Symphonic Theology

Chapter 3: Perspectives in Theology

By Vern Sheridan Poythress

Available by permission of P&R Publishing.

The reader will be glad to know that the print edition is still in print and available for purchase from P&R Publishing and other retail dealers. The P&R website is:

@ 1987 Vern S. Poythress. Published by P&R Publishing Company 2001. Used with permission. All rights to this material is reserved. This material is for personal use only and may not be published in any form without written permission from P&R. This material is not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in any other form or in other media either in whole or in part or mirrored at other websites without written permission from P&R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817, Philipsburg, NJ, 08865.

Title Page
Table of Contents

How can we use perspectives in the study of the Bible and in theology? The Bible itself uses different perspectives, as we have seen. But should we or should theologians use perspectives in studying the Bible? Although different perspectives are in the Bible, it does not follow that the thinking and writing of later theologians should involve different perspectives.


First, I content that the Bible's own world view should be the one that all theologians adopt for themselves. All their study of the Bible should be in terms of the framework of assumptions about God and the world that the Bible itself supplies. This orientation is very important. First of all, adopting the Bible's teaching is part of a theologian's obedience to God. It is submitting to what God says 1. In addition, theologians with alternate world views are bound to distort the Bible's teaching. They do not set that teaching in the proper context.

These concerns are so basic that they should go without saying. Unfortunately, in our day it is "fashionable to adopt a secular Western world view that is at odds with the Bible. After accepting a good deal of the modern world view, however, some still want to show respect to the Bible and try for some compromise. Such thinkers may simultaneously criticize modern culture on the basis of the Bible and "update" the Bible to remove what is offensive to our modern culture. In this book, however, I will assume that my readers have seen through this temptation. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We will not even begin to be wise if we do not listen humbly to God and to his word.


To a certain degree, theologians will inevitably use a particular perspective from the Bible when they are studying a passage that uses that perspective. Psalm 23 uses the analogy between God and a shepherd. When we study Psalm 23; we can hardly avoid considering the ways in which God is like a human shepherd. We should explore each metaphor or analogy in the Bible to identify the kinds of comparison it invites us to make. And we should pay attention to the selective thematic emphases that each particular book of the Bible has.

In addition, we can study the whole Bible with a particular selective thematic emphasis in mind. For example, we can study the whole Bible to see what each particular passage says about sin and its effects. Or we can study each passage of the Bible, asking what it teaches about God or about godly living or about Christ. Systematic theologians have been investigating Scripture in this manner all along.

Obviously there is a danger here. We may be like the husband who pays attention only to mechanical utility when he shops for curtains. We may notice only what we are looking for. Some people, for example, think of the Bible as a handbook for ethics. Whenever they read it, they ask only what principles and examples it can give them about right and wrong. The Bible does contain many direct statements about right and wrong, but it also contains much more. People who have this view of the Bible exclusively are in danger of misunderstanding ethics itself, because they do not pay attention to the relation of ethical principles to the purpose and plan of God, to the problems of sin and redemption, and to other matters that help us to understand more deeply all the nuances of what God is saying.

Similarly, some people read the Bible as a book of devotional literature. They look only for precious thoughts and inspirational verses that help maintain a spiritual outlook. Such people are also missing something. Others read the Bible as a handbook of theological doctrines or as an entertaining storybook or as an aesthetic literary masterpiece or whatever. Each of these approaches can be considered a perspective on reading the Bible, one that is incomplete by itself.

But suppose now that the same person reads the same passage of the Bible ten times. Suppose that each time the person adopts a new perspective from the ones mentioned above. Would not the person learn something new about the passage each time? A given perspective can be dangerous or stultifying if we use it all the time. But looking at a familiar passage in a fresh light can make it suddenly come alive again.

As an example, consider the account in Luke 18:35-43 of Jesus' healing a blind man. Suppose first that we read the passage to see what it says about ethics. There are no direct ethical statements in the passage, but we would certainly detect some general principles. We can say that (1) we ought to ask Jesus to supply our needs, as the blind man did; (2) we ought to have mercy on people in need as Jesus had mercy on the blind man; (3) we ought not to turn people away or discourage them from coming to Jesus, even if they are being a nuisance; (4) we ought to have faith in Jesus, as the blind man did; and (5) like the blind man and the crowd, we ought to praise God for his mighty works.

