Symphonic Theology

Chapter 5: In Defense of Symphonic Theology

By Vern Sheridan Poythress

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Title Page
Table of Contents

In chapter 4, we saw that different perspectives, though they start from different strands of biblical revelation, are in principle harmonizable with one another. We as human beings do not always see the harmony right away. But we gain insights in the process of trying to see the same material from several perspectives. We use what we have gained from one perspective to reinforce, correct, or improve what we understood through another. I call this procedure symphonic theology because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme.

But now we must deal with some worrisome concerns. People who have not been accustomed to thinking in terms of perspectives may be worried about the possibility of relativism. If all perspectives are valid in principle, isn't truth relative to one's perspective? By putting everything in flux, do we undermine any idea of absolute truth? In our present-day Western cultural context, relativism in one form or another is indeed widespread and popular. So it is important to delineate the differences between symphonic theology and destructive relativism.


In answering the question about equality of perspectives, we should first say that not all perspectives are equally prominent in the Bible. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 12; the apostle Paul explains the nature of the people of God, the church, primarily in terms of analogy with a human body. If we do not notice that this analogy, or perspective, is the primary one at this point in Paul's letter, we will miss part of what he says. In Romans 9; on the other hand, the people of God are discussed primarily in terms of God's plan. God has plans for other aspects of creation besides the people of God. There are analogies between his plans for Pharaoh (Rom 9:17) and plans for other human beings. Again, if we fail to recognize the prominence of this kind of perspective on the people of God, we miss something.

Second, not all perspectives are equally useful for all purposes. The most prominent analogies, themes, and perspectives at a given point in a text are obviously the most useful in understanding that particular text. In addition, certain themes are prominent in a particular writer (e.g., union with Christ, in Paul's writings). Such a prominent theme can more efficiently be used as a perspective on the all of Paul's letters.

Third, it is misleading to say that all perspectives are valid. A non-Christian philosopher can build a philosophical system that is invalid. Such a system is, in a certain broad sense, a perspective on the world. Obviously it is illegitimate for us to build our own thinking on assumptions that are antithetical to Christian truth. We cannot legitimately use a perspective in this sense.

Even in the case of the non-Christian system, however, there is something positive to be said. The non-Christian's work would not even be plausible if it did not at some point formally resemble truth. Considered piecemeal, it has "grains of truth" in it. Any such grain of truth can be used as the starting point for developing a perspective on a much larger field of truth. Sometimes the non-Christian system as a whole is based on a "root-metaphor" of some kind, such as the world as mechanism or the world as organism. 1

If we recognize such an analogy and detach it from its context in the non-Christian system, it can be used as a perspective.


Is truth relative or absolute? I do believe that truth is absolute. But we need to formulate carefully the implications of this absoluteness. We are concerned about propositional truth, that is, truths expressed in declarative statements. A declarative claim can take the form of a statement intended to be about all times and places. Or it can take the form of a statement intended to be about only a single time and place. For example, the statement "Red and green are distinct colors" is a general truth, while "Socrates died from drinking poison" is a truth about a single event at a particular time and place. But in both cases the truth expressed may be correctly affirmed by anyone at any time and place. 2

Any truth, then, is universal and absolute, in the sense that it is true for anyone who may inquire. Such statements about truth, however, are really not very profound, for they simply reflect how we normally use the words "true" and "truth." People who use the words with some other implications in mind are likely not to be understood. (Often, such people mainly want to say that they do not believe that there is any truth, at least in the usual sense. But adopting such a position does not change the meaning of the word "true.")

Sometimes, of course, we as finite human beings disagree with past judgments. We may change our mind about something we formerly believed was true. But in such cases, the word "true' is normally used in such a way that alterations in people's views are described as alterations in beliefs, not alterations in what is true. This discussion has a simple point: we can go on thinking the way most of us have been thinking all along. What is true is true, independent of what we as human beings think is true.

The use of a multiplicity of perspectives does not constitute a denial of the absoluteness of truth. Rather, it constitutes a recognition of the richness of truth, and it builds on the fact that human beings are limited. Our knowledge of the truth is partial. We know truth, but not all of the truth. And someone else may know truths that we do not know. We are enabled to learn what others know, partly by seeing things from their perspective. Again, we may use the analogy of a precious jewel. The jewel has many facets, each one analogous to a perspective. The facets are all present objectively, as is the jewel as a whole. But not all facets of the jewel may be seen equally well through only one facet. Likewise, not all aspects of the truth can be seen equally well through one perspective.

