December 2023
Book Reviews
The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress

A review of Vern Poythress's The Mystery of the Trinity

Some books are worth a slow and prayerful read. I've studied the work of Vern Poythress for years, and I've spent countless hours in his office, talking about Kenneth Pike and the Trinity. He's become a friend whose footsteps I follow in for my own approach to theological issues. But I didn't quite know how to respond when Sinclair Ferguson in the foreword of The Mystery of the Trinity refers to the book as Poythress's magnum opus. Having read through it, though, I'm starting to agree. This book makes a unique contribution to the ongoing discussions about the nature of God and his relation to the world. Readers will find not only the trinitarian, perspectival approach that's come to characterize Poythress's work, but also a spirit of humility, circumspection, and respect for opposing views. These features combine to make the book both insightful and refreshingly Christ-like. It's a book written in love for the truth, in service to the God who is truth (John 14:6).

The Mystery of the Trinity also brings out two central touch-points for theology: (1) the doctrine of the Trinity (one God in three distinct persons) and (2) the resurrection of Christ. The former is at the heart of God's identity; the latter lies at the center of redemptive history. Surely, these are two touchpoints worth our meditation.

Overall, I believe that the book, like many other titles from Poythress, is deceptively simple. There's much richness there for readers who slow down. But for those who don't, the size of the book shouldn't be intimidating. Accessibility has always been a hallmark of his theology (along with that of John Frame), and that's the case here, even when scaling the walls of Aristotelian metaphysics or Thomas Aquinas's systematic theology.

As I usually do with book reviews, let me set out what I loved about the book, including my favorite quotes. Then I'll add some notes about what readers might critique, and then end with my recommendation.

What I Loved

What I've found so helpful about multiperspectivalism is the user's ability to see things from different angles, thus viewing more of the truth than otherwise might be possible. This was true in this book when it comes to tricky topics such as anthropomorphic descriptions of God (chaps. 14-15). But it's also true when you encounter the material about the relationship between God and language (chaps. 13-18), which is, of course, my favorite area. I'll say a bit about that before commenting on the Poythress's take on how God relates to creation (which I found to be brilliant).

I've done much reading and writing on the linguist that Vern Poythress studied under, the one who first suggested that language had a trinitarian structure: Kenneth Pike (I wrote a two-part article on Pike in Westminster Theological Journal, along with a book, linking his language theory to a Reformed doctrine of the Trinity). Since telling you everything I loved about the book would take up too much space, let me just focus on the language piece and how it can help us in discussions on the nature of God.

We don't think about language too much in our typical daily activities, but there's something pivotal about the nature of language that we can't miss. Language reflects the Trinity, in several ways, but here's one way that will immediately expand your perspective on what we're even doing when we talk about God (or anything else, for that matter): contrast, variation, and distribution. I call this the CVD triad. It sounds complex, but it's not. To keep things simple, I'll focus on words.

Words: Contrast, Variation, and Distribution

All words have contrast, variation, and distribution. First, every word has a meaning that contrasts with other word meanings. The word "book" has a distinct meaning, something that separates it from other words. It is not the same as "page" or "letter" or "note." Second, every word also has variation, different ways of showing up in the world. While the word "book" is the same in the following two verses, the meaning is different, isn't it?

  • "This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God" (Gen. 5:1).
  • "The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life" (Rev. 3:5).

The same word shows up in different ways in the world, and those different ways show the various shades of meaning that the word can take. Third, every word has distribution or context. In other words, it occurs in a setting that shapes its meaning, and all of the settings are related, though often in ways only God can see. God, for instance, knows exactly what is added to the meaning of the word "book" when it occurs in Rev. 3:5, long after Gen. 5:1 was written. Contrast, variation, and distribution are also analogically related to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively (see The Mystery of the Trinity, pp. 112-116).

Now, why does this matter? Why focus on the nature of language in a book about the nature of God? The short answer is that we express what we think of God through language. If we don't know something about the nature of language, we don't know much about what we're really saying (or could be saying) when we utter words about God. Take the word "transcendent," for example. When we say that God is transcendent, we usually mean that he is high above us, beyond the confines of our thought. But we seldom pause to think about the CVD elements of this word. Note how much mystery emerges when we do.

In terms of contrast, the word "transcendence" has meaning, really, only because God has revealed himself to us. In other words, "transcendence" has meaning because of "immanence" (see pp. 603-605). We only know what transcendence is because God has been immanent with us in revealing himself. We can't truly have a God who is only transcendent. So, the contrasting meaning of "transcendence" also includes some of the meaning of immanence within it.

In terms of variation, the word "transcendence" can occur in different places, each offering a slightly different shade of meaning, and yet the word is the same (there is "unity of meaning," in Poythress's words). "The Lord is transcendent above creation" and "God's transcendence should lead us to fear him" are two different variations (or manifestations) of this word. We typically pretend for a moment that there is no variation when we define a word (or, we try to summarize meanings gleaned from many variations), but that is exactly what it sounds like: pretending. We need to acknowledge that words are always embodied, just as the Son has always been embodied as the Word of God. Every time God speaks, his Word stands behind the particular words uttered, as does the power of his Spirit. We can't pretend to have an "unembodied," comprehensive knowledge of word meanings. Only God can have that. So, we need to be careful when expressing what something "means," recognizing that we know the truth about what words mean based on God's revelation, but we always know as creatures, not as the Creator.

