Last month my friend who is a Lutheran minister asked me to speak at a local “Pub Theology” gathering. I had just attended my first meeting in November with a couple folks from my church and walked away impressed with the group and the possibilities of discussing life’s big questions over food and drink and laughter. Since I’m a Presbyterian he suggested I talk about something particular to the Calvinist tradition, but me being the glutton for punishment that I am, I countered with a topic called “perspectivalism.” Both my friend and I had graduated from the same seminary. And both of us had studied this weirdly-titled philosophy advocated by John Frame and Vern Poythress. “OK, that sounds fine…good luck with getting people to understand you!” he replied. And so I got to work preparing for introducing this new way for our motley crew to better understand each other.
When the time finally arrived for us to talk about perspectives, I basically told the folks around our table that I was going to attempt to share with them a couple of ways people from different viewpoints have tried to understand reality and each other, how those ways have failed, how a way called perspectivalism can give us a helpful way forward, and why they should believe me. So with that plan for discussion, I started with a parable.
The Indian parable of the blind men and an elephant
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
Many have heard a version of this famous story. The point of the parable is that we are all blind men trying to make sense of reality. None of us has a clear-sighted vantage point to be able to see things as they truly are. We all have different and limited perspectives on reality. We understand the blind men are partially correct and partially wrong, and that’s the way things are and will probably always be. The parable has been used to argue everyone’s subjective experience can contain some truth but cannot encompass the totality of truth. Many have extended the parable to declare everything is relative and that the nature of truth is inexpressible. Postmodern men and women love to apply this parable to God and religion in order to humble people in their dogmatic certainty and judgmental attitudes toward others. I admit the parable is useful but only as far as it goes.
Here’s the problem as several astute observers have pointed out. The fatal error of the parable is this: the one telling the parable is not blind! The teacher has to truly see the elephant in order to tell the parable. He or she assumes the position of clear-eyed sight and full knowledge of the truth. In other words, you are blind but I am not. What appears at first as humble and uncertain, turns out to be elitist and dismissive of other perspectives. In the end, the parable actually collapses under its own weight. Is there another way of making sense of our various perspectives to arrive as a closer knowledge of the truth and reality? I submit to you there is, but only in the way the God of the Bible points us.
(Tri-)Perspectivalism in general
The world just finished commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Some Christians celebrated the accomplishments of the Reformation while others lament the splintered factions that characterize the modern day Church. Last weekend a group of like-minded churches in my town hosted an evangelistic event in town called Christmas Stories in the Park. Several comments we heard as we explained the nature of the coalition called the “Warrenton Gospel Partnership” went something like this: “Different churches working together? Good luck with that!” Which is understandable, since throughout history it has proven extremely difficult for churches from different faith traditions to express any form of meaningful unity. The major criticism of the ecumenical movement has been that its manufactured unity comes only at the cost of compromising distinctives and thus losing individual identity.
In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we struggle to keep our distinctive camps from dividing us. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same kinds of “teams” in your own religious experience. In our tradition we call them the Docts, the Piets, and the Kuyps—which is just insider language that refers to Christians who tend to emphasize either doctrine (the Docts), spirituality (the Pietists), or cultural engagement (the folks who follow Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Reformed minister, professor, public servant, and statesman). Others have distinguished these teams by the “spiritual direction” they prefer to face. The “doctrine” folks face upward to the God of scriptural revelation, the “spirituality” people face inward to the God of the human heart, and the “cultural engagers” face outward to the God of social transformation. Tragically, many Christians, churches, and denominations split along these lines. But those that stay together and even flourish together despite their different emphases do so because they come to value each other’s perspectives as legitimately biblical. This is one of the reasons my denomination has managed to not split, because many of us realize that if we were to cut off one or two of the camps to make our church more uniform, more homogeneous, and more “pure”, within a generation or two those excised camps would grow back from within because they are biblical. When a healthy church reads, believes, and obeys the Bible, all three of these camps will eventually coexist and hopefully influence each other and work together. How, you may ask, does one cultivate such harmony?
One helpful method of beginning to see the value in another’s point of view is to recognize these various perspectives are just that—perspectives on the same truth and reality that Christians share. While perspectivalism can be studied as an all-encompassing Christian philosophy (and it has been developed as such by philosophers and theologians like John Frame and Vern Poythress who write not for the academy but for the church), perspectivalism may be usefully employed as a simple teaching tool to remind everyday folks like you and me that God has given us his way of looking at everything through three basic perspectives.
