Volume 47 - Issue 2
Dr Strange in the Multiperspectival ParadoxBy Daniel Strange
Let’s play a game of ‘Guess Who?’ Now that we’re out and about again, it’s been my privilege in the last few months to find myself in the company of two statesmen of the conservative evangelical theological world who have made a formative impression in my thinking over the years, but whom previously I had never met in person. These senior scholars were educated at both Harvard and Cambridge (where they overlapped) before long teaching stints in seminaries and schools. Both have been prolific in their written output, outputs which have included forays into other theological disciplines (including New Testament, Hermeneutics, and Systematic Theology), and what would be thought of as ‘non-theological’ subjects. Both have espoused and modelled, to my mind at least, what could be called the highest view of a ‘high view’ of biblical authority and sola Scriptura. Both have been much lauded and both have faced much criticism. Although both have ‘campaigned’ on (at least) one issue together, interestingly it is precisely what I have taken as contrasting features of their contributions that form an interestingly complex but ultimately complementarity juxtaposition when it comes to our theology, theological posture, and theological education. Any ideas to whom I am referring?
Vern Poythress’s method of Symphonic Theology (and with John Frame also known as ‘multiperspectivalism’) has always given me a gut feeling of ‘rightness’ about it, and one that I have been brushed by.1 I say ‘brushed’ because I know I haven’t been as rigorous or methodological as I might have been in deploying it consciously (of which more anon). Although it is an entire theological ‘method’ with a very large edifice made up of theological, philosophical, and linguistic theory lying under its surface, the tip of the multiperspectival iceberg is pretty easy to see. Moreover, one does not have to be Reformed (let alone a devotee of apologist Cornelius Van Til, linguist Kenneth Pike, or even novelist Dorothy L. Sayers!),2 to sympathize broadly with its thrust and posture. Multiperspectivalism is an application of the confessional cornerstone of a Christian worldview—the Creator-creature distinction. Human beings are not the sovereign personal absolute Creator God but are limited, finite, and sinful creatures. God’s knowledge is archetypal, our knowledge is always ectypal. Therefore, and always under the authority of Scripture, which itself evidences multiperspectival diversity in its unity,3 the more perspectives we take time to understand and appreciate, the richer our understanding of the truth will be and the less prone we will be to misunderstanding and error. Limited creatures with limited perspective need more perspectives in order to better live and serve in a world created by the omniperspectival God. Multiperspectivalism recognises my limitations not as an inherent evil or problem, but as a God-given feature of my identity, but a feature that can and does sinfully strives for domination and mastery through reduction: by either making all perspectives subservient to my own, or reducing the complexity of the world to my small window on it.
As Don Carson writes, and referencing Symphonic Theology explicitly, ‘not all of God’s truth is vouchsafed to one particular interpretive community—and the result will be that we will be eager to learn from one another, to correct and to be corrected by one another, provided only that there is a principled submission to God’s gracious self-disclosure in Christ and in the Scriptures. The truth may be one, but it sounds less like a single wavering note than like a symphony.’4
The implications for the symphonic theological method can be outlined for different disciplines including biblical studies, biblical theology, and systematics, together with my own ‘areas’ of interest, culture, religion, missiology, and apologetics. At its best a multiperspectival approach fosters faithful contextualisation and indigeneity, and a posture of patience and charity in listening to those who are different from us. It takes seriously the richness of language and our tendency to overstate and/or oversimplify. Multiperspectivalism can stimulate a curiosity as we learn from one another, and a desire for evangelical collaboration recognising its necessity in dealing with cultural complexity. Apologetically, multiperspectivalism gives us a point of contact and pre-emptive attack with unbelief and idolatrous ideological perspectives in recognising that error is always parasitic on the truth. Ironically, I would contend that it is precisely multiperspectivalism cut loose and untethered from biblical authority, and as a result ‘gone to seed’ which describes the epistemological foundations, or better non-foundations of Charybdis-like cultural movements and cultural moments with which we are all trying to understand and engage with at the moment, be it various forms of ‘critical theory’ and ‘intersectionality’. There is both opportunity as well as challenge here for biblical multiperspectivalism to both subvert and fulfil its counterfeits.
