The Mystery of the Trinity by Poythress

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The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God by Vern Poythress is published by P&R Publishing.

I shall sing again the praises of P&R Publishing. For years, they were known as Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing or the Craig Press. I read my first book from them in 1974. A year later, I was acquiring more and more of their books, and my life was spinning out of control. I had stepped out of my little naive world of myself into the surging currents of Reformed theology.

Book after book, author after author, concept after concept swept me further out to sea. I latched on strongly to some points (as in the Five Points of Calvinism) and slightly to other points, while some topics were beyond my understanding. Over 45 years later, I am still entrenched in the doctrines I began embracing. I have changed, modified, matured, and even had to reject certain once held hills to die on. But I remain committed to the Reformed approach to God, Scripture, life, and worship.

It is easy for people like me to become nostalgic about the great Reformed men of the not-too distant past. Presbyterian and Reformed was publishing books and authors that I later referred to as “The University Without a Campus.” Where are the men today like Benjamin Warfield, Loraine Boettner, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Gregg Singer, R. J. Rushdoony, Herman Dooyeweerd, H. Van Reissen, and others?

When we hearken back to the great men of the past, whether it is those more recent like the names above or further back to men like Luther and Calvin, and we bemoan the absence of such men today, we are being faithless. They did not live and write so as to provide the endstop of Christian theology and thought. They wrote to instruct the next generations to see further.

The age of great Christian thinkers is not over. Vern Poythress is a prime example of a top notch mind who has produced a bevy of books on a number of topics. Originally trained in mathematics, he went on to study theology. He is described as a philosopher, theologian, and New Testament scholar. Often, he and John Frame have worked together, shared ideas, and supported one another’s writings and contributions. Poythress and Frame constitute, for those who understand this, the equivalent of a world championship tag team.

Poythress’s books include works on theology, language, mathematics, philosophy, logic, science, and more. He is on the heavy side of the reading scale, but he does not generally write in so technical and academic a fashion as to exclude serious, but not highly trained, readers. In other words, I can, by either one reading or two, grasp what he is saying.

The Mystery of the Trinity is a large (700 plus pages) study of God. We can all find four dozen theological topics of interest, but at the heart of any and all theology is our doctrine of God. Added to that is the fact that historic Christian theology is Trinitarian. While our songs, words, and prayers may sometimes focus on primarily the Father, primarily the Son, or primarily the Spirit, all three persons are who our God is.

Well meaning Christians sometimes venture into illustrations to explain the Trinity. After all, I am a father, a son, and a husband. After all, H2O is liquid water, ice, or steam. After all, the three petals on a clover are one plant. And so on. These kinds of teachings actually reflect more of the ancient heresies in the early Church or are really inadequate and misleading analogies.

Analogies, illustrations, and anthropomorphic language are vital tools to explaining or understanding concepts. But even the best of such language falls short of exact truth and representation. (“My love is like a red, red rose,” but only in certain limited ways.) Nor do logical and rational exercises unveil who our God is.

Hence, we have these 700 pages which will lift the curtain from and explain the Trinity! No, not really. Not 700, nor 7000 pages will embrace who God is. Mystery in the way that Poythress and the Scripture uses the term doesn’t mean just a missing answer, as in a who-done-it novel. Mystery instead invites us into better seeing and believing in something that is still way beyond and above us.

While we cannot know God in His fullness or totality, we can know Him through what He has revealed via Scripture and general revelation. We can know about the attributes of God. Like many other studies with titles and subtitles referring to God’s attributes, this one devotes several short chapters to such topics as God’s infinity, immutability, omniscience, and simplicity. Poythress also explores some of the difficulties stemming from both a plain reading of Scripture or from philosophical discourse. How can an immutable. meaning unchangeable, God begin creating and acting on events in the universe? What does it mean when we are told that God is not a man that He should repent, but that God does repent?

