Bible - Interpretation

5 - What Is Perspectivalism, and Why Is It Dangerous?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Rather than comparing Scripture with Scripture, this man-centered hermeneutic compares human perspectives with one another in order to synthesize "doctrine".

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part five of a series. Read part four.

Adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism.1

Rather than comparing Scripture with Scripture, this man-centered hermeneutic - widely used in today's seminaries - compares human perspectives with one another in order to synthesize "doctrine".

Thus far in this series, we have seen that much of Christian academia has departed from grammatical-historical hermeneutics. The grammatical-historical method of Biblical interpretation is not merely a man-made method of interpreting Scripture. It is the methodology sanctioned by Scripture itself. It is as much a part of the system of doctrine contained in the Bible as the deity of Christ and justification by faith alone. But in many parts of Christian academia and the church, the postmodernist concept of the hermeneutic of trust has replaced grammatical-historical hermeneutics. The hermeneutic of trust, as we have seen, is a spiritual carcinogen that breeds all kinds of error, and destroys sound churches and seminaries.

The key flaw of the hermeneutic of trust is that, rather than comparing Scripture with Scripture, and rather than judging every word of fallible man by the Word of the infallible God, this man-centered hermeneutic compares human perspectives with one another in order to synthesize "doctrine".

Perspectivalism

Two popular promoters of this kind of hermeneutic are Vern S. Poythress and John M. Frame. Poythress has been Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia since 1976, and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Frame, a Westminster professor for 31 years and a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, is now Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and is a PCA minister. These two theologians have trained many of the men now in the pulpits of the OPC, PCA, and many other churches, or have influenced them through their writings. Both Poythress and Frame are advocates of "perspectivalism" in the interpretation of Scripture. They are both self-described disciples of Cornelius Van Til whose view of Scripture, as we shall see, is an essential influence on their thinking.

Perspectivalism is not new, nor is it limited to theology. It has its roots in the writings of the German Antichristian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In the secular world, perspectivalism is the enabling force behind the growth of culture- and gender-specific studies programs on college campuses - feminist studies, ethnic studies, Marxist studies, Islamic studies, gay and lesbian studies, and so on. Those unfamiliar with the radically relativistic agenda being carried out on most campuses may think that these are programs of study about feminism, Marxism, Islam, etc.

But that is not the case. In these programs, all disciplines - history, anthropology, sociology, politics, economics, and even mathematics and science - are studied from the perspective of one's gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual perversion as "communities of interpretation." The motivation for this is the radical educators' drive to suppress what they refer to as the perspectives of the "power elite" - European males, capitalists, Christians, and "straight" people.2 The results are often absurd: textbooks and courses on "feminist re-conceptions of knowledge" - "Marxist anthropology" - "gay and lesbian mathematics" and other forms of what are called "non-traditional studies," ad nauseum.3

"All Perspectives Are Valid in Principle"

In Christian seminaries, the promotion of perspectivalism is much more subtle, the element of gross immorality is absent, and the academic results are not so overtly absurd. But there are parallels with secular academia. Perspectivalism in the seminaries and the church destroys respect for the authority of Scripture and paves the way for advancement of the neo-liberal agenda.

The stated motivation for perspectivalism in the seminaries and the church is to displace what men like Poythress and Frame, echoing their secular counterparts, pejoratively refer to as the "traditional," "conventional," and "prosaic" interpretation of Scripture with "imaginative" and "fresh" interpretations.4 What they refer to as the traditional, conventional, prosaic interpretation of Scripture is the grammatical-historical interpretation that underpins Biblical orthodoxy.

The effect of perspectivalism in the seminaries is to raise a cacophony of human perspectives and permit them to compete on an equal footing with what Poythress, Frame, and others claim are the individual Biblical writers' "perspectives" on "redemptive-historical events." These, they allege, form much of the content of Scripture. The focus is on human authorship of Scripture and human perspectives on Scripture. Divine inspiration is acknowledged, but only in a passing and superficial way. By this flawed procedure, the voice of the divine Author, God the Holy Spirit, is often drowned out or simply ignored.

