Peace (with Evangelicalism) in Our Time

It may be impossible to be a confessionalist Reformed critic of evangelicalism of even its more dubious elements such as Willow Creek (or the mega-church movement generally) and remain a “player” within evangelicalism. Being confessionally Reformed (i.e., in theology, piety, and practice) necessarily puts one in tension with the prevailing theologies, pieties, and practices contained within evangelicalism. From a confessionalist point of view most of the prevailing theologies, pieties, and practices are either essentially Anabaptist (Schwämerisch) or rationalist with a light coating of orthodoxy. Thus, it was interesting to see that Tim Keller recently posted a brief piece explaining how he has made peace with various wings of evangelicalism.

This is fascinating on a number of levels. On a church-political level it’s interesting because Keller is an influential leader within evangelicalism and within the broader evangelical movement. He’s also a minister in a confessionally Reformed Presbyterian denomination (PCA, not to be confused with the mainline PCUSA) and as such he’s influential within and without the NAPARCand Reformed world generally. He’s the pastor of a successful church in the cultural and economic capital of the United States (Manhattan—no, not Manhattan, KS, the other Manhattan) that has generated imitators across North America (just google “Redeemer Presbyterian”).

It’s also interesting on a theological level. To make peace with Willow Creek and other elements of evangelicalism that might seem be in tension with his confession (i.e. the Westminster Confession of Faith) with its high and strict doctrines of Scripture, God, justification, worship, Word, and sacraments and with his Presbyterian Book of Church Order, Keller appeals to a theological method known as “triperspectivalism” (TPism). When I learned TPism it began this way: There are three basic perspectives on every issue: control, authority, and power. The corollary to that is another triad, the “normative” perspective, the “situational” perspective, and the “existential” perspective. When this tool was unveiled to me in 1984 it seemed fairly consistent with common sense that to address an issue one had to account for the norm to be applied, the situation in which the norm is to be applied, and the person doing the applying. In principle things were more complicated, however. We were told that theoretically one could begin with any perspective but that practically one should begin with the norm, God’s Word. The theory bothered me some but the practice didn’t seem revolutionary. As it turns out, I was wrong. It is revolutionary and not in a good way. It’s revolutionary in the way the French were revolutionary in 1789.

Theory is a funny thing. It has a way of coming to fruition. Once certain external governors are removed, a fundamentally subjective theory tends to become a fundamentally subjective practice. TPism is a fundamentally subjectivist theory. In my experience, debates with TPists always collapse because the TPist gets to say who gets to participate in the discussion, what the rules are, and who wins and no one else really understands the game. If you doubt me, ask David Wells or Richard Muller (WTJ 56 1994). As it turns out, each of the perspectives modifies the others so the existential is just as “normative” as the norm. Presumably, the norm is just as existential as the situational. It isn’t long before one’s head begins to hurt. Think of the Wheel of Fortune spinning. Someone has to start the wheel and someone has to stop and someone has to say what it all means. The Pat Sajack of TPism is John Frame and the Vanna White are those, like Keller, who in turn make use of his theory without understanding (or caring?) what happens.

A blog isn’t a very good place to try to work out the problems of this method but it is a good place to try to get people to think critically (which does not necessarily mean “negatively”) about the growing influence of a theological method that has little to do with the Reformed theology as understood historically and which is arguably responsible for undermining a good bit of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.1

If a method is a kind of a tool then let’s think about what sort of a tool it is. Are tools “neutral”? No, not really. Some tools are inherently harmless and others potentially more harmful. A sponge is a tool and relatively harmless. To hurt someone with it one would have to use it in a way that is contrary to its nature. A shotgun, however, is a different thing. A shotgun is designed to explode a certain amount of shot out of a barrel at a high rate of speed. Its design is to obliterate whatever it hits. I think TPism is more like a shotgun than a sponge. It’s inherently more dangerous than other methods. It’s inherently more dangerous because it’s not just something that humans use. It’s something that puts humans in control of theology, piety, and practice in a way that tends to corrupt the Reformed theology, piety, and practice and it puts humans in control at the same time it seems to allow them to claim simply to be following the Word. This is a powerful elixir.

This is how Keller is able to create an apparently plausible triad using the traditional Calvinist rubric of the three offices of Christ: prophet, priest, and king. One way to judge a tool, however, to ask, “Whatever can we do with it that is entirely consistent with its nature?” In other words, if, using TPism, Willow Creek can be designated “kingly” (and thereby sanctified for Reformed folk who might yet feel guilty about lusting after Bill Hybel’s empire) what other tradition can be designated “kingly”? Why not Rome? What other Christian tradition captures the essence of kinglyness than the papacy? While we’re at it, Rome would seem to be a perfect candidate for the “priestly” office. Community? The Mennonites and the monasteries have been at “community”  a lot longer than contemporary evangelicals. You see how this game can be played. “Hey kids, how many triads can you imagine?”

I’m not a philosopher nor the son of a philosopher, but I do know that theology isn’t a game, not even a language game. According to Reformed theology, God’s Word teaches a theology. It’s not something that we invent. God has spoken a theology. Our function as image bearers, as analogues of the Creator being remade in the image of the Redeemer, is to think, worship, and live like analogues, not like autonomous creatures. Another way to say this is to say that there is an objective reality. God is objectively real and true. He is, whether we acknowledge Him. His revealed truth is whether we acknowledge it. Our experience of God and His truth is not constitutive of God and His truth. I don’t say that proponents of TPism overtly deny these truths but I do think that the method tends to subvert them by putting us in charge in a way that traditional Reformed theology did not.

One evidence for this claim is in the way proponents of triperspectivalism reconcile themselves to theology, piety, and practice that is manifestly contrary to our theology, piety, and practice. How is it that proponents and practitioners of this method are able to call themselves Reformed whilst rejecting or significantly revising the Reformed view of the second commandment (they argue that to reject images of Christ is to deny his humanity, they reconfigure the regulative principle so that we can replace the preaching of the Word with dramatic presentations) and the Reformed view of justification (according to them Norm Shepherd is a genius and the FV is “creative”) to name but two significant elements of the Reformed confession that we thought we understood before the TPists came to town. How can they do these things? Subjectivism.

How did we do theology before multi-perspectivalism? Ask Cornelius Van Til. He understood it: Analogical theology. We are not creators of theology. We are receivers of theology. The Word is sufficiently perspicuous and the Spirit is sufficiently gracious to his church such that we are able to hear the Word, understand the Word, believe it, and put it into practice. We don’t become the Word. We don’t norm the Word. The Word norms us. Yes, we hear, read, and receive the Word, we obey the Word, we practice the Word in a place but the Word always norms us. We’re always seeking to conform to the Word. We’re mere creatures. We’re mere image bearers.

Here’s another evidence that TPism is inherently problematic. Ask yourself this interesting, suggestive but not definitive question: Why are evangelicals, who have no sympathy for the confessional doctrines of church and sacraments, enamored of TPism?2 I submit the answer is, at bottom, that TPism is subjectivist and the evangelicals understand intuitively what TPism does. Among other things, it allow them to redefine the adjective “Reformed.”  It allows them to become cafeteria Calvinists. “Reformed” now means what it means to them.  They take a little from the entree (predestination), a little from the potatoes (the doctrine of Scripture), and put that on the evangelical dessert tray (religious subjectivism) and voilà: they are “Reformed.” In Recovering the Reformed Confession I tried to begin to address the problems inherent in religious subjectivism, but it’s only a beginning.

Tim Keller’s attempt to reconcile himself to various wings of evangelicalism is not the problem. It’s the symptom of a much deeper problem. In 1973, John Dean told Nixon, “There’s a cancer on the presidency.” Indeed there was. There’s a cancer in Reformed theology: a subjectivist method that allows its users to radically reconfigure virtually every aspect of Reformed theology, piety, and practice at will. TPism flies under the banner of “Lordship” but the results of this version of Lordship would be unrecognizable to the original formulators of Reformed theology.

1E.g. See this document and this document from the MNA website. TPism is part of the theological rationale for “multi-site” ministry, an approach to church planting (I’m very much in favor of church planting and have discussed it often here) that seems to be easier to reconcile with Episcopal church government than it is to reconcile with presbyterial governance.

2As an experiment I googled the search terms “John Frame” (in quotation marks) and “triperspectivalism” (again in quotation marks) together and the first result led me to just such a broad, evangelical congregation that has been influenced by JMF and TPism. Obviously this doesn’t prove anything but it does illustrate well the sort of influence that TPism is having.

P.S. Rick Philips comments on Keller’s post at Ref21.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I think you are reading more into Keller’s remarks than are warranted. For Keller, TPism enables him to “understand” Willow Creek, an understanding which allows him to “appreciate” (indeed, “love”) the good that can be found there. These are his words. He says nothing of “making peace” or “reconciling” with Willow Creek, at least not in the sense that Willow Creek’s “kingly” marks are sufficient apart from the prophetic or priestly. Rather, he claims that we can learn from the well-executed kingly emphases of Willow Creek, just as we can learn from the priestly emphases of other communities. What I gather from Keller’s statement is that he wants to bring these marks (kingly, prophetic, priestly) into his own ministry, yet he has recognized that (while the kingly is, of course, not altogether missing from Reformed churches) these other churches, like Willow Creek, have something to teach us about kingly ministry.

    Now, if given the opportunity, Pastor Keller would likely explicate how Reformed theology and ecclesiology indeed do have the resources for ministering with all three marks; or else, Reformed theology would be intrinsically faulty. But, since Keller did not intend to give such an exposition in his brief remarks, we should not critique him as if he did.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I have encountered Triperspectivalism in some of the Christian circles that I am involved with. From my own understanding of the Scriptures I have found it lacking, simply because it is a reductionistic framework that takes the prophet-priest-king rubric and makes it run roughshot through Scripture and ecclesiology. While there may be something to it, it should not be used as a general theory for everything governing the church or Biblical interpretation.
      While I do not entirely share your sentiments regarding mutli-site church models. I do see a great deal of validity in your criticisms of it. What I have appreciated most is that your remarks make me think these things through. Keller’s ministry and teaching have been instrumental in my move to presbyterianism, and for that I am truly grateful. But your blog and Darryl Hart’s blog in particular have helped to clarify my thinking. I have found wisdom in not giving a great leader like Keller a pass on all they stand for, but to examine the good and the bad and hopefully come to a better understanding of Reformed piety and practice.

  2. Why does it come as no surprise that Frame defends Shepherd and the FV folk are constantly praising Frame- while I am at it, why does Frame go out of his way to criticize people like Muller and Wells (and even Van Til) ? Also don’t forget who coined the label ‘Machen’s warrior children’.

  3. Thank you for your this post. Two thoughts on Tim Keller’s brief note that are not directly related to tri-perspectivalism:

    1. Pastor Keller asks: “This summer I spoke at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. It was an honor to be invited. No one pulls off a conference like Willow Creek. Who else could bring their content to 120,000 people?” The answer: Oprah. The only question is whether or not the numbers justify the means.

    2. There seems to be quite a double standard within NAPARC. If the pastor of a small PCA church went and spoke at a conference in Moscow, Idaho – he would be repeatedly investigated for his theology. However, if you pastor a large enough church, and are famous enough, you become exempt. Yes, I know that there are enormous differences between Willow Creek and the CREC – but they do not all cut in Willow Creek’s favor.

    • David,

      Good point (#2). For all our bashing the evangies over it, we sure don’t seem all that invulnerable to the foibles of celebrity.

    • My problem is not where people speak. I’d give a talk to folk at Willow Creek, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. My problem is the theory underlying the analysis of the contemporary situation.

