Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Symphonic Theology

In approaching the Scriptures, many Christians (for whatever reasons) end up with an insulated view of theology informed by a single tradition or outlook. In more extreme cases, any view differing in even the most minute detail is automatically rejected. But even in less extreme cases, there can be a reluctance to look to differing perspectives (or even to realize that other viewpoints exist in the first place!). Symphonic Theology, by Vern Poythress, is an insightful look at the benefits of using multiple theological perspectives in order to gain a better grasp of the truth. Poythress uses the analogy of a symphony, in which multiple instruments are blended together, to describe an approach to theology that seeks to incorporate the strengths of various perspectives to better understand the Scriptural teachings on any given subject. Poythress is quick to argue that this approach should not be confused with a relativistic "all perspectives are equally acceptable" view. Rather, he argues that truth is often like a multi-faceted jewel, where the view from different facets gives a different view of the whole. Poythress explains that combining these multiple viewing perspectives can lead to a more complete appreciation of the whole.

Poythress makes many great observations, especially about the nature of language and its limitations. For instance, he cautions that superimposing systematic theological language back onto the Scriptures (especially in the case of a shared term like "faith" or "salvation") can often lead to poor understanding of the actual text. Additionally, he notes that the Bible makes use of the flexibility of language in the same ways that we use everyday language: with great versatility in being able to incorporate a broader scope of meaning, as well as to focus with greater precision. Awareness of these factors will help us become better readers of the Bible.

The only real complaint I have about the book is its relatively short length (~120 pages). Although it is intended as a brief introduction to the idea of "symphonic theology," it might have been improved by including more test cases, especially since Poythress notes that this approach is best illustrated using examples. Nonetheless, the book is a great read and is an encouragement to better understand the broader issues of language and perspective in approaching the Scriptures and theology.

By the way, the full-text of the book can be found here (posted on the internet with the permission of the publisher).

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