D. A. Carson on 5 Reasons You Should Want to Learn from Vern Poythress on Genesis 1–3

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The foreword by D. A. Carson to Vern Poythress’s new book, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3 (Crossway, 2019).


Some topics are notoriously complex, and few, if any, are more complex than the doctrine of creation.

This complexity springs in large part from the wide array of disciplines that impinge on the topic:

  • exegesis of the opening chapters of Genesis and of other biblical passages that talk about creation;
  • questions of literary genre;
  • hermeneutical principles;
  • the interface between Scripture and contemporary science (with its many compartmentalized disciplines, from cosmology to thermodynamics to biology and geology);
  • reception theory, which wrestles with the history of the interpretation of these chapters across many centuries and even more cultures;
  • epistemology;
  • the implications of working with God-inspired texts;
  • the dogmatism of various theological cliques on the left hand and on the right;
  • the nature of history;
  • literary structure; and
  • the place of analogy when talking about God.

And that list is certainly not exhaustive, but merely suggestive.

Enter Vern Poythress.

1. A Lifetime of Intelligent Interdisciplinary Work

Not every New Testament scholar begins his academic career with a PhD in mathematics from Harvard or writes across an extraordinarily wide range of theological topics:

  • baptism,
  • science,
  • providence,
  • accommodation,
  • translation theory,
  • the Trinity,
  • inerrancy,
  • hermeneutics,
  • spiritual gifts,
  • literary genre,
  • typology,
  • eschatology,
  • apocalyptic,
  • sociology, and, of course,
  • creation.

In the more than forty years I have known him, Dr. Poythress has kept pushing back the frontiers in a widening range of important subjects: it is hard to keep up with all his work.

And that is the first reason why he is as qualified as anyone, and more qualified than most, to wrestle with what the Bible says about creation: he has spent his life interacting intelligently with many of the related fields. Indeed, informed readers will find echoes of some of his earlier work in this study, as the panoply of his previous efforts comes together in this combination of analysis and synthesis.

2. A Very High View of Scripture

3. A Subscription to Classical Confessionalism

The second and third reasons why Dr. Poythress is the person to write this work hang together: he simultaneously  espouses a very high view of Scripture and classic confessionalism.

Some adopt the former but know little of the latter: they tend toward a mere proof-texting exegesis, unable to see the forest as they fasten on a knot in the third branch of the sixteenth tree from the right. One remembers the insight of Francis Schaeffer, writing forty-five years ago (in Genesis in Space and Time). He set out not to unpack everything he could possibly find in Genesis 1–11, but everything in those chapters that must be true for the rest of the Bible to be coherent and faithful. Dr. Poythress is not so restrictive, but he has a fine instinct for what is most important.

Others loudly avow their commitment to historic confessionalism, but are either unwilling or unable to engage in careful exegesis.

Dr. Poythress wants to hold these polarities together.

4. A Clear and Simple Style

The fourth reason that qualifies Dr. Poythress to write this work is that, despite the complexities and subtleties of the issues, he writes with rare clarity and simplicity.

5. An Extraordinarily Supple and Creative Mind

And finally, Dr. Poythress has an extraordinarily supple and creative mind.

Not infrequently, scholars who have been shaped by Reformed confessionalism can manage no more than the faithful articulation of that heritage (which, of course, is no small virtue), while scholars who owe intellectual allegiance to very little can put forward many stimulating and creative proposals even while they ride right off the range. But Dr. Poythress manages to maintain the theological “thickness” of a rich tradition while venturing unafraid into many creative suggestions and postures. That is one of the reasons why it is a delight to read what he writes: I am invariably stimulated, challenged, egged on to think my way again through something I mistakenly thought I understood adequately.

That is a large part of the valuable contribution that Vern Poythress makes in this work. I read him with pleasure not because I think he is always right, and therefore doing no more than reinforcing my biases, but because as far as I can see he is far more likely to be right than not, and in any case he stimulates me to think within the matrix of profoundly Christian commitments. In a few areas, I think he is wrong: for example, the way he sets up the weighted contributions of the divine author and the human author is bold, but finally unconvincing. But even where I think he is wrong, he teaches me to shore up my own position with more care.

Be that as it may, books that I can recommend because I agree with them have their own easy usefulness; books that I recommend because they wrestle in a highly informed and stimulating way with biblical texts, whether I agree with them or not, are even more useful. Take it up, and read.

 

 

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