      • Fair enough. Let me rephrase:

        There seems to be quite a double standard within NAPARC. If the pastor of a small PCA church went and spoke at a conference in Moscow, Idaho – and then posted on the Internet what an amazing job Doug Wilson was doing reaching people (and how he loves and appreciates the best representatives of the Federal Vision) – he would be repeatedly investigated for his theology. However, if you pastor a large enough church, and are famous enough, you become exempt. Yes, I know that there are enormous differences between Willow Creek and the CREC – but they do not all cut in Willow Creek’s favor.

    • The question seems to assume that there was some considered study of the tradition and of the problems inherent in it. Does one see evidence of such study and interaction in the Framian corpus?

      • To be honest, I am not familiar with the body of Frame’s work, except for what I have read online. But I don’t think my question necessarily assumes anything in particular about the depth of scholarship that informed (or didn’t inform) Frame’s triperspectivalism approach.

        On the other hand, I think it does assume (justifiably or not) that Frame came up with triperspectivalism in order to explain something he thought required an explanation, which in turn implies that he was trying to solve some sort of problem that he perceived existed. Whether the problem he may have perceived was based on considered study is certainly relevant to an evaluation of triperspectivalism, but my actual question was: “What was that problem?”

        Maybe I should have instead asked: “Was there some kind of problem that Frame thought needed to be corrected, and which he ultimately thought he did correct with triperspectivalism?” After all, he and others find it to be a satisfying model, and the reason we refer to models as satisfying is because they give satisfactory answers to issues that we feel compelled to resolve.

        Now perhaps there was no problem, either actual or imagined, in which case the reason he even bothered with triperspectivalism ends up being rather perplexing.

        • Ron,

          I imagine this may be too little too late, considering that you posted this comment a week ago (which is practically a year on the blogs), but I thought I would try to respond to your question anyway.

          I just read through Frame’s A Primer on Perspectivalism in which he sets forth, in article length, his theory. At the end of the article, he seems to hint at some of the motivation behind his perspectival musings about which you asked. Answering the question, “How is perspectivalism useful?” he writes,

          “I think it resolves a lot of traditional theological arguments, such as whether redemptive history (the situation) is more important that the divine law (normative) or believing subjectivity. You need each to appreciate the others. The fact has implications for preaching, evangelism, and our personal appropriation of Scripture.”

          He continues, “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 the faith. So perspectivalism will help us better to appreciate one another, and to appreciate the diversity of God’s work among us.”

          Judging by these statements, I would venture a guess that Frame’s observations of some of the conflicts in the Reformed world (particularly over redemptive historical preaching and other theological debates) may have been some of the, as you put it, “the issues that we feel compelled to resolve.” I’m sure there is more to it, but thought I would throw that in while it was fresh.

          Do comment if you’ve discovered more.

  4. Dr. Clark;

    I have read your blog from time to time and admire your work. With all due respect, I believe your analysis of TP equates to beating up a straw man (in the interests of full disclosure, I am a student of Frame).

    You write a summary statement of TP that makes two very critical, but also very common errors related to TP:
    “We were told that theoretically one could begin with any perspective but that practically one should begin with the norm, God’s Word.”

    First, in my understanding of TP, you can’t begin with just one perspective because a perspective is never independent from the other perspectives. I can’t understand the norm without understanding the situation; I can’t existentially conclude anything correctly apart from knowing the situation and the applicable norms, etc.

    Secondly, while God’s word is certainly normative, it’s a mistake to equate it solely with the normative perspective. God’s word is equally active in all three: God’s word also tells of us our fallen sinful situation and calls our hearts to repentance (existential).

