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.