Valuing Vagueness Over Precision

Perspectivalism is a philosophy of interpretation that values vagueness over precision. It values "diversity" over a clearly defined, carefully derived, and God-unified system of doctrine. It values giving free rein to any and all human perspectives on Scripture as governing factors in interpretation, rather than "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). John Frame states that "Scripture does not demand absolute precision of us" in interpretation, and says that it is a principle of Scripture itself that "vagueness is often preferable to precision.... Nor is theology an attempt to state truth without any subjective influence [i.e., the interpreter's imposing his own opinions] on the formulation."5 These statements contradict the Biblical admonitions not to add to or subtract from Scripture (e.g., Revelation 22:18-19), and passages where the Bible itself tells us that correct interpretation hinges on the precise meaning of even a single word (e.g., Galatians 3:16).

"Symphonic Theology"

Poythress promotes perspectivalism under the name Symphonic Theology, and in 1987 he published a book by that title. Poythress' book makes it clear that the perspectivalist approach to Scripture is decidedly postmodern. "Truth" is man-centered, communal, and relative - not God-centered, God-authored, and unalterable. Poythress asserts that the way we know truth is by assembling various individuals' perspectives on it:

I call this procedure symphonic theology because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme.6

How is this "symphonic theme" to be assembled?

[I]magination and creativity often work best when people allow themselves to juxtapose unlikely parallels or analogies or to develop apparently fanciful or absurd ideas. This freedom is one of the ideas behind so-called brainstorming. Research on the processes involved in creativity shows how, in an advanced and sophisticated form of brainstorming, good and workable plans often evolve from some core idea that pops up using "wild" analogies.7

Who may we invite to help us thus assemble the "truth"? Poythress says that in the interpretation of Scripture "all perspectives are valid in principle,"8 even "wild" ones, even "apparently fanciful and absurd ideas" - even the perspectives of the unregenerate. The non-Christian's perspective on Scripture, Poythress says,

has "grains of truth" in it. Any such grain of truth can be used as the starting point for developing a perspective on a much larger field of truth. Sometimes the non-Christian system as a whole is based on a "root-metaphor" of some kind, such as the world as mechanism or the world as organism.9

"[I]f we recognize such an analogy and detach it from its context in the non-Christian system," Poythress continues, "it can be used as a perspective" to interpret the Bible.

This climate of man-centered interpretive disorder is far removed from the Christ-centered discipline that Scripture demands of believers, and its warnings concerning the carnal mind:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His [Romans 8:5-9].

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ [2 Corinthians 10:3-5].

Where does the perspectivalist interpretive procedure lead? Poythress does not hesitate to tell us:

Our ability to use a number of different flexible perspectives is based partly on the fact that terms such as "ethics" or "adultery" or "covenant" or "prophet" can be stretched. We can use words [of Scripture] in a conventional, prosaic way. But we can also stretch them in an imaginative, almost playful way until they give us a perspective on the whole of the Bible.

This flexibility is, in fact, closely related to the flexibility that occurs in the meaning of words. A key area in our exegesis and our understanding of the Bible is the area of word meanings and the use of words in the Bible.... Some people have imagined that words in the Bible all have a special technical precision and give us automatically fixed, rigid categories. These fixed categories are then thought to exclude any kind of flexibility in the use of perspectives. In fact, I believe that the opposite is the case.10

Thus Poythress openly opposes grammatical-historical interpretation governed by the Scripture-derived principles discussed earlier in this chapter. He is saying that the words of Scripture need not be interpreted according to their meaning in context. To interpret Scripture by such principles is, Poythress says, "conventional" and "prosaic" - dull and unimaginative. This, Poythress says, is wrong. "My rule of thumb is to question profound conclusions in...theology that depend largely on key technical terms or systems of terms."11 Those "technical terms," according to Poythress, include regeneration, saving faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.12 In other words, he rejects systematic theology in principle. And it is telling that he would make it his "rule of thumb...to question profound conclusions" about the very doctrinal terms that neo-liberals radically redefine in preaching another gospel.

Poythress insists that we need to free ourselves of the constraints of "traditional," "conventional," "prosaic" Protestant theology. We need to be "imaginative," to "stretch" meanings of words in the Bible so that they will give us new "perspective[s] on the whole Bible."

