Symphonic Theology

Chapter 8: Distinctive Methods in Symphonic Theology

By Dr. Vern Sheridan Poythress

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Title Page
Table of Contents

My observations about language in chapter 6, together with the maxims in chapter 7, show that symphonic theology has a number of distinctive methods in approaching the study of the Bible. Some of the maxims will immediately be clear and require no further illustration. And I give an extended illustration of the use of symphonic theology in chapters 9 and 10. But we still need to discuss a few methods that are to some degree distinctive to symphonic theology.

The investigation and interpretation of the Bible proceeds on many levels. We learn how to interpret individual words and passages in their uniqueness. We learn how to integrate those words and passages with what can be learned about the social and cultural context. We learn how to integrate many passages of the Bible with one another in studying a topic or theological issue. We learn how to take into account our own modern context in the effort to apply the Bible's message to ourselves. Since all of these levels influence one another, it is important that our approach be as good as possible on each level.

Because symphonic theology reflects extensively on language, it has something to say about almost all of the levels on which we consider a text. For the sake of clear organization, I look first at the smallest bits of text and proceed upward to the larger systems of relations between texts and between texts and contexts.


In the exegesis of individual texts, we deal with words, syntax (relations between words), and whole passages. Symphonic theology has some implications for each of these three areas. The implications for words and syntax are not so different from what linguists today would advocate, though linguists might use other terms to say it. But their contributions are not yet broadly appreciated in the field of biblical scholarship. Hence there is need for some further discussion. Others have already said much more about words and syntax than I can in this book. 1

The most basic points can be easily summarized. First, most words have a number of different senses, as listed in a dictionary. In any one context in the Bible, only one of the possible senses is used. For example, the Hebrew word dabar can mean either "word" or "thing," but in any one occurrence it has only one of these meanings. 2 Greek pistis can mean "trust" or "faithfulness," but in any one occurrence it will have only one of these two meanings. To use an example from English, "sharp" can mean either having an acute point or edge (as of a knife) or having a pungent taste or smell (as of cheese). In any one context, only one of the meanings is present. (There are, of course, exceptions in the cases of word plays, metaphors, and other figurative language which deliberately activates a second sense.)

Second, it is easy to read too much meaning into a single word, if we do not bear in mind that it has fuzzy boundaries. In the Bible, richness of meaning arises primarily from combinations of many words to make up whole sentences and paragraphs, not from any precision supposed to exist in a single word. For example, it is commonly said that the Greek word agapao means to exercise divine (unconditional, unselfish) love," in contrast to phileo, the love of friendship. But in fact the word agapao itself is much more indefinite and colorless. It can be used when speaking of the Father's love for the Son (John 3:35), the Father's love for Christians (John 14:21), and worldly love (John 3:19). Phileo is also used in all of these ways (John 5:20; 16:27; 12:25). In the Septuagint agapao is even used for Amnon's lust for Tamar, which led to rape (2 Sam. 13:15). The richness in the Bible's teaching about love arises from what it says in whole sentences about how God deals with us and how we are to deal with one another in turn. That richness is not inherent in the word agapao, since other words can be used instead and since agapao can be used in contexts of sinful lust. 3


In the study of whole passages, the unique contribution of symphonic theology is to urge people to read in terms of a multiplicity of themes, or perspectives. For instance, with respect to any passage in the Bible, we may ask what it shows about God, about human beings, and about mediators between God and human beings. Since prophets, kings, and priests are some of the main mediatorial roles in the Bible, we may ask more particularly what prophetic actions and functions take place in the passage, what kingly actions, and what priestly actions. For example, Abraham performs a priestly action of intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, even though he himself is not a priest in the technical sense. We must be alert to such actions, because they anticipate the actions of Christ as final prophet, king, and priest.

In addition to these questions, we may analyze a passage in terms of what it reveals about any of the great themes of the Bible: how does it show a fulfillment or continuation of God's covenant with us, how does it show the relation of promise to fulfillment, how does it show God's dwelling with his people as in the tabernacle, how does it show God's justice, and how does it show the pattern of suffering and glory to be fulfilled in Christ? If we admit that these great themes are background themes for the whole Bible, it is legitimate to try to discover their relation to even those passages that do not speak about them in an explicit and obvious way. By thus tracing themes self-consciously, we will notice relationships that we did not notice before.

We may likewise study a particular book of the Bible thematically. In the second half of Isaiah, the themes of new creation, new birth, new exodus, righteousness, and salvation to the nations repeatedly appear. It is fruitful, then, to ask how these themes harmonize with or reinforce or illumine any particular passage that we are studying. The results will usually be fruitful, even for passages that do not obviously invoke the themes, because the themes are nevertheless still in the background and are meant to be related to the message of the whole book.


Symphonic theology shows its greatest distinctiveness in its methods for doctrinal synthesis. There are at least four major complementary methods involved:

1. Use of a variety of perspectives to examine a topic or a doctrine.

2. Preemption method of argument (using the other person's strong point).

3. Dissolution of poorly posed questions and debates that are based ultimately on semantic questions.

4. Enrichment by reconciliation of opposite emphases.

I illustrate these methods at length in chapters 9 and 10 in discussing the question of miracles. For the time being, I note simply that we must not dilute truth by combining it with error. But we may sometimes add more truth to what truth we already have by listening carefully to doctrinal disagreements. Even when one party in a dispute is basically wrong and the other basically right, the party in the wrong may have noticed at least one or two things in the Bible that have usually not been noticed by the opposite side. These one or two things become the basis for the plausibility of their own claims.


