Book Review

"Redeeming Reason: A God-Centered Approach," by Vern S. Poythress: A Review

John Ehrett
Tuesday, October 17th 2023
A man looking towards a mountain peak with the words "here below."

Redeeming Reason is the latest installment in a series of short volumes by Poythress that place familiar academic disciplines into conversation with Christian theology (prior titles include Redeeming Mathematics, Redeeming Philosophy, and Redeeming Sociology, among others). These books take a unique approach to their subject matter: they generally argue that the working assumptions of these academic fields are not theologically neutral, but can be reframed in Christian ways and put to the service of the church. While the series’ prose style is accessible, the underlying ideas in play are unusually sophisticated—footnotes throughout Redeeming Reason reveal Poythress’s familiarity with semiotics, metaphor theory, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, and Michael Polanyi, among others.

Even among these volumes, though, Redeeming Reason is peculiarly difficult to classify. It can perhaps best be described as an introductory-level study in Trinitarian epistemology—an extended exploration of how the very structure of human knowing reflects a distinctively Triune God. While less an argument than a theological meditation—as an advocate for “presuppositional” apologetic method, Poythress would be critical of appeals to unassisted human reason—the book is nevertheless a thoughtful look at how all knowledge relies on the formation and exploration of analogies, or relationships between things alike in some ways and unalike in others.

Poythress opens by stressing that all reasoning, of whatever sort, is ultimately dependent upon an absolute God: the laws of logic derive their transcendental validity from his eternal nature. But this is only the start of theological reflection, not its culmination. As Poythress demonstrates, human reasoning is always at once normative, situational, and existential. By this, Poythress simply means that in the act of reasoning, individuals seek to ascertain general principles, apply them to particular situations, and do so as thoroughly conditioned human creatures. This trifecta, Poythress argues, constitutes a unity-in-difference, which is analogous to the immanent Trinity itself. The Father, as Creator, is the source and ground of all unities; the Son, through whom the world was made, makes all human situations possible; the Spirit draws individual creatures into the presence of God. Since human beings are God’s image-bearers, and creation has its source in God alone, it stands to reason that there is an analogical and reflective dimension to everything that exists. The key lies in recognizing it as such.

In the same vein, Poythress argues that the identification of any particular thing in language depends on the “triune” relation of contrast (whatever features of a thing establish its identity over against other things), variation (the range of allowable differences within the scope of a single term), and distribution (the context within which a term is put forward as a description of a feature of reality). The underlying logic here is how unity and difference coincide in the world—the old problem of the One and the Many—but in Poythress’s hands, it takes on a distinctly Christian imprint. The Father creates (contrast); the Son orders and redeems the creation (variation); the Spirit proceeds out and then draws in (distribution). At every epistemological turn, for Poythress, the dynamic relations of the Trinity disclose themselves.

In the end, though, one runs into the limits of trying to systematize “merely human” intellective activity of this sort. Poythress rightly grasps that there is something irreducibly mysterious about the phenomena of reason and language, about the fact that word and world can be somehow made to fit despite the (supposed) philosophical problems involved. An entry-level student of analytic philosophy can marshal any number of paradoxes against the operations of ordinary language—when, precisely does one kind of entity become another? How much variety is permissible within the bounds of a single definition?—but nonetheless, human beings manage to get along in the world pretty well, demarcating the genuine distinctions in reality without worrying too much about edge cases. And likewise, Poythress contends, there is always an abiding mystery that lingers over how Christians grasp God’s Triunity “here below”: Christians receive the benefits of the Triune God’s eternal activity, and get along in the world as Christians preaching and proclaiming that activity, while only grasping its scope in part. In Poythress’s handling, “mystery” is no weasel word used to cover up sloppy theological reasoning; rather, it is the sine qua non of human thinking in every imaginable domain.

How does that presuppositional apologetic framework fit into the picture? Early on, Poythress explicitly disclaims any interest in natural theology, describing the whole business as “treacherous.” Surprisingly, though, there is very little in Redeeming Reason that even the most thoroughgoing Thomist could not affirm. Indeed, from a certain point of view, Poythress’s careful treatment of the “triune” structure of ordinary reasoning is an argument rooted in natural theology. Creation, after all, reflects its Creator. So too, Poythress defends a seemingly classical understanding of divine simplicity, and clearly argues that theological language is always predicated analogically of God. One need not grasp the pure presuppositionalist nettle to find value in Poythress’s study.

But even so, the book does not speak to a number of important topics in theological metaphysics. For instance, is God to be taken as the inventor of the laws of logic, in such a way that they could have been otherwise, or do the laws of logic rather reflect the character of God as the necessary Reality upon which all contingent realities depend? Taking the former course would seem to push theological language towards a perilous disconnect between thought and Reality—surely not Poythress’s intent.

Additionally, what does it mean to approach the Bible as the ultimate authority of human reason when one comes to the text—freighted as each interpreter is with the accumulated analogies and associations of one’s historical-cultural moment? Is the encounter with Scripture that norms human reason an unmediated encounter? Put differently, Redeeming Reason makes the argument that, in the encounter with the Word of God, one discovers the true origin and ground of the everyday reasoning one has always already been applying, but this leaves unclear how one is to genuinely begin, epistemologically speaking, from the Scriptural text. It seems to me that from early on, one must be taught to interpret the world through the categories of biblical language first and foremost.

No doubt Poythress himself has answers to these questions, though they might well range beyond the project at hand. In any case, Redeeming Reason is a reflective invitation not merely to take every thought captive, but to take captive the structure of thought itself. That is a noteworthy, and commendable, ambition.

Photo of John Ehrett
John Ehrett
John Ehrett is an STM candidate at the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a Commonwealth Fellow at the Davenant Institute.
Tuesday, October 17th 2023

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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