We may say, then, that while truth is absolute, any one human being's knowledge of the truth is relative in certain respects. First, knowledge of the truth is not exhaustive knowledge of all truth. Human knowledge is relative in content. Our opportunities, our intellectual ability, our interests, our teachers, and our presuppositions all influence which particular truths we come to know. Which particular facets of a jewel we see depends on where we are when we look at the jewel. Any particular bit of truth is always related to other bits. The exact relations we see and use depends on us. Second, there is a sense in which human knowledge is also relative to use. The acid test of whether particular people know something is whether they are able to use it in relevant situations. The person who claims to know something but who cannot apply an insight may well know the words without having really understood. Knowledge is thus always knowledge in relation to other truths and situations of possible use. Finally, human knowledge is relative to time. Each of us can grow in knowledge, or forget, or cease to believe the truth.

Among theists, at least, I suppose that no one would deny that human knowledge is relative in these respects. (Some people might not want to use the term "relative," for fear of compromising their conviction that truth is not relative, but I think most would agree with the substance of this section.) Nevertheless, I do not think that we have always appreciated the consequences of this relativity of our knowledge. We know that truth is absolute--in particular, the truths of the Bible. We allow ourselves, however, to slip over into excessive presumption with regard to our human knowledge. We do not reckon with the fact that our interpretation of the Bible is always fallible. Or if we know a piece of truth, we may erroneously suppose that we know it precisely and exhaustively. The Pharisees doubtless thought that they understood the Sabbath commandment exactly. Therefore they knew that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees were drawing their boundaries very precisely. They knew, for example, exactly how far they could travel on a Sabbath day without "taking a journey" (i.e., working). But at this point the Pharisees were overconfident and presumptuous. They did not really understand the Old Testament.

But let us apply this example to ourselves. We may erroneously suppose that we, in our knowledge, do not really need a background of other, related truths in order to make sense of a certain teaching. We make one truth the basis for a long chain of syllogisms, without considering its context. For instance, we ignore the consider the context in which the Sabbath laws are given. At this point, it seems to me, the absoluteness of truth has been confused with the questionable idea that we can isolate and dissect any one bit of truth. Individual true statements are not self-existent in this way.


Two or three bad influences have pushed us into these invalid conclusions. The first influence is the general one of pride and sin, the same pride and sin that infected the Pharisees. This condition requires the remedy of the cross.

But there are two other, less dramatic influences of a more intellectual sort. One is the influence of Euclidean mathematics on philosophy, and of philosophy in turn on the ideal of theological knowledge. Ideally, we may think, theological knowledge should resemble the certainty and rigor of Euclid's system. We may dream of such an ideal goal, even though we are realistic enough to know that theology will never perfectly attain this ideal in this life. But Euclidean mathematics is very selective in what it notices about the human element in mathematical knowledge and the human contributions to the growth of mathematics. 3 And even if it were not, why should we use one field of knowledge as the ideal for the whole? It is only one possible analogy.

The other influence derives from suppositions about God's knowledge. We know that human thinking and human knowledge are often partial and flawed. But since God knows all things exhaustively, he is able to isolate each bit of truth and know it precisely. Christians sometimes assume, therefore, that this kind of knowledge is our ideal and that, when God speaks to us, his message will approximate this ideal.

Although God's knowledge is indeed exhaustive, the above implications do not follow. In fact, the implications are largely based on crucial, unexamined assumptions about the way in which God's knowledge is organized. I came to see this point myself as I reflected on the four gospels.

The Gospels present the central person and the central acts of redemptive history from four distinct perspectives. The existence of four perspectives obviously does not mean that we can believe anything that we want about Jesus or about redemption. It does not mean we must believe two contradictory things at once. The four perspectives are in principle in harmony with one another, both in their general picture and in the details.

I know, of course, that there are some apparent discrepancies between the details in different gospels. On the basis of God's truthfulness and the authority of the Scripture, I believe that these apparent discrepancies are harmonizable in principle. In fact, reasonable answers have been suggested in the literature for virtually all the problems. But as human beings we are not always sure what answer is correct. In sum, in the case of the Gospels a multiplicity of perspectives does not imply relativism. Hence, the same multiplicity elsewhere need not make us into relativists.

It is commonly said that the differences among the four gospels arise from the different interests and theological viewpoints of the four Evangelists. The selective information available to each may also have had its influence. Their intended audiences may also have been different, which can be seen as one aspect of the differences in their interests. The differences are thus human differences arising from the relative character of the human knowledge of each Evangelist.

Some people go a step further and say that the divine message consists only in the common core shared by all four gospels. As one who believes in plenary, verbal inspiration of the canonical books of the Bible, I find such a view incorrect. The full text of each gospel is what God says as well as what the Evangelist says. There is no tension here between divine speaking and human speaking, any more than there is a tension between the fact that Christ's speeches are God speaking and a human being speaking.

It follows, then, that the very diversity of the Gospels is a divine diversity. God intended that we should hear about the center of redemption in four symphoniously related accounts, not one. God is absolutely at home with this unity in diversity.

Someone may object, "Although there are four accounts of Jesus Christ and of his works, he himself is a single person, and any particular event described is a single event. The Gospels provide four accounts of reality, but there is only one reality. The Gospels are diverse because it is possible to give plural interpretations of a fact, not because the fact itself is plural."

Certainly there is one person, Jesus Christ, and in some cases the four gospels do describe the same event. But there is a temptation here to conclude that a particular event or reality as a whole exists prior to and independent of any perspective on it, any knowledge or interpretation of it. Any interpretations come only afterward. In this view, the event itself is a "brute" fact or state-of-affairs, an event that acquires real meaning only when meaning is added by a later observer.

I reject this idea of events without prior meaning because it does not really take account of God's government of the world and his involvement in each and every event. 4 God even "makes grass grow for the cattle" (Ps 104:14). How much more is he concerned for those central events in the life of Christ by which he accomplishes our salvation.

All events are meaningful first of all to God. They are meaningful against the background of God's knowledge and God's plan for the world. That is, there are no self-existent or autonomous states of affairs independent of divine prior knowledge of them. Each one stands in relation to God, who ordains them. And so we are driven back to ask what God's view is of the historical events recorded in the Gospels. The surprising answer is simply that God's view is the Gospels themselves, in their unity and diversity.


But now another objection arises. The Gospels are indeed what God says to us human beings; God has genuinely "shared his mind with us" in writing to us in this way. But of course God knows more about the events than what he says in the Gospels. Someone may then object: "The diversity in the Gospels is an accommodation to our needs as human beings. It need not represent simply a direct transcript of God's mind."

This objection is mostly true. We grant that the diversity of the Gospels is adapted to our needs. But is the diversity merely an adaptation? How do we know that God's knowledge in itself eliminates diversity of perspective? Some people just assume without question that there is no diversity. To me, such assumption is suspicious. Philosophical reasoning has often tried to get "behind" the Bible into some deeper speculative knowledge of God. Always this attempt turns out in practice to be a way of giving human reason autonomy to dictate to the Bible which of its parts are to be taken seriously and which are mere metaphors or "accommodations" for the common people. 5

But we can answer this objection in terms of its own categories. Consider God's knowledge of an event in the life of Christ or his knowledge of any other state of affairs. For all such cases we say that God's mind is the final reference point for all knowledge and all truth. But how is that knowledge organized in God's mind? It is often simply presupposed that God's knowledge consists in an infinite collection of bits, each bit being a truth from God's single perspective.

While God is one and while there is unity to his perspective, he nevertheless is also three persons. We are never allowed to swallow up the three persons into a pure unity or to divide the unity into a pure plurality. 6 This argument about the divine mind appears to swallow up all diversity of perspective into a single perspective, God's perspective, which is absolutely ultimate. This unifying center holds together the diverse bits, the individual truths.

This account of things, however, by-passes the ontological ultimacy of the Trinity. There is a single ultimate perspective on truth, God's perspective, because there is only one God. But also there are three ultimate perspectives on truth--the perspectives of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--and these three are not identical with one another in every respect. The Father knows the Son (Luke 10:22) and, in knowing the Son, knows all things. The Son knows the Father and, in knowing the Father, knows all things. This knowledge is personal, loving, and intimate; it is not merely knowledge of propositions. The Father knows the Son as Father, from his perspective as Father. That standpoint is not the same as the knowledge that the Son has.

Moreover, the content of the truth is both one and many. It is not merely analytically precise and isolated bits, plus analytically cold relations between these bits and relations between the relations. The Father knows the Son, and the Son is one person. Yet this one person includes all treasures of wisdom and understanding (Col 2:3).

This doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery! I would not dare to "solve" anything here. We worship. But I suggest that thinking about truth and knowledge can get carried away from worship and therefore from truth itself. Error follows when we wish to evade, suppress, or forget the gloriously personal, inextricably rich character of knowledge and truth (Rom 11:33-36).


Addition to the reasons already given, we can justify doing theology symphonically by its sheer fruitfulness. By deliberately looking at a subject in terms of a given analogy, we notice things that we would not otherwise notice. Of course, there is a certain danger that we may imagine something to be in the text when it is only the product of our own biased interest or that we may force everything into a preconceived mold. Rightly used, however, multiple perspectives help us to go in the very opposite direction.

First, by using more than one analogy or perspective, we can, as it were, stand outside the limitations that may arise when we just use one. Using a second or third perspective, we can criticize whatever artificiality may be involved in the first perspective.