The problem—or perhaps more accurately the ‘paradox’—that I have found in wanting to adopt more consciously a multiperspectival approach is that whenever I’ve come to the cake, I’ve become paralysed, knife frustratingly hovering and unable to make that first cut. If, biblically, theologically, epistemologically, one perspective always can be expanded to include another, and another, and so one, then where does one start? Indeed where does one stop? How does one teach and say something when theoretically starting from this one thing you could say everything? I’m sure this theological equivalent of the golfing ‘yips’ is a matter of temperament, and if I’m being honest, a matter of intellect. There is no doubt Poythress is a genius and polymath who has the mental and emotional capacity to discern, hold together, and teach multiperspectivally (and to teach multiperspectivally about multiperspectivalism!). I’m not ashamed to say that my own capacities are less.5 That said, I do think in more haphazard and subliminal fashion I have been influenced for the good by symphonic theology. Moreover, maybe I need not beat myself up too much here. I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing this anecdote, but the highlight of my time with Poythress was the little exchange when I asked a rather inane question concerning how he thought multiperspectivalism had been received over the years. Without missing a beat and with a little glint in the eye his response was something like, ‘well of course, I wouldn’t want everyone to embrace it would I?’ As I said, genius.
Like it or not, there has always been a directness and perspicuity to Wayne Grudem’s writing that I have always admired and found refreshing from what can be abstruse and even ‘emperor has no clothes’ pretentious pretentions of contemporary ‘fashionable’ theological discussion. Was it only me who chuckled when they saw that Grudem’s contribution to John Frame’s own festschrift was a chapter outlining why Frame was wrong in his ethical position that it is sometimes legitimate to lie?6 I love this! Joking aside, for a young evangelical theology student in a very liberal department in the early 1990s Grudem’s contribution to Scripture and Truth on the self-attestation of Scripture was a lifeline for many of me and I know many others in similar situations.7 Hearing Grudem interviewed at a conference last month about his life and career was a genuinely moving experience for all those present.8 For me it was a rare instance where I would use the word ‘piety’ in a positive rather than pejorative sense. At that same conference I attended, Grudem presented a seminar version of an essay he had published some years ago: ‘When, Why, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?’9 Listening to Grudem was a welcome reminder—and I will argue a complement to Poythress’s multiperspectivalism—that as Christians we need to ‘draw lines when drawing lines is rude’.10
Once again, the capacity and necessity to create boundaries is an application of the confessional cornerstone of a Christian worldview—the Creator-creature distinction. We image a Creator God who creates, separates, and distinguishes by ourselves placing boundaries, making distinctions and separations, and distinguishing truth from error. In terms of theological anthropology, the doctrine of the ‘antithesis’ is the divinely revealed distinction and ultimately eternal separation of humanity into two and only two groups: the seed of the serpent and seed of the women, those in Adam and those in Christ, those who are blind, those who can see, those who are dead and those who are alive, goats and sheep, the city of man and city of God.
At its best, discrimination and boundary setting are not inherently confining or destructive, but when applied according to the divine order (that is, according to a biblically defined structure and interpretation of reality), ensure beautiful, God-exalting, clarifying, and life-giving peace. Conversely it is the blurring or erasing of God-given boundaries that generate sub- and non-Christian worldviews, which evidence and perpetuate rebellion, confusion, and futility. The blurring and erasing of the Creator-creature distinction is the definition of idolatry.11
The New Testament writers repeatedly make distinctions and create boundaries for the building up and protection of Christ’s church. It is in a pastoral rather than pedantic spirit that Paul exhorts Titus to hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, to encourage others by sound doctrine, and to refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). The healthiness of orthodoxy is to be contrasted with gangrenous false teaching. To exhort, encourage, and refute, one needs not only an affirmation of what the trustworthy message is, but also a corollary denial of what it is not, or by implication, what it cannot be.
