Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God

Written by Vern S. Poythress Reviewed By William Young

The title of the book promises an account of philosophy and science from the perspective of divine sovereignty in the undiluted biblical and Augustinian sense. The standpoint is, with some modifications, the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. An effort is made to draw conclusions from biblical data. In this process, a formidable technical terminology is introduced which readers will find to be a stumbling block. Some will recall the passage from Alice: ‘Speak English,’ said the eaglet. ‘I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’

The sovereignty of God is indeed asserted in strong language. ‘God causes whatever happens, and that is an adequate explanation for everything’ (p. 49). Yet this scriptural stand is obscured by the author’s fondness for esoteric terminology and schematic formalism, in which not only the personal mode of human existence but the sub-human behavioural biotic and physical modes are ascribed to God. (See Table 3, p. 30.) The disclaimer that ‘one must be cautious about pressing the similarities’ does not remedy the matter, but only compounds the confusion. An ontological framework in which one can speak of similarities between God and the creatures, especially those under man, simply does not agree with the transcendent majesty of the sovereign Creator. God has incommunicable attributes, not creaturely modes or human passions. (Cf. Acts 14:11, 15; 17:29.)

The sovereignty of God is also obscured by what I have elsewhere termed ‘hyper-covenantism’, a deviation from the covenant theology of historic Calvinism, cultivated by the followers of Abraham Kuyper.1 The occurrence of the neologism ‘covenantal’, although not an original coinage by Poythress, is a symptom, along with sweeping inferences from Genesis 1:28–30 as to a so-called ‘culture mandate’. Poythress is sharply critical of members of this Dutch movement, but shares some of their speculative notions, as that Adam had a priestly as well as prophetic and royal function before the fall (p. 35f.). To my knowledge, the earliest statement of such a view is found in Arminius’ Oration on the Priesthood of Christ.

Implications of the sovereignty of God for philosophy and science are hidden rather than expressed by the technical terminology. Still worse, the terminology is intentionally vague, and in fact ambiguous (pp. xv, 31). Whatever may be said about natural languages, there is no excuse for vagueness or ambiguity in technical terms. This methodological quirk is sufficient, apart from unsupported assertions and invalid arguments, to vitiate the ‘positive exposition of Evangelical Philosophy’ (p. 164) in the first seven chapters.

The appendix material is more interesting than the positive exposition. It does contain some argument, although Appendix 1, in which Dooyeweerd, Stoker and Gordon Clark are criticized, is mainly assertion, supported only by references to other critics. The detailed criticism of Dooyeweerd that follows has greater value, although some of the superficial criticism in Appendix 1 indicates that the critics have done insufficient homework. The criticism of Gordon Clark on the law of contradiction in Appendix 4 misfires completely. Formulation 2 (p. 199) which approaches most closely displays a failure to state the law accurately and to grasp the philosophical issues involved.

Dr Poythress is a thoroughly trained mathematician with considerably high intellectual ability. Were he to deepen himself in classical reformed theology, including the experimental writings of the Puritans, he could produce instructive works, comparable to those of Hugh Martin. But he ought not to write on philosophy until after many years of profound study of its history and painful wrestling with its problems.

1 For an analysis of hyper-covenantism, see my articles ‘Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism’ in the Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 36 nos. 1 and 2, 1973–74.

William Young

Dr. Young teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.