Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God Appearing
Vern S. Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God's Appearing, Crossway, 2018. 463pp. Paperback., $40.00
"Why read a four-hundred-page book about theophanies?" That question has come up more than once in conversation lately. Some inquirers are not quite so bold; they just give me a strange look. To a great number of Christians, theophanies are an odd and obscure corner of the Bible. When we are looking for God's Word to edify us, instruct us, or correct us, it is much easier to turn to Philippians than to wonder how the Commander of the Army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15) helps me be more Christ-like at the next parent-teacher conference. This difficulty means that, for many of us, theophanies are a gold mine that remains largely unexplored. In Theophanies: A Biblical Theology of God's Appearing, Vern Poythress guides readers in mining those veins for every bit of precious metal we can get.
Survey of the Book
The subtitle of this book is not just for marketing purposes. It informs readers of what Poythress is really setting out to accomplish. The scope of this book is not confined to considering explicit theophanies - though Poythress will do at least that. The greater focus of the book is using these theophanies as individual brushstrokes to paint a much grander picture.
In the first chapter, Poythress explains that four themes can encompass the whole Biblical narrative: promise, covenant, kingdom, and presence. While he will touch some on all four of these themes, the focus of this book is on presence. What does it mean for God to be present? How does the Bible develop the theme of "God with us?"
This is where theophanies come in. Poythress says it in this way, "Theophany represents an intensive form of the presence of God" (29). If we want to understand what it means for God to be present, theophanies are the lowest hanging fruit. The argument goes like this: theophanies provide special insight into the presence of God. The presence of God offers us a framework for the whole Bible. Therefore, theophanies are a valuable resource for understanding God and the Scriptures, which makes them worthy of our attention. So why read a four-hundred-page book about theophanies? If we understand theophanies better, we understand God better.
In part one, Poythress puts specific theophanies under a microscope. Each chapter follows a similar pattern: collect the relevant biblical texts, detail their significance, and describe how that meaning is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Consider his treatment of thunderstorms as an example. In Exodus 19, God was present in the thunderstorm. The thunderstorm provides a powerful picture of God's threat, specifically against sin. In his first coming, Jesus entered the thunderstorm by assuming judgment for the elect. In his second coming, he will return again as the thunderstorm, judging all wickedness once and for all. Poythress repeats this pattern for fire, clouds, glory/light, God's court, man-like appearances, warrior appearances, chariots, and creation itself.
In part two, Poythress adds some of the systematic theology necessary for the journey ahead. The first part identified specific theophanic themes and described what they reveal about God. Part two pulls back the curtain and shows the author's math. How do we know God? How does creation reflect the Creator in such a way that theophanies have anything to say? Here Poythress develops how all of creation reflects God and theophanies do so with even greater clarity and intensity.
In part three, Poythress provides a biblical-theological survey of God's appearing in the Old Testament. With the raw biblical data collected and the theological tools assembled, Poythress can really begin pulling the thread of God's presence through redemptive history. In short, God is present with his people in the Old Testament in symbols and types, pointing to a more lasting presence yet to come.
The final section of the book finds Poythress reaching the climax of God's appearing: Jesus Christ. These final chapters consider how the promises and experiences of God's presence in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the more lasting, radiant presence of God that the Old Testament foretold.
The greatest strength of this book is that it is thoroughly biblical. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Poythress' larger body of work. Scripture citations abound and this plethora of verses provides readers with more than proof-texts. The author expends great effort connecting these references into a larger schema, stitching the threads together into a coherent tapestry of God's presence.
Because this book is centered on God's Word, it is also centered on God himself. Theology done well should do more than sharpen our minds; it should stir our hearts. After all, it is our Triune God we are talking about! It is the God who made us and redeemed us! This work moved me to awe-filled worship more than any theological work I have read in the past year.
As Poythress considers the use of anthropomorphic language to describe God, he writes, "In a sense, the word anthropomorphic has the order exactly backwards. God is the original and human beings are the derivative" (121-122). This line is part of a larger reflection on what it means for man to be made in the image of God - and it is deeply edifying. When God is described in human terms, it reminds us that the source of our humanity is God himself. After reading that, descriptions of the hand or face of God have assured me of his presence with me in profound ways. This book is filled with valuable insights that give us cause to put the book down for a moment and worship the God it describes. Truly, that is theology done well.
In comparison to the strengths, I wish to offer on reservation which may appear to be nit picking. Poythress intentionally defines "theophany" in such a way as to offer flexibility in its application. Throughout the book he makes distinctions between theophany in the specific sense and theophany in the broad sense, often using the phrase "theophany-like." This flexibility is valuable as he develops the broader theme of God's presence, but I could not shake the sense that sometimes the definition was too broad to be helpful.
"Theophany-like" casts a wide enough net to encompass just about anything. When labels become too inclusive, they cease to be useful descriptors. Poythress himself is aware of this tension, writing:
If we emphasize that creation as a whole is theophany-like, we may also fail to notice or communicate the specially intense character of appearances of God that take place at special times...On the other hand, if we say that creation is not theophany-like, we may overlook the way in which Psalm 104:1-4 invites us to see it as at least a reflection analogous to the intense theophanies at Mount Sinai and elsewhere (167-168).
If we are too specific, we will miss how theophanies fit into the bigger picture. If we are too broad, we will miss how theophanies are special. Poythress goes on to nuance his use of "theophany-like" with good biblical qualifiers, such as the Creator-creation distinction. Yet we are still left with a term that can be applied so loosely that it loses much of its precision.
Poythress uses other terms besides "theophany-like." Personally, I like his language of "reflection" better than "theophany-like." "Reflection" offers us a sliding scale without confusing our terms: God is the true image, theophanies are an intense reflection of that image, and creation is a less intense reflection of that image. "Reflection" lets us have our cake and eat it too. "Theophany" remains a clear category of God's intense presence, while still allowing us to consider how such appearances fit into an all-encompassing theology of presence. Perhaps this is a quibble but, then again, the fact that my only critique of Poythress' work is some word choice speaks to the overall quality of this book.
This book was not what I expected when I first picked it up--it was far better. Poythress gives specific theophanic themes good consideration, which was specifically what I had hoped for when I saw the title. However, that expectation was only an appetizer at the theological feast Poythress lays out before his readers. A deeper understanding of theophanies established in the first part of the book becomes a key, opening up doors to a deeper understanding of God in the latter three parts.
Christians with varied levels of maturity will benefit from this book, but I think those who have a basic familiarity with the redemptive-historical approach to biblical theology have the most to gain. This book is a wonderful, useful, and edifying addition to a Christian's bookshelf. Pastors and teachers especially would do well to pick it up and read.
Tom Breeden is the Assistant Pastor at Grace Community Church, a PCA church in Charlottesville, VA. Tom is co-author of Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture.