A Lively Faith is Enhanced by a Lively Mind

Redeeming Philosophy:  A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions by Vern S. Poythress:  A Book Review

Why does anyone exist?

How do we come to know what we know?

Where do commonly held moral standards come from?

Do any of these questions matter to ordinary people in our “sleeping, eating, going to work, walking around life”?  Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, has taken on the task of smoothing the uneasy relationship between faith and philosophy — of “redeeming” philosophy, “the love of wisdom.”  By definition, this would involve “compensat[ing] for the faults or bad aspects of” philosophy.

Because The Big Questions eventually find their way back to God (or require His conscious exclusion), Poythress examines philosophy through the lens of theology.  What makes his approach unique is that he uses the three perspectives of John Frame, professor of systematic theology and author of numerous books, most notably The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, which presents Christian epistemology and the three perspectives which Poythress borrows:

(1) The normative perspective which “focuses on the norms, namely, God’s commandments.  It asks, ‘What does God command us to do?'”

(2) The situational perspective which “focuses on the situation.  It asks, ‘Given my situation, what actions of mine can best promote the glory of God and blessing for my fellowman?'”

(3) The existential perspective which “looks at the person.  What are my motives?  What attitudes and actions are driven by love?”

The author’s frequent use of John Frame’s work gave me the pleasant feeling that I was getting “two for the price of one.”  It was also helpful and admirable that when Poythress referred in passing to a topic which he knew he could not cover thoroughly and stick to his outline, he pointed his readers to additional books which would provide deeper discussion on the subject.

Poythress utilized Frame’s three perspectives like a magnifying glass over each of the major subdivisions of philosophy in order to demonstrate its ultimate purpose.  This multiperspectivalism has its roots in the Trinity in which there is perfect unity alongside the diversity of three personal perspectives.  This, for me, was one of the most intriguing discussions in the book, for Poythress employs another of Frame’s triads (authority, control, presence) to explain how one’s view of God leads one either away from truth or toward it.  For example, with regard to God’s presence, there is a “non-Christian transcendence” that over-emphasizes God’s otherness to the point that humans cannot expect to have personal communion with God.  Using apples, bookmarks, and the act of walking as homely examples, Poythress models for his reader  the manner of thinking that explores ideas or objects from various perspectives.  This is not a meaningless exercise in a vacuum, but rather a beam of light along which we may view the glory of God.

Although his explanation of metaphysics consumes a generous portion of the book, Poythress demonstrates that ethics, epistemology, psychology, logic, and aesthetics, and the more specialized branches of philosophy all harmonize.  Redeeming Philosophy is an excellent overview of the divisions of philosophy and is accessible even for a persevering high school student who wants to get a head start on the fascinating interplay of philosophy and theology.   Harnessing philosophy as a tool of theology, Poythress accomplishes the purpose that Redeeming Philosophy sets forth by facilitating the development of a “distinctly Christian approach to doing philosophy” and by encouraging believers to delight in the Truth and to think deeply about the Giver of Truth who alone holds the answers to all the Big Questions.

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my honest review.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

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