Book Review: Symphonic Theology – By Vern S. Poythress

Vern Poythress Symphonic Theology.pngLetter TThis book begins with a simple undeniable statement: “People are not all alike. They do not always notice the same thing even when they are looking at the same object. This commonplace observation has some profound implications for the way in which we do theology.”

It is the implications of this fact for the interpretation of Scripture with which this book deals. When you to look at Scripture there are a variety of different perspectives you can take, a number of different themes you can choose to center yourself around, along with the unique experiences and assumptions that you bring as a reader. All of these different factors influence the way you read the Scriptures.

Symphonic Theology is Vern Poythress‘ assessment of how we as Christians can harmonize those varying approaches. More specifically, by “trying to see the same material from several perspectives” we can “use what we have gained from one perspective to reinforce, correct, or improve what we understood through another.” It is this process of using different perspectives to balance others that Poythress refers to with the term ‘symphonic theology’ “because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme.”

Content:

According to Poythress there are a number of different perspectives for approaching the Scriptures, but people with a single dominant perspective may see only what that perspective has trained them to see. In the first section of his book Poythress gives three primary examples of such approaches: the ethical, the devotional, and the theological (each of which is incomplete on its own). Thus an individual might read the Bible with a primarily devotional lens, and this lens is going to affect what truths they garner from the text.

By intentionally looking at the Scripture through a theological or ethical lens, the reader will thereby gain a more complete picture of what the text is saying and pick up on some aspects of the text that they would have otherwise overlooked. Because the Bible is one it is expected that these different lenses will not produce contradictory results, but will instead be in harmony with one another, serving to reinforce and enhance the reader’s overall understanding of Scripture. These perspectives thereby ‘facets of a jewel’ such that “the whole jewel–the whole of ethics–can be seen through any one of the facets, if we look carefully enough” and there is the need to look through multiple because “not everything can be seen equally easily through only one facet.”

This notion of harmonizing varying perspectives is the primary thesis of the book, the rest of which is primarily “an attempt to show just how much positive value we can obtain from such stretching operations.”

The remainder of the book is spent discussing various topics as they relate to the author’s notion of symphonic theology, offering different lenses, giving examples of how the symphonic approach plays out in practice, and answering potential objections to such an approach. In these discussion Poythress briefly examines how worldviews play into how the Bible is read, offers the different attributes of God as yet another set of lenses through which to examine Scripture (such as the roles of prophet, priest, and king), and a case study around the concept of miracle in Scripture to display how his method works.

In the midst of offering these different lenses Poythress interweaves a more philosophical discussion regarding the impact of trying to approach truth through different perspectives, as well as a look at the nature of language and communication in and of itself.

For this reason after presenting his symphonic method, the first question that Poythress turns to discuss is the question of relativism, because the question if raised that “If all perspectives are valid in principle, isn’t truth relative to one’s perspective? By putting everything in flux, do we undermine any idea of absolute truth?”

From this question Poythress enters into a discussion of the nature of truth, noting that the use multiple perspectives does not constitute a denial of absolute truth but instead “constitutes a recognition of the richness of truth” which “builds on the fact that human beings are limited.” Because we as humans are limited and our knowledge of the truth is only partial, we may know truth, but not all of the truth, while others may know truths that we do not. One way to gain insight into these other truths is by examining the issue from their perspective. What keeps the truths from being relative is that they are all perspectives on the same truth, facets of the same jewel.

This lack of relativism is further strengthened – as Poythress argues – because even though we as humans only have a partial and flawed knowledge, God knows all things exhaustively, such that “he is able to isolate each bit of truth and know it precisely.” God has this sort of knowledge, but as Poythress argues, Christians should not presume to be themselves capable of that sort of knowledge. Furthermore, Poythress argues that God’s knowledge does not merely “consists in an infinite collection of bits” with “each bit being a truth from God’s single perspective.”

Flowing from this Poythress continues his discussion of the nature of language. This discussion includes comments on the relationship between technical terms and ordinary language, noting that how when theologians use technical categories and terms they “are inevitably selective.” The Bible contains “a complexity of interlocking and multifaceted themes” and “defining technical terms and categories cannot reduce this complexity into a pristine simplicity. It will not furnish us with ‘ultimate’ categories.” 

