An Interview with Vern Poythress By Marco Gonzalez
Dr. Vern Poythress teaches New Testament studies at Westminister Theological Seminary. With his strong objective thinking from his studies in mathematics, professor Poythress has published some of the finest works on the New Testament. He has published books on Christian philosophy of science, theological method, dispensationalism, biblical law, hermeneutics, Bible translation, and Revelation. Some of his works include: a book on Revelation, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), and Understanding dispensationalism Dr. Poythress has a close relationship with Dr. John Frame and they both co-share a website togeather http://www.frame-poythress.org/
1. Can you share with us some background information on yourself?
I was born in 1946 in Madera, California, into a Christian family, and grew up on a farm. I have one older brother, Kenneth. When I was nine years old I placed my trust in Christ at a church camp, and made an initial public commitment to Christ. Over the years my parents and my brother and I were members of several Bible-believing American Baptist churches in California. My first exposure to Reformed theology was in college, when I read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. I majored in mathematics at Caltech, and then did a Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard University.
My Diane and I have two children, Ransom and Justin, who are presently in college. I am an ordained teaching elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. I do not pastor a congregation, but teach as Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
2. Can you please share with us your calling into ministry. I find it amazing you had already earned a Ph.D in Mathematics from one of the most prestigious graduate schools (Harvard), prior to entering Westminister Theological Seminary?
I had a love for mathematics and talent in mathematics from an early age. I was fascinated by the beauty and power that I saw in mathematics. It was natural for me to major in mathematics at Caltech (1963-66). I was also a part of the Inter-Varsity group at Caltech, the Caltech Christian Fellowship. I became more and more interested in learning about the Bible and theology. Naturally I prayed about my future, asking for the Lord's guidance. I wanted to become a college teacher of mathematics on a secular campus, and help the Christian fellowship and witness on the campus. I saw that I had such a strong interest in the Bible and theology that I would be dissatisfied if I did not take some more time for serious study. I decided to do Ph.D. work in mathematics first, and then take a year or two of seminary training.
While I was doing my Ph.D. work at Harvard, my interest in the Bible and theology continued, and I found that I was devoting all my spare time to reading in this type of area. Then I had to reassess which was my first love. In thinking and praying about it, I decided that my first love had become theology. I wanted to spend the rest of my life there rather than in mathematics. But I was in the middle of my doctoral program. I decided to go ahead and finish it, then make the switch. I could see that one did not have sufficient time in one lifetime to be both a good mathematician and a good theologian, so it was necessary to choose.
In reading Herman Dooyeweerd and other works in the school of cosmonomic philosophy, I was challenged to treat mathematics from a Christian point of view. Before I left that area behind, I decided to take up Dooyeweerd's and Kuyper's challenge to think Christianly in this area.
By the time I was through with my doctoral work, I was also tired of being a student. After praying about it, I decided to take a year off before going to seminary, and spend a year teaching mathematics at the college level. I intended also to see whether I could do this teaching Christianly. I taught for a year at Fresno State College (near where my parents lived), now California State University at Fresno. I then resigned my position there and went to Westminster Seminary as a student (1971).
While going to Westminster Seminary, I still was searching for exactly what the Lord wanted me to do. I told him that I was willing to do anything that he had for me. But I was reluctant about being a pastor, because I saw that pastors had to be good at dealing with people, and I was a more bookish person.
After I finished my M.Div. and Th.M. at Westminster Seminary, I received advice from my professors (primarily Edmund P. Clowney and John M. Frame) that I had potential for doctoral work in theology. I knew at that point that I was interested in seminary teaching or college teaching in the Bible or theology.
3. What is symphonic theology?
I have sometimes defined symphony theology as "a style of life, interpretation, and thinking in which an endeavor is made to take a number of limited complementary starting principles and use them as perspectives for interpreting and understanding in a harmony the whole of a given subject area. (See the whole jewel through one facet.)"
For instance, one can profit from looking at the whole Bible as a manifestation of God's kingly rule, or as a history of God's covenants with mankind. Those are two complementary perspectives.