Now suppose that we read the same passage again, this time with a devotional interest. We will probably recognize that Jesus' healing of blindness is symbolic of his healing spiritual blindness (see especially John 9:39-41). Jesus has had mercy on us in saving us from spiritual blindness. As Christians we come to him again and again in prayer, just as the blind man did. We ask Jesus to take away our remaining blindness and cause us to see him as we should.

We might next read the passage for its theological doctrines. When we do so, we notice particularly what it reveals about Christ. His healing miracles testify to the fact that he is the divine Messiah. They also show the immeasurable power of God to work miracles in the physical world, as well as to work the miracle of spiritual sight and regeneration.

And so we may go on to still other readings of the same passage, each time with a different focus of attention. Consequently, each time we may notice something new or something that did not really capture our attention before. If we are to sound the depths of a passage, we need to come back to it again and again.

If we read the passage from ten different perspectives, we still should not feel as if we are reading ten distinct passages. If we are reading carefully, we notice many of the same things each time. But each time certain different things stand out. Each time we force ourselves to pay direct attention to something new in order to make sure that we do not miss anything.

Thus, when we use a multitude of perspectives on a passage, we do not expect a conflict or contradiction between perspectives. Rather, we use each perspective to reinforce and enhance our total understanding.


After we have looked at Luke 18:35-43 from a devotional and a doctrinal perspective, we could go back and read the same passage a second time from an ethical perspective. We would come up with the same ethical principles as before but in addition might notice ethical implications of what we have learned from the devotional and doctrinal perspectives. We might now conclude that, for example, (1) we should ask Jesus to heal our spiritual blindness and thank him for what he has done spiritually; (2) we should encourage others to do the same; (3) we should believe that Jesus is the divine Messiah, that he healed the blind man as a sign of his messiahship, and that he is still powerful to heal (what we ought to believe is part of our ethical obligation); (4) we should believe that God is in control of the universe and that he has power to work miracles. And so on.

The second ethical reading, therefore, sheds light on everything we obtained from the devotional and doctrinal. In fact, absolutely everything that we discover in any reading of the text has ethical relevance. Every fact implies something about our ethical obligations. For instance, when we read the passage in terms of theological doctrines, what we obtain are primarily statements about doctrine. But any true statement about doctrine has some ethical implications. Statements about God are simultaneously statements about the source and standard of our ethical obligations. Statements about Christ are simultaneously statements about the person who supplies us with power to meet our ethical obligations and forgiveness for our failure to meet past obligations. Statements about human beings are simultaneously statements about the type of beings who have the ethical obligations about which we are concerned.

Furthermore, any statement of fact implies an obligation to believe that fact. Our ethical obligations include not only obligations to do overt actions but intellectual and emotional obligations. We ought to think certain types of thought, to believe certain truths, and to have emotions and attitudes befitting godliness. The whole of systematic theology can be viewed as a description of what we ought to believe on the basis of the Bible. Thus all of systematic theology--all of doctrine--is simultaneously ethics!

Someone will object, however, that this ways of putting things is confusing and paradoxical. Usually we think of ethics and systematic theology as distinct though related disciplines. In ethics we simply say generally that ethical obligations include obligations to believe what the Bible teaches. Then we leave it to systematic theology to fill in the content of what the Bible teaches. Systematic theology and ethics thus have distinct tasks.

In a sense, however, this distinction is artificial. Christian ethics, even in the narrow sense, always returns to the Bible's teaching about God, loving one's neighbor, economics, telling the truth, and the exercise of power. Hence it really shares much common ground with systematic theology. The two tasks can never be isolated from one another. For convenience we might define ethics as studying what the Bible teaches about what we ought to do, while systematic theology focuses on what the Bible teaches about what we ought to believe. But in another sense, believing is an intellectual form of doing. Both traditional ethics and systematic theology consider the obligations that we have toward God. They are both "ethics" if this word applies to the study of those obligations in the widest sense.

We could also view ethics as a part of systematic theology. Ethical doctrine (doctrine concerning our obligations) is simply one kind of doctrine, and all doctrine is part of systematic theology. We can illustrate by reading Luke 18:35-43 a second time with a focus on doctrine. We will see the same things about doctrine that we saw the first time. But now we also have the benefit of our previous ethical reading. And so we might notice that the doctrines implied by or illustrated by the passage include those same ethical principles. We simply incorporate all the ethical principles into doctrine. While this step perhaps enlarges our concept of doctrine, nevertheless it is fruitful. It is valuable to notice that the Bible frequently weaves together ethical principles and propositional statements of fact about God and human beings ("doctrine" in a narrow sense). Both of these are aspects of its teaching ("doctrine" in a broad sense).

