Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Initial thoughts on Poythress' Symphonic Theology

So I've finally made my way (mostly) through the short monograph by Poythress called "Symphonic Theology". My dad bought me a copy several years ago because he was so thoroughly impressed with the work. This was one of those books he read nearly a dozen times, and filled every white space in the book with notes. For whatever reason, I never really took this as a positive cue to read it for myself.

Anyway, so I just finished it.

Poythress unpacks (briefly) a hermeneutic based on the principle of "symphonic theology". At its core, this hermeneutic is concerned with understanding the variety of perspectives behind the language of the biblical books, and the value in discerning this variety in building one's interpretive method and ultimately theology.

Its hard for me to really define what distinguishes "symphonic theology" from "biblical theology", even though the latter has meant several different things in academia over the last 100 years. Biblical theology started as basically a movement towards a more historical approach to biblical interpretation. While at Talbot the hermeneutic I was trained in, which was called Biblical theology, was essentially the same as Poythress' "symphonic theology". I think the difference here was between a more historical approach and a hermeneutic that was historically inclined that also takes advantage of modern linguistics. For this reason, a lot of what Poythress was taking about was very familiar.

In fact the few authors I have read on modern biblical linguistics are regularly quoted by Poythress (Carson, Silva, and Barr). This understanding of linguistics has made a very positive (in my opinion) impact on biblical studies because it challenges prior mistaken understandings of how words work, in contrast to more traditional systematic approaches.

Overall I was very impressed with Poythress' work and enjoyed it thoroughly. My one complaint is that several times Poythress' use of words (ironically enough) was not as nuanced as I would have liked. A few times, I was unsure if he was leaning more towards a relativistic hermeneutic. However, after finishing the majority of the book, this is clearly not his goal, in fact he's very intentional in not letting this hermeneutic fall into relativism.

Finally, I think one area that needs better development (or I just need to think more about it) is his approach to bringing perspectives and questions to a passage. One the one hand, this seems like a very dangerous hermeneutic, but on the other I can see the legitimacy of trying to approach passages from different perspectives. In the former case, you are in danger of interpreting a passage by a preconceived idea. However, I think Poythress' intention was to simply challenge our assumed perspectives on a passage by seeing if other perspectives shed any light on the meaning. There is certainly a need for care in one's exegesis here as it seems like a precarious balance to maintain.

On the whole, I would highly recommend this book to a wide range of people. I'm not sure how accessible it is to those with less biblical training, but the perspective he articulates ultimately is important for all Christians in our humble quest for truth from God's Word.

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