The Bible is not written in technical language, but ordinary. The words have meaning “but the meaning has fuzzy boundaries that are usually not as sharp as the boundaries of technical terms.” All of this plays into the way in which we must approach and interpret Scripture, and ties back into the symphonic ideal: because no single category or concept can provide an infinitely deep analysis – and “no category gives an analysis that is innately more penetrating than any other could be” – there is a need to look through multiple.

As argued by Poythress this multiplicity does not allow any and all perspectives, for some are ‘outright error’ and thereby not harmonizable. When this is the case – argues Poythress – “it is often worthwhile trying to figure out what other people fear and what are the strongest points in their arguments” such that “we should try to find some grain of truth in their fears, in their strong points, and in the things that they care for most intensely” because “even if there is only a distant similarity between what they assert and what is actually true, we can find the primary points of similarity. Starting with the actual truth closest to their viewpoint, we can develop a perspective from which to expand to the truth that we want them to learn. We can, in other words, ‘steal their thunder,’ or preempt their strong points.”

Following the presentation of his method, Poythress ends his book with a case study designed to show how his method may be applied, using a variety of perspectives to assess the Biblical account of miracles.

Analysis:

Poythress writes in a straightforward and easily accessible manner, which makes his book fairly easy to read on the whole. He discusses a variety of topics at a survey level, giving the reader a wide range of insight into the topic at hand. There are, however, two downsides to this. The first is that he often writes in a simplistic or reductionistic manner. The other is that although Poythress writes clearly on each given topic, his overall discourse is rather jumbled and disconnected, often moving between points which do not connect directly to the topic being discussed.

This dynamic is perhaps best seen when Poythress transitions from his initial discussion of Symphonic Theology to his discussion of truth, especially his defense of truth as not being relative. As was described above, Poythress’ thesis revolves around a desire to approach Scripture through a variety of lenses (devotional, theological, ethical, etc). Thus, one can read a given passage for its devotional value or for its ethical value; one can read a passage as it relates to the redemptive narrative or as it relates to its immediate context. This is no doubt a helpful point for exegesis and lower level hermeneutics, for it is too often the case that someone will try to merely read the Scriptures in a theological or devotional or Christ-centered lens.

Poythress reminds us that the Scriptures can be approached in a variety of ways. This is good.

The disconnect comes in that he overestimates the impact of this on higher level hermeneutics and philosophy. Poythress’ Symphonic Theology is a very simple and helpful method for analyzing Scripture from within the Christian framework, and as such it has absolutely nothing to say about the ultimate nature of truth or relativity. Poythress begins his section on truth with the assumption that his method could somehow imply relativism, and uses this as a springboard for attempting to discuss the general nature of truth.

The problem is that Poythress’ method does not in the least imply a relativity to truth, and therefore his entire discussion becomes forced. He effectively says “Now you may think all this talk of perspectives implies that truth is relative” and the simple answer is “no, why would we?” The fact that I can analyze a text for its theological insights or its devotional insights makes absolutely no impact on the ultimate nature of truth and says nothing philosophically significant – the problem is that Poythress pretends that it does, and uses this pretense as reason to engage in a discussion wholly irrelevant to the main thesis of the book.

With that said, while Poythress’ specific formulation of Symphonic Theology is not philosophically significant, it could be expanded such that it would be. This is due to the fact that Poythress has a habit of seemingly inadvertently making philosophically significant statements that he never fully follows through with. If Poythress’ ideas were actually followed through, and if the ramifications of this method were applied on a grander scale, then perhaps he would be on to something – or at least, if he followed through with his ideas he would be much closer to Kevin Vanhoozer in his thought.

Now, this doesn’t impinge on the helpfulness of Poythress’ method for doing Bible study – in that regard he is very helpful, in broadening our lenses. But he overestimates how broad he is going. The goal is thus merely to “use of a multiplicity of perspectives” as “one protection against our tendency to read the Bible only in terms of a preestablished single perspective,” but all from within the Christian worldview.

That he is sure to stay within the Christian worldview is no doubt a good thing, but it does make his thesis philosophically irrelevant. This irrelevance is not a bad thing, but simply an acknowledgement that philosophy is not the thing being done here. For the purposes of learning how to do Bible study, Poythress is excellent, the issue arises when he presents his thesis as going beyond that.

Thus, on the whole, Poythress method is in and of itself very helpful, and any student of the Bible should employ it in order to ensure that they are not being overly narrow in their categories. Too often we only focus on one Christian lens, and by doing so fail to get the full picture of Scripture.

Poythress’ text may be philosphically irrelevant, it is hermeneutically/exegetically quite relevant, which is the more important thing in this context.

Memorable Quotes:

-“What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.”

-“The introduction of sin did not create diversity but rather made it contentious… Our true unity and diversity is restored in principle in our union with Christ. Being united to Christ and conformed to his image destroys only the bad forms of diversity.”

-“God is not mainly concerned in the Bible to furnish grist for the mill of theological experts or speculators. He intends mainly to bring us to know him personally, to save us, to enable us to serve him from our hearts. Hence, very few if any individual words occurring in the Bible have technically precise meanings.”

-“By deliberately looking at a subject in terms of a given analogy, we notice things that we would not otherwise notice.”

-“Any statement of fact implies an obligation to believe that fact. Our ethical obligations include not only obligations to do overt actions but intellectual and emotional obligations.  We ought to think certain types of thought, to believe certain truths, and to have emotions and attitudes befitting godliness. 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 doctrine–is simultaneously ethics!”

-“Knowledge of the truth is not exhaustive knowledge of all truth.”

-“As long as we are using a natural language rather than a formalized language of mathematics, fuzzy boundaries are going to interfere with the ideal of infinite precision.”

-“Ideally, we may think, theological knowledge should resemble the certainty and rigor of Euclid’s system. We may dream of such an ideal goal, even though we are realistic enough to know that theology will never perfectly attain this ideal in this life. But Euclidean mathematics is very selective in what it notices about the human element in mathematical knowledge and the human contributions to the growth of mathematics. And even if it were not, why should we use one field of knowledge as the ideal for the whole? It is only one possible analogy.”

-“In virtue of our metaphysical status as creatures and as fallen and in need of salvation, biblical revelation gives us an appropriate metaphysical orientation.”

-“To be at all plausible, errors and lies must somehow look like the truth. They cannot sustain themselves long, and they will not be believed long, unless to some degree they disguise themselves as angels of light.”

 

Specific Criticisms

There are a few other areas of this text which can be subjected to criticism, even though they don’t directly affect the main thesis of the text.

Thus one can contest Poythress’ point that “In the nature of the case, people can have only one world view. With effort, they may be able to see to a certain extent how things look from an alternate world view. But they themselves believe in only one world view, because world views, by their very nature, are ultimate frameworks for human knowledge. To begin to adopt a second world view, in the sense of believing it and treating it as an ultimate framework, is to leave behind (or at least subtly alter) one’s former world view.”

This seems like a very rational position to take, and if humans were perfectly rational beings – if we were mere computers operating off of a unified logic – then Poythress would be correct. The problem is that we are not.

People are not fully rational, they do not always – indeed, if ever – operate off of any one unified system, and we often engage in a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. Thus in the world today any given individual will simultaneously hold to a modernistic, postmodernistic, and even premodernistic worldview, usually with the application of each worldview depending on the context or area of the individual’s life being assessed. Thus they may be modernistic in their understanding of science and at the same time postmodernistic in their understanding of ethics.

Contemporary society, indeed, is a giant stew of conflicting worldviews, and not just between separate persons, but within every individual. And this is possible for the chief reason that none of us are perfectly logical or consistently operating according to a unified field of understanding, which is perhaps augmented by the fact that no worldview is actually ultimate or all-encompassing.

A minor criticism that might be offered to the text is that while Poythress warns against using multiple perspectives becoming “an excuse for overlooking, dismissing, or reinterpreting the obvious” it seems that to an extent this must be necessary, unless one accepts that perhaps the chosen lens will be invalid. In this case it would have been helpful for Poythress to have had a discussion on how to know when a lens just doesn’t apply.

A final minor criticism that might be offered is that Poythress simply accepts that the Trinity is the answer to the question of the one and the many. This is perhaps best seen in the comment that “There is a single ultimate perspective on truth, God’s perspective, because there is only one God. But also there are three ultimate perspectives on truth–the perspectives of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–and these three are not identical with one another in every respect.” This solution to the problem is seen by many as a sort of cop-out answer to one of the more significant questions in philosophy.

[This book is available for reading free online.]

 

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