“Tri-Perspectivalism”: An Introduction to John Frames Reformed Epistemology (Part I)

Tri-Perspectivalism was coined by theologian and professor of the theology John Frame as part of his multivolume effort to expound the doctrine of God.

Tri-Perspectivalism is a distinctly Christian theory of knowledge. Frame introduces his thought to the world in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Thus by saying it is distinctly Christian, unlike most philosophical schools of epistemology that lean heaviest into human experience and reasoning, Frame’s thought is an epistemology of revelation. This means that the primary (and most reliable) source of human knowledge is revelation, Holy Scripture.

 

 

When you hear the word “triperspectivalism” for the first time you will understandably ask, “What on earth does that mean? Yeah, in the world of theological terminology, it is probably one of the worst I’ve heard. It is also known as “multi-perspectivalism, which is pretty much just as bad. But theologians like any other scholars like their big ten dollar words that sound impressive. In this series of posts I want to consider the ideas behind the term more than the name. The term was coined by theologian and professor of the theology John Frame as part of his multivolume effort to expound the doctrine of God. Frame is a Professor of theology at Reformed theological Seminary, Orlando Florida. He has been teaching theology faithfully within Reformed circles for years and is a seminal thinker.

What is Triperspectivalism?

In answering the question “what is triperspectivalism,” I want to do so systematically. We will start with the general and move to the particular.  From the forty-thousand foot spy-plane view, it is what we call epistemology. Epistemology means the study of knowledge. It is the branch of philosophy and theology that studies how people know stuff. Thus triperspectivalism (heareafter TP) is a theory of knowledge.

Moving in closer, Tri-Perspectivalism is a distinctly Christian theory of knowledge. Frame introduces his thought to the world in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Thus by saying it is distinctly Christian, unlike most philosophical schools of epistemology that lean heaviest into human experience and reasoning, Frame’s thought is an epistemology of revelation. This means that the primary (and most reliable) source of human knowledge is revelation, Holy Scripture.

Moving to an even tighter circle, it is of a certain species of Christian thought. Frame grounds his  thought firmly in the soil of Reformed Protestant thought. This means he leans into special revelation a bit more than general Christian conceptions of knowledge. He is basically constructing a Reformed epistemology of the word of God. He is framing( no pun intended) true human understanding under divine Lordship revealed by the word of God. We need to understand however that like most new theories in theology, Frame is trying to deal with a problem. He is addressing the typically high claims of traditional Reformed theology on the one hand, and the common sense observation that man does learn and know by experience on the other. Frame’s solution is to collapse them into one body of knowledge seen from three “perspectives.” This is much in line with the common adage we hear today that all truth is God’s truth, or all knowledge is God’s knowledge. The approach is quite brilliant and interesting. However it is also not without its weaknesses that philosophers of religion will have some fun with. Basically Frame is arguing a for God’s singular lordship. In so doing, God then can also claim lordship over all knowledge. Thus classic divisions between word revelation, and human experience are collapsed into one body of knowledge seen from different “perspectives.”

Frame’s three “perspectives” in knowledge are namely the (1) normative, (2) the situational and (3) the existential. To put that into English for everyone, the normative means God’s law, his commandments as revealed in Scripture; the situational is the state of the world, and finally existential, which is basically just the “self” or us as individual persons. So for TP these three actually represent three different perspectives on one single reality. And God, in his role as creator and Lord, is the author of that single reality. For Frame they are actually one standard of truth seen from three different vantage points. It might be like three people standing at three corners of a triangle looking at and describing the same statue. Each will have similar, but different descriptions because different vantage points reveal different distinctives that are not fully visible to the other two. Let’s let Frame speak on his own behalf for us for a moment:

“I have argued that the knowledge of God’s law, the world, and the self are interdependent and ultimately identical. We understand the law by studying its relations to the world and the self—its “applications”—so that its meaning and its application are ultimately identical. Thus all knowledge is a knowledge of the law. All knowledge is a knowledge of the world, since all our knowledge (of God or the world) comes through created media. And all knowledge is of self, because we know all things by means of our own experience and thoughts. The three kinds of knowledge, then are identical but “perspectivally” related; they represent the same knowledge viewed from three different “angles” or “perspectives.”

The Knowledge of God and Self

To understand where this fits into the Reformed theological tradition in particular, we can put it this way: Frame’s TP is a creative attempt at expanding on John Calvin’s and Cornelius Van Til’s Reformed epistemologies. I think in many ways I can say he has succeeded. His work is full of profound insights. But I still think his experimentation, if it does not risk some real theological precipices, it will at the very least risk some serious misunderstanding. In the first couple chapters of his institutes of the Christian religion, Calvin laid out a Reformed (and quite historically catholic) epistemology of the word. This was called the knowledge of God and self. There he proposed that man knows God through knowledge of himself, and man knows himself through the knowledge of God. Yet for Calvin, both the knowledge of God and Self is facilitated by the man encountering the word of God (the law) primarily. As we encounter the word, we learn both more of who God is and who we are. To sharpen that, we learn more of how righteous and holy God is and how we are not. We further learn from revelation what we are becoming because of Christ. My concern with Frame is that though he only calls the knowledge of self a “perspective” that is not independent of the knowledge of God, it does practically risk being another medium for true knowledge. What this means is that it risks operating apart from the law/word on the one hand, or collapsing word revelation and natural revelation on the other.

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