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Part Four: The Impersonalist Misreading of Scripture

          Poythress identifies two basic worldviews.  On one hand, he identifies the biblical worldview of a personal God who “upholds all things by the word his power” (Hebrews 1:3): “The laws derive from God’s speech, which is the speech of a personal God. But our modern culture has moved away from this kind of regularity” (52).

          The opposing worldview sees such regularity not as the kind action of a loving God, but rather as the blind action of an enormous machine, “[O]ur modern culture has moved away from this kind of conception of regularity. The nineteenth century saw the triumph of natural science in interpreting the physical aspect of the cosmos. Nineteenth-century natural science produced a kind of mechanistic model of the universe, which could be easily interpreted as implying a kind of mechanistic model of the universe …a universe governed by impersonal law” (52). He calls this worldview “impersonalism” (30).

          Drawing out the theological implications, Poythress notes that the impersonal view begins without God’s existence: “[I]t substitutes the God of the Bible for a kind of god of its own invention, in the form of impersonal laws. The god is the substitute for the real thing, and that sense, an idol” (53).

          But what of polytheism? Poythress notes that if all things are ultimately and only physical matter, human beings and trees really are the same. The natural human desire for some spirituality combined with a materialism has a tendency to invest the physical world with spirits. 

          Such a thing is seen in ancient polytheism, where physical things: winds, ocean, rivers, stars, et cetera are understood to be gods worthy of reverence.  In modern times, a full-fledged religion is rare as with respect to physical items (although it is not completely absent). More often it takes a more diffuse superstition, “Everyday people within advanced industrial societies are looking into astrology and fortune-telling and spirits ….That direction may seem paradoxical. But ….If a materialist viewpoint is correct, all is one” (31).

          I spoke recently with a scientist and professor from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.  He casually mentioned that his materialist science colleagues were “very superstitious”. When I questioned him, he thought the matter beyond quibble.

          Poythress goes onto draw out the religious commitment of such pantheism: When a viewpoint includes spirits and gods, it may in a sense appear to be personalist. But ultimately it is impersonalist, because the “one” dissolves what is distinctive in persons” (31).

          In the book, Poythress demonstrates and works out the impersonalist convictions which underlie modern disciplines of science, history, linguistics, history, sociology, anthropology and psychology. In particular, he shows how such presuppositions necessarily will undermine any value for the Bible, but assuming at the outset that the Bible is cannot be true:  What he means is that the Bible describes a personal God uphold the world. The impersonalist presuppositions which underscore modern study assume such a God cannot and does not exist.

          To demonstrate the nature of such misreading of Scripture, Poythress interacts with the biblical texts in light of various disciples. By drawing out the impersonalist presuppositions in such disciplines, he exposes the manner in which such disciplines create conflict and confusion – not because it exists in the text, but rather because the presuppositions cannot account for or incorporate the claims of Scripture.

          I remember my anthropology professor in college discussing his works among pygmies in Africa. The pygmies lived in the forest and rarely saw anything more than thirty feet away (I don’t remember the precise distance, but it was not far – due to the extremely dense vegetation). When he took some people out to the plains and showed them large animals at a great distance, they thought the animals were very small – not far away. Their understanding of the world did not include the fact that things far away would look small.

          The impersonalist cannot rightly see the universe or Scripture, because he cannot admit to the evidence of God’s personhood – even though such denial comes at the cost of one’s own humanity.[1]


[1] Poythress does note that the regularity – but not utter and absolute uniformity – of God’s interaction with creation permits impersonalist “laws” to approximate some aspects of reality. For the good and value of God’s consistent regulation of the natural world, see God in the Shadows, by Dr. Brian Morley.