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The Way to Frame the World – Perichoretically

PLEASE NOTE:  John Frame is not 'a baddie'.  It would be hard to find a contemporary systematic theologian as engaging, clear and humble-hearted as Frame.  He is very easy to like.  And my beef here is down to a certain way of doing trinitarian theology and a certain dislike of scholastic theology and of the doctrine of simplicity in particular.  Those views of mine probably make me the baddie in many minds.  But hopefully we can get beyond caricatures and affirm what is good, be challenged where we need challenging and keep sharpening our intellects and softening our hearts.

What started me thinking about Frame was a great post Pete's written against the idea of "balance": Balance is tritheistic.  We do not seek to walk a tightrope between divine sovereignty and human responsibility or between transcendence and immanence or between unitarianism and polytheism or between faith and works or between evangelism and social action or between any other supposed polarities. As Pete says, such thinking assumes that the 'many' are over against the 'one' - it's tritheistic.

To view this as a trinitarian question is exactly right.  But at one point Pete speaks of 'perspectivalism' as though it was doing the same job as trinitarian thinking.  I don't think it does.  From my reading of Frame, perspectivalism  stems from a consideration of the three Lordship attributes (authority, control, presence) and how they are ultimately identical in the simple divine essence.  What's more when this kind of triadic thinking is applied to the actual Trinity you get modalism (as Frame admits).  Perspectivalism is triadic.  But then Plato's god is triadic.  Allah has an eternal word and a spirit.  Triadic doesn't mean trinitarian.  And I think we're missing a major trick if we think we're being trinitarian every time we co-ordinate a group of three.  There are right and wrong ways to do it.

My fear is that if 'perpectivalism' is seen as the answer to 'balance', then tritheistic balance will just be replaced by modalistic balance.   Both modalism and tritheism share a concern to uphold the equal deity of the Three.  The tritheist does it by cutting them loose from one another while the modalist does it by equally smushing them into the same divine stuff.  Balance for the former means equal air time for the three separate entities.  Balance for the latter means blurring the distinctions and saying they're all deep down the same.

And both are as bad as each other.

Perichoresis on the other hand is the way the ultimate Triad relates.  And I believe this provides a far more helpful way to co-ordinate other relations.  Not least because perichoresis upholds the need for a starting point and a structure.  With perichoresis there is a Beginning and a Way.  And you have to get the Beginning right (you can't start just anywhere).  And you have to continue according to the Way (you can't proceed any old how).

To know God you must begin with Jesus illuminated by the Spirit as He reveals the Father.  That is the only beginning you can make.  Because there is an inherent and non-reversible structure to the relation.  And as you proceed in your knowledge of God your method will be determined by the concrete and asymmetrical (functional) hierarchy of Father, Son and Spirit.

Perspectivalism won't give you this.  If perspectivalism pure and simple is your guide then you are meant to look deep enough into God's 'presence' and you'll get his 'control' and 'authority' thrown in.  Or you'll look deep enough into his 'authority' and you'll see the other two.  Perspectivalism won't give you a starting point or a method.  Not in any hard and fast sense.

But that's a problem.  Because in so many of those polarities mentioned above there are right and wrong ways to relate them.

Take for instance the way Keller uses perspectivalism in preaching.  We need preaching that is doctrinal (normative), personal (existential) and culturally transformative (situational).  Now perspectivalism might be able to tell you to hit all three bases but, by itself, it won't allow you to have a priority nor give you a right method for how to co-ordinate them.  But, in my opinion, you can't just preach cultural transformation trusting that, in the end, this perspective will naturally include the other two.  Rather I'd want to make a strong case for proclaiming Christ's finished work extra nos and only then, on that basis, making personal and cultural applications.  There is a Beginning and a Way inherent to those relations. 

Pete also mentions the relation between evangelism and social action.  I have some very particular views on this relationship.  We must not simply balance up the two "like two wings of a bird" as some would have it.  There is a Beginning and a Way.  The Beginning is gospel proclamation.  And the Way to continue in that relation is under the banner of explicit gospelling. 

Perhaps my biggest beef is in the realm of theological method.  Frame assiduously avoids talk of 'starting points' in theology.  (I'm sure it sounds all too Barthian!)  The centre of theology is, for him, every word that proceeds from God's mouth.  Yet Scripture speaks of matters "of first importance" (1 Cor 15:1ff) and in particular Christ is set forward as the Way, the Truth, the Word, the Image, the Revealer, the Mystery, the Hiding Place of God's revelation (John 14:6; John 1:1-3; Col 1:15f; John 1:18; Col 2:8f; Matt 11:25-27).  There is a perichoretic structuring of revelation that cannot be ironed out.  In theology the Beginning and the Way is Christ or else you have nothing of God. 

I commonly hear people reacting against 'starting points' and 'christocentric methodology' and often this objection is registered with Frame's name somewhere on the horizon.  "Because of perspectivalism we shouldn't get too hung up on certain ways of approaching X, Y and Z."

That's a major, major pity.  And it's absolutely wrong.  The ultimate relational principle is not perspectivalism.  It's perichoresis.  And this gives us every reason to approach theology (and everything else!) expecting structure and hierarchy, beginnings and ways.  Our starting points and methodology are absolutely crucial - the trinitarian nature of reality guarantees it.

A fuller essay on Frame is here

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6 thoughts on “The Way to Frame the World – Perichoretically

  1. Heather

    I know in the previous post you warned off people who are not familiar with this stuff and will readily admit that most of this is way over my head. But I thoroughly appreciated...

    The centre of theology is, for him, every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. Yet Scripture speaks of matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:1ff) and in particular Christ...

    I know nothing of Frame and his work, so have no opinion about him, personally. But I've noticed that occasionally some sola scriptura teachers will be so intent on defending various details of the written word that the Living Word to Whom it all points seems to fade into the background.

    The concept of a foundational starting point makes perfect sense to me.

  2. John B

    After listening to the audio from several of Frame's lectures at Reformed Theological Seminary, he certainly seems very likable, even avuncular; a hail fellow well met. A festchrift in his honor, *Speaking the Truth in Love*, was published late last year. Frame is highly respected and endorsed to some degree by nearly all prominent evangelicals.

    Ironically, (considering the title of the feschrift honoring him) at about the same time Frame published a lengthy, rather scathing and personal, critical book review of *Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church* by Michael Horton, who himself seems like another very likable and personable guy. The review is available online at frame-poythress.org.

    In considering high-profile contemporary evangelical theologians they will, by definition, receive wide acclamation from within their own *network*. Leaving the reciprocal adulation of the guild's members aside, we move on to consider whether any teaching gives witness to, and furthers our understanding of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."

    My concern is that perspectivalism fails in this regard and is ultimately, if unintentionally, tritheistic rather than trinitarian.

  3. Heather

    John B said
    In considering high-profile contemporary evangelical theologians they will, by definition, receive wide acclamation from within their own *network*.

    This remark made me shudder as it brought to mind:

    Luke 6:26 Woe to you when all men shall speak well of you! For so their fathers did to the false prophets.

    Not that I'm calling anyone a false prophet, here.

    I was just thinking that it is so easy to base my approval of a man's work on popular opinion instead of whether it accurately reflects what the Bible says.

  4. pgjackson

    Glen, I'm still not sure that Frame sees the attributes as identical within the simple divine essence. He doesn't define simplicity like that. See the quotes from my comment your last post on this.

    Hence, I think you read that kind of modalistic mushiness into my post. That's not how I was using perspectivalism, since that's not how I see Frame using perspectivalism. The actual example in which I used the word perspectivalism was to do with divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I don't think I'd ever say that they were basically the same, or fundamentally identical. That's simply not how I was using perspectivalism as I think context in my post makes clear. How true or consistent with Frame that is/ was I have no idea, I've no exhaustive knowledge of his works.

    Sorry if that sounds snarky, it's not, but I'm in a hurry off to watch to footie! Laters.

  5. Bobby Grow

    I like perichoresis too. I also like the language of coinherence that TFT uses on this; it is related and notes the economic relations that obtain in the onto-relations between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    It sounds like perspectivalism is just another way to speak of essentialism; which when applied to the God of the Bible just doesn't work.

  6. Tim C

    I'm only getting introduced to this kind of stuff right now but it seems to me that - if Pete's reading of Frame is correct - then the basic difference is that perspectivalism works as a system but invariably needs many more qualifications (by definition as a more abstract term than perichoresis this was always going to be the case) than perichoresis does since perichoresis (modern Eastern orthodox interpretations of the term notwithstanding) carries more implicit meaning and is able to qualify itself more effectively.

    I did feel that your original post on frame and perspectivalism probably didn't give quite enough concession to the fact that it was always supposed to be an analogical framework, not an equivalent framework to the Trinity. On numerous occasions we find the expression of the Trinitarian nature of God is creation where this expression is analogous to the Trinity rather than being parallel to it.

    Since perichoresis derives directly from the trinity rather than being an abstraction of it, then by definition it stands as a more helpful guide to frame the world. This doesn't mean that perspectivalism must be thrown out but if what you are saying regarding perichoresis is correct then it seems that perspectivalism must be made subject to perichoresis rather than placed alongside it.

    The Beginning and Way idea is extremely helpful.

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