In the mirror image to what said of multiperspectivalism, it is distinction making and boundary setting cut loose and untethered from biblical authority which describes a Scylla-like modernistic Enlightenment positivism and what Chris Watkin calls modern western cultures damaging and violent ‘congenital predisposition to think in dualisms.’12 In a sense you call this an idolatrous mono-perspectivalism. Apologetically and as stated above, there is both opportunity as well as challenge here for biblical distinction and our distinction making to both subvert and fulfil its idolatrous counterfeits.
So, we have Poythress and Grudem and my personal associations with them in terms of multiperspectivalism and boundary setting respectively.13 I am not seeking to pit one against the other (notice I have not regarded Grudem or ‘boundary setting’ as a ‘mono-perspectivalism’) but rather under the authority of Scripture I see both as coming to the aid of the other as we seek to safely and biblically navigate between Charybdis and Scylla both in position and posture. A perspectival paralysis or ‘death of a thousand qualifications’ can be helped by seeing a need for process in coming to making decisions and judgements on boundary setting. To adapt the famous Chesterton quip, the object of expanding perspectives, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Conversely, a boundary and distinction setting which might be precipitous might be helped by the posture of multiperspectival patience. As both ‘drives’ are held together and encounter the other, a humility might overcome a hubris, and a confidence might overcome a timidity. In this sense I am arguing that there are biblical and sub-biblical ways to be both a dove and a hawk.
Furthermore, and particularly relevant to a Themelios audience, I think the two ‘drives’ which I see in a Grudem and a Poythress and which I’ve been commending as complementary have implications for theological education particularly in a seminary setting. Let give some pointers which might act as discussion starters.
First, in our seminaries and schools we are not to be ashamed or embarrassed of having confessional boundaries which should be carefully drawn and enforced, with care and with prudence, but enforced nonetheless. As Grudem expounds in his essay, we do this because false teaching harms the church; if false teaching is not stopped, it spreads and does more damage; if false teaching is not stopped, we will waste time and energy in endless controversies rather than doing valuable kingdom work; and Jesus and the NT authors hold church leaders responsible for silencing false teaching within the church.14 Ironically, the more boundaries are agreed and are understood, the more time and freedom there might be to explore within those boundaries rather than the need to constantly patrol them.
Second, in Symphonic Theology, Poythress talks of the value of expanding perspectives and stretching operations, ‘fields of study and areas of life that are frequently compartmentalized in people’s minds actually belong together…, ’15 and ‘the boundaries that we have set up between our compartments are in some cases arbitrary and artificial.’16 He writes:
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 to easily mislead us into thinking that we are dealing with rigidly distinct departments…. Bible students who are inclined to compartmentalize should stretch their terms. They should use them as perspectives to cover the whole of the Bible. Then afterward they should go back to the earlier compartments and ask whether 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.17
While I’m not denying that in theological education interdisciplinarity is more common now than it was, what would a more intentionally applied multiperspectivalism do to our theological curricula and to our theological faculties that might be enriching? The compartmentalisation of departments and of teaching staff within those departments still seems to persist in many of our institutions. Note, I’m not arguing for a chaotic mash and mush of disciplines but maybe a more modest proposal: a recognition within and between theological (and yes, ‘non-theological disciplines’) disciplines of the others existence and perspective as we come to all sit under the normative authority of God’s Word. Given the principle of boundary expansion, let’s have the freedom to experiment and be creative as we design our seminary curricula.18
Third, in terms of the students we are looking to produce in our seminaries and schools, a multiperspectival approach will have the perspectives of character formation, skills and knowledge as implied by the other and enriched by the other. Such profiles, if following biblical criteria, will include the need to learn (in terms of character, skills, and knowledge) biblical boundary setting as sound doctrine is encouraged and error is refuted.