Symphonic theology has roots in Cornelius Van Til's thinking about the distinctiveness of Christian thought, especially in Van Til's book Christian-Theistic Ethics, where he considers the uniqueness of Christian ethics in terms of standard, goal, and motive. It blossomed with John Frame's work on perspectives, from whom I learned. I coined the name "symphonic theology," which is also the name of my book expounding some of the core principles. The book is now online as well as in print from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
4. One of your books "God-Centered Hermeneutics" gives a great approach to Hermeneutics. Can you share with us what God-Glorifying Hermeneutics look like?
I wrote God-Centered Biblical Interpretation to try to "think God's thoughts after him" in the area of hermeneutics, and to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5), a concern that I learned from Cornelius Van Til. I wanted to call on others and myself not simply to take over uncritically the existing assumptions of the world, but to rethink those assumptions and to arrive at an approach to interpreting the Bible that would be more consistent with the Bible itself and with the Christian worldview that flows from it. Among other things, this means that we seek to honor God in hermeneutics, rather than going after an allegedly religiously neutral hermeneutical approach. It means also that we acknowledge that spiritual truths are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). We need the Holy Spirit, not pretended human autonomy, in order rightly to grasp and appropriate what God is speaking.
5. I find great strength in your A-Millennial stance. Why is A-Millennailsm the correct stance when compared to Pre-mill, Post-Mill, etc.?
Where the millennial views disagree, only one can ultimately be right. But I believe that all three major positions have some insights. Premillennialists typically emphasize the fervent hope that we should have for the return of Christ. Amillennialists typically emphasize the reign of Christ now (Ephesians 1:21). Postmillennialists typically emphasize that we should be optimistic about the power of the gospel to bring people to Christ and transform their lives. As more and more people come to know him, the effects of the transformation spread to society as well.
I therefore appreciate some of the emphases in each of the positions, and I try to remain open to learning from them. In the end, you are right that my own present position is amillennial, for reasons articulated in my article about 2 Thessalonians 1. Those interested in the more detailed disputes can read what I have read elsewhere. I have a book on Revelation, an article on amillennialism, an article on Revelation 20, and some course materials on Revelation.
6. You are a strong supporter of Covenant Theology. What inconsistencies do you find in a Dispensational theology, when compared to Covenant? My own convictions have lead me to Dr.John Macathur's view of dispensationalism (In fact, he has labeled himself a leaky dispensationalist), which is ecclesological and eschatological in nature.
Reformed covenant theology has grown in the twentieth century and early twenty-first century through the influence of biblical theology, which has highlighted some of the distinctive aspects of various redemptive epochs. In this manner it has better articulated some of the concerns found in dispensationalism, though it has done so within its own framework. Likewise dispensationalists, particularly progressive dispensationalists, have been rethinking ways in which to affirm continuity in God's purposes through time. Both of these developments have been for the good.
I do maintain that covenant theology is good at articulating the way in which, throughout history, there is only one way of salvation through Christ. We grow as we understand more deeply the Christ-centered character of the Old Testament. That helps Christians to see the continued relevance of the Old Testament in the midst of their New Testament circumstances. I have written about these matters in The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), and specifically discussed dispensationalism in Understanding Dispensationalists (2d ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994).
7. What problems should Christians be aware of in Evangelicalism?
I consider myself an Evangelical, and I greatly value the influence that evangelicalism has had on my life. I find precious the spiritual fellowship that evangelicals experience almost immediately even at first meeting. That said, we should be aware of dangers ahead.
Many of the problems are perennial, even though they periodically take new forms. On the one hand we may be tempted to withdraw into a ghetto, and cease to reach out and touch non-Christians around us. On the other hand, we may become compromised with worldliness. The latter seems to be more common right now. We may become pleasure-seeking and money-driven in our practical lives; we may soft-pedal unpopular doctrines; we may neglect doctrine altogether because it creates controversy; we may become individualistic in our thinking and our practice, and not perceive the importance of the church in God's plan; we may be me-centered instead of God-centered; we may swallow postmodern skepticism about knowing truth; we may swallow feminism or pro-homosexual advocacy; we may be so completely focused on evangelicalism and church growth that we may cease to care about discipling those who have become Christians; we may dilute the authority of Scripture; we may cease to study and meditate on the Bible because there are too many other interesting things to do; and so on.
And if we recognize that these things are problems, we may still make the mistake of relying on our own strength rather than on the Lord to solve them
8. Last month I had the honor to interview John Frame. I asked him about his relationship toward you. I think it would be of great profit to hear your perspective from a "Student-Teacher" relationship and now mutual equals.