As an example of this approach to dealing with error, consider the Adoptionist view of Christ's divinity. A simple form of Adoptionism argues that Christ became divine by an act in which the human being Jesus of Nazareth was adopted as God's Son and thereafter invested with divine authority, power, etc. This view is quite wrong, dangerously heretical, and contradicted by biblical teaching about Christ's preexistence and the nature of the Incarnation (John 1:1-18, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2-3). The view arises from a presumptuous use of human rationality in order to resist the element of mystery and incomprehensibility in the orthodox doctrine. Yet, for all its errors, we can perhaps learn something from Adoptionism.

Sometimes we who are orthodox may not reckon directly enough with passages such as Luke 3:22 and Rom 1:3-4, which are favorites for an Adoptionist. In the midst of a controversy with Adoptionists, we should be asking how we can use their "strong point" (i.e., such texts) in a positive manner. The answer, I believe, lies in appreciating the truth that, in the course of redemptive history, there are transformations in Jesus' role and even in his very mode of existence with respect to his human nature. Those points of transition also represent important transitions in God's salvific relation to the world, since through Christ as mediator we are reconciled to God.

Moreover, we may well recognize that the convictions about Christ's deity were not fully worked out in the minds of his disciples in a mere moment's time. In the New Testament itself we find that statements of Christ's deity are usually made without a concern for technical precision and distinctions. Such technical discussions arise only in subsequent reflection in church history. Hence we may say that there is historical development in the human understanding of the person of Christ, as well as historical development in Christ's human nature.

The Adoptionist controversy illustrates another aspect of the symphonic approach, namely, the use of perspectives. We learn something about the nature of Christ when we ask questions about the function and redemptive-historical role of events in his life, as well as asking about the metaphysical basis for the events. Thus we might speak of a redemptive-historical versus a metaphysical perspective on the biblical passages describing key events in the life of Christ.

The redemptive-historical and metaphysical perspectives can be regarded not merely as two different sets of possible questions about the events. Each can be used as a genuine perspective on the whole. Redemptive history has at its heart the revelation of who God is. Hence it is inescapably metaphysical. On the other hand, the God who is, is a God who rules the universe and bears it along to its goal of communion with him. He is not a god who sits and does nothing. Hence metaphysical reflection, done in a biblical context, always forces us back to reflection on the acts of God and the great transitions that lead forward to the fullest revelation of who he is.

The use of redemptive history and metaphysics as perspectives also helps us reply to the tendencies toward "functional Christology" in modern circles. It is argued that the New Testament language about Christ describes him in his functional role as Messiah and as "God for us." He is thus functionally divine, in the sense that God is revealed through him. But, it is argued, the ancient confessions made a mistake in equating function with essence. Metaphysically, Christ is a human being. He is divine only in a functional sense.

We may reply directly by pointing to texts that, to all appearances, go beyond mere functionalism (Heb 1:3, John 1:1). But we may also take a more indirect route and use metaphysics and redemptive-historical function as perspectives on one another. We can agree that few passages in the Bible concentrate on the being of Christ to the exclusion of redemptive-historical function. But such a fact is altogether natural. We know God precisely as he is revealed to us in the course of redemptive history. We know something about the essential being of God precisely by the route of his functional revelation for the purpose of our salvation. Salvation, after all, is not narrow but restores us in a knowledge of who God is. There is no other route to knowing God truly than that which God himself provides. Hence these redemptive-historical functions of Christ are precisely what reveals to us his being. What right do modern scholars have to attempt to go "behind" or "beyond" such revelation? By such an argument, then, we show that redemptive historical revelation through Christ is precisely a window, or a perspective, on the metaphysics of who God is, in his Trinitarian nature.

But we may also travel in the reverse direction, from the metaphysics of God to the redemptive-historical functions of Christ. We do so by observing that the Old Testament revelation of God is practical and, as it were, functional. Human beings, as creatures made in the image of God, need an understanding and knowledge of God mediated in personal communion with him. Because of our metaphysical status as creatures and image bearers, revelation takes a particular route. We are not to subject God to categories of understanding that we invent in a vacuum but rather must subject our own thinking about God and the world as a whole to the practical and ethical revelation of God in the Bible. There is thus no room for an autonomous metaphysical speculation about God. It is illicit; indeed, it is in essence idolatry. We are not to guess speculatively about God's being but rather to learn from what God actually says. What God says about himself is the metaphysics about God, for we can have nothing more ultimate than his own statements. Of course, God's word about himself includes statements about his character and his independence from the world, statements that are metaphysical in the ordinary sense. But even such statements are integrated into contexts that contain a practical, functional, redemptive-historical purpose. This integration is metaphysically appropriate to who we are.

In such a way, we might start with the metaphysics of God. Having observed that biblical metaphysics has this practical thrust, we can conclude that the teachings about the nature of Christ are not less metaphysical because they are practical and redemptive-historical in character. In virtue of our metaphysical status as creatures and as fallen and in need of salvation, biblical revelation gives us an appropriate metaphysical orientation.

We thus see that the use of categories such as "metaphysics" and "redemptive history" as perspectives provides a means of disarming some bad tendencies of modernist scholarship. Such scholarship can easily ignore the implications of Scripture by arguing that, because a given text or doctrine serves a certain function, it serves only that function and that we cannot draw further implications from it. Sometimes, of course, biblical contexts do serve to limit the possible implications that we might draw in isolation. We rightly do not deduce Arianism from John 14:28, because we perceive that it is addressed to the question of Jesus' messianic role, rather than to ontological questions. Harm enters when such observations are extended to universal principles, to the effect that the Bible "has no interest" in, say, the metaphysics of God.


  1. Readers who are not yet familiar with this area should be sure to consult Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning; and Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 25-90.
  2. See Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language, 129-40.
  3. See further Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 96.
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