Definitions are always helpful before we build something upon them. What do I mean by “perspective”? Simply put, a perspective is “a view of something, by someone, from somewhere.” Different perspectives on something come into play when different people from different vantage points view the same thing. According to this way of thinking about reality, there are fundamentally three ways we can look at things. (And it works for any thing and every thing!) We’ll call these the normative, the situational, and the existential perspectives. For the Christian who believes God is real and has revealed himself to us in the Bible, the normative perspective views things according to what God requires us to believe—God’s norms. The situational perspective views things according to the facts as we encounter them in the world. And the existential perspective takes a view of things according to our personal experience. These are not hard distinctions because the three perspectives are ultimately views of one reality, so all the perspectives are interrelated. To conceptualize this tool, in your mind’s eye arrange the three perspectives at the points of a triangle, labeling the triangle itself as the topic being considered. Thus we have a triad of perspectives viewing the one triangle.
That sounds pretty esoteric so let me illustrate with a few simple applications. Historically and biblically Christians have recognized three primary sources of temptation. The devil, the world, and the flesh (sinful human nature). We all know Christians who emphasize one of these over the other two. (Let’s be honest. You do this too; all of us do!) When some fall into temptation, it’s usually, “The devil made me do it!” For others, “I fell in with the wrong crowd. I gave into peer pressure and began acting like the world.” And still others, “My wicked desires gave birth and carried me away into sin.” In this example of temptation, the flesh represents the existential perspective, the world represents the situational perspective, and the devil represents the normative perspective. All these sources of temptation are true perspectives on the one reality, all distinguished from each other but also all related to each other.
Here’s another example: the purpose of the church. Some folks want to emphasize worship: “We are created to worship God! So let’s focus our time and energy on the Sunday worship service.” Others emphasize evangelism and discipleship (the Great Commission)—reaching out to a lost world with the gospel. Some push back, emphasizing the need to love hurting and broken people with mercy and compassion. In this example, the one purpose of the church is represented in the three perspectives: worship God (normative), Great Commission to the world (situational), and love people (existential). All are biblical emphases that Christians divide over because we all tend to emphasize our preferences and strengths, and downplay those perspectives we either don’t readily identify with or are particularly weak in.
One more example, this one from a subject not directly related to the Bible: our American form of government. The legislative branch comprises our law-making bodies, giving our country the norms of society. This is the normative perspective. The executive branch is invested with the power to enforce our laws for everyone in our country, which is the everyday world we inhabit. This is the situational perspective. And the judicial branch is tasked with deciding disputed cases that affect people, even individual people, by interpreting and applying the laws that are enforced for them. This of course is the existential perspective. All of these, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial are related to each other as they form our one government. By design, every conceivable governmental entity more-or-less fits within one of these three branches of our American government. There is no conceivable fourth branch, except perhaps for the U.N., but we won’t go there!
(Tri-)Perspectivalism as a Christian theory of reality
So far we’ve considered how these three perspectives (the normative, the situational, and the existential) appear to be useful ways of viewing reality. As a teaching tool perspectivalism helps you get out of your own skin to walk in your neighbor’s shoes. But this begs the question, “How is this any different than the parable of the blind men and the elephant? You’re just telling a different version of the parable!” That would be a valid criticism if I am just another story-teller pretending to be humble and uncertain, speaking to more-or-less blind people from a clear-eyed vantage point. This is where the good news of the gospel rescues us. While my own limited perspective has no privileged advantage over yours or anybody else’s, as Christians we have a God who has revealed his nature, his plan, and himself in relationship to us. And this makes all the difference, because it turns out that God, the basis of all truth and reality, has revealed himself to us in perspectival fashion.
God is Lord, and he reveals the singular nature of his lordship according to the three perspectives. His lordship attributes are authority, control, and presence. First, Christians believe God is not just our supreme authority, but he is the supreme authority over everything and everyone because he made all things. Second, we also believe God is providentially in control of all things, including his mysterious superintending of the actions of free creatures. We are not deists who say God created the world, wound it up like a watch, and then basically stepped back and now watches from afar without getting too involved. Rather Christians believe that if God were to remove his upholding hand for one second then the universe would cease to exist. For nothing exists apart from God. The apostle Paul favorably quoted a pagan philosopher who understood, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And third, Christians believe God is eternally and always present with everyone by his infinite Spirit, and is intimately present with Christians when he promises “I am with you always until the end of the age.” So God’s lordship entails his authority (the normative perspective), his control (the situational perspective) and his presence (the existential perspective). This is what it means—no more and no less—to confess that God is Lord. All of God’s characteristics fit into these three perspectives because the three encompass his lordship in totality.
Furthermore, God reveals his lordship in a perspectival manner through the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is not begotten nor does he proceed from any. As the source of all norms, he decrees what was, is, and will be. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. He comes into the world as the God-man Jesus Christ to embody the Lord and accomplish the Father’s will of salvation and judgment. The Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son (yes, as a Protestant I affirm the Apostles’ Creed filioque clause) to apply to God’s people the Father’s decree that is accomplished by the Son. So the Bible’s doctrine of the Trinity gives us a window into the nature of reality by showing us how God himself encompasses the three perspectives. Of course there is mystery here. We have not figured out God and he has not revealed himself exhaustively. The three persons are not perspectives that collapse into one divine person. Rather the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who together are one God, one Lord. And so we marvel and worship the Trinity who contains three divine persons who each reflect as one the nature of unified reality.
Finally, when you drill down into the second person of the Trinity, into the roles that Jesus Christ fulfills, you discover his one comprehensive work as Lord also contains the three perspectives. As our great King, Jesus acts as supreme authority, the Lord from the normative perspective. As our great Prophet, he declares to the world the will of God for our salvation, acting from the situational perspective. And as our great high Priest, Jesus serves as the one mediator between God and human beings (both individually and corporately), performing his divine work from the personal, existential perspective. So even Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, displays the attributes of divine lordship (authority, control, and presence) as our king, prophet, and priest. We should expect this will be the case whenever we drill down deeper into something (anything!) and consider it perspectivally. The further you drill down, whether it be into the nature of God, or into the nature of the created order (from the universe down to the tiniest cell), you’ll find that all of reality may be understood as perspectivally related. Why? Because God made it that way, and he wants us to discover his mysterious Trinitarian self through his revelation—whether it be through his revealed word or through his created world.
Just for fun and spirited discussion
And now that you’ve been introduced to the way of viewing the world that is called perspectivalism (what a terribly boring, non-catching name!), you won’t ever be the same. This view of the reality and of others from the three all-encompassing perspectives has been alternately called a “cancer” and a “cure”. A cancer because once you grasp the concept you won’t be able to see anything the same way again. It will infect your worldview from top to bottom. You won’t be able to un-see anything from the three perspectives. And a cure because if you experience perspectivalism’s great value as a tool for viewing everything, God’s multifaceted grace will become more true, good, beautiful to you. So whether I’ve infected you with a cancer or cured you of a blinding virus, you’re welcome!
Consider how sharply divided Christians are when it comes to certain taboo topics. In my church I won’t touch certain subjects in a public forum because they’d probably not give me enough time to explain before they either ran me out of town or devoured one another. Every church has these kinds of topics that are hot potatoes. But at Pub Theology I’m not as timid to throw a steaming potato into the crowd. Are you ready? Let’s have some fun! How should a Christian view…Halloween? And how could the teaching tool of perspectivalism bring some constructive light rather than destructive heat to the discussion?
This is where it really got fun! I half-expected people to freeze up after the first couple comments suggested Christians probably have no business celebrating Halloween–what with all the evil connotations. But a few brave (not necessarily inebriated) souls ventured to share they like Halloween as a fun holiday. Some even mentioned that the topic is off-limits in their own marriages, but they felt free to share in a pub. Cool! In the end I handed out my summary chart on the topic and pointed them to my blog posts that tease out my reflections on Halloween. Hopefully we’ve all got more to think about.
Suggested Discussion Questions
Here are a few questions that I “planted” around the table with a few of the folks I knew. It turned out that we didn’t really need to “prime the pump” for questions, but just in case I wanted to prepare us to answer possible objections and bring the theory and tool of perspectivalism down to earth and apply it to everyday life.
- Doesn’t looking at things from these perspectives just lead to relativism? Are you saying that all differences can be reduced to everything being the same?
- Where does error enter into the discussion of multiple perspectives? Is it possible to main the distinction between truth and error if some can just claim, “But this is my perspective on the truth”?
- Are you really saying that any topic can be viewed from these three perspectives? What about my cat? What about my spouse?
- Please give me a specific example of how this somewhat fuzzy concept of perspectivalism actually helped Christians who see things differently to better understand, accept, and love one another.
After our discussion (wow the hour went by fast!) there were a few people who wanted to talk and explore further. These are the reading resources I recommend.
Frame, John. A Primer on Perspectivalism. Article. Start here. This is an excellent introduction to the highlights of perspectivalism as a philosophy and a teaching tool to put into practice for being better equipped to understand different viewpoints.
Frame, John. Theology in Three Dimensions. Book. Not the best book introduction to the subject. I’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of 5. But it’s clear enough. The real value of this book is the short bibliography and sources cited in the footnotes. Frame’s other books are much more thorough, and in my opinion better suited for usefulness. Consider this book a gateway and guide into the world of seeing everything from the three foundational perspectives.
Poythress, Vern. Multiperspectivalism and the Reformed Faith. Article. A helpful essay that explores how the three perspectives illuminate and open up new possibilities for understanding Christianity within the Reformed tradition.
Poythress, Vern. Symphonic Theology. Book. This work is a little dated now, but still relevant as an attempt to demonstrate how employing multiple perspectives in theology helps solve some perennial problems between Christians who emphasize different beliefs and practices.