The chaotic pace of our neurotic age extends well beyond the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and constant travel. It has crept its way into theological debate, such that volleys of blog posts written hastily with keyboards rattling like machine guns often pass by one another across the mutually desired no-man’s land of truth. There is little time taken for digestion of responses, rumination on intending meaning, and shaping responses that do more than restate earlier arguments to fill the computer screens of supporters and antagonists. When theological discourse takes place online, it is often hurried, truncated, and ill-considered.
We cannot return to earlier days, when messages could take weeks to travel between disputants. However, we can reshape our method of theological discourse by introducing techniques that require us to consider and reconsider a topic before producing a final thought.
Triperspectivalism, a system championed by Vern Poythress and John Frame, requires a measured approach to theologizing, which, though certainly not infallible, can help keep those who use it from engaging in rapid fire debates simply because it requires extended time to measuredly consider an issue from each of the three perspectives. The line on my shelf of thick volumes, which Frame has authored, tends to indicate the sometimes ponderousness of the triperspectival approach.
Though Frame has published prolifically, there has been no concise, single volume introduction to triperspectivalism. That has changed recently with the release of Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance. This brief book will serve as the entry point for future readers to begin their journey through John Frame’s works.
Nature of Triperspectivalism
The categories within triperspectival theology sound philosophical, bearing the titles “normative,” “situational,” and “existential,” but the content of those categories is filled with biblical data. As Frame argues in his preface, “Triperspectivalism is, in the main, a pedagogical approach, a way of teaching the Bible, i.e., doing what theology is supposed to do.”
While many theological texts are heavily, often excessively, footnoted, Frame’s books use footnotes primarily for sidebar comments and cross-referencing within his published works. Frame cites appropriately when he directly references the works of others, but the majority of his effort is spent grinding the grist of Scripture to formulate his thoughts beginning with the presupposition that the Bible is a unique form of revelation given by God to his people.
Scriptural data are common within all three perspectives, but those data are the main focus on the normative perspective. Here the study is of God as lawgiver, with supreme authority over creation. The normative perspective encounters the positive and negative commands of Scripture to how God designed this world to be ordered.
The situational perspective recognizes God’s control over the world, with the understanding there are new facts that must be encountered, such that we cannot simply make ethical choices based on one thing appearing to be like another. The situational perspective takes into account the reality of the world as it is when interpreting Scripture into theology. In Framer’s theological method, this is the process of gathering data about this world, which God created, as we seek to understand him better.
Frame’s third perspective is the existential perspective. The existential perspective concerns what a person knows and feels about an object or idea. Although this somewhat emotive or intuitive perspective will be less pleasing to some strict rationalists, identifying the existential perspective is essential to recognize the subjectivity of our theological processes. That is, that our thinking is always shaped and should be to some degree shaped by who we are.
The caution for applying triperspectivalism, which Frame returns to frequently, is that all three perspectives exist inside of one another. That is, you cannot consider the situational perspective apart from the normative; Scripture is part of the situation. You also cannot consider only the facts of the matter through the situational perspective without asking how you in particular should respond to those facts under the norms of Scripture.
Frame concludes the book, having outlined his three perspectives in brief, with a short chapter on the application of the triperspectival method. As anyone who knows about Frame is aware, he sees triangles everywhere. In other words, as the fourth chapter argues as well, triperspectivalism has applications in all disciplines that are founded on Scripture. As a theological method, triperspectivalism is really a means of understanding an applying Scripture. It necessarily takes time, as the thinker must grind through consideration from multiple vantage points, but that is the beauty of the method.
Analysis and Conclusion
Theology in Three Dimensions is a helpful companion to Frame’s ongoing work. He has been delightful consistent in applying triperspectivalism throughout his career, so that it permeates nearly all of his books. This brief volume, then, is a great starting point to figure out what Frame has done for decades now. It is also a helpful touchpoint to see why Frame has been so consistent in promoting triperspectivalism.
The soundness of theological method is determined over centuries, not decades. I have hope that the careful consideration and rumination on issues from multiple perspectives will grow in popularity. As the pace of our lives shifts from frenetic to ludicrous speed, there is room for theology that makes us slow down and ask better questions more carefully.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.