Theology in Three Dimensions (Book Review)

About a month ago I gave a talk at the local chapter of Pub Theology.  The topic was “triperspectivalism” and the book I read in preparation for it is a recently published introduction to the subject.  John Frame’s Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and its Significance (TTD) is a helpful resource for those new to this way of looking at, well just about everything.

Yeah, I know.  With that first paragraph I’ve probably turned off many of my readers.  “Triperspectivalism” is admittedly a terrible label for what I and many many others have come to find an uniquely insightful method for getting out of my own limited perspective, for understanding reality a little better, and for personal growth in humility when I’m tempted to think I’ve got a corner on the truth.  Others have proposed various alternative names: multiperspectivalism (not much better!) or perspectivalism (has a creepy  Nietzschean connotation).  Honestly I don’t have any better ideas.  Perhaps “trifocalism”?  Ha!

Anyway, for a short book-length (under 100 pages) trip into the world of considering reality from the “normative,” the “situational,” and the “existential” perspectives, Frame’s little treatise is a fine place to start.  Each of these perspectives is a view from somewhere.  The normative view looks at things to answer the “ought” or “should” question.  It is concerned with what ought to be believed about something, and then how one ought to respond to that belief.  The normative perspective looks at that something from a standard that is outside oneself and others.  It attempts to answer the question: what are the universal norms for this topic?  The situational view looks at things to answer the “but what about” question.  Whenever a particular issue is defined in black-and-white terms, often the next step in discussion is to test that standard with real-world and hypothetical cases.  How does the norm work out when given legs in this or that situation in the messy world we live in?  And finally, the existential view attempts to answer the “personal” or “experiential” question.  How do I react and respond to this issue?  How does this issue affect me and others in a personal way?  How does this issue make me feel?  One way to illustrate how all of the perspectives relate to one another and come together is the personal metaphor of head-hand-heart.  Each of these is a perspective on the whole and unified person.  Because a person is not a brain-on-a-stick, or a bleeding-heart ignoramus, or even a soul-less automaton, we can speak of a person as a head-hand-heart being.  Take away any one of these perspectives on what it means to be human and you lose the essence of humanity.  But head, hand, and heart are not parts that add up to the sum of humanity.  Each is a perspective on the whole integrated self.  Such are the three perspectives.  Taken together they give you a richer and more nuanced understanding of whatever it is you are looking at.  They are like different camera angles or lenses we peer through to get a bigger picture of what we are viewing.  As Frame defines a perspective, it is “a view of something from somewhere by someone.”  Just as gaining the counsel of others who are different that you can make you wiser, so also systematically and intentionally employing the tools of triperspetivalism can broaden your horizon and increase your wisdom.

This introductory text is arranged in eight brief chapters:

  1. Perspectives
  2. Perspectives and the Trinity
  3. The Threefold Gospel
  4. Perspectives in All of Life
  5. The Normative Perspective [knowing]
  6. The Situational Perspective [choosing]
  7. The Existential Perspective [feeling]
  8. What to Do with Perspectives

At the end of each chapter are sections of discussion questions, glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading.  Inserted between the last chapter and the aforementioned bibliography is a glossary of terms that collects all those words defined at the end of each chapter.  I’ve noticed several times recently that Christian publishers are beginning to include glossaries in introductory books to aid the novice in navigating the strange world of the Christian worldview.  For those of us who have been acclimated to the church and Christianese, a glossary is a quick reference for a term or two that feels a little unfamiliar.  But for many in our post-Christian culture that have little meaningful contact with the Bible, theology, or Christian language, I can imagine such a glossary being well used, maybe even vital to getting the message clearly.

My favorite part of Frame’s discussion is usually his triads: the grouping of perspectives on a subject into threes that claim in the triperspectival sense to be comprehensive.  Some of these triads are whimsical, others obvious, and a few philosophically complex.  Upon reflection all are creative.  Frame writes

I’ve also found triperspectivalism useful in a less philosophical, more practical way.  It provides a convenient and memorable way to teach.  Even part from Trinitarian doctrine, it seems that the number three rings bells in people’s minds.  And of course, those bells sometimes summon them to Trinitarian doctrine.  So triperspectivalism provides a series of ‘hooks’ to help students remember teaching content.  Since I am mainly a teacher of theology, my triadic hooks look something like this. [p. 78]

He proceeds to list 42 theological triads. (Why 42?  I wonder …because 14 x 3 = 42, whereas 14 is 7 x 2, seven being a “perfect number” in the Bible, and two being the number just short of three indicating limitation and humility of knowledge?  Ha!  I digress…) Here are a few.  See if you can identify which of each triad goes with which perspective (normative, situational, existential).  Just remember they are not parts so much as aspects of one thing that are perspectivally related.