This no-rules-but-yours-and-mine method for interpreting the Bible is based on a key premise of the philosophy of long-time Westminster Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til, who said that Scripture is an analogy which at no point coincides with the truth in the divine mind. Poythress writes:

Finally, we may observe that all human knowledge whatsoever is analogically related to God's knowledge.... We are made in the image of God, which implies that our knowledge is an image of God's knowledge. In addition, I would claim that all growth in knowledge exploits analogy in one way or another.... General understanding of human experiences is achieved by moving by analogy from our own experience to other people's stories of their experiences. The use of perspectives is a way of becoming self-conscious and deliberate about the use of analogies and in this way promises a systematic way of searching to advance knowledge.13

Perspectivalism and Redemptive-Historical Theology

The perspectivalist interpretive method - if it can be dignified by the term - also facilitates the postmodern Biblical Theology movement championed in an earlier time by Geerhardus Vos, and in our time by Richard Gaffin. Poythress writes:

Finally, advances in the study of biblical themes challenge us to study the Bible in ways that cut across previous lines of separation between topics. "Biblical theology," as practiced by Geerhardus Vos and Richard B. Gaffin, studies main themes of the Bible in their historical development.... Gaffin appropriately challenges us to reorganize our systematic theology on the basis of this advance.14

The result of such "advances," is what Gaffin has called "progress in theology." Gaffin's efforts to "cut across previous lines of separation between topics" have yielded, among other things, thorough confusion of the Biblical doctrines of justification and sanctification. The "lines of separation" between the two doctrines, long obscured by the traditions of Rome, were re-established in bold strokes by the Reformers using Scripture alone. Gaffin, Frame, Poythress and their followers are erasing them once again.

Gaffin and Poythress both subscribe to the so-called "redemptive-historical perspective" of the modern Biblical Theology movement. For Poythress, like Gaffin, revelation consists of events, not doctrine.15 The writings of the different human authors in Scripture are merely their different perspectives on those events.16 In fact, Poythress views "redemptive history as perspectives."17 What is hardly in view at all in his thinking is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the author of every word of Scripture.

The perspectivalist approach of the redemptive-historical school facilitates Gaffin's radical reconstruction of the Gospel in his book, Resurrection and Redemption. It allows Gaffin, as he himself admits, to take "the concept or line of thought" that has "relatively little explicit textual support" ??????¢?? the redemptive-historical perspective ??????¢?? and make it the controlling factor in interpreting Paul's writings.18 If, as Poythress asserts, "all perspectives are valid in principle" for the interpretation of Scripture - even "wild" ones, even "apparently fanciful and absurd ideas," even the perspectives of the unregenerate - then it is no problem to come up with an interpretation that lacks support in the sacred text. And since perspectivalism is so much a part of our postmodern, inclusivist culture, it is no problem for many of Gaffin's readers and followers either.

A Bizarre View of Reality

Poythress also adopts a bizarre (but these days not uncommon) view of reality. He asserts that no "particular event or reality as a whole exists prior to and independent of any perspective on it, any knowledge or interpretation of it."19 (This is the theological equivalent of saying that if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, it doesn't make a noise.) For such interpretation, he says, "[a]ny motif of the Bible can be used as the single organizing motif."20 "We see what our tools enable us to see."21 In other words, according to Poythress, human perspectives create reality. That makes man and his subjective experiences - rather than God's objective, propositional revelation in Scripture - the measure of all things. It is dangerous nonsense.

What Is Missing?

What is missing in perspectivalism's no-rules hermeneutic is any basis on an authoritative Word from God, for which human writers served as the penmen of the Holy Spirit. Gone is the doctrine of a clearly communicated Divine revelation. Gone is the slightest acknowledgment that the words of the Book have a definite, God-fixed meaning. Gone is the doctrine of Scripture as its own interpreter. In place of these sound principles, perspectivalism gives us a purported vagueness from God and an interpretive Babel among men. In place of the apostles' and prophets' "Thus says the Lord," perspectivalism gives us the serpent's "Has God indeed said?" It is no accident that one of the most pernicious heresies of our time - yet another version of justification by faith-plus-works - is called the New Perspective on Paul. 

