April 2024
Book Reviews
Making Sense of the World by Vern Poythress

A review of Vern Poythress's Making Sense of the World

As a Christian, how do you understand the world in which you live? All of it: the apples and attics, the artwork and the arbors, the places and the people? What are the things around you like, and what do they mean? What is their purpose or function? These are no small questions. In fact, they're so massive that many people put off answering them. These are questions of what philosophers and theologians call metaphysics: the nature of what exists.

Now, most of us are content to just "pick things up as we go." We move through life and interact with the world around us using our senses, some basic reasoning, and maybe our imagination. And perhaps, when we're old enough as Christians, we start trying to relate the Bible to our experiences. We attempt to tie the narrative of Scripture to the narrative of our own lives. But, if we're honest, much of the time we rely on the older methods: senses, reason, and imagination. We let the greater questions go. And in that letting go, we risk seeing the world as a collection of raw "stuff," a morass of matter in motion—often beautiful and yet strangely void of the personal God we profess to know and love.

But what if God is at the center of those greater questions? What if the nature, purpose, and meaning of all that's around us centers on his overwhelming, constantly revealed trinitarian beauty? What if reality at its deepest level is thudding like a heart for its life-giving God? Such are the questions Vern Poythress addresses in Making Sense of the World.

What I Loved

The short answer to the question of what I loved about this book is this: its depth and simplicity in calling readers to stare at the beauty of God through his ever-reflective creation. This is a book about two mysteriously intertwined topics: the beauty of God and the nature of the world. In reading it, you get a taste not just of how God's beauty is revealed to us (through language, knowledge, God's rule, his appearance, and his attributes), but of how everything around us pulses with trinitarian reflections. Combining these topics means that you get a "Christian metaphysic" that naturally leads to awe and worship. What other sort of metaphysic could you want? 

As a lover of Kenneth Pike and his work with perspectives, I was happy to see Poythress reflect on and apply Pike's creative ways of looking at the world and all that is in it. Pike has set out an approach to all of life that is intrinsically trinitarian (for a short intro to Kenneth Pike, click HERE), and Poythress has done much over his career to show the theological importance and use of Pike's thought. But having Pike's work applied to metaphysics (which Poythress also does in Redeeming Philosophy) brings special joy to me. Why? 

Well, while metaphysics isn't a common reading area for most people, that doesn't mean that the assumptions in that field of study don't affect them. It just means most people don't know when or how different metaphysical approaches have nuzzled into their thinking. And they have. The two most prominent approaches to metaphysics (again, describing the nature of what exists, what it means, and how we should understand it) come from Plato (c. 427–348 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC). Neither of these men, despite their brilliance, were biblically informed. Their approaches to understanding life were not God-centered. They were attempting to understand and describe a world that they assumed was impersonal and void of the trinitarian presence and beauty of God. In short, that means they didn't see the world or themselves as they truly are.

Plato thought that perfect and eternal forms were behind all of the concrete things we see around us. There is an eternal and perfect idea or concept of a chair, for instance, and that explains the nature of the chair that I'm sitting on right now. Where did these forms come from? What do they mean? For Plato, they just eternally exist. But that meant that Plato was essentially giving divine attributes (eternality, perfection) to things that were not God. Many people overlook that this is a clearcut example of idolatry, of someone who "worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). Plato took things in creation and gave them a divine source that was not God. In this, he worshiped creation rather than the Creator.

Aristotle believed that the forms of his teacher Plato "manifested themselves in the objects in the world, instead of objects in the world being defective copies of the forms, as Plato thought" (p. 159). Poythress write, "For Plato, the forms belonged to a transcendental, invisible realm; for Aristotle, they belonged to the world of things" (p. 159). Aristotle believed all things were composed of form and matter. There was no other invisibe world of perfect forms. And while Aristotle claimed that there must be a "Prime Mover" in the world (i.e., God), this is not the personal, self-revealing God of the Bible. Again, it's an idol, a fabrication of a creature attempting to function autonomously, that is, without dependence on the revelation of God. And as Richard Gaffin Jr. once put it, "Any assertion of autonomy, rational or otherwise . . . effaces the Creator-creature distinction. And human wholeness cannot be recaptured unless every vestige of autonomy is abandoned in submission to the Triune God of the Bible" (Word & Spirit, p. 491).

Aristotle is perhaps more impressive to people today because of his analytic skills. He developed famous "categories" to describe the different things in the world. A substance (his first and primary category) is that which makes something what it is. It's the "rockiness" of a rock, which sets a rock apart from the "wateriness" of water. Substances cannot be reduced down to anything smaller. A substance is the most basic unit in the world for Aristotle. He then attached more refined categories to substances to further describe or define them (quality, quantity, relative, place, time, position, having, acted upon, being affected). People like these categories because they offer a sense of control in our understanding. We think that we can use these descriptors to really grasp what a rock is on the deepest level. But let me ask you this: As a Christian, could you ever really understand what a rock is without starting with the truth that it is a creation of God and reveals his divine nature (Rom. 1:20)? I don't think so. Do you see how Aristotle is leaping over the most fundamental commitments of Christian faith? This is no small problem. And frankly, I've been confused over why more Christian theologians don't take issue with this.

