Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

Book Review

The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God

Vern S. Poythress, (Philipsburg: P&R, 2020) 728pp, £21.69 h/b (Amazon)

In this book Poythress offers what he considers to be an enhancement of classical Christian theism, by focusing on the doctrine of the Trinity. Many of his insights are valuable, but overall, in my view, the argument does not succeed.

The book has been welcomed as a crowning contribution to Poythress’ broad-ranging theological works, an assessment stated in the endorsements from theologians like Sinclair B. Ferguson, Gerald Bray, Donald Macleod and D. A. Carson, and it is echoed in reviews. I take a more critical approach, although I agree that Poythress’ work is a significant achievement and an excellent example of irenic and humble theological writing. The limits of space prevent an exhaustive review and I am forced to gloss over or even to miss many important aspects.

The book has eight parts. After setting the scene in part one, Poythress examines some of the classical attributes of God in part two, and then in part three moves to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity. Part four looks at the Trinitarian foundations of language. Then parts five to eight address the main argument which aims to enhance the Trinitarian doctrine of classical Christian theism by focusing on the Trinity.

Most of the chapters, particularly the earlier ones, present the argument and then discuss it in relation to the resurrection of Christ – a central theme of the book. Each chapter ends with application, a selection of key terms, some study questions, suggested further reading and a prayer. Throughout there is an abundance of explanatory diagrams. The style of the book is in this way like Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Like Grudem, Poythress makes it clear that he is writing mainly for ordinary Christians, not scholars, not theologians, just believers who are interested in knowing God more deeply.

The Basic Argument

Poythress writes with humility, love for the church, and awe at the majesty of the Triune God. The book consistently returns to the Scriptures and provides some very helpful exegesis of key passages relating to the overall emphasis. Poythress’ comments on 1 Samuel 15 are particularly insightful in clarifying the uses of the notions of human and divine regret.

His central purpose in the book is to argue for an enhancement of classical Christian theism. The central purpose is supported by several elements of the suggested enhancement summarised at the end of the book. For convenience I divide them into three groups. First, Poythress asks his readers to “give up” the use of abstract logical argument in theology, and what he sees as over-dependence on abstract terms. In doing so, he challenges the way the church addresses heresies:

To root out heresies takes precision. For some people, the easiest way is to fall back on the precision of Aristotelian metaphysics as our basis for technical discussion of God. To abandon that safety net in Aristotle is huge (595).

In summary, Poythress states that what we have left to fight heresy is “the sword of the Spirit” which is enough. In my view, at this point in the discussion, Poythress comes closest to biblicism.

The first element is symptomatic of the second. Poythress claims that Aristotelian metaphysics has been so absorbed by many historical and contemporary theologians that Aristotle’s categories are considered ontologically and epistemologically basic, whereas Poythress argues that the Trinity must be basic in these ways. Poythress suggests that jettisoning Aristotelian categories will produce a more fundamentally biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

To be clear before I offer further critique, Poythress is not advocating a return to pietism or biblicism. He does, however, appear to follow a line of theologians from Luther, Montaigne and Pascal, who argued that the deprecation of reason creates room for faith. Additionally, Poythress engages in rich theological argument and the work is in many ways an outworking of Poythress and John M. Frame’s multi-perspectivalism, particularly in his discussion of language and the Trinity.

In the third element Poythress argues that Augustine and Aquinas stopped short of what he thinks of as the biblical step of reinterpreting the attributes of God in light of the Trinity and understanding the Trinity in light of the divine attributes. The sections where Poythress constructs this argument contain discussions of Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology. Poythress is highly critical of Aquinas, although he clearly admires, and has benefited from reading, him.

The author’s intention to make his theological argument understandable to all Christians is certainly admirable, but in my view, it severely limits the depth of his theological engagement which at worst becomes simplistic because it is not sufficiently nuanced. The consequence of limiting theological depth for the sake of the target audience damages the valuable contributions that Poythress does make. If he had been willing to interact more with primary and secondary literature, he could have dealt more fully with the variety of issues and strengthened his argument.

In his examination of Aristotle’s categories Poythress concludes with the statement: “Unless we really know what we are doing, we are better off in most cases just staying away from Aristotle” (237). To ignore primary sources that have so clearly shaped Western civilisation is surely not helpful. Encouraging Christians to ignore these sources may lead to a situation in which a theologian’s knowledge of philosophy is entirely shaped by secondary literature written by Christians. If one learns the philosophical underpinnings of apologetics from those with whom one agrees theologically, one is not sufficiently equipped to engage the broad array of objections to Christianity. This, I believe, is dangerous – the absence of a negative feedback loop tends to promote unstable dogmatism.

I do not deny that Poythress has a wonderful gift for simple and clear expression of deep theological truths. I do, however, argue that Poythress’ self-imposed limitations have potential dangers. Could it be that if the church fully embraces Poythress’ recommendations and follows his advice as stated in the book, a generation of theologians would arise who are unfamiliar with philosophy and its history, because they have been advised that it is damaging to theology? My point is demonstrated by the “Further Reading” sections at the end of each chapter. Poythress does include some primary sources: Aquinas, Calvin, Turretin and Charnock, among a few others; but most of the further reading books are written by either Poythress or Frame.[1]

Two Further Objections

Throughout the work, Poythress argues that Greek philosophy has infiltrated theology, leading to theologians viewing Aristotle’s categories as epistemologically basic. Poythress correctly argues that this place must be reserved for the Trinity. I disagree with his overall conclusion about the damage caused to theology, but I will only address one aspect of his argument on this issue.

