Thursday, 15 October 2009

Is triperspectivalism the panacea?

Tri...what? Triperspectivalism. Try saying it aloud. It is virtually unpronounceable, pretentious, angular and ugly, and just the kind of word a theologian may invent. Which is exactly what happened. It is the brainchild of Calvinist theologians John Frame and Vern Poythress..

Truth, Frame affirms is multiperspectival and the more perspectives we can see the better our understanding. God, who can see all perspectives, has perfect understanding.

We, however, have finite perspectives and Frame explains, 'all finite perspectives must, to attain truth, “think God’s thoughts after him.” So in one sense, all perspectives coincide. Each, when fully informed, includes all the knowledge found in every other. There is one truth, and each perspective is merely an angle from which that truth can be viewed.'

He continues,'We will never achieve perfect knowledge of that one truth, but we advance toward it step by step. That advance always involves enriching our present perspectives by referring to those of others. The work of attaining knowledge, therefore, is always communal. And inevitably it involves reference to the perfect, exhaustive perspective of God, insofar as he has revealed it to us.'

So far so good.

Frame goes on to affirm that for finite people all knowledge is essentially triperspectivally received. He develops what he means by this, however, for the purposes of this blog we need not try to grapple with this. Simply to observe that Frame believes grasping the principle of triad perspectives may help to deal with apparent imbalances and potentially divisive hot spots in evangelicalism.

He writes, 'So I think that perspectivalism is an encouragement to the unity of the church. Sometimes our divisions of theology and practice are differences of perspective, of balance, rather than differences over the essentials of faith. So perspectivalism will help us better to appreciate one another, and to appreciate the diversity of God’s work among us.'

Again little to disagree with here. Most of us recognise this and wrestle with questions of what is merely a difference of perspective and what is more seriously a difference in fact.

Frame's triperspectivalism has been adopted by Church Growth groups to explain different emphases within evangelicalism. One model gaining currency notes that Christ had three offices - prophet,priest and king and these three 'perspectives' of his work can be seen in the present evangelical church. His kingly role (organizational) is seen in the mega-church emphasis on structure; his priestly role (community and relationships) can be seen in the emerging churches; and his prophetic role (proclamation and truth) in the reformed circles.

The implication is that the differences between the three groups is simply one of emphasis (or perspective) but not substance. All three contribute profitably to the body of Christ.

At first blush this seems attractive. TriPism (triperspectivalism) appears a unifying paradigm. However, it is not quite as simple as that. For the issue in orthodoxy is not simply what perspective you champion but also which perspectives you reject. Heresy, after all, is normally one perspective taken to an extreme and rejecting the balance and input of others.

Yes, unity is possible where one perspective is embraced a little over-enthusiastically without jettisoning the others. However, where one perspective becomes all consuming, dismissing even despising the others, something is seriously amiss.

To frame (no pun intended) the point another way - the issue for mega-churches, emerging churches and reformed churches (and any other perspective) is not their perspective but whether they have gospel clarity. Do they protect and proclaim the apostolic gospel.

Frame's TriPism has a place if it reminds us we all think within limited perspectives, if however, it is made a vehicle to simply baptise evangelical pluralism then it is dangerous. After all, as Scott Clark points out, the Papacy could be constued as 'kingly' and Catholic convents, monastries etc as 'priestly'. Does this make them acceptable or biblical?

Evangelical unity rests on a basis much more objective than these descriptors. It rests on the apostolic gospel. Where this is shared there is unity, where it is missing no unity exists.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that I first came across this term not referring to the different emphases of individual churches, but as a recommendation for finding balance within a single church.

Drew Goodmanson spoke on "Practical Missional Ecclesiology" at this years Acts29 bootcamp - definitely worth a watch/listen although having the PDF in front of you is helpful:

(I'd be interested in your thoughts on this if you have time)

John Thomson said...


I took a quick glance at the PDF of Practical Missional Ecclesiology. I confess it was a quick glance and at the moment I don't have time to listen to the talk or do justice even to the PDF.

A couple of comments. There is a little, but only a little, merit in defining 'types' whether they be people or churches. the danger is these definitions tend to create caricatures because they are essentially reductionistic. People and churches are more than the types of Prophet, Priest and King. Jesus combined all three and in a sense so ought we as his body.

Secondly, I am always a bit wary of mechanisms like TPism. They very easily gain a life of their own; we begin to view life through them and they become a prism through which all reality is observed and explained. The trouble is,the mechanism/prism is not one the Bible invites us to employ. It, like many previous models for growth is man-made and somewhat artificial. Models frequently become monsters.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I pointed it out was because it was actually agreeing with you - that churches need to have all three perspectives, and not just "settle" for one.