Let me put it another way. Christopher Watkin once wrote, "A position is best known by its most basic differentiation. The meanings of all words in the Christian theory of being depend upon the difference between the self-contained God and the created universe" (Biblical Critical Theory, p. 56). The Creator-creature distinction is a bedrock Christian doctrine. You get that wrong, and you get everything else wrong. Aristotle gets it wrong. But it gets worse. The ultimate end of the Christian life, the central thing we enjoy right now and will enjoy in eternity is communion with God. And Aristotle gets that wrong, too. In Nicomachean Ethics (VIII.7), he says, "when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases." We are "the other party" in this scenario. Aristotle's understanding of relationships does not account for the immanence of God (his closeness to his people) nor for the central truth of Christianity: the Incarnation of the Son of God, where God himself came and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

That is why I have always been uncomfortable when people take their metaphysical starting point with Aristotle. This is a person who thought the world was not governed by a personal being with a plan for all things and with whom we could have communion, but by a conglomeration of impersonal “substances” that he believed were eternal (Physics I.7; Nicomachean Ethics VIII.7). Aristotle has the same basic idolatrous problem that his teacher did: he treats created things as divine things and has no place for God's general and special revelation.

In short, this is a man who (1) rejected the Creator-creature distinction (one of the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity) and (2) did not believe communion with God (or the gods) was possible (the most fundamental hope of Christians). Why in the world would we look at someone who is so obviously at odds with basic Christian commitments and say, "Yeah, let me take my basic understanding of reality from this guy"? It honestly baffles me.

Poythress gives us a far better, and far more biblical option in Making Sense of the World. "The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). If the whole world is God's, and if God has chosen to reveal his character through that world (Ps. 19:1–4; Rom. 1:20), then wouldn't it make the most sense for us to embrace a Christian metaphysics? Shouldn't we always and everywhere find God when we stare deeply at the nature of things? 

Favorite Quotes

Here's a short list of some of my favorite quotes. The more you think about them, the more they grow in profundity.

  • "The harmony among the persons of the Trinity is the ultimate beauty. The world reflects this beauty on its own level, the level of the creature" (11).
  • "Beauty always involves both unity (the commonality in a harmony) and diversity (the distinction between two or more things between which the harmony exists)" (33).
  • "God designed the whole Bible, not just Genesis 1, to play a fundamental role in our lives. It should have primacy in our thinking about the world, to be the authority above all other authorities. In a broader sense, then, the whole Bible—the entirety of its message—is the metaphysics of God for human beings" (37).
  • "The eternal speech of God is Trinitarian in structure: the Father is the speaker; the Son is the Word; and the Holy Spirit is the breath. Each person of the Trinity is involved in this speech in his own distinctive way" (47).
  • "God specified three mutually related aspects when he created all things: (1) the unity and identity of each thing; (2) the diversity of things; and (3) their context, existence, and function in relation to other things—to God himself and to the things that God has made" (55).
  • "Aristotle subordinates the diversity and context of things in the world to the unity of their respective essences" (58).
  • "God's speaking is a Trinitarian speaking, and leads naturally to our becoming aware of Trinitarian structure that forms the world that he has created" (67).
  • "Every created thing and every event involving created things is a product of Trinitarian action" (73).
  • "The things that exist do not exist on their own. They do not subsist in themselves, as though on an independent foundation. They are continuously related to God, as God sustains them by means of the Holy Spirit" (77).
  • "We can now summarize what it means to be a creature. All creatures exist in dependence on God's eternal plan. They are dependent on the continuous power of God that results in dynamic development and variation in creation. They are dependent on a sustaining relation to God. Thus, there are three aspects to being a creature: stability, according to the plan of God; dynamic development and variation, according to the power of God; and a relationship to God, according to the presence of God" (77).
  • "God is Trinitarian. God's word, his knowledge, his rule, his manifestations, and his attributes therefore reflect Trinitarian structure. Therefore, the world, utterly distinct from God, expresses Trinitarian structure in a derivative way. God is beautiful, in the beauty of unity-in-diversity in harmony. Derivatively, the world is beautiful. This view of beauty is distinctively Trinitarian. Simultaneously, it is a view of metaphysics, that is, of ultimate reality. It is incompatible with Platonic metaphysics. It is incompatible with Aristotelian metaphysics. It is incompatible with Kantian dimensionalism. It is incompatible with anything and everything except itself. God rules the world, and God is Trinitarian. The world expresses the character of God and nothing else. Beauty in the world reflects the beauty in God. The world cannot express anything else because God is absolute and the world is utterly dependent" (99).
  • "The world is completely specified by the word of God, which articulates the plan of God. . . . God governs everything by speaking (Pss. 33:6, 9; 147:15-18; Heb. 1:3). The entire utterance of God structures the entirety of reality" (117).
  • "God himself is the key to both beauty and to metaphysics, the nature of ultimate reality" (147).

What I Would Have Liked

There's not really anything I would change about the book. I think, if anything, more could be said about how people often assume an Aristotelian metaphysic when they walk through the world, trying to reduce things to little stable substances, and ignoring the dynamic diversity and extensive relationships that things have with one another in God's plan. In short, we need a lot of practice at seeing the Trinitarian structure of reality. And I pray this book goes a long way in moving that forward.

Should You Read It?

Good heavens, YES! This isn't a book only for theologians or people interested in philosophy. It's a book for any Christian who wants to understand where beauty comes from and what this God-governed world is really like at its deepest levels. I'll be widely recommending it.

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