Perspectivalism's Fruit: Radical Re-Definition of Doctrine

In previous articles we have seen that in the OPC creation committee Report, such thinking produces interpretations of the word "day" in Genesis 1 that oppose the meaning of the word which Scripture itself makes clear: a literal day. Day-age theories, days of unspecified length, analogical-day theories, and framework theories have become admissible because the anti-Biblical "perspectives" of the unregenerate are being viewed as "valid in principle" for the interpretation of Scripture. Perspectivalism forgets that there is only one "perspective" that matters - that of God the Holy Spirit, the Author of the words of Scripture. Perspectivalism forgets that it is the business of the believer to seek that perspective, and submit to it, and to no other. We shall do it imperfectly in this life to be sure, but it is what we are commanded to do.

Poythress' own employment of perspectivalism yields telling results. In Symphonic Theology he redefines many Biblical terms in the same ways as Norman Shepherd, Richard Gaffin, and others who teach justification by faith-plus-works. At various points he un-Biblically redefines key doctrinal terms such as regeneration,22 righteousness,23 and saving faith24 as they do. He says that it "appears from biblical revelation" that Adam is the federal head of the fallen race and Christ the federal Head of the redeemed.25 But in keeping with the perspectivalist philosophy of vagueness and inclusivism, apparently it is not something he can say with the same certainty that Scripture says it, nor can he exclude other "perspectives" that might contradict it.

The hermeneutic of trust and perspectivalism go together hand-in-glove. As we saw in an earlier article in this series, the OPC creation committee Report encourages the use of these things as a vehicle to "encourage theological creativity." The Report commends Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for "inducting Orthodox Presbyterian ministerial candidates into" such a "culture of interpretation." The effect, the Report says, has been to "cultivate a hermeneutic of trust within the church, as ministers had confidence in the training of their colleagues, even if they differed in their views." As Poythress says, "all perspectives are valid in principle" - even if they "stretch" the meanings of the words of Scripture beyond rationality.

Next: What Must We Do To Restore a Safe 'Hermeneutical House'?

References:

  1. The material in this article is adapted from chapter eight of Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2005). This book is available in our online Resource Store.

  2. This liberal college professor's glee over the perspectivalist perversion of American academia is typical: "Women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies programs, and the moving of non-western and non-"traditional" studies in general out of the anthropology and sociology departments and into the academy on their own terms is the great success story of contemporary higher education.... Perspectivalism succeeds at making all viewpoints equally cogent" (Steven Jay Gimbel, "If I Had a Hammer: Why Logical Positivism Better Accounts for the Need for Gender and Cultural Studies" in Studies in Practical Philosophy: 2000, Volume 2, Number 2).

  3. These examples, I am ashamed to say, are from the university system in my home state of Maryland. And in the so-called divinity schools of universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton one finds "feminist theology," "black theology," even "Marxist theology." Neo-evangelical seminaries such as Fuller are not far behind. Fuller's courses in the Old Testament are based on books such as A Feminist Companion to Genesis and A Feminist Companion to the Wisdom Literature, and its systematic theology program uses books such as She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse and Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective.

  4. The Westminster Theological Seminary board, when exonerating faith-plus-works teacher Norman Shepherd, commended him for his "fresh insights" which were, in fact, heresy.

  5. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), 226, 307.

  6. Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987; reprinted by P & R Publishing Company, 2001), 43.

  7. Poythress, 52.

  8. Poythress, 43.

  9. Poythress, 44-45. Emphasis in the original.

  10. Poythress, 55.

  11. Poythress, 61.

  12. Poythress, 74-75.

  13. Poythress, 54. Emphasis added.

  14. Poythress, 122-123.

  15. Poythress, 48.

  16. Poythress, 85-86.

  17. Poythress, 99. Emphasis in the original.

  18. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), 28.

  19. Poythress, 49. Emphasis added.

  20. Poythress, 86.

  21. Poythress, 89.

  22. Poythress, 58.

  23. Poythress, 37.

  24. Poythress, 63, 76, 94.

  25. Poythress, 60.

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