Second, we use one perspective to enrich another. We do not attempt to suppress what does not fit into the newest perspective. We do not force a passage or an issue into the preconceived mold that we may initially have in mind when we start using this perspective. Rather, we attempt to adjust and enrich the perspective until it includes everything that we have noticed using a previous perspective.

Third, the problems of preconceptions and biases are not unique to a symphonic approach. Rather, they are involved whenever we are analyzing anything. We could argue that, by using a bias self-consciously, we put ourselves in a better position to remember that our discoveries have arisen from one starting point among many. We are better prepared to stand back at the end of our attempt and evaluate how much of what was forced on the passage is really there.

Finally, imagination and creativity often work best when people allow themselves to juxtapose unlikely parallels or analogies or to develop apparently fanciful or absurd ideas. This freedom is one of the ideas behind so-called brainstorming. Research on the processes involved in creativity shows how, in an advanced and sophisticated form of brainstorming, good and workable plans often evolve from some core idea that pops up using "wild" analogies. 7

Beyond simply using a multiplicity of perspectives, symphonic theology, as I conceive it, involves learning how to learn more from other people, by listening sympathetically. Other people have both good and bad ideas. By looking for the "grain of truth" even in some bad idea, we can sometimes find a starting point for a new perspective or a piece of truth that we ourselves had overlooked. The theology of liberation is a case in point. The mainstream of liberation theology conceives of liberation in a distorted way, as almost wholly political and economic. But the theme of liberation is clearly a biblical theme. It is therefore possible to develop the theme in a balanced way, as a positive answer to liberation theology.

The question of the cessation or continuation of miraculous acts of God is another issue that can be clarified by using different perspectives (see chapters 9 and 10). People occupying either of the extreme positions on this question can be led to modify their views if they ask themselves what is the grain of legitimacy that gives the opposite position some of its appeal. Symphonic theology, therefore, is interested in using the different insights given to different people in order to enhance the abilities of any one individual to grow in knowledge of the truth. That goal leads us to consideration of the structure of the body of Christ.


From Creation onward, God intended that the human race should develop with a diversity of individuals. Even apart from the fall of Adam, different people would have had different gifts and different experiences, so that one person's insights into the truth would complement those of another. The introduction of sin did not create diversity but rather made it contentious.

Our true unity and diversity is restored in principle in our union with Christ. Being united to Christ and conformed to his image destroys only the bad forms of diversity. The diversity of gifts in the body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8, 1 Cor 12:7-31, Eph 4:7-16) does not threaten unity in the truth but reinforces it. Growing up into the full understanding of the truth requires the full exercise of the diverse roles of the body (Eph 4:11-16).

No one human being has all the fullness of Christ's gifts. All of us are to learn from others who have insights and contributions that we could not easily achieve ourselves. When we listen to other people sympathetically, we obtain perspectives on the truth different from our own. Of course, we do not accept everyone else's ideas uncritically. But we make an effort to listen lovingly and to take the other person's point of view. In doing so, we achieve a kind of second perspective on the truth.

The use of multiple perspectives in our own thinking is thus a way of trying to reproduce and strengthen some of the effects that have always occurred in the growth of the church. Using multiple perspectives ourselves does not eliminate the importance of listening to others but strengthens our ability to do so (because we have had practice shifting points of view).


Finally, we may observe that all human knowledge whatsoever is analogically related to God's knowledge. We are made in the image of God, which implies that our knowledge is an image of God's knowledge. In addition, I would claim that all growth in knowledge exploits analogy in one way or another. We learn by relating what is new to what is old. General laws of gravitation are learned by relating them by analogy to particular test cases such as falling apples. General understanding of biological cells is aided by using analogies with a factory. General understanding of human experience is achieved by moving by analogy from our own experience to other people's stories of their experiences. The use of perspectives is a way of becoming self-conscious and deliberate about the use of analogies and in this way promises a systematic way of searching to advance knowledge.


  1. See Stephen Pepper, World Hypotheses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
  2. See the more elaborate discussion of such matters in Paul Helm, "Revealed Propositions and Timeless Truths," Religious Studies 8 (1972): 127-136.
  3. Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, ed. John Worrall and Elie Zahar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
  4. At this point, I am following Cornelius Van Til's criticism of the idea of brute fact. See, e.g., Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 40-65.
  5. One of the contributions of Van Til has been to identify clearly the move toward autonomous reason as sinful rebellion working itself out in the area of thought. See Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963); idem, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969).
  6. Again I owe this point to Van Til. He has emphasized the "equal ultimacy" of unity and diversity in the Trinity (see, e.g., The Defense of the Faith 25-28). All non-Christian philosophies, he says, are unable to solve the problem of unity and diversity. In the end they arrive at ultimate pluralism or dualism, or else ultimate monism.
  7. See, e.g., William J. J. Gordon, Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 34-56.
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