John Frame was one of my teachers when I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, 1971-74, and he was later my colleague when I joined the faculty in 1976. The two of us had a theological affinity from the beginning, and it has been a great delight for me both to learn from him and to have his personal friendship over the years. He and his teaching had a truly ground-breaking influence on me as a student.
For all this I thank our great and wonderful God. It is God who has given both to Frame and to me whatever theological gifts we have. And it must be he who has given us our theological affinity. From my point of view, our affinity seems to have grown up I know not how.
10. Why should the average everyday Christian be concerned with the TNIV (the next edition of the NIV) ?
The TNIV has changed the NIV in the direction of gender-neutral translation policy. In the TNIV not all male meanings have become gender-neutral, but in a host of cases male examples of general principles have become gender-neutral examples. Consider Proverbs 13:1:
NIV: A wise son heeds his father's instruction, ...
TNIV: A wise child heeds a parent's instruction, ...
Son has become child, even though the meaning of the underlying Hebrew word is son. Father has become parent, even though the underlying Hebrew word means father.
The resulting changes of meaning tend to be small in any one verse. But the changes takes place in thousands of verses altogether. The result is that a reader without access to the original languages or to other, more reliable translations does not know where changes have been made, and where he is losing meaning. One cannot rely on a translation like this.
Interested readers can read further discussion in my article, "Small Changes in Meaning Can Matter: The Unacceptability of the TNIV." Readers might also want to know that Wayne Grudem and I have joint-authored a book on the question, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2004). An earlier edition, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (2000), is available online
11. What works can we except from you in the future?
Crossway books has undertaken to publish a book of mine on theology of science, which should appear in 2006. The tentative title is "Following Christ in a Scientific Age." I intend this book to contribute to forming a Christian worldview in which one can see a positive role for science, but also where science needs to be reformed.
13. Can you tell us a little bit about your book Science, Philosophy, and the Sovereignty of God?
Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God, originally published by Presbyterian and Reformed in 1976, and reprinted in 2004, also tackles at length the need for a Christian worldview encompassing science.
14. Why is Inerrancy important and how do we define and explain the term biblically?
If the Bible really is the word of God, as it claims to be (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and if God cannot lie, we can trust that the Bible is wholly true. Error is the opposite of truth, and so we know that the Bible has no errors. What it affirms can always be trusted, because we can always trust God. That is the basic meaning of inerrancy.
Inerrancy is important first of all because it touches on the basic religious question of whether we can trust God. Not trusting God is the prime temptation of the Serpent (Genesis 3:5), and always has devastating spiritual effects.
People who have become Christians may take time to come to a settled conviction on these matters. The Holy Spirit must work in their lives, and sometimes they need to sort through misconceptions. It can be profitable to read some of the classic defenses of inerrancy, such as B. B. Warfield's book, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Warfield's book and other major books help to clear up misconceptions, such as the misconception that an inerrant document would only use language that is pedantically precise.
It is also worth underlining that, though the Bible's basic message is clear, the Bible presents many challenges in some of its details. There remain some things that we may not be able to explain, because of lack of complete knowledge. There may be things that temporarily appear to us to be erroneous. With such a situation we must be patient. For many difficulties there are good explanations. For some others, there are possible explanations, though we may not know enough to decide which explanation is correct. For still others, the explanations that we have may be very incomplete. Sometimes people are tempted to produce implausible or "forced" explanations in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Bible. The motives here may be laudable, but it is not really the best way. We need to be patient with the fact that God has not given us all the answers. If we insist on waiting until we have in hand good explanations for everything, we will never come to trust God. Trusting God means trusting him when you do not already have a complete explanation.
Inerrancy is spiritually important because of the long-term consequences of denying it. If we come to think that there are errors in the Bible, we then allow ourselves to sort between what we think is good and what we think is bad. It is always we who end up doing the sorting, and our personal judgments lord it over scripture. It ruins the Lordship of Christ over our lives, because then we secretly retain the power to reject anything that does not suit us.
Readers may care to look at an article that I wrote on this subject years ago, "Problems for Limited Inerrancy."
Thank you Dr. Poythress for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed. We all appreciate your work at Reformation Theology.