Finally, we can enlarge our concept of a devotional reading of the Bible to include everything in the Bible. In its narrow sense, a "devotional" reading of the Bible means reading the Bible with an interest only in what it says about the conscious psychological dimensions of communion with God and with Christ. But communion with Christ is richer than our psychological consciousness of it. As Christians, our whole lives are lived "in Christ." Our bodies are to be offered as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1), and our minds renewed to understand God's will (Rom 12:2). We must pattern our family lives after Christ (Eph 5:22-6:4), and our work is to be for Christ's service (Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:17, 23-25). All of life is in this sense "devotion" to God and to Christ. Our doctrine, what we believe, is part of the transformation of our minds, and thus is part of our devotion. What we do in conformity with ethical obligations is also devotion.

Thus we have seen that we can start with any of several complementary perspectives--doctrinal, ethical, or devotional. We notice different things when we study the same passage from different perspectives. But if we have done our study well, the different insights are in harmony with one another. Furthermore, after an extended study of the passage, we can enlarge any one of the perspectives until it covers everything. In this way we can see clearly that the differences of perspectives are not contradictory or antagonistic.


But some readers may still be uneasy about stretching one perspective to cover everything. Is this procedure really legitimate, and if so, does it do any good? Is it not confusing to say that ethics is doctrine or that doctrine is devotion? There are some good reasons for this concern. Anytime we deliberately broaden the meaning of words, we run the danger that someone will misunderstand. But some kinds of word stretching are actually fairly common. Metaphors stretch individual words or even our ability to relate two whole areas of life to each other. Since we can handle metaphors, we perhaps can successfully stretch traditional meanings of "doctrine" or "ethics."

Most of the rest of this book is an attempt to show just how much positive value we can obtain from such stretching operations. The reason for expanding the meaning of words is not that there is something wrong with the traditional way that they are used, nor is it to say that the new, extended sense of the words is "better." Rather, creating an extended meaning can help us to see three things.

First, fields of study and areas of life that are frequently compartmentalized in people's minds actually belong together, particularly in our use of the Bible. God created us to be whole people. We are meant to respond as whole people to the whole of God. Every aspect of our being--our minds, our emotions, our physical abilities, our digestion, our tears--has been created by God to play a role in our communion with him and our service to him. The Psalms are examples in words of what holistic response involves. The lives of the heroes of the faith, though they are imperfect, are also examples (Hebrews 11). The life of Christ is the supreme example. All these examples show integrated service to God. Stretching our categories helps to force us to think about integrating what we may have too neatly compartmentalized.

Second, the boundaries that we have set up between our compartments are in some cases arbitrary and artificial. For example, specialists in ethics may concentrate more on ethical obligations in a narrow sense, while specialists in systematic theology may concentrate more on the factual content of the Bible's teaching on major subjects such as God, humanity, and Christ. But the two areas are constantly intertwining and there is really a continuum here. The focus on one or another area can never be more than a matter of degree. We can still make rough distinctions for the sake of convenience between specialists in ethics and specialists in systematic theology. If we are not alert, however, the terms can all too easily mislead us into thinking that we are dealing with two rigidly distinct compartments. Then if two of us do not happen to draw the line between compartments at the same point, we have acrimonious debates about exactly where the line should be.

I suggest, then, that Bible students who are inclined to compartmentalize should stretch their terms. They should use them as perspectives to cover the whole of the Bible. Afterward they should go back to the earlier compartments and ask whether the old boundaries are the only ones that are possible. They can retain old boundaries if they wish but should recognize that boundaries are often drawn arbitrarily at one point on a continuum.

The third benefit of our stretching operations is more obvious. By looking at the whole of the Bible or the whole of doctrine from one perspective, we may notice things that had previously excaped our attention. The student may notice, for example, that the healing of the blind man in Luke 18:35-43 is analogous to spiritual healing of spiritual sight. Or some who have all along been looking primarily for moral lessons in the story of the blind man may notice for the first time how it testifies to Christ's messiahship when they read it from the doctrinal perspective.


  1. Though the doctrine of inspiration is crucial to theology, I cannot take time here to defend it. In agreement with inerrantist evangelicals, I maintain that the Bible teaches that it is the very word of God, and therefore infallible and inerrant. For supporting arguments I must refer readers to the evangelical literature on the subject.
Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.