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Review: Knowing and the Trinity, by Vern Poythress

Book description

Every human being has a distinct perspective and experiences truth from this viewpoint. If God exists in three persons, as the Bible teaches, is it possible to discern epistemological perspectives that originate from this mystery? Once we understand that God is Trinitarian, we can see numerous reflections of his Trinitarian character in general and in special revelation.

Vern Poythress is one of a growing number of theologians who have developed and used perspectival triads to further our knowledge of God. This book explores the relationship between numerous triads and God’s Trinitarian character and shows that many triads reveal analogies to the Trinity. Understanding these analogies will help readers perceive the fundamental connections between our Trinitarian God, the Bible, and our created world.

About the author

Vern Sheridan Poythress (born 1946) is an American philosopher, theologian, and New Testament scholar, who is currently the New Testament chair of the ESV Oversight Committee. He is also the Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary and editor of Westminster Theological Journal.

At a glance

As Poythress mentions in the introduction of the book, it is meant to act as a stand-alone work. You don't have to read or grasp some of Poythress previous works to understand this particular book.

He spends the first four parts introducing his thinking on perspectives, specifically, his triads of perspectives. Each triad is derived from the Trinity and reflects Him in some finite way. To try and recap the triads is almost impossible. You'll need a few read-throughs to remember them and perhaps to grasp them fully.

Visual aids are crucial to understanding the perspectives - which Poythress provides in abundance. At the end of part four, Poythress provides an overview/classification of the triads in the following figure.

Perspectives seem to encapsulate our entire existence. And in this way, our entire existence reflects the Trinity. Whether we think, eat, speak, work or sleep it all reflects the Trinity in some way.

For example, Poythress uses the simple example of going to the store to buy bananas on page 137. The planning of the task to buy bananas reflects of a finite level the planning of the Father to redeem Himself a people. The buying of the bananas reflects the work of Christ as the executor of the redemption, and the giving of the bananas to family / or enjoying them reflects the role of the Spirit that applies to the work of Christ to the elect.

I also find it interesting the number of times Poythress referenced the works of Brant Bosserman in this book. Bosserman's "The Trinity and Vindication of Christian Paradox" was critical of Poythress work in perspectives. One almost gets the idea that Poythress wrote this book following Bosserman's prompts, and approvingly cites him on many different occasions.

Rating: 8.5/10.

If you feel like purchasing the book yourself, please use the link below. Apologetics Central receives a commission for each of our links that convert into purchases. Click the book below, or follow this link.

Contents at a glance

Part 1: What are perspectives

  1. The Mystery of Perspectives

  2. Spatial Perspectives

  3. Personal Perspectives

  4. Thematic Perspectives

  5. Commonalities in Perspectives

Part 2: The trinity

  1. Basic Biblical Teaching about the Trinity

  2. Coinherence

  3. Analogies for Relations in the Trinity

  4. Comparing Analogies for the Trinity

  5. Knowledge of the Trinity

Part 3: Perspectives from the Trinity

  1. Perspectives on Reflections

  2. Perspectives from Trinitarian Analogies

  3. Perspectives on Ethics

  4. Perspectives on Lordship

  5. Perspectives on Office

Part 4: Classifying perspectives

  1. A Triad for Revelation

  2. Trinitarian Classification of Perspectives

Part 5: Applying perspectives to theological questions

  1. Transcendence and Immanence

  2. Attributes of God as Perspectives

  3. God’s Acting in Time and Space

  4. God’s Creating

  5. A Mystery of Indwelling

  6. The Third-Man Argument

  7. The Generation of the Son

  8. The Procession of the Holy Spirit

  9. Classes, and the Problem of the One and the Many

  10. Human Responsibility

  11. Conceptual Growth

Part 6: The nature of perspectives

  1. Distinctives of Perspectival Reasoning

  2. Perspectival Knowledge in the Trinity

  3. Personal Perspectives and Thematic Perspective

  4. Attributes of God and Perspectives on God

  5. Classical Perspectives concerning God

  6. Perspectival Context for Attributes of God

  7. Challenges to Theological Reasoning

Part 7: Deriving theology

  1. Expanded Classification of Perspectives

  2. Three Persons and Triads

  3. Deriving Attributes of God

  4. Deriving Perspectives

The power of perspectives

The book is far too complex to attempt and derive a full understanding from the first read-through. I suspect that I'll require another read-through (or two) to really grasp what Poythress is saying. However, part of the book (applying perspectives to theological questions) is where the power of the idea lies in my current opinion. The section on human responsibility and divine sovereignty and the section on the one and the many was of particular interest to me.