Poythress claims that theologians have absorbed Aristotelian metaphysics, but this generalised claim does not match the historical evidence: Melanchthon was influenced by Aristotle and humanism and was opposed by Luther because of this. But Melanchthon rejected Aristotelian metaphysics because it includes doctrines that are patently inconsistent with Christianity: the eternity of the world, the mortality of the soul, and the high view of human free will. All three are rejected by Christian orthodoxy. Richard A. Muller summarises Aquinas’ use of Aristotle:

While Aquinas accepted much of the Aristotelian approach to contingency and valued highly Aristotle’s denial of determinism… he also recognised that Aristotle could not have developed his views in relation to monotheism, creation ex nihilo, or an understanding of providence acceptable in the Christian theological and philosophical context.[2]

Poythress’ lack of precision is again perhaps due to his desire to write simply. The discussion of metaphysics generally, rather than focusing on specific areas of Aristotle’s writings, is an example of how this damages his argument.

Poythress’ main criticism of classical theism is its dependence on Aristotelian categories. Poythress seems to conflate the history of philosophy (which he claims is damaging to theology) with philosophy itself as an intellectual tool and method. In my view it is ironic that in order to challenge aspects of the history of philosophy, and in theological discussion of the Trinity, Poythress uses typically philosophical arguments.[3] The conflation of philosophy with the history of philosophy leads him to make statements that seem to encourage Christians to jettison philosophy when he actually means to jettison particular philosopher’s ideas. In my view this is dangerous, as it can be understood as trying to persuade Christians to think that philosophy as an intellectual discipline is damaging to theology. Instead, philosophy has historically been understood by theologians from Aquinas to Bavinck as a vital tool to aid the pursuit of truth in theology. Poythress goes so far as to come close to equating the discipline of philosophy with Gnosticism[4] and appears to suggest that the influence of philosophy on some areas of theology is in part the work of the devil (456).

My second main objection to Poythress’ argument is about his discussion of historic orthodox articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. At some points he seems to imply that his overall emphasis on the Trinity as the foundation of theology is novel:

Valuable as our tradition [classical Christian theism] has been, it can be enriched. Perhaps there are other possibilities for enrichment. Perhaps starting with God’s Trinitarian character can be explored (239).

A charitable interpretation would be that Poythress is emphasising his multi-perspectivalism. But it seems easier to understand the statement as claiming that the church has failed to build its theology on the doctrine of the Trinity. One is reminded of the late John Webster’s comment that only the doctrine of the Trinity can bear the weight of the central place in dogmatics.[5] Poythress’ emphasis on the Trinity is not new, although some of his claims are, and some of these new claims depart from the Trinitarian theology set out in the patristic, scholastic and Reformed traditions. In places, his attempted enrichment of classical Christian theism appears to be closer to neo-classical Christian theism.[6] That said, Poythress’ discussion of the Trinity is predicated on his view of human epistemological dependence on God: “If we feel a sense of mastery in knowing God, it is always an illusion” (465). This profound maxim pervades Poythress’ work and is commendable.

Poythress explores various scholastic distinctions in Turretin’s Institutes, particularly the formal, real and eminent. Unfortunately, he does not discuss the key distinction between persons and nature in the Trinity – the modal distinction. This is hinted at in Aquinas[7] and is developed in Reformed orthodoxy, particularly in Turretin.[8] Awareness of these developments in understanding the distinction between persons and nature in the Trinity would go a long way towards resolving some of the difficulties that Poythress’ arguments seek to address.[9]

More generally, Poythress makes assumptions about where different theologians “begin”. This oversimplification of the patristic and scholastic theological endeavour as “beginning” with either the persons or the essence, has been shown to be contrary to the historical evidence by Lewis Ayres.[10]

Poythress argues that his multi-perspectivalism can be used in understanding the Trinity and in articulating a Trinitarian understanding of the divine attributes. He summarises his argument in the context of his suggested enhancement of classical Christian theism:

The enhancement consists in saying that these two difficulties – Trinity and attributes – are in fact analogous. The Trinity is reflected in the attributes, and therefore the exposition of the attributes can appeal to the mystery of the Trinity. We can affirm a perspectival distinction between the attributes precisely because their unity and diversity reflect the archetypal unity and diversity in the Trinity.

Poythress claims that neither Augustine nor Aquinas take this theological step but that both have the necessary theological frameworks for it. He makes similar claims about Charnock and Turretin. Poythress fails, however, to note that both Augustine and Aquinas refrained from taking the step that he suggests for significant theological reasons. The reason for these limits in Augustine and Aquinas is that they both argued that the only distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit are the relations of origin. Without appealing to the doctrine of appropriations or even Aquinas’ method of redoublement, it does not make sense to read the Trinitarian distinctions back into the divine attributes without clear qualifications.

Thomas Brand (Ph.D. Durham)
Ministry Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches and the chairman of the Affinity Council.


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