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Review: Redeeming Philosophy by Vern Poythress

Redeeming Philosophy

As a classically educating homeschool mom, I regularly encounter philosophies of all sorts. Now, it is fairly easy to find resources about the history of philosophy, and we have read some of them as part of our homeschool. At a certain point, however, one needs to read some real philosophy and to thoroughly explore the world of ideas from a Christian point of view.

So I picked up Redeeming Philosophy by Vern Poythress, a challenging book that took me many months to absorb. It is not primarily about the ideas of others, which is what I expected, but more about a newer Bible-based approach to philosophy developed by the author and his colleague John Frame.

Poythress’s main idea is that, yes, we really can know real knowledge because God has revealed it to us, but each of us can only see a bit of this real knowledge based on our own perspective (influenced by our past, our personality, our gifts, etc., and, ideally, sifted through a careful study of the Bible). What we individuals know is true, although it will always be tainted with sin to some degree, but it can never be the whole truth. We can learn more of the truth about any topic by examining the perspectives of others.

In order to explain the idea of trinitarian multiperspectivalism, in which one contemplates an object or a topic based on a triad of perspectives which are all mutually interrelated and interdependent, just like the Trinity, the author uses a variety of examples. Whole chapters are devoted to thinking about an apple (Granny Smith, by the way), a walk, and a bookmark (as in something to mark one’s place in a book) in terms of different interrelated perspectives. This is a bit repetitive, a bit surreal (did I really just read 22 pages about the meaning of an apple?), and thoroughly explains the author’s meaning.

The rest of the book analyses different subdivisions of philosophy, from ethics to logic to the history of science (a woefully brief section), with many suggestions for further reading. It also discusses a few philosophies, showing how a philosopher’s conclusions can be built into his assumptions or his terms.

As a homeschooling mom and a scientist, I see the idea of differences in perspectives everywhere. As a homeschooler, I see different kids with the same assignments or books give different, yet equally valid, responses. Sometimes, though, the responses are wrong, based on misunderstanding or faulty procedures. As a scientist I see people of different backgrounds and beliefs examine the same data and get different interpretations—and, generally speaking, the promoters of opposing interpretations cannot both be right, although in some complex topics like quantum mechanics that does indeed seem to be the case.

However, there are obviously some limitations to the validity of the idea of multiple perspectives and Poythress goes to some effort to point them out. Because we are sinful, our perspectives can be tainted with sin, or even be outright sinful and wrong. We need to examine them using the Bible. We also need to acknowledge that there is one Truth of which we see different perspectives and which is based in God, not many truths that are equally valid.

One interesting point about multiperspectivalism is that sometimes it seems forced, as in Poythress’s analogy of the Trinity. Obviously multiperspectivalism is not the whole answer but merely a significant part of it: it, too, is merely one perspective on the Truth, albeit a powerful one.

I would hope that the author would also consider the absolute perspectives of those who are convinced that there is only one point of view on certain matters; this is, again, a form of learning from the perspectives of others. I would suggest that the idea of antithesis is an absolute perspective. So is the idea of God’s sovereignty, even though it is woven together with the concept of man’s responsibility in a most complex way. So is the idea of holiness, although there could be various closely-related biblically based perspectives on what personal holiness means.

In conclusion, Poythress points out that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom which, according to the Bible, is a worthwhile activity. My impression is that the biblical term ‘wisdom’ is not quite the same as the philosophical one and that some muddy thinking may be going on here.  Biblical wisdom is indisputably good and we are commanded to seek it.  We are not commanded to become involved in what is traditionally called philosophy and are even warned against some of it.  On the other hand, Poythress’s philosophy is more like biblical wisdom than standard philosophy is.

Be that as it may, Redeeming Philosophy aims to minimize the reductionism that necessarily characterizes non-Christian thought and thus produces a much more realistic view of the world. As a scientist, I am intrigued by the concept of multiperspectivalism and how it would apply experimental design, data, data analysis, and interpretations. As a homeschooling mom, I see the value of explaining the concept of biblical multiperspectivalism to my teens to teach them wisdom, knowledge, and humility, and to counteract the twin errors of modernism and postmodernism. I suspect that the concepts presented in Redeeming Philosophy can clarify and enhance ideas in many other aspects of life as well.

If you are interested in learning more about how to think clearly and deeply about the world and its ideas from a biblical point of view, I recommend this book. It is suitable for adults and motivated older teens, especially those who have been exposed to a broad range of ideas as in classical education.

Resource Lists

More accessible but less thorough philosophy resources that we have used in our homeschool include:

  • Life Views by R.C. Sproul: clear and interesting overview of world views.
  • The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul: somewhat scattered discussion of various philosophers and their ideas.
  • The Best Things in Life and The Unaborted Socrates by Peter Kreeft: practical and fascinating discussions with a strong basis in Greek thought.
  • Thinking Like a Christian by Noebel and Edwards:  thorough but perhaps more systematic than the subject itself allows; as I recall it is more about information than wisdom.
  • The 6-volume Omnibus Series from Veritas Press: an intense theology, history and literature curriculum that includes in-depth analysis of many philosophical ideas and world views. (More about our Omnibus experience.)

Helpful examples of multiperspectivalism:

  • The Heidelberg Catechism’s view of Christ as prophet, priest and king and of our tripartite role as his followers is a powerful and fruitful lens through which to see our Lord, the world, and our role as believers.
  • Blind Spot by Collin Hansen: This interesting discussion of multiperspectivalism in action shows how not valuing the perspectives of others can lead to sin and conflict in the church.
  • The Five Love Languages theory of Gary Chapman describes multiple perspectives of giving and receiving love, a practical reminder that people, too, are much more complex that many thinkers admit.
  • The wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics posits that two mutually-contradictory views are nevertheless both true, a much-needed reminder that the human mind can understand many things but not everything.
  • I have heard that Head, Heart and Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action presents a very helpful multiperspectival view on much of life, but have not yet read it.

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This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook.

For more encouragement, visit Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, R&R Wednesdays, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: I received an e-copy of this book from Crossway for the purpose of this review.  All my opinions are my own, and I am not compensated for sharing them.

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