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It would not be surprising for many non-seminarians and non-academics to pick up Poythress’s book and suddenly think, “I am on the wrong swim team.” “This book is calling for deep diving and fast strokes, but I can barely dogpaddle.” Hold on. Poythress is a good swim teacher here. The chapters are short. They are non-technical. He gives a list of terms at the end of the chapters. A glossary defines some key concepts. Further readings are suggested. And the book is full of charts. So, quit whining and get your swim suit on. This is the book for you…and me.

One major feature of many large books is that they are actually combinations of smaller works. This one is not actually a merging of previous Poythress works, although he has written prior to this on the Trinity. The section of this book that deals with Aristotle’s categories was tough reading for me on my first read through. (I will be hitting it again soon, D.V.) The section where Poythress critiques other Reformed theologians’ explanation is a bit dizzying. If, however, the reader was to hone in on the understandable parts and either skim or read quickly these difficult units, the study would be worthwhile.

I like the challenge. I hate not understanding. There is a mental blessing and a spiritual discipline to trying to swim with the big boys. I doubt that I could reread those sections (coming up soon) and then engage in a serious discussion or debate, but I could, perhaps, listen intelligently.

Where the theology hits the road: Certainly, aspects of this book are more appealing to the arm chair theology reader like me than to the struggling Christian trying to save his marriage or break an addiction. This book is not a tract I would hand out to new converts. But the Christian community always needs some of the brainy, bookish types who read hefty books for both personal enjoyment and for sanctification of themselves and the family of faith.

Meditation on who God is really is active, gritty, toe-to-toe Christian living. Sitting and thinking can look a lot like doing nothing, but it can be life changing. How many otherwise intelligent professionals, college trained people, church officers, and the like have never taken the time to systematically and theologically consider who the God is who we worship?

The Mystery of the Trinity is one of many books that can supply this need. It is also a good one to start with or pick up soon. Also, it is a finely done hardback. That is always a blessing.

Fiction Reads from 2020 and 2021

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One of the worst of my habits is reading fiction. It is such a bad habit that I think the only remedy is to read more fiction. Some fictional works are among the books classified as literary classics. Some are by best selling or well known modern authors. Some are thrillers, mysteries, and spy novels. Some are books I have stumbled upon by happenstance. And a few are by friends I have met along the way.

I will only comment briefly on these selections from the past year and three months.

1. Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn

Flynn was a good writer of thrillers, and I am sorry we lost him so soon. I suppose the down side to these kinds of books is that I don’t tend to remember plot details. I prefer Daniel Silva to Flynn (although word on the street is that Silva’s latest book was a flop), and I think Flynn runs circles around Brad Thor.

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2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This book is not yet a literary classic, but I expect it to be in time. Beautiful story with delightful descriptions and pacing. This was one of my top reads from all categories for the past year.

3. What Dies in Summer by Tom Wright

Wright is a local author whose novels are published by nationally acclaimed publishers. Well written and engaging in many respects, the story is a painful revealing of the brokenness of mankind.

4. The Man From the Sea by Michael Innes

Innes, apparently, was a popular writer of spy novels. I enjoyed this book and would not mind either reading it again or reading another book by the same author.

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5. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This is one of the goofiest, insane books I have ever read. Toole, sad to say, did not live to write other books, but he achieved a great deal of posthumous acclaim for this work.

6. Animal Farm by George Orwell

We read this book in government class. It had been years since I had previously read it. 2020 was just too intense for me to tackle 1984 again.

7. Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C. J. Box

Bitterroots by J. C. Box

Shots Fired by C. J. Box

C. J. Box is my favorite writer of murder mysteries. His Joe Pickett novels are uniformly enjoyable, readable, and gripping. Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming who always manages to get right in the middle of some sort of criminal activity that calls for his unusual range of abilities to solve. But, if he can’t solve it, then his friend Nate Romanovski is usually close by to lend a powerful hand.Shots Fired is a collection of short stories, all quite good. Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, while not a Joe Pickett story, was engaging. Bitterroots is about yet another Box character, a woman detective who is crafty as well.

I think I now own all of Box’s books and have read all but one. I own most of them in nice hardback editions, and at least one is signed. I hope to meet him someday.