    I do agree with your paragraph on CVT and analogy. Our thought is ectypal- thinking God’s thoughts after him. God’s knowledge is absolute, ours is subjective, a mere perspective of God’s knowledge. There have certainly been those who’ve employed TP incorrectly, as Keller may be doing, but those who understand and use TP correctly know that it is in no way subjectivist. As Frame says, there’s nothing about perspectivalism which eliminates the distinction between right and wrong. A person might come to the wrong conclusion using TP methods, but that is no reason to indict TP any more than one should indict logic for all of the misapplications people have used it for.

    Thanks for your commitment to the Confessions. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

  5. You linked to my blog as the “broad/evangelical congregation” and yes, Triperspectivalism has influenced our reformed/baptist church primarily as an epistimological framework . I think one of the challenges has been to reconcile your comment:

    “I don’t say that proponents of TPism overtly deny these truths but I do think that the method tends to subvert them by putting us in charge in a way that traditional Reformed theology did not.”

    People can pervert TPism to methods that no longer agree with what it stands for or how it should be used. When TPism isn’t used correctly that does not necessarily mean TPism is incorrect. Knowing this and when we speak of it reminding people of the reductionism that can occur is necessary.

    • I take it that you don’t accept the sponge/shotgun analogy?

      I didn’t have the impression that Kaleo holds to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity.

      • Kaleo (Reformed Baptist) officially held to the 2nd London Baptist Confession (1689) at one time. However, this confession has not been emphasized in Kaleo’s ministry for the last couple of years. When I first started serving at Kaleo it was posted on Kaleo’s website as the church’s confession, but it has not been on the website for some time.

        Kaleo does continue to have a doctrinal statement posted on their website. The teaching at Kaleo conforms to this statement.

  6. From Keller’s post:

    “The Reformed churches….can have a naïve and unBiblical view that, if we just expound the Word faithfully, everything else in the church — leader development, community building, stewardship of resources, unified vision — will just happen by themselves.”

    Exactly! I even know some foolish Reformed theologians who teach that leadership can be developed by receiving the Spirit through hearing the Word with faith and that people (and even communities of people) could be “built up” by hearing the Word of God’s grace, and some even go so far as to say that church unity could be established via the Lord’s Supper — as if there is only loaf!

    When will Reformation theologians abandon these naive and unBiblical teachings? Their focus on the Ministry of Word and Sacrament leaves little or no room for committees, workshops, and seminars!!

      • He makes it a habit to regularly partake of the ordinary means of grace–he attends public worship; he participates in the Lord’s Supper and public prayers.

        He finds a job where his administrative skills are needed; he works for a fair wage; he serves his boss and his clients as if he were serving Christ.

        He marries and has children; he loves and supports his wife and his kids; he daily worships and prays with his family and trains them in the all ways of godliness.

        In so far as he seeks to use his gifts to serve the church qua church, he puts his skills in service to proclamation of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer. So if he is not an ordained minister, he would do things like make sure that those without transportation (the handicapped, the widowed, or the elderly) have a ride to services; or remind the church to remember in prayer those brothers who are sick, shut in, imprisoned, or traveling, etc. To serve the church is to serve Word and Sacrament. Everything else is service to neighbor, and God has prepared those works in advance for us. We don’t need embark on a scavenger hunt for good works.

        So I didn’t mean to imply that there weren’t things to do. There is plenty to do. If we takes the command to love our neighbor as ourselves seriously, there’s more to do than we are willing or able to do. But these aren’t necessarily things that are done for the church as such. Our confessions don’t teach that a mark of a true church is a well run rotary club or softball league.

        I simply wanted to refute Keller’s implied assumption that “expounding the Word faithfully” is an inadequate way to develop leaders, train stewards, or build unity. God’s Word emphatically and explicitly refutes this. Take for example just one of Paul’s charges to Timothy:

        “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

        If you seek any good thing from God, know that you only come to these things by grace. And the way God has ordained to deliver this grace to his people is through Word, sacrament, and prayer.

  7. As I understand it, the three perspectives (objective, normative, subjective) are drawn from the traditional three branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics). I would guess (and I am guessing here) that Dr. Frame developed triperspectivalism out of the context of engagement with unbelieving Christian thought.