I'll summarise the section on freedom and divine sovereignty here to entice the reader to go do some further reading, and then close with the conclusion.

On page 247 Poythress asks the question,

How can God be sovereign and man be responsible? If God controls everything in history, including human actions, how can human beings still have free agency?

He then illustrates in a "sketchy" way how the use of perspectives can be illuminating on the above question (note that this is after he spent quite a big deal of time going over different triads of perspectives):

Understanding human responsibility takes place best when we consider human responsibility with respect to God. It is God who created mankind. And he created them with the responsibility to love him and obey him. God created man in his image. So the relation between God and man, in which man reflects God, can be used to try and analogically understand freedom and human responsibility.

Responsibility is an implication of God’s lordship. God’s will is authoritative. God himself is committed to acting in a manner consistent with his own moral character. Since we are made in the image of God, we are responsible to him.

We can further break down how human responsibility operates. Man made in the image of God has within him a sense of right and wrong, according to Romans 1:32.

That sense of right and wrong go together, according to the triad for ethics, with three perspectives on ethics. He defines the triad for ethics as having three perspectives attached to it. The normative perspective, the existential perspective and the situational perspective (pg. 143).

The normative perspective focuses on the norms for living (e.g the ten commandments).

The situational perspective focuses on the context/situation where an ethical decision must be made. The normative perspective leads to the situational perspective because the Biblical normative command to love your neighbour leads to a focus on a situation where you can choose to love your neighbour.

The third and final ethical perspective is the existential/personal perspective. It is the focus on a person making the ethical decision.

The sense of right and wrong has a close relation to the existential perspective, which focuses on the persons who have an ethical responsibility. But that responsibility exists in an environment — a situation. And it is a responsibility concerning norms, which are the focus when we use the normative perspective.

God must be Lord over norms, over the situation, and over the human sense of right and wrong to make a transcendent claim on man. He must be Lord over the situation to provide a stable environment in which meaningful ethical action is possible. Thus, responsibility presupposes the sovereignty of God and presupposes creation. Responsibility then does not entail God's non-sovereignty!

The involvement of human responsibility with God’s sovereignty displays coinherence, in the sense that responsibility actually implies sovereignty. It contains within it the idea of divine sovereignty as a presupposition. Conversely, sovereignty implies responsibility: because God is sovereign, his authority is ultimate. Secular theories of ethics have tried to produce alternatives without God in the centre, but they fail.

Now consider the topic of freedom.

Freedom is an implication of God’s control. God’s control implies his freedom to act. Human freedom reflects divine freedom, just as human power to act reflects divine power to act. And human ethical standards reflect ultimate divine standards. Freedom presupposes divine sovereignty because God must be free and create man in his image for there to be meaningful human freedom.

Human freedom is not lawless freedom to do anything, but a freedom that reflects the freedom that belongs to God the Son. The Son freely acts in communion with God the Father through the Spirit. By analogy, human action is possible only in communion with God through the Holy Spirit. Peaceful fellowship with God is broken in the fall, but even after the fall, human beings “have [their] being” in God.

Christ the Son always freely acts in accord with the plan of God. And likewise, human beings always act in accord with God's plan. Christ always obeys the moral will of God, whereas human beings in their fallen state do not. But even when they do not—when they are in moral rebellion against God—they exist by the power of God, and they carry out his plan, sometimes unawares or despite themselves (Acts 2:23; 4:25–28).

There is no such thing as truly independent moral action by a single person. The character of the Trinity indicates why not. Personal action is always interpersonal as well. It is action in an environment of personal communion, involving joint action of other indwelling persons. Since all human beings dwell in God in the sense of Acts 17:28, their actions are not truly independent. Rather, they reflect actions of divine persons, such as the free actions of God the Son. The Son is free in communion with the Father. Human beings are free as they live in God and have communion with him. Freedom and divine sovereignty harmonise in the persons of the Trinity. So necessarily, they harmonise in a reflected form in the world that God made.

The above type of reasoning is called "perspectival reasoning", but can also be seen as "analogical reasoning". Starting with God as the original (archetype) and then working to creation as the created analogue of the Triune God (always keeping in mind the Creator-creature distinction) leads to illuminating conclusions that can assist in making sense of many paradoxes in Scripture, although there will always remain a mystery.


Poythress is no doubt a brilliant man and I look forward to giving this book a re-read sometime in the future. I'd recommend this book for one main reason: It opens your eyes to the Trinity in a way you've not experienced before. The Trinity is not an abstract concept that has no bearing on our lives on Earth. Reflections of the Trinity are everywhere. We are living in the finite creation of the Trinitarian God - and we take much of it for granted.



Published by Apologetics Central

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