Sunday, 28 February 2010

Symphonic Theology

Poythress' Symphonic Theology is a good little book - short chapters making an easy introduction to using various perspectives when reading the Bible: the validity, value and exemplification of the same. (That I enjoy reading Poythress is not entirely surprising, as he's a Presbyterian mathematician-theologian with an interest in linguistics and translation, and writes well.) I didn't so much find the book's ideas novel, as clarifying my thoughts. But I keep finding that if I think I've had a good idea, Poythress has already written a (much) better book on it. Next one I'm eager to get hold of is his new 'In the beginning was the Word: Language - A God-centred approach' from Crossway.


Dave K said...

I have it on my shelves and was recently listening to John Frame when he mentioned his perspectivalism which he shares with Poythress. It made me think I needed to read it. Everyone always seems very positive about it.

But, as I was listening to John Frame, I wondered to myself whether perspectivalism holds any dangers for orthodox Protestantism, which has always made a big deal about putting things in a certain order (law then gospel, faith then works, etc). Any thoughts, from someone who has actually read it?

étrangère said...

Hi Dave, thanks for the comment, and good question. It seemed fairly obvious to me that we can read from a variety of perspectives, and this enriches the answer. Hence the need to listen to the perspective of Christians who've gone before, and from Christians around the world, and for that matter, those of other theological persuasions. The question which then seems pertinent, is where do we get those perspectives? This is not relativism - not all perspectives are equal. Will we allow ourselves to be shaped by the text itself, in guiding us as to its main concerns? Will we allow our perspectives to correct and inform each other? So if there seems to be a recurring theme of God's kingdom throughout Scripture, for example, it's not invalid to take a run through Scripture tracing it from the perspective of Kingdom. This would then feed back into other perspectives. It seems to me that 'Biblical theology', systematic theology, ethics, etc., all do this, and we can do it well or badly in each. So in truth, I don't think we can avoid multiperspectivism: the value of Poythress' book is in setting it out so that we do it well, neither pretending to reject it and being reductionistic to a particular way of reading (and not realising our own various perspectives), or rejecting the rule of the word and setting our perspectives over it to miss the point of what it's saying.

Please do get round to reading it: I'd be interested in others' thoughts! And thanks for asking the question in the meantime: I find questions most useful to help me process what I've read, especially if I agree with a book, broadly speaking. I've started on his 'God-centred Biblical interpretation' which may well fill it out.

Dave K said...

Interesting. I'll definitely make an effort to read it, and I'll let you know my thoughts for your feedback when I've finished. As you say we can't avoid multiperspectivism and the question is how do we do it well?

It came to mind again a day ago when I was reading Ladd on the kingdom of God which he says is "a realm over which a sovereign exercises his authority; and it may be the people who belong to that realm and over whom authority is exercised; but these are secondary and derived meanings. First of all, a kingdom is the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king."

We could validly look at "kingdom" from 3 perspectives (rule, realm, people), but they are not equal. There is an priority between them.

It also came to mind when I read Tim Keller on Willow Creek where I think he missed that although kingly and priestly activities are good, that historic protestantism would probably say that 'prophetic' activities have priority because the rest are derived from them. They're all important, and the danger is you just say "kingdom = rule, full-stop", or "prophetic = all the church does, full-stop", but the other danger is you make all equal, and miss God's initiative as the primary thing.

étrangère said...

Yes - Poythress addresses both your examples (kingdom and Christ's 3-fold office) in the book! I think he would say that if we expand our definition / derivation of any one revealed perspective we find it encompassing the whole, or giving source to the whole. Thus prophet, priest and king can each be defined / explored to as to yield or include the other two roles. Which makes sense of why it's not so odd that King David acts as priest and prophet despite being neither officially, Zachariah as prophet despite being a priest,... Is Paul (Rom 15) a priest offering the gentiles by merit of the proclamation of the word of the Lord (prophet) or does he prophesy because the Lord has set him apart to sanctify the gentiles - as a priest? I don't think the Bible is too concerned with priority in the 3-fold office.

Dave K said...

I really must read it then.... Although I can't find where I put it now! I may have boxed it, and will have to pull it out.

I disagree (although not very strongly as I'm not 100% sure) that the bible does see a priority in the threefold office.

Christ is king, but he rules by his speach (e.g. Rev 19:15, and all the accounts of the miracles). He also sanctifies us by declaring us righteous, so creating that righteousness in us (Justification -> sanctification).

I'm not sure you could say things the other way round. He speaks by his rule? He speaks by his sanctification? Perhaps... I'll have to continue thinking... that's why I asked for your thoughts I guess. Your comments have been helpful though.

étrangère said...

Hm, perhaps. I'm thinking aloud on this one, too. I was thinking of the WSC on the threefold office: 'As a prophet Christ reveals the will of God to us, for our salvation by his word and Spirit.' (I learned it in mod.English.) I would perhaps reword it as 'reveals God to us, for our salvation...' but that aside: Christ could still be a prophet in revealing God to us (in fact, the Scriptures don't use the language of prophet but of Word itself - an important point to note when discussing with Muslims); but without Christ as King and Priest, there would be no salvation to announce and apply by his word and Spirit.

Perhaps what I'm coming to by what you said is that there is a priority in the means by which work of Christ, reflected in his offices, is applied to us. Thus 'He rules by his word' - true, but a principal means does not make for a principal office, necessarily. Category confusion? A headteacher might run the school by her PA (many do), but that does not give priority to her PA. Means is not office.

While the Son is eternally the Word, I'm not sure he was eternally Christ (a role taken on our behalf) with three-fold office, therefore we may be confusing the function of word with the Christ-office of prophet. Hm, clear as mud and possibly sliding into heresy...

Anonymous said...


I've read very little Poythress (Symphonic th is on the shelf waiting to be read tho') but have read a bit of Frame.

Perspectivalism is perfectly compatible with making biblical judgments about priority and order. At it's best, Frame's perspectivalism is an application of trinitarian thinking to a whole host of 'one and many' type things.

In fact, since perspectivalism is not based on egalitarianism, it actually depends on asking the 'in what sense?' question which fits perfectly with the need to reflect biblical material on priority and order.

Anonymous said...

Dave, on the specific matter you raise re. priority of office (and I think this is just a long-winded way of agreeing with you Rosemary) again this is in itself a matter of perspective. Priority from what perspective? Yes if we talk about means (perhaps, though don't forget that Priests taught and Kings spoke wisdom). But what if we talk about goals - then it could be argued that his Kingship has priority - he rules by his word, that is, his office of prophet is a means to his office of kingship.

And so on...

A helpful thing about Frame's perspectivalism is his stuff on how each of the perspectives in some sense contains and implies the other two.

I think perspectivalism will prove to be a great friend to reformed orthodoxy, though of course like all tools it could be abused.

étrangère said...

Thanks Pete, you bring very welcome clarity! Perhaps I'll try to get back into Frame some time - 2 of the Lordship vols sitting on my shelf, found rather dense; but admittedly I was trying them when permanently brain-tired as a UCCF staffworker!

Anonymous said...

I reckon the best way to get into Frame is by reading his 'salvation belongs to the Lord' introduction to systematics. Less dense than the Lordship volumes. Various of his essays are available online as well - interesting stuff on regulative principle, on culture, on law, on lots of things.

Dave K said...

Hi folks,

Sorry to not be around for a while. Been super busy.

Again the comments have been very helpful, and I agree wholeheartedly. I was only really floating questions and thoughts because I've never really thought about it before a few weeks ago, but now I'm now able to sleep well knowing that perspectivalism is a useful thing :-)

étrangère said...

Well, glad to have put you to sleep, then, Dave!

And thanks, Pete, for the Frame recommendations. I've enjoyed some of his papers online previously, and have read his 'Apologetics to the Glory of God', which I seem to remember enjoying but writing YBH in the margin many times ('Yes, but how?')