When I was at Oak Hill, John Frame’s “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” was referred to by students as ‘The greatest book in the world ever’. Oak Hill was that kind of place. But more and more, through people like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, I’m hearing Frame’s stuff – particularly his perspectivalism – cited in reformed circles. If you’ve never heard of Frame or perspectivalism, skip this post. I’ll get to some implications in a follow up. For those who are all too interested here’s a longer essay I’ve written on his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.
But for the low-down, his big idea goes something like this…
As finite creatures we don’t see things from all the angles like God does. But our perspectives are neither untrue, nor are they the whole truth. They aren’t competitive, they actually cohere.
So in Frame’s doctrine of God, he talks about the triad of God’s authority, control and presence. Though we might view these ‘Lordship’ attributes as different, Frame would say they are ultimately identical in the simple divine essence. We have here a concept of the one and the three but it’s not exactly the trinity.
When we view epistemology through this triadic lens we see that knowledge involves a knowing subject, the known object and the norms by which the object is known. This generates the existential perspective, the situational perspective and the normative perspective.
Again the key to Frame’s multi-perspectivalism is that these three perspectives are not competing realities as though any need to be given priority. They are complementary perspectives on the one unified reality.
And this can be helpful when, for instance in studies of ethics, you get turf wars over whether duty ethics (the deontologists) should rule the roost with their norms. Or whether outcome-focussed ethics (the utilitarians) should claim victory for the situational perspective. Or maybe the existential angle is best and the virtue ethicists should win. But no, says Frame, they’re not competing claims but integrated perspectives.
It’s a neat concept and you can put it to a thousand uses. So you might hear Driscoll speaking about leadership in terms of Prophets (normative), Priests (existential) and Kings (situational). And we need all three to operate effectively.
Or you’ll hear Keller talk about sermons needing to be doctrinally proclaiming Christ (normative), motivating personal growth in grace (existential) and aiming at cultural transformation (situational).
It’s not the worst idea in the world. But I think it’s got real limitations.
It’s one thing to see triads everywhere (they are – it is the Lord’s world after all). But it’s not obvious that these ‘threes’ should be united the way Frame’s Lordship attributes coinhere in the simple divine essence. I won’t get into divine simplicity here but for now let’s just note that there’s a more fundamental triad. And the unity of these Three is emphatically not perspectival.
To see the Father, Son and Spirit as perspectives on the one God is modalism pure and simple. Frame knows this and admits as much here. But he argues that the Persons are not less than perspectives on the one God, but more. I would say that they are something quite different and that it’s too much of a flirtation with modalism to think perspectivally at all about the Persons.
No the ultimate Triad is united perichoretically not perspectivally. Perichoresis means the mutual indwelling of the Persons. And the great difference with perichoresis is that the Three maintain their distinctions all the way down. They don’t become a singularity in some simple divine essence – rather the divine essence is eternally what it is as the mutual indwelling of these concretely particular Persons. Most importantly, the Three co-exist in structured, (functionally) hierarchical, non-reversible relations. This means that there is a particular Beginning that you have to make with the relations and a particular Way that they inter-relate.
It’s not that you look to the Father who reveals the Spirit in the power of the Son. No quite definitely you look to the Son in the power of the Spirit to reveal the Father. There is a particular starting point and a particular way to proceed. With perspectivalism you can start anywhere and proceed how you like as long as you cover all your bases. Not so with perichoretic relations. Starting points and methodologies become all important. There is a Way in and a Way to proceed.
So what? That’s for next time…