An Interview with Vern Poythress on the “Big Questions”
Quick, can you think of any Evangelical scholar who has the intellectual credibility to single-handedly reconstruct several modern academic disciplines on a thoroughly Christian and biblicist foundation? The only name that comes to my mind is Vern Poythress. With books out on Logic, Science, Sociology, Chaos theory, and Mathematics this professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary has certainly proved his mettle beyond the strict confines of his teaching post. Dr. Poythress was kind enough to answer some questions about his newest book Redeeming Philosophy: A God–Centered Approach to the Big Questions.
The Bible is not, I would take it, in the genre of “philosophical discourse.” How then can it be our first resource for philosophical discussion and speculation?
The Bible provides answers to big questions about life and the world around us. Does God exist? Who are we? Are there moral standards and where do they come from? Parts of philosophy overlap with these biblical concerns by trying to answer similar questions. But because much of philosophy tries to answer the questions without recourse to what God says, but only through reason, it veers toward abstraction and unsettled opinion.
Though the Bible does not directly address many of the details about academic disciplines like chemistry, its teaching about big questions is intended by God to function as a guiding framework for understanding mankind and the world. This teaching has implications for every academic discipline.
I don’t think it would too much of a stretch to say that you view the history of Philosophy as a series of reductionisms. Explain for us the contrast between your multi-perspectival approach to “the big questions” and the reductionist approach of everyone else.
For Plato, “forms” like the abstract concepts of goodness, beauty, and justice serve as the “last thing back” in explaining the world. For Plato, the deepest key to understanding the world is the forms. For Immanuel Kant, the interaction of preformed categories of the mind with raw experience explains the world. For Karl Marx, the relationships of ownership and labor explain the human world. For Sigmund Freud, deep unconscious drives explain human action. For materialistic philosophy, the world is nothing but matter and motion. All these approaches are selective: they reduce the world to one or two key aspects.
By contrast, the Bible indicates that God made the world by speaking (Ps. 33:6). His speech is even richer than human speech, and specifies all aspects of the world. The world is a harmonious whole because of God, and therefore we do not need to explain harmony by trying to reduce everything to one final point within creation. We can profitably use multiple perspectives, because God intended that we should appreciate and enjoy all the dimensions of the world that he made. God not only made the world by speaking, but by his power. So his divine power also offers a perspective on the meaning of creation.
I should say that, although a lot of the history of philosophy has seen forms of reductionism, some philosophers have resisted it. I’m thinking particularly of Christian philosophers.
You rely heavily on the “Trinity” to ground your multi-perspectival approach. However, many contemporary theologians are skeptical about commandeering the Trinity to justify philosophical, political, or social applications. What gives you the confidence that your multi-perspectival applications are genuine reflections of God’s Trinitarian nature?
God really is the Trinitarian God, as the Bible teaches. If so, we can expect that his work in creation will reflect who he is. And indeed, that is what Rom. 1:18-23 implies. At the same time, the created world is distinct from its Creator. Both principles are important. Moreover, God gives us fundamental instruction in the Bible. So applications to the world should work from its full instruction, not just from some minimal formulation of Trinitarian doctrine. I have tried to do that. But my work is fallible, and I hope that readers feel free to correct what is wrong and to grow more deeply into what is right.
The expression “commandeering the Trinity” contains an implicit warning. It is possible to approach the Bible or the doctrine of the Trinity with a set of political or philosophical goals that get imposed on the Bible. So all of us need to grow in submission to God and to his word. We need to guard ourselves against the sinful desire to have him say what pleases us rather than what he does say. We need Christ’s salvation and his purification to work in our minds and hearts. That is yet another reason why the Bible and its purifying power are important as a starting point for philosophical discussions.
What difference does “regeneration” make to a philosopher’s character and trade?
Being born again, as described in John 3:1-8, produces radical, global change in a person’s life, and that change includes change in thinking (Rom. 12:1-2). We begin to try to honor God rather than self, and listen submissively to his instruction rather than imposing our own ideas. Such a change affects all of life and every academic discipline, including philosophy.
I am very sympathetic to your multi-perspectival approach to “the big questions.” How can we avoid wielding this tool without people endlessly saying, “well, that’s just your perspective”?
In the last decades, the word perspective has come to be used in the way you describe, in order to dismiss anything with which a particular person disagrees. Typically, the larger context includes a worldview that has become skeptical about knowing the truth, because it thinks that God is absent and therefore there is ultimately no one to adjudicate competing claims. Having a Christian worldview or the beginning of a Christian “philosophy” is actually part of the answer.