8. The Body in the Library by Agatha Christi

This was my first time to read an Agatha Christi mystery novel. The story was interesting enough, but by itself it did not sell me on Miss Christi’s books. I certainly need to read a few more.

9. River of Darkness by Taylor Brown

Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown

I discovered Taylor Brown’s book Fallen Land at the local dollar store. Read it and liked it enough to seek out others of his books. Brown is a young Southern author who has written about 4 novels and a collection of short stories. Look at his website HERE. River of Darkness weaves three time frames together to tell a haunting story set in the Altamaha River. Pride of Eden, Taylor’s latest book, is a powerful story about several people brought together to save and preserve wild animals. The book has plenty of action, danger, and depth to keep the pages flipping.

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10. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The term Kafkaesque is often used to describe the bizarre, the irrational, and the quirky nature of this world. These two books were a fine pair to read during the Kafkaesque year 2020.

11. Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer writes books with spies and espionage. This was my second time to read one of his works. It was not a favorite, but I will press on to read more of his collection.

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12. Martian Time-slip by Phillip Dick

I cannot recall what inspired me to pick up and read from the volume of the Library of America series by science fiction writer Philip Dick. I was not familiar with him nor a fan of science fiction. This was an interesting novel, set mostly on Mars, and I enjoyed it enough to be willing to give him another try or two.

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13. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I have watched the movie Dr. Zhivago several times, and I think parts of the very long movie are quite useful in illustrating some of the terrors of the Russia’s plight that went from pre-revolution, to World War I, to revolution, and then to civil war. Finally, this past year, I trudged on through to read the Nobel Prize winning author’s famed novel. While I certainly enjoyed it, I have a hard time putting Pasternak in the same category as Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

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14. Strays by Remy Wilkins

I confess to slightly dreading reading this novel. On the one hand, Remy Wilkins is a personal acquaintance and a fellow classical Christian school teacher, so I wondered how I would handle reading and not liking his book. On the other hand, I really don’t care for or prefer the books with magical worlds, secret and mysterious beings, and other fantasy elements. I like cold, hard southern realism. At least the book was southern, but I was stunned by the quality of writing–description, plot development, character formation–that unfolded. This is a fine first work by someone whose ability far surpasses my own and my doubts.

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15. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

This book has been a long time favorite. It is one where the old movie version is as fine as the short book itself. I reread it because I felt a bond with old Mr. Chips. Much of the story centers around his reaching retirement and old age and of being rooted out of his beloved classroom. It was a journey with a kindred spirit. I loved the book more than ever after last summer’s reading.

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16. Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown

I believe the thrift shop had a special where you could fill a bag with books for a dollar or two. This unfamiliar novel by an unknown author was an older book (from the 1980s) that had been kept in fine condition. The author and setting were Southern, so I squeezed in the bag. And I read the book. I thought this was a well done, gritty, moving, believable novel. It deals with tensions related to race, family dysfunction, and Southern life–all on my list of favorite topics. I hope to pick up another novel or two by this man.

17. The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Those who love the Harry Potter series assure me that the series is great and the books get better and better. This one was the third. I got through it. I dread the next ones because the size doubles and triples. Not yet convinced.

18. Black List by Brad Thor

Brad Thor has a great actual name. And he is a Tea Party conservative author. And he is an extremely successful author. I don’t mind reading his books, for he can keep you engaged, but I have yet to experience any “Ah Ha” moments in his novels.

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19. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

My 14 year old student didn’t like the book. After all, what happens in this story? Or what happens compared to a video game or an Avenger movie? But I find that for the person who has fished 80 plus days without a catch, whose hands are scarred from years in the boat, whose dreams are mostly past-tense, this story is incredible. Even though poor Hemingway was not a man of faith, this book is surging with the power of love. When the whole community goes in search of the old man (truly a minor point in the book), I was nearly moved to tears.

