Symphonic Theology by Poythress (7)

I went back to a book I think I read a number of years ago (though perhaps I only skimmed it; I acquired a personal copy more recently), Symphonic Theology by Vern Poythress. An interesting and helpful book. The central point is that perspectives shape the way we view and understand things, both in everyday life (ch 1), biblical revelation (ch 2) and theology (ch 3).  He gives a number of specific examples of biblical perspectives that can be useful (via “stretching”) in adding new layers of understanding, such as themes of a book or larger biblical themes, viewing ethics from multiple perspectives (standards, goals and attitudes), divine attributes, and so on (ch 4). The metaphor of facets on a gem is used – each perspective can highlight a facet, but is not exhaustive. I use this metaphor in class a lot, probably borrowed from here!

Poythress continues by defending symphonic theology from charges that this approach is relativist (ch 5). In some sense, this is the heart of the book, so I’ll lay out the argument with a bit of detail. He argues for absolute truth, but recognizes that our understanding of it is always limited and perspectival (and hence relative). He is drawing especially on Cornelius Van Til and presuppositional theological frameworks. God has revealed himself and truth in perspectival ways (e.g., the four gospels); and this revelation is not merely accomodation, but reflects both unity and diversity in God’s knowledge.   This perspectivalism is further justified by a trinitarian worldview; even God’s knowledge is personal and perspectival! In addition, there are pragmatic benefits to symphonic theology. Finally, he points to both unity and diversity in humanity and in the church as validating a symphonic approach.

He proceeds to discuss the limits of language and words (ch 6), with special focus on semantic range, fuzzy boundaries, and frequent linguistic abuses. He follows this up with 12 maxims that guide symphonic theology (ch 7). A number are linguistic in focus, but he also highlights systemic concerns, recognizes that even false teachings have a grain of truth and suggests strategies for interacting with other views that appreciate the valid elements of the distinct perspective. 

The last few chapters are very helpful. Poythress describes how symphonic theology might have an impact methodologically (ch 8 ) and then illustrates with a  discussion of miracles (ch 9-10). By pointing out the difficulties with something as basic as defining miracles (with each definition bringing in a host of assumptions), he points the way toward more fruitful dialog between the various views. 

There’s a lot to like in this book. It is irenic in tone (you can see a similar tone in his Understanding Dispensationalists, which is another application of symphonic theology). It provides a lot of insight and some cautions on how theology is done, especially in the linguistic area. There are a few spots where I think he may have oversold the idea (e.g., I’m not sure “any biblical motif can be the single organizing motif”; p. 86), but even in those areas, I think he is making a good point.

I’m reminded again in reading this book how similar in certain respects presuppositional approaches are to some more modest postmodern approaches (I’m not including radical, there is no truth postmodernists, but others I know and have read who seem to me to be wrestling with more epistemological problems). 

I could certainly see using this book as a supplemental text, or at least a few chapters. It’s brief and not overly technical. There’s a bit early on I think would do good for introductory stuff; when covering the debate about cessationism and all, the material on miracles would be useful.


3 Responses to “Symphonic Theology by Poythress (7)”

  1. karla sanders Says:

    Interesting. I have not come across the modest post-modernism ideas yet.

    What are presuppositional theological frameworks?

    How are the four gospels perspectival?

    • Carl Sanders Says:

      Good questions – quickly (I’ll try anyway):

      1) By modest post-modernism (which not everyone admits exists) I mean people who don’t deny the existence of truth, but who do think that the understanding of truth for humans is always partial, limited and constrained by our context to some extent. In other words, this is about epistemology not ontology. There are some evangelicals I would put in this camp, for example.

      2) Presuppositionalism is an approach to apologetics (especially) that says that there is no neutral ground from which we can judge or even know things. Our knowledge is worldview dependent. So, non-Christians can not really know what Christians know. Again, there are variations, but in its own way it agrees with post-modernism (and I’d expect some objections from my presuppositional friends) that our knowledge is contextual.

      3) The four gospels are perspectival in at least the very basic sense that each one tells a slightly different account of Jesus. They selected various facts and events to record. Most would go even further and say that each gospel has distinctive theological points to make. Bible believing Christians will affirm (as does Poythress, and I agree with him) that these perspectives are not contradictory, but I would say, for example, it is a mistake to try and blend all the gospels together or to interpret one gospel by bringing in a passage from another gospel as that would blur the distinctive perspective.

      That’s the short version. Hope it helps. And thanks for reading!

  2. karla sanders Says:

    Thank you! I finished reading aloud to the boys _Never Before in History_ by Amos and Gardiner. Did you know that the word federal-as in federal government- came from the Latin translation of the Hebrew word, covenant?
    This implies that the Resistance Theory would apply to our govt.
    We learned a lot about the Reformation, English history, and the Christian influence on the founding of America.

    Keep on reading!

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