We who know Jesus Christ need to engage this relativistic worldview in several ways. First, we can invite the proponents of such views to exercise critical discernment about the foundations of their own views. The foundations are rotten. If no one can adjudicate competing claims, neither can anyone adjudicate the claim that there is no adjudicator. It is just an opinion. The relativism of our day (and its lazy dismissal of “your perspective”) is just as much a special, social, atmospheric inheritance as is the religious commitment of people growing up in a radically Muslim culture.
Second, we need to explain the gospel in the context of who God is. God made the world and us. And he gives us guidance through his word. Jesus Christ came to open the way to forgiveness of sins, to heal our alienation with God, and to provide the truth. He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). His resurrection from the dead authenticates his claims. In Christ we have the answer to the radical relativism of our time.
When John Frame and I talk about “perspectives,” we mean something very different from the modern relativistic use. Let me illustrate. A perspective is like a window by which I look out at a garden outside my house. Let us say that my wife is outside, picking flowers in the garden. When she comes in, I observe that the roses have budded but not yet bloomed. Will she reply that that is just my perspective? Of course not. I do have a perspective: I am looking through the window. The window is what allows me to see the truth about the roses; it is not a barrier to the truth. It may be that my wife from her position outside observed one rose that had already bloomed. So then she can add to my knowledge. But her extra knowledge does not undermine what I could know by looking through the window. We use perspectives because of the richness of the availability of truth in God’s world, not because we can really know nothing.
One thing that gives modern philosophies such as scientism such plausibility is its “explanatory power” and success rate. Christianity, it seems to many, attempts to answer questions of little practical relevance in our technology-driven culture. How can Christians speak convincingly in light of science’s overwhelming success?
There are many sides to answering this question. People are still people. They hunger for eternal life and for fellowship with God, but at the same time they flee God and try to replace him with idols of their own making. Scientism is virtually the worship of science as a replacement for God. The lust for gadgets is similar. But the replacement does not satisfy. Christ as the Savior addresses whole human beings in their hearts, not merely one side of them.
At the same time, the Christian worldview explains why science works. We are made in the image of God, and we have the capacity for appreciating the world with the regularities that God ordained. We can praise God for the marvelous products of science and technology. Materialistic philosophy, by contrast, undermines science in the long run, because it can give no adequate account for the human mind, which is necessary for doing science. The same is true of scientism, if this means the view that only the issues that empirical science can investigate are significant. Scientism’s own principle that only certain issues are significant does not derive from empirical investigation, but is an unfounded philosophical opinion. Scientism cannot explain itself.
I would like to know your opinion on the English tradition of Analytic Philosophy and Theology. What is this approach and do you find it a useful or helpful development?
I believe there are pluses and minuses. The desire to achieve rigorous thinking often brings into the open hidden assumptions and clarifies main routes for debate. One of the procedures of analytic philosophy, clarification of concepts, may be used either in considering more fundamental questions (the “big” questions) or in unclogging communication by paying attention to differences in word meaning between two partners in dialog.
The potential minuses are several. It is possible for philosophers to turn away from the big questions. They treat them as unanswerable because they cannot be answered merely by inspecting and reinspecting our language and communication practices. Instead, philosophers need to read the Bible and believe what it says. This one thing is the biggest thing needed, and one that is regularly left out.
It is also possible for them to overestimate what can be achieved by rigorous definitions. Rigor is often achieved by providing a technical definition of a technical term. But the technical term is in the end dependent on the many ordinary words used in the definition. And the definition could have been chosen differently.
Reasoning in philosophy frequently involves the hidden assumption that all rationality is on one level–human rationality. But the Bible indicates that God is the source and foundation for human rationality. There are two levels, not one. God’s knowledge of himself and of the world is infinite and original. Ours is derivative. Most philosophy, including analytic philosophy, is conducted in an atmosphere of resistance to this truth about rationality.
God did not make us with the design that we should use rationality in a vacuum, but in fellowship with him and his verbal instruction–which we have in Scripture.
How do you recommend believers conduct conversations with unbelievers over philosophical matters? What do you think is the best way to get across to them that we operate on a different view for what counts as rational and reasonable?
My number one advice would be to be faithful to your own convictions. Don’t be embarrassed by the fact that you trust Christ and depend on Scripture. Continue to believe that the world is actually like what the Bible says it is. Unbelievers are not neutral, but are fighting God and suppressing the truth (Rom. 1:18-23).
There might be many ways of beginning the discussion. But at least one way is to bring up the issue of God. We believe that God exists, that he made the world, and that he made us. That has implications at a practical level for what a person thinks is reasonable. If God exists and is like that, it is reasonable to listen to him. But we are sinful creatures and don’t want to listen. We need Christ the redeemer. It is naive to think that such things have no effect on philosophy.
Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, Stellenbosch University) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for over 35 years. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books on biblical interpretation, language, and science, including Redeeming Science, Redeeming Sociology, Logic, and Chance and the Sovereignty of God.
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.