Book Reviews

Book Review: Theology in Three Dimensions (John Frame)

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John Frame, who has written some massive works, has written a short book (under 100 pages) which condenses his view of “triperspectivalism.” First, who is John Frame, what is this view, and why does it matter?

John Frame

Frame was Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus at RTS in Orlando, FL (retired in 2017).

Frame’s Method

Frame’s method for understanding just about anything is called “triperspectivalism.” It consists of three parts (chapters 5-7):

  1. The normative perspective: This deals with norms, what ought to be the case (53). For example, “You shouldn’t drive too quickly around that curve.”
  2. The situational perspective: This deals with facts, what is the case (53, 60). For example, “I drive a tan car.”
  3. The existential perspective: This deals with self-knowledge. You understand all you know by knowing yourself, and you understand yourself by all that you know (66). It includes your reason, your senses, your imagination, your dreams, you intuitions, and your feelings. It focuses on our internal, subjective experience.

However, as Frame notes throughout the whole book, these three perspectives are tightly wound together. The fact is, God is the Lord and Creator. Therefore, our obligation is to honor and serve him. Existentially, as we know ourselves by knowing God, and know God by knowing who are are and are not. We also understand things through our own lenses and experiences.

As Frame notes, “It would not be wrong to define a ‘fact’ is a situation we ought to acknowledge, or to define ‘norm’ as a fact which governs our behavior” (55). As we study the facts (say, a biography) and the values of that person, we try to figure out who they are. As we study, we begin to feel like we actually “know” what is going on. Things make sense. They “jell” together (69).

Why does this matter?

Frame defines theology as “the application of Scripture to all areas of human life” (71). Frame offers the OT law as an example. The OT law is certainly normative: there are plenty of obligations for Israel to follow. The situational perspective, the facts, is that Israel is to follow God’s law considering that they are God’s “son” (Exod 4:22). They have been rescued by him from Egypt (19:6). The law requires obedience, heart obedience. God reaches to us through the gospel, changes our hearts, changes us. Existentially, as Christians, we see God in a different way now. We want to obey him, as his imagers, as his sons. Based on who God is an what he has done for us, we are motivated to obedience.

The Spoiled Milk

I still don’t quite understand the existential perspective. Part of the problem for this is the way the book is set up. First, Frame doesn’t really define his three perspectives until chapters 5-7. I spent the first four chapters trying to figure out how the three perspectives (mainly the existential perspective) worked. Don’t get me wrong, Frame does speak about the three perspectives in these early chapters. But the full-fledged definitions comes later.

Second, the full-fledged definitions are still vague. While Frame talks about the normative perspective, has almost can’t seem to keep it away from the situational perspective, and vice versa. I just didn’t find the chapter on the existential perspective to be very clear.

In chapter eight, Frame presents how practical his method is. When it comes to pedagogy, he likes to give “‘hooks’ to help students remember teaching content” (78). He presents 48 different topics. Yet I don’t quite understand how some of these “hooks” are the perspective they are. Some make sense. When it comes to types of Christian ethics, there is command (N), narrative (S), and virtue (E). So there is obligation, fact, and subjective living.

But take a look at these:

  • Aspects of Covenants: Divine blessing, Command to subdue (land), Command to fill (seed)
    • I would think the divine blessing is the fact, and the command to subdue land the obligation. Is the command to fill an obligation or existential? If existential, how does it differ from the command to subdue?
  • Church Offices: Apostle, Elder, Deacon
    • Is the office of Apostle an obligation (N), but Elder is a fact (S)?
  • Moral Goodness: Righteousness, Goodness, Holiness
    • Righteousness is an obligation, and goodness is a fact?
  • Temptation: the Devil, the World, the Flesh
    • Is the Devil normative? An obligation? I’ve missed something here.

I just don’t understand what Frame means (at least on some of the ones on the list). Most do make sense, even if some of the hooks seem to be chosen arbitrarily.

Recommended?

This is a very accessible work from a great thinker of Christian apologetics and philosophy. Frame has written some massive works, and this is a condensed version of his overall triperspectival view. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book, many of the reviews I’ve seen have enjoyed it, and Nate Claiborne (who enjoys all things John Frame) thinks it’s a short gateway to Frame’s thinking. If you’ve not read Frame before, this book might seem strange to you. If you’ve read some of his larger works, this book will help you understand how he categorizes things and will hopefully help you to better understand your Bible, theology, and the world around you.

Lagniappe

  • Author: John M. Frame
  • Paperback: 136 pages
  • Publisher: P & R Publishing (September 29, 2017)

Find it on Amazon or P&R (with a super bargain price of $3)

Disclosure: I received this book free from P & R Publishing. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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