Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and its Significance

John Frame, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2017, 107pp, £9.88 (Amazon)

This is an interesting and stimulating book, rather like a taster menu at a new restaurant. We are expected to try to understand how the chef has put something together in a new and interesting way and not just enjoy the food. The foreword calls it a short, simple book. It is certainly short but I did not find it simple.

I was not familiar with John Frame’s work or with that of Vern Poythress with whom he has collaborated in developing the theological ideas of triperpectivalism. You should probably read at least one review by someone who already knows something about it. The book is meant to serve as an introduction so I cannot comment on how successful a summary it is. What it has succeeded in doing is piquing my interest to discover more. It is an invitation to see if this way of approaching theology might deepen and enrich our understanding of God, the gospel and everything.

The foreword is definitely worth reading. Written by Donald Sweeting, it acts as a helpful summary of what is to come. The term triperspectivalism will not win the prize for the catchiest original theological term but Sweeting encourages the reader:

Now don’t let the term “triperspectavilism” scare you. Triperspectivalism is simply a teaching tool to help us grasp some of the deep things in Scripture. It highlights a pervasive pattern of threefold distinctions, or triads in the Bible. These perspectives are helpful in knowing God and in knowing ourselves.

In the preface John Frame focuses this still further: “I have argued for the value of looking at theological issues from multiple perspectives, particularly a threefold set of perspectives related to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity”. On the same page he writes,

Triperspectivalism is, in the main, a pedagogical approach, a way of teaching the Bible – that is, doing what theology is supposed to do. Beyond pedagogy, it may help us to get deeper into the doctrine of the Trinity in its implications for our thought and life.

This dual claim is part of what makes this so intriguing. I can see that this approach could be a helpful way to think about the truths of scripture and theology as a teaching tool. I could see how it might help us to categorise, clarify and interact with all sorts of theological and other subjects. There is a list of “triadic hooks” on pages 78-80 which show that there are loads of places where things can be divided into groups of three. This is useful as a teaching tool and an aide memoire but I am not sure that it confirms the more fundamental thesis of the book. Some of them are clear and classic such as Jesus as prophet, priest and king. Others seem to have something missing: Salvation is outlined as God’s decree, atonement and the application of redemption and while I suppose one could cram everything into these categories, they do not seem to be as good as a classic ordo salutis. If the author believes that all of these can fit into the three main categories and then be linked somehow to the Trinity then I will definitely need a bigger book in which I can see it demonstrated.

The study of systematic theology inevitably involves taking a subject and examining it in a variety of ways. It is always however, connected to the whole of God’s revelation and must always be carefully placed back into that context. Triperspectivalism helps us to do this. Its key perspectives are situational, normative and existential (introduced to us in the second part of chapter 2). These are defined in one of the many very useful glossaries at the end of each chapter.

  • The situational is a perspective of knowledge in which we focus on the objects of the world
  • The normative is a perspective of knowledge in which we focus on the world as a revelation of Gods will
  • The existential is a perspective of human knowledge, focussing on our internal subjective experience in close proximity to God’s presence.

These are further explained in chapters 5, 6 and 7. This takes us into the realms of philosophy as it interacts with systematic theology. These chapters are helpful in developing our understanding.

I think, however, that the author wants us to accept that this does go beyond pedagogy. The first part of chapter 2 deals with the Trinity and what the author refers to as the Lordship attributes of God – control, authority and presence. He wants us to accept that the nature of God as Trinity is built into the nature of everything. Intuitively this seems likely and I want to accept it but I am not sure that the book succeeds in establishing it. The flow of the discussion from Trinity, Lordship attributes to the three types of perspective and back again does not quite convince me. I remind myself again that it is an introduction to something new to me. Further reading might clarify this further.

Up to chapter 7 I was beginning to conclude that although this book is interesting, I might not read any more on the subject. Chapter 8 drew me back. The approach is applied to a variety of subjects. The OT law, for example, is clearly normative. It is not however revealed as a list of several hundred precepts that we are simply to work through. There is a situational perspective to consider as the law was given in history, to a particular people and must be understood in the light of this. The giving of the law is part of a bigger story and the life and commands of Christ develop the situational perspective. As we are called to faith in him so the situational becomes existential as the commands of Christ come to dwell within our hearts. Whatever our understanding of the law and Christian ethics we can use the three perspectives to examine our knowledge and understanding to see if anything is missing. Thoughtful Christians and especially preachers and teachers are hopefully doing something like this anyway but this is a useful tool.

There are further applications to the understanding of specific Biblical texts. As with the pedagogic triads I can see that there are several sets of three in the passages e.g. the nature of temptation and sin in Gen 3:6, Matt 4:1-11 and 1 John 2:16. Once again however, I wonder if the connection between Trinity, Lordship attributes and perspectives is established. Considering the Lordship attributes in relation to the Trinitarian structure of Eph 1:15-23 is, however, useful.

Only time will tell if I read further on this subject but some of the other titles by Frame and by Poythress are certainly on the “to be read list”. In this the book has succeeded. The basic triperspectival framework is something which I think is useable even at a very basic level and I am going to have a go at applying it. If you like being challenged to think in a different way then I can happily commend this book.

Paul Spear
General Secretary, Association of Grace Baptist Churches South East


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