Fourth, for all those in seminary education, and especially for those at post-graduate level who should have achieved a level of spiritual and academic maturity, there is a need for such students to be exposed to other perspectives—biblical, sub-biblical, and non-biblical. We need to do this for a number of reasons in our pedagogy, discipleship, ethics, apologetics, and mission. In terms of Poythress’s symphonic maxims, we will learn here that ‘error is parasitic on the truth’, and that in theological debates, ‘we should pre-empt the other person’s strong points’. There will always be something to learn from other perspectives even if that learning, to use an Os Guinness saying, is that ‘contrast is the mother of clarity.’19 However such ‘exposure’ in the classroom should be conducted on certain foundations, within certain boundaries, and with a confessional ‘safety net’. I bring some bitter experience to this point having studied theology and religious studies as a young evangelical in a department where there were no foundations, boundaries, or safety nets. For me, the attendant issue was not so much my faith being challenged, or the danger of it being deconstructed or destroyed, although no doubt this will a danger for some. As an aside here, in any theological education, it’s one thing to worry about wrapping believers up in ‘cotton-wool’ or even ‘hot-housing’ them in echo chambers, it’s another thing to be pastorally sensitive as to what we expose the spiritually young, weak, and immature to. Playing it ‘safe’ in theological education can be both a mark of folly, and a mark of wisdom.
Returning to my own experience, the issue was not of danger, it was that with no foundation or boundaries, positive theological formulation and construction was virtually impossible. After a while, tracing discussions back to first principles and sources of authority in every single lecture quickly becomes frustrating and quite tedious. You can’t build on air. Moreover, in studying other sub-biblical perspectives from within confessional boundaries we will be prompted not simply to describe different perspective after perspective, but to offer prescriptions and make decisions that we can apply to our lives and our ministries.
Finally, the trajectory of multi-perspectivalism within clear confessional boundaries must push us out of simply discussing theological education to consider education more broadly. I think here particularly our need for a Christ-centred, liberal arts education with the telos, to quote Milton, that ‘the end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.’20 Goals such as ‘formation’, ‘encyclopaedia’, ‘integration’, and ‘vocation’ can be built upon and safeguarded by multiple perspectives as we fulfil our call to have dominion, exploring God’s world but through the light of God’s Word. I say this as something of a cri de coeur given the absence of any such institution in the UK. Craig Bartholomew has recognised this gap in a recent paper.21 His narration of what he calls ‘the unknown idea of Christian Higher Education’22 makes for painful reading as he describes the non-neutral antichristian ideology in the UK university sector that often masquerades as ‘neutrality’, with all the contradiction, compartmentalization, and noetic disintegration, the results of which sound like a cacophony, not a symphony. Both Grudem and Poythress have seen the need, and been brave enough to write in different areas applying Christ’s lordship to different perspectives of human learning with the corollary antithetical boundary that ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Indeed Poythress seems on his own steadily to be building an entire liberal arts curriculum, writing about ‘a God-centered approach’ to subjects including science, language, mathematics, logic, sociology, chance, the sovereignty of God, and history, to name just seven!23 Let’s follow the example of these senior scholars and brothers in Christ as we seek to join them in building an ever richer symphonic sound that will glorify God, calling the nations to come under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.
P.S. Yes, I felt compelled to attempt some kind of Marvel title here—if not now, then when? And no, at the time of writing, I’ve not yet seen the latest Doctor Strange film.
 See Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987); Vern S. Poythress, ‘Multiperspectivalism and the Reformed Faith’, in Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 173–200; John Frame, ‘A Primer on Perspectivalism’, Frame-Poythress, 6 June 2012, https://frame-poythress.org/a-primer-on-perspectivalism-revised-2008/. For a critique of multiperspectivalism as a method see Mark W. Karlberg, ‘On the Theological Correlations of Divine and Human Language: A Review Article’, JETS 32 (1989): 99–105.
 See Poythress, ‘Multiperspectivalism and the Reformed Faith’, 184.
