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Archive for April 26th, 2010

symphonic theology

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

This is a short interesting book by Vern Poythress, the professor of New Testament interpretation at the Westminister Theological Seminary (WTS).  An initial glance at the title might lead one to ask the question of what is symphonic theology.  What is symphonic theology?  It would have been great to have Poythress provide a concise definition earlier in the book.  About a third way into his work, Poythress states what it is: “We use what we have gained from one perspective to reinforce, correct, or improve what we understood through another.  I called this procedure symphonic theology because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme” (43).

Though Poythress coins the term “symphonic” theology, what he articulates here is better known as Perspectivalism.  It does not seem to be anyone else who subscribe to Perspectivalism that calls it symphonic theology, and for the purpose of this review, symphonic theology will be called perspectivalism instead.  According to Poythress, he attributes perspectivalism as a theological method that was spawned from the teaching “of Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, and Kenneth L. Pike” (121).  In assessing Poythress claim of the three influence of Poythress’ perspectivalism, only Frame (which by the way, is Poythress’ mentor and colleague) would explicitly subscribe to perspectivalism, while Van Til’s thought of apologetics and theology in the opinion of this reviewer laid the incipient form of perspectivalism along with the work of linguist Pike.

What is perspectivalism?  It has much to do with perspective, and aspects.  Chapter one offered various illustrations of how perspectives are a part of daily life.  It is amazing to even think of how common one is not aware of perspectives in our daily life, and yet it is assumed though not necessarily consciously.  Poythress introductory chapter is a helpful opening to illustrate from the physical to the spiritual.

In the next chapter, Poythress gets more specific on defining what he means by perspective.  He notes how the term “perspective” is often used in four ways: analogies, models, selective interests and one’s worldview.  He states that concerning “the first three senses, we frequently dealt with complementary truths and ways of looking at something”, but with perspective as a worldview “here, we have an exclusive category: one view is right, while the others are wrong” (20).  It is important to understand that Poythress’ perspectivalism is not a denial of absolute truth in the common understanding of the term, since Poythress believes that there can only be one right worldview.  The rest of the book focus on the other three meaning of perspective: analogies, models and selective interests.  He believes that perspectives in the latter three senses will be beneficial in the task of theology.

Of course in justifying whether or not multiple perspectives are valid in theology, Christians would have to ask whether the Bible in any way address the topic, whether directly or indirectly.  Concerning selective interests, Poythress writes, “We can see a similar kind of selectivity in the Bible.  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are different partly because they tell about different events.  John concentrates on Christ’s ministry in the area of Jerusalem, while of Mark concentrates on the Galilean ministry.  Mark includes an account of the Last Supper, while John includes the Upper Room Discourse” (17-18).  And “the Gospel of Mark presents us mostly with the theme of the kingdom of God, while the Gospel of John dwells on the themes of truth, light, glory, love, indwelling and faith” (17).  Christians should appreciate how the written gospels present one unified truth with diversity of perspectives.  While most Christians would agree with the observation that the four gospels are written from different perspectives, and all four gospel remain true, it is important to realize that perspectives in of itself does not imply relativism or a denial of the existence of objective truth.

There is a sense of perspective when we read the Bible, “we use a multitude of perspective on a passage, we do not expect a conflict or contradiction between perspectives.  Rather, we use each perspective to reinforce and enhance our total understanding” (24).  As an illustration that this reviewer can think of, the passage of Zechariah 12:10 can be mined for it’s truth as Messianic prophecy, while it can also be mined for it’s truth concerning eschatology.  However, this task is not together a subjective relativistic endeavor, since the historical-grammatical-literary hermeneutic provides an objective control of knowing first off the authorial intent.  In fact, Poythress points out that perspective is also important in solid hermenutics.  Any interpretation of a passage must take into account how it fits into the book’s larger theme: “Once a book has exhibited a clear-cut theme, the book invites us to see all its contents as somehow fitting in with the theme, sometimes loosely and indirectly, sometimes directly” (30).  This theme is a particular selected interests, or “perspective”.

If one’s theology is informed by Scripture, and Scripture is perspectival, then it should be surprising to find that a solid systematic theology should be perspectival as well.  For instance, Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King are traditional categories of the roles of Christ.  In a way, these traditional offices of Jesus are also perspectives of Jesus, which Poythress points out.  While one can see distinct functions in the three offices of Christ, Poythress reminds us that “we cannot ultimately isolate one piece from another” (40).  Each of the offices presupposes and need each other: “Christ’s prophetic proclamation of the kingdom of God in words goes together with and reinforces his kingly demonstration of the presence of the kingdom of God by casting out demons and working miracles” (40).  Again, in theology, various focuses on theology should reinforce and further our total theological understanding.  Rather than a threat, if one’s theology is true, one should expect that the various analogies and interests of theological aspect is complementary of other parts of theology.

It is important to understand that though theological perspective are inter-related, there is not one singular doctrine that is foundational to all other doctrine: “No one attribute is the ‘last thing back,’ from which all the others are derived.  Rather, any attribute can be seen as related to any other” (83).  Rather, there is an inter-dependence of doctrines, other doctrines require other doctrines.

Perspectivalism spans beyond the sphere of systematic theology.  There is also a sense in which there is a relationship between systematic theology and biblical theology.  Even in an area that most might not commonly think as having any relationship, a closer inspection reveal otherwise.  For instance, Poythress explores the relationship of systematic theology to Christian ethics.  He finds that there is in some sense, all of the biblically based systematic theology is ethically imperative:  “The whole of systematic theology can be viewed as a description of what we ought to believe on the basis of the Bible.  Thus all of systematic theology—all of doctrines—is simultaneously ethics” (25)! The above suggests that theology (in the example of systematic theology) share a relationship with philosophy (in this example, the area of ethics). Those familiar with the works of Van Til would realize that there is a sense in which philosophy and theology share an interesting relationship, and Van Til is quite insightful when he points out that philosophy is really doing theology in another language.  Though Poythress does not state so here, there is a sense also that important parts of philosophy is an attempt to engage in the task of theology but from another worldview perspective.  This truth should lead the Christian philosopher to realize that philosophy itself can never be autonomous from the Word of God, just as systematic theology can never be separated from the authority of Scripture.  Even in an area like apologetics and eschatology, there is an inter-dependent relationship, which is the subject of an essay by this reviewer.

Perspectivalism is a legitimate way of thinking in light of the truth that we are limited, and our knowledge of truth can at times be partial.  An important illustration is that of the jewel: there are various facets to the diamond of a pristine theology, but there is one diamond of true religion/worldview/faith.

Poythress discussion about error is also helpful, since not all perspective is legitimate.  Even then, “Error is parasitic on the truth,” that is “to be at all plausible, errors and lies must somehow look like the truth” (89).  He gave the example of how Jehovah’s Witnesses theology is false, and yet it parallel closely to the truth when it comes to the doctrine of the second coming, etc, and the elements of Watchtower theology which parallel the truth of Scripture will be an attractive bait to attract followers.  This truth should also imply that a Christian should always be discerning of error, because error often times is disguised so closely to the truth than one realize.

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