  • The Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit
  • Divine Lordship: Authority, Control, and Presence
  • God’s Acts: Decrees, Providence, Salvation
  • Moral Excellence: Righteousness, Goodness, Holiness
  • Temptation: The Devil, the World, the Flesh
  • Saving Faith: Belief, Knowledge, Trust
  • Ministries of the Church: Word, Rule, Mercy
  • Means of Grace: Word, Fellowship, Prayer
  • View of Church Government: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational

So what will the curious reader discover with an open-minded commitment to consider for 100 pages what triperspectivalism is and has to offer?  I suggest three things you might walk away with:

First, you may pick up a useful framework for thinking about various controversial topics that flummox most disagreers.  What do I mean by that?  Take, for example, the hot-button issue of abortion.  Is there any subject more contested than how to think about abortion, and how to respond to those who disagree with you?  Usually people just stand behind their boundary lines with allies and lob word bombs at the opponent.  By this most folks limit their perspective to the one that comes naturally to them.  What if, instead, pro-life folks who so often focus on the existential perspective (“abortion breaks my heart because it kills a helpless, innocent, precious baby human”) could consider the terrible cultural, societal, and familial conditions that make abortion appear to be the best of a host of terrible choices for the distraught mother?  By considering particular cases from the situational perspective, constructive dialog might happen a little more often, even leading to a breakthrough of understanding—if not changing of minds (the normative perspective).

Second, you may find yourself with fresh insights into the difficulty of choosing ideological identities.  It turns out that entire schools of thought and practice rise up to occupy the space carved out by historical debate on various topics.  Many people, including myself, have found it difficult to find a camp that wholly describes them because they see truth, goodness, and beauty in seemingly irreconcilable positions.  Have you ever been tossed around as a Christian after reading something by an author who convinced you of his/her position?  When I’m reading a devotion on a doctrinal confession or catechism, I’ll think, “Yes, the most important thing for the Christian is right thinking, right doctrine, so as not to be carried away when confronted with a lie.”  But then after working through a book on prayer, I’ll wonder, “Have I lost the plot of my relationship with my Lord; I need to get back to what fuels my spiritual walk—a vital prayer life with God.”  And then I’ll finish a book on cultural engagement or evangelism or mercy ministry or politics or some other “action” subject and I find myself wondering, “Is it time again for a course correction—has my Christianity become too privatized or too intellectual, and do I need to get out and love my neighbor more?”  And so it goes, on and on.  Do you relate?  Triperspectivalism offers an answer to which is the best focus: right doctrine, right practice, right attitude.  Which is it—all of them of course!  It turns out you don’t need to choose a team and thereby criticize others from your home field.  Rather you can follow the lead of the three perspectives that shows we’re all on the same team, perhaps with differing emphases, strengths, and weaknesses, but meant to function as a body together as we all grow up together into the maturity of Christ who has all these.

Third, you may find that if triperspectivalism seeps into your bones—gets into your bloodstream as it were—then you’ll never be able to look at anything ever again the same way!  Triperspectivalism is more than a method, it can even function as a Christian metaphysical understanding of the universe, of God, and of everything else.  At this point you might be wondering, “Really?  Can one author do that to me in less than a hundred pages?”  Alas, no one can really rock your world that way except God himself.  But what Frame does is show you the tip of the iceberg.  The bibliography and suggested resources for further study (listed at the end of each chapter) point the motivated reader underneath the ocean surface to more detailed and advanced works to flesh out what is merely introduced in TTD.  (If you’re keeping score, the first deals with the situational perspective, the second with the existential perspective, and the third with the normative perspective.  Yeah, you could say I think through the grid now!)

Here’s my one concern with TTD.  Actually it’s something I worry about regarding any Christian book that seeks to introduce a profoundly important topic.  When an author or book reviewer attempts to distill a deep subject down to its most basic elements, he runs the risk of the reader concluding it’s trivial.  Think about it this way.  My wife and I have drilled a definition of the gospel into our children: “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation.”  That’s a simple summary of the most profound subject there ever was.  Now, my kids will never mistake that summary for the deep riches we mine from the gospel as it’s delivered to us in the Bible and which Christians throughout the ages have sought to grasp.  They won’t make that mistake because we don’t just give them the summary.  They know there’s more, and they appreciate what’s under the ocean surface because we do our best to teach, to show, to live, and to appreciate the depths of the gospel.  But if an uninformed guest comes into our home for family discussion and hears “the gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation,” he might conclude, “Oh I’ve heard God loves me, that must be the same thing.  Big deal.”  What a travesty and tragedy!  The summary has served to help inoculate the uncurious and ignorant guest to the treasures of Christ.  It’s a poor analogy, but that’s my fear for readers of TTD.  Will they walk away saying, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind”?  I hope to God not.  There is so much more where this comes from that can open up the world to you.  If only you’ll take up and read, and follow the white rabbit down the hole, and choose to take the red pill.


John Frame’s website (shared with Vern Poythress)

John Frame’s facebook

What is perspectivalism? By Scott Somerville

A Primer on Perspectivalism (Revised 2008). By John Frame

Perspectivalism 101. By Joseph Torres

Wired to Be 3D: Relational Wisdom and Tri-Perspectivalism. By Ken Sande



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