In terms of distribution (context), every word occurs in a network of relationships. Those relationships can be related to grammar, sound, or reference (i.e., meaning). Take the word "transcendent" in the sentence, "God's transcendence should lead us to fear him." The word "transcendence" is a noun (marked by the "ence" suffix), and it's something that can be possessed by God ("God's"). When we say "God's," we mean, a transcendence that belongs to God, and to God alone. This noun, this thing that can be possessed by God, is contextually related to other things that God can possess, his other attributes: goodness, faithfulness, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. It is distributed in a web of intersecting contexts, and those contexts contribute to its meaning. To say, "God's transcendence should lead us to fear him" is simultaneously saying something about the nature of God more generally, including the nature of his other attributes.

Again, you might be wondering why this is so important. To put it simply, it's important because it shows the mysterious complexity and depth of language, and, consequently, our own limitations as creatures when we try to talk about him. I suppose you could say that it presents us yet again with the mystery of who God is and what the world is like. And that should lead us to both humility and worship. And you will find both of these things throughout the book. The Trinity is indeed a mystery, but it's a mystery we can worship, a mystery that should temper our discussions about God and our discussions with those who differ from us.

How God Relates to Creation: Resources in the Trinity

Not everyone is privy to nuances of theological discussions, but one of them recently has been quite important. It deals with a fundamental question: how does God related to creation? Why ask this question? Well, people are concerned to protect God's transcendence, not wanting to bind him to creation or suggest that God is in any way dependent on it. That's a healthy concern. And if creating the cosmos means that there was some change in God, then that would make him dependent on creation. God would then appear not to be changeless, or immutable. So, we need a way of articulating how God relates to creation without suggesting that any change occurred in God. How do we do that?

Poythress's answer is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity. How does God relate to creation without something "new" happening (and thus incurring a change)? He uses the resources in himself! He himself is the boundary between time and eternity.

The "boundary" between God and man is the boundary of God's mediation through the Word and Spirit. The boundary is God himself, in one aspect of his resources. This boundary is fully of mystery because the mystery is God himself, in his Trinitarian character and in his Trinitarian communication to human beings (p. 470).

The way the transcendent God relates to creation is through the Word and by the Spirit. There is mystery here, but this protects God's transcendence and yet also shows his immanence, his presence with creation.

Favorite Quotes

Here's a selection of my favorite quotes from the book (some of many!). I hope they're encouraging to you and provide some food for thought, as they have for me. Some of them require a bit of contemplation, but that's a good thing.

  • "The relations between persons are the foundation for God's establishing relations outside himself with created things" (p. xxvi).
  • "The eternal speaking of the Word is the archetype for God's speaking to create the world" (p. xxvi).
  • "All our knowledge of God and his attributes has Trinitarian differentiation" (p. 12).
  • "The infinity of God is displayed in his unlimited capacity to pay attention to, direct, and account for every detail of every size" (p. 35).
  • "The abiding character of God provides security for the life of human beings" (p. 50).
  • "We know the goodness of God through the goodness of his gifts" (p. 113).
  • "God the Father is the original Father. Human fathers are created analogues" (p. 116).
  • "The unity, diversity, and contextuality of a word meaning reflect the mystery of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their coinherence" (p. 122.).
  • "When God speaks to us, his speech to us is an ectypal reflection of the eternal Word. He speaks truth, and the truth that he speaks reflects the truth that he is in himself, in which the Word is the truth of God" (p. 131).
  • "There is no such thing as 'merely' human love, as though it could exist without God's presence and empowering, or without its being a reflection of God's archetypal love" (p. 132).
  • "God is mysterious. He is incomprehensible. The Trinity is mysterious. Precisely. We have mystery when we think about God. And so there will be mystery in all the other thoughts when we focus on the world. There will be mystery because God structures the world, by the eternal Word, who is the eternal Image, in the context of eternal love in the Spirit" (p. 238).
  • "The most fundamental gift is the Holy Spirit" (p. 564).

What I Would Have Liked

A section of the book gets into Aristotelian metaphysics and its appropriation by Thomas Aquinas, which is very important to contemporary debates. On the one side, some readers may find this terrain difficult to navigate, though I find the presentation very clear and accessible. On other side, some more scholarly readers may wish Poythress would go into more details than he does. I didn't have a problem with this, since this is not an academic article, but I could see some readers being frustrated, especially if they agree with Aristotle or have some affinity for Aquinas. Personally, I feel that the challenges that Poythress brings to philosophical terminology and all its baggage are entirely appropriate, despite the ripples (and waves) they may cause for those immersed in historical theology. He follows in the footsteps of John Frame, and I believe that's the biblical path to take. We need to be suspicious of importing terminology from secular philosophy into our Christian faith, and especially suspicious of those who try to make that terminology "the only" terminology permissible in theological discussions.

Should You Read the Book?

Good gracious, YES! This is going to be a frequently referenced work from a theologian whose immense knowledge is matched only by his humility and service to the church. You'll rarely encounter a theologian who writes this clearly on such deep issues. It belongs on every theologian's bookshelf.

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