 For example, in the sixteenth century, Martin Chemnitz speaks of the gospels displaying ‘a very concordant dissonance’. Cited in Timothy Ward (who himself speaks of canonically limited polyphony), ‘The Diversity and Sufficiency of Scripture’, in The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture, ed. Paul Helm and Carl R. Trueman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 192.
 D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester: Apollos, 1996), 552. It might be helpful to list Poythress’s twelve maxims of Symphonic Theology, 69–92:
- Language is not transparent to the world.
- No term in the Bible is equal to a technical term of systematic theology.
- Technical terms in systematic theology can almost always be defined in more than one way. Every technical term is selective in the features it includes.
- Boundaries are fuzzy.
- No category or system of categories gives us ultimate reality.
- Different human writers of the Bible bring differing perspectives to bear on a given doctrine or event.
- The differences between biblical writings by different human authors are also divine differences.
- Any motif of the Bible can be used as the single organizing motif.
- We use different motifs not to relativize truth but to gain truth.
- We see what our tools enable us to see.
- Error is parasitic on the truth.
- In theological debates, we should pre-empt the other person’s strong points.
 In personal correspondence Poythress has noted how he would respond to my paralysis alongside a general encouragement that one just needs to take the plunge and not worry. He does recognise the need pedagogically for a single main perspective and overarching theme such as the ‘kingdom of God’ in the Gospels, or ‘union with Christ’ in Pauline letters, but then also the development of multiple perspectives within that theme so there is richness of resources to draw on. As to where one stops, ‘the obvious response is, one does not. Or (a second perspective, more situational) one stops when one runs out of time. If we understand that each of us is contributing to a much larger building of the church in Christian mission, then one just does one’s bit, confident that God will fit it in (Eph 2:20–22; 1 Pet 2:4–6; 1 Cor 3:10–15).’ Wise words that we so need to hear and apply to our hearts and scholarly pretentions.
 See Wayne Grudem, ‘Why It Is Never Right to Lie: An Example of John Frame’s Influence on My Approach to Ethics,’ in Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 778–801. Interestingly Poythress wrote a subsequent article siding with Grudem on the matter. See Vern S. Poythress, ‘Why Lying Is Always Wrong: The Uniqueness of Verbal Deceit’, WTJ 75 (2013): 83–95.
 See Wayne Grudem, ‘Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture’, in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), 19–59.
 It was also illuminating to hear Grudem explain the purpose and intended audience of his Systematic Theology which to my mind answers the guild’s (unfair) criticisms of this publishing phenomenon.
 Wayne Grudem, ‘When, Why, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?’, in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 339–70.
 To quote of one of Carson’s chapter titles in Gagging of God, 347.
 See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference: Romans 1 for the Twenty-First Century (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010).
 Christopher Watkin, ‘The Third Way is Dead. Long Live the Third Way!’, The Gospel Coalition Australia, 10 May 2022, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-third-way-is-dead-long-live-the-third-way/.
 I am not claiming that Grudem is ‘against’ multiperspectivalism or that Poythress is ‘against’ boundary setting and distinction making.
 See Grudem, ‘When, Why, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?’, 341–48.
 Poythress, Symphonic Theology, 27.
 Poythress, Symphonic Theology, 27.
 Poythress, Symphonic Theology, 27–28.
 For example, in my previous seminary we built and taught a multi-disciplinary year-long ‘mega-module’ on the book of Isaiah which consisted of faculty from different departments coming to bring their disciplinary perspectives to Isaiah. Some aspects of the module worked, some aspects were a glorious failure, but over a few years we did refine the module with, in my opinion, a certain degree of success.
 John Milton, ‘Of Education’, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 631. Cited in Jeffrey C. Davis and Philip G. Ryken, ed., Liberal Arts for the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 16.
 Craig G. Bartholomew, ‘A Jewel in the Crown of North America: Christian Higher Education’, Ethics in Conversation 23.3 (2019).
 To parody, of course, George Marsden’s seminal work, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
 For example, Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming our Thinking About History: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022).
Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios.
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