20. Mrs. Sunday’s Problem and Other Stories by Harold Fickett

I had the occasion to meet Harold Fickett some years ago, but he didn’t seem impressed. He has co-written several books with Charles Colson and others. This was an early work, and the stories are simple, humble, and Christian. But don’t expect neat Sunday school endings.

21. 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

Although I have friends who have raved about the author and the book, I did not find it enjoyable.

22. The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I read this novel (the first of three) as a favor to my 14 year old student who liked it. I expected it to be torturous, but I enjoyed it. I would not mind watching the movie. Not a great work, but an enjoyable type for those who love The Hunger Games and similar fiction.

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24. The Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

I will simply have to devote a whole blog or maybe three posts to the greatness of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. I have taught through The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans several times, but I finally got focused on reading the other three books in the series. This is one of the great book series in all of American literature.

Often overlooked is the fact that the main character, Natty Bumpo, is a Christian. As he said in his last days, “‘Pawnee, I die, as I have lived, a Christian man,’ resumed the trapper (Natty Bumpo) with a force of voice, that had the same startling effect on his hearers as it produced by the trumpet, when its blast rises suddenly and freely on the air…” (from The Prairie)

I can’t wait until I can teach a college seminar on The Leatherstocking Tales.

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25. The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

My wife has a tradition of reading a Christmas book. Sometimes she reads a classic work and sometimes a more popular book. Somewhere along the way, I got her this book which she read, and this year, I decided to pick it up to read for some light season reading. Although Baldacci is a popular and successful writer, this was my first reading of his fiction. The plot is all set on a train traveling across the country on the days leading up to Christmas. The cast of characters and unexpected turn of events contribute to a fanciful well-told story. Would not mind reading more from him.

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26. Hobgoblins by Douglas Bond

Since I became friends with Doug Bond, he has had this annoying habit of thinking that I need to read every new book he puts out. And he writes books faster than Louis L’Amour did. Doug’s books are often tied to historical events and people. This one is a subtle biography of a English tinker (pots and pans repairman) living in the 1600s named John Bunyan. But it is told through the story of a friend of Bunyan’s going back to their young heathenish days.

I like biographies, so I am not dependent on this kind of book. But Doug’s audience is for younger (from teen-age years up) readers. Try as I might to dislike his books because they are fictional accounts of real people and events or because they are suitable for younger audiences, I end up liking them anyway. I keep hoping to find a book he has written that is not well done, enjoyable, informative, and faith strengthening, but so far, I have failed.

27. North Korea Deception by Richard Lyntton

I recently became acquainted with Richard Lyntton via his website and emails. And I received a copy of North Korea Deception. This is part one of a trilogy of books featuring a character named Jack Steele. Hold on to your seat when you pick up this book. Lynnton brings in Russians, the British, the North Koreans, and Americans and nearly has the world in a major conflict before the dust settles.

Along with now being a writer, Lyntton has been both in the military and has worked as an actor. I think he has promise in the field as a writer of thriller, adventure, espionage, spy novels. This first effort had a bit too much action–too many wrecks, near death experiences, and sudden shifts–but the man got the novel written, published, and the story moving. Watch for him to continue to improve.

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28. The Little Ark by Jan De Hartog

Jan De Hartog (1914-2002) was born in the Netherlands. His father was a Dutch Reformed pastor and theology professor, but De Hartog himself became a Quaker in his latter years. He also migrated to the United States in the 1950s. As can be seen from the times and places he lived, he was in the Netherlands during World War II and knew firsthand of the life of seamen in the Dutch tradition.

I happened to have 2 of his novels that were picked up along the way (for free). Even though none of the friends I asked knew anything about De Hartog, I decided to venture in and read one of his books. The Little Ark would easily make you think that it was primarily for young people or even children. The two main characters are children. The setting is a great flood that hit some of the communities in the Netherlands in 1953, and De Hartog’s two characters and a few pets escape death and terrible destruction by getting on a small houseboat. Their adventures, far from pleasant, take them from place to place until they are re-united with their father.

Although De Hartog did not continue in the Dutch Calvinist tradition of his father, his book is rich with the faith and theology of Calvinist Netherlands.

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