    When we develop a philosophy, we quickly come to the question: what is our starting point? As a result of our sinful natures, we reject God in favor of a starting point in the creation around us or in ourselves. Depending on what idolatries drive our philosophy, we will almost always overemphasize one of the perspectives and subordinate the others. Since we live in God’s world, our sinful philosophy will run into inexorable problems pretty quickly.

    Many philosophers have recognized these problems. For example: How can I be certain of my knowledge if I don’t know the rules that tell me what qualifies as knowledge (epistemology)? But how can I figure out what the right rules are unless I know what sort of things exist for me to have knowledge about (metaphysics)? These types of questions inevitably thwart our attempts to gain exhaustive knowledge of the world from a single created principle.

    The Biblical worldview tells us that God is the only viable starting point. The Creator/creature distinction allows us to be comfortable with having ectypal knowledge. It allows us to be comfortable with the different perspectives, since we do not have to absolutize one of them in the search for absolute knowledge. The fact that the world was created by the Trinity suggests that it can be complex yet still unified. Thus we would expect that the truth about something will often have complexities which cannot be collapsed into a single perspective, though they can still be unified.

    This is how I understand triperspectivalism.

    I do have some unanswered questions regarding TP (this may be due merely to my unfamiliarity with most of Dr. Frame’s work). Why is the way Dr. Frame describes the perspectives the right one? Could we come up with a different formulation which was better? Isn’t this often used as a straitjacket which causes us to lose subtleties as we force truth into lists of threes (just because God is a Trinity does not mean that there are three of everything)? How do we decide the validity of different formulations of the perspectives (for instance, how do we jump from objective, normative, subjective to prophet, priest, and king, and is this valid)?

    As someone who has done a bit of philosophy in college, I appreciate the insights of TP. Some of my concerns may lead me to a different formulation ultimately. However, I don’t think it would be fair to say that TP necessarily leads to Subjectivism. Notice that Subjectivism is actually one of the absolutizations TP intends to guard against! There may be multiple right perspectives, but there are a whole lot more wrong ones than right ones. And of course, we cannot approach the right perspectives apart from the Spirit working through the Word.

    Dr. Clark, you and I probably share many of the same concerns about some of Dr. Frame’s positions on various issues. But I do not think that it is fair to criticize him for something Tim Keller said. It could be that your criticisms are all valid. However, I have no way to know that, since you haven’t quoted anything from him.

    • Jamie,

      I heard the lectures that became Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and the account you give is not that that John gave then nor is it the account he has given since. He linked his development of TPism to his engagement with Wittgenstein not with traditional philosophical questions. As I say, I’m not a philosopher but I do know the history of Reformed theology and TPism is a radical and radically subjectivist departure from the historic method of Reformed theology. I would suggest that if you’re looking for a contemporary theological method that engages the tradition faithfully and engages contemporary philosophy and theology fruitfully you should take a look at Mike Horton’s volume Covenant and Eschatology.

      I criticized TPism because Keller invoked it as the rationale for his attempt to relate Reformed Christianity to various branches of broad evangelicalism. It is the matrix in which he is analyzing and interpreting Reformed Christianity and evangelicalism.

      Go back and re-read the post. The difficulty with TPism is its theory. It can be employed in conservative, common-sense ways but it can also be employed in ways that eviscerate Reformed theology, piety, and practice. This is, in fact, what is happening. When the other perspectives norm each other the Wheel of Fortune becomes the Wheel of Unfortunate theology. Only the operator of the Wheel knows where it stops or what it means.

      If you’ll read how TPists describe their method you’ll see that, in fact, they are the only ones who can do it and they can’t really explain to critics exactly how it works. Read the attempt by David Wells and Richard Muller to engage a TPist in dialogue. It ended in utter frustration for Wells and Muller because they have a traditional Reformed method. They start with traditional Reformed categories and they are simply dismissed.

      If you want to see an account of the basics of the Reformed method see the middle chapters of RRC.

      • Jamie:

        Frame most assuredly does not base his triad theory on the three traditional branches of philosophy. (Aren’t there five traditional branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics?) One might be able to correlate the triad theory with the three traditional categories of normative ethical theories: virtue theories, deontological theories, and teleological theories. These three types of theories approach ethical questions from distinct perspectives (i.e. by focusing on the agent, the act, or the consequences of the act). But even these categories don’t quite fit. I think we can describe the system in a way that is more faithful Frame’s own thinking and thus see if for what it really is.

        This is how Frame himself describes the appeal of the triad: “Many people have seen a certain mystery in the number three. But in Scripture there is a pervasive pattern of threefold distinctions which, though mysterious, provide us with considerable illumination.” That’s from Frame’s “A Primer on Perspectivalism.” This shows that Frame sees TP as a way of acquiring and even passing on mysterious and illuminating teachings. The real mystery, of course, doesn’t arise out of anything inherent in the number three. Rather the “mystery” behind TP is nothing more than the ambiguity (and confusion) caused by the use of the triad. This is sophistry. TP is a way to escape the pesky need for evidence and reason (analogical, deductive, inductive, etc.) by couching bald assertions in lofty theological or philosophical language. This opens the door to wild and rampant speculation. Keller’s post provides a ready example.

        Basking in the aftermath of the Willow Creek Leadership Conference (and apparently impressed by Worldly Wiseman’s ability to draw a large audience) Keller wants to teach us that many of the criticisms of Willow Creek are based on caricatures. This sort of statement isn’t unusual. Pundits and politicians make them all the time. And we usually expect the person making such a statement to support it with some sort of evidence. For instance, to show that the criticism of Willow Creek as being theologically shallow or unorthodox is based on a caricature, all Keller would have had to do is report to us that he witnessed among the church leaders a passion for the study of Scripture, a devotion to orthodox theology, an insistence on doctrinal precision, and a commitment to sound teaching. I would have taken him at his word. I would have been surprised at such a report, but I would have believed it. But he didn’t offer evidence. He offered a triad.

        In defending Willow Creek from criticisms based on caricatures, Keller offers a caricature of the three offices of Christ. The qualities that he attributes to kings, prophets, and priests aren’t based on biblical teachings. Was David mechanical? Did he lack spontaneity? Did Jeremiah show lack of concern for community? Did Isaiah neglect the need for a unified vision? (I’m simply going to ignore what he says about emergent churches and their so-called priestly emphasis on community, liturgy, and sacraments because I can’t make sense of what he’s saying). His triad is full of a lot of slipshod theology, but there is nothing that supports his conclusion that the criticisms of Willow Creek are based on caricatures. In fact, his comparing the church as some sort of mechanical, unfeeling king reinforces some of what Willow Creek’s harshest critics say. So he hasn’t really proved anything. He’s barely even said anything. But in a few short paragraphs he’s swept aside (by ignoring it) centuries old teachings about the marks of a true church and turned the reduced the doctrine of three offices of Christ to rhetorical device. Hidden behind this theological language is Keller’s lack of evidence and illogic. He actually asserts that Reformed churches run the risk of developing naïve and unbiblical views by emphasizing preaching, teaching, and doctrine! This is absurd! Reformed preaching, teaching, and doctrine guard against childish and unbiblical ideas.

        The only triad that we should seek is the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. And we should seek it in Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture. We should take up this task guided by our historic creeds and confessions. In them we find true, faithful, and godly perspective. By submitting to the instruction of our historic creeds and confessions (I’m referring to the “Six Forms of Unity,” the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed), I can approach Scripture with the perspective of as the Ancient Church Fathers as expounded and explained by the Westminster Divines. That’s perspective! Whoever seeks more “perspective” than that which can be obtained via our creeds, confessions, and cathecisms does not seek orthodox theology. They seek to be theological innovators, and the inevitable result will be their vain imaginations carrying them off into idolatry.

        • Dr. Clark,

          As I haven’t read widely in Dr. Frame’s work, it is probable that my reconstruction of his view is incorrect. It is probably equal parts Dooyeweerd and Van Til anyway. My knowledge of TP is largely based on Dr. Frame’s lectures on apologetics available for free from RTS (note to RL: he does actually make the connection between TP and the three divisions of philosophy in these lectures). This is largely why I requested specific quotes from Dr. Frame: so that I might be sure he is being accurately represented. Perhaps I am expecting too much from a blog.

          I plan to read the WTJ article at some point, but I don’t have my own personal subscription. Let me also say that I completely disagree with Tim Keller’s comments.

          I wonder what you think about the basic claim of multiperspectivalism: that there may be more than one true perspective. I would agree with that claim. It is possible that this claim could be held without assuming a lot of other aspects of TP (for instance, that there are three of them). Of course, it raises the question: how do we know when two perspectives are really contradictory, so that only one of them can be true? But we raise this question already when we state the doctrine of the Trinity, so I don’t think it is a special problem for TP. A bad answer to the question, though, might be responsible for the extreme plasticity of TP, which seems to be the major problem.

          I would suggest that the proper answer to the question is that we must draw our basic categories from Scripture. In other words, our theological perspectives must each be rigorously justified according to the principles of good hermeneutics. The Prophet, Priest, King distinction is one that usually isn’t. I am not saying that Christ does not fulfill the offices of prophet, priest, and king, or even that there are not aspects of these offices in the leadership offices of the church. It is just that the way people usually articulate the distinction rests on inaccurate caricatures of the actual roles of prophet, priest, and king in the OT (this is something I have learned from my dad). If we take bad categories and then classify different churches by free-association, it is not surprising that we end up in trouble. There is also the common bad practice of extrapolating from perceived general themes of Scripture when there are perfectly good explicit teachings to address a subject (such as: what should the church look like?).

          The question I would most like to hear your opinion on is: can there be more than one true perspective? Is this seperable from other claims of TP? Is this maybe close to the truth, but a bad way of expressing it?

          • Hi Jamie,

            I’ve not heard the RTS lectures so I can’t comment on that development. I can say, however, that his account of TPism has changed a bit over the years. This is what I was trying to signal by noting how it was presented in early 80s and how it is presented now.

            As I recall, John is quite critical of the Doyeweerdians, at least he used to be. He also used to agree with Van Til vs Gordon Clark but he’s changed his view on that so maybe he’s changed his stance toward the Doyeweerdians.

            No, I’m not going to supply extensive quotations from DKG but other commenters have provided some interesting references.

            Are there multiple perspectives? As I said, as a matter of universal sense perception and common experience it does seem useful to account for norms, situations, and persons but, as Darren suggested, to move from that to ethics or theology is problematic. To place those questions on a wheel and spin them is unacceptable. If you check the footnotes/index of RRC you can get the bibliographic info for the Frame/Muller/Wells discussion. You can get that essay from any library via inter-library loan and probably at little or no cost. Your Dad can probably get you the essay via the Grove City library. It’s an important essay because it reveals the fundamental cleavage between classical Reformed theological method and TPism.

            It is also the case, as I point out in RRC, that TPism is an unsatisfactory alternative to Van Til’s analogical approach and to distinguishing between archetypal and ectypal theology. There are a number of related issues here.

            I would also point to the radical consequences for Reformed theology and ecclesiology in TPism. Has anyone read JMF’s account of worship? Check out my interaction with it in RRC. Has anyone read his account of how churches ought to relate or how Reformed churches ought to relate to the broader evangelical world in Evangelical Reunion? This is all Tim is doing—he’s just cribbing John’s arguments from ER. If you want to see the classic Reformed approach to the very same issues see the Westminster Confession or Belgic Confession Articles 28-29 or virtually any traditional Reformed ecclesiology.

            • I think they have a bunch