. 8:4), thus Christ gloriously succeeds as the perfectly obedient son, resulting in all things being placed under his dominion as the Last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 1:3–4; 2:5-9; 5:7–10).
The Office of Sonship Complements the Son of God’s Eternal Generation
When Psalm 2:7 is read in view of Christ’s incarnational obedience unto death and subsequent appointment to the throne at his Father’s right hand, it is complementary with and reflective of Eternal Generation. Robert Jamieson insightfully notes in his monograph The Paradox of Sonship that “we must develop ways of speaking about what the Son becomes at his enthronement that complement rather than compete with what he is by nature.” Jamieson captures the meaning of begotten in Psalm 2:7 well when he writes, “This begetting is not biological but official: by being installed as on Zion, the king becomes God’s ‘Son,’ God’s representative ruler over his people.” He adds that we can effectively paraphrase God in the verse as saying: “ ‘You are my Messiah, today I have enthroned you’ . . . Hence in Psalm 2:7, ‘Son’ is either already a title or well on its way to being one.” This theme of sonship as an office undergirds the Old Testament as the hope for God’s people. Such that by the time we get to Psalm 2:7 and its placement in the Psalter in the post-exilic period, it is rife with prior covenantal content and anticipation.
4. Robert Jamieson in The Paradox of Sonship : Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 112.
5. Jamieson, The Paradox of Sonship, 105.
6. Jamieson, The Paradox of Sonship, 105. Jamieson notes that Gert Steyn comments similarly that in both Psalm 2:7 itself and its use in Hebrews 1:5, the phrase in question “means to institute someone in his office,” A Quest for the Assumed LXX Vorlage of the Explicit Quotations in Hebrews, FRLANew Testament 235 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 47.
Other scholars pick up on this sonship theme, as well. Jim Hamilton rightly contends, “This sonship language [in Psalm 2:7] suggests that the king from David’s line has taken up the role of Adam, the son of God (Gen. 5:1–3; Luke 3:38).” Jason DeRouchie traces Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 back to Exodus 4:22–23, where the Israelite nation is referred to as God’s “firstborn son.” DeRouchie notes that “The Exodus text itself looks back to Genesis 5:1–3, where Adam himself is God’s first son, and it anticipates texts such as 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7, which highlight Israel’s messianic king as the Son of God.” This son of David fulfills the role of Adam, who was to rule as a vicegerent over the earth as the one created in God’s image and likeness, as his son. Stephen Wellum helpfully explains,
By reading Psalm 2 within its textual horizon and the epochal context of the Davidic covenant, we can say that the ‘LORD’ enthroned David as his king, thereby establishing him as God’s son. But then we must also read Psalm 2 within its canonical context by following the typological trajectory from the Davidic covenant into the new covenant in Christ . . . And because the nature of typology is not to say everything but to highlight certain aspects of a greater reality, we can also still say that this same Jesus is the eternal Son, who he has always been ontologically.
7. Jim Hamilton, Psalms: Volume 1 Psalms 1–72, Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2021), 103.
8. Jason DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2017), 378. Tom Schreiner insightfully notes that in Psalm 89:27 the word firstborn designates sovereignty and rule, which is probably what the author of Hebrews has in mind when he connects it to the resurrected Christ, Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2021), 69.
9. Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 100.
Sadly, many advocates of PE deemphasize (at best) or reject (at worst) the way the New Testament speaks of Psalm 2:7 being fulfilled in Christ’s enthronement at the time of his resurrection through his ascension to the right hand of the Father. I believe that while the instincts of the Church Fathers (and modern attempts of those in PE who seek to retrieve their hermeneutic) were and are correct in rebutting adoptionistic or subordinationist renderings of texts like Psalm 2:7 on orthodox Trinitarian grounds, they err in interpreting “begotten” as a biological analogy when it is instead an enthronement prophecy.
Giving the Bible the First and Last Word
We must give the Bible the first and the last word when formulating any doctrine, and when it comes to Psalm 2:7, PE fails to do so. PE interprets the “today” of Psalm 2:7 as an eternal event unveiling divine processions, but the New Testament understands the fulfillment of v. 7 as the installation of God the Son incarnate to the messianic office as son and therefore universal king in fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to David. Jamieson is accurate to claim that when the author of Hebrews cites Psalm 2:7 in the context of 1:3–5, this author communicates that “For the Son, the becoming happened at the sitting. When the Son was enthroned, he was exalted above the angels.” Dennis Johnson concurs:
The NT attributes the title ‘Son’ to Christ with respect to his eternal preexistence (e.g., Gal. 4:4), his incarnation (Luke 1:32, 35), his baptism (Luke 3:22), and his transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Here he ‘inherited’ that ‘more excellent’ name after his atoning suffering (Heb. 1:3). This means that the ‘today’ of Psalm 2 is the day of Christ’s exaltation, encompassing his resurrection (Acts 13:32–37; Rom. 1:4) and his ascension to God’s right hand (Acts 2:32–36).
10. For a more in-depth dive into PE’s undermining of the biblical text, see David Schrock, “Reading the Psalms with the Church: A Critical Evaluation of Prosopological Exegesis in Light of Church History,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 25.13 (2020).
11. Jamieson, The Paradox of Sonship, 101.
12. Dennis E. Johnson, “Hebrews,” in ESV Expository Commentary, Vol. 12 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 37.
In agreement with Jamieson and Johnson, the “today” of Psalm 2:7 encompasses the grand sequence of events in redemptive history where Jesus was raised from the dead in his appointment as the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4) and then ascends to his throne at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 1:3–5). Moreover, when “today” is applied to the recipients of Hebrews, it flows out of his enthronement and is understood epochally as the period between Christ’s ascension and second coming as he awaits his enemies to be made a footstool for his feet (Heb. 1:5, 14; 9:26–28; 10:12–13).
Therefore, Psalm 2:7 is not the Son of God reporting a speech he received from the Father as PE claims, but rather it is David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit prophesying about the future enthronement of a promised heir into their rightful office as worldwide king. The God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, David’s greater son is revealed in the New Testament to be the descendent Yahweh always intended to “receive the sure blessings of David” (Acts 13:34). I find it to be more exegetically and canonically viable to read Psalm 2:7 as David reporting God’s covenant promise to him from 2 Samuel 7:14, which becomes the hope of the Psalter, the latter prophets, and is fulfilled when God the Son incarnate is resurrected and ascends to the throne at the right hand of the majesty on high (Rom 1:2–4; Acts 13:33–39; Heb 1:3–5).
Receiving the Gift of Scripture in the Way God Has Given It
Each Christmas season there are new toys and fads that marketers push to sell their product. A growing fad in evangelicalism is the retrieval of PE, and it is often advertised as an “irreducibly essential” method to interpret the Bible correctly. Bates goes as far as suggesting that “it is not inappropriate to speak of the exercise of this reading strategy by the earliest Christians as necessary for the birth of the Trinity.”
13. Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 110.
Such sales pitches will undoubtedly draw in a large crowd of purchasers, but I am convinced that in the end they will find a lump of coal in place of the promised diamond. While in the case of Psalm 2:7 PE stumbled upon a correct doctrinal truth from a faulty interpretation of the text, there is little stopping PE from stumbling upon an incorrect doctrinal truth from a likewise faulty interpretation of a text. Instead, reading the Bible in its own terms and categories, following the covenantal-typological patterns from Adam to Christ, takes a bit of exegetical exertion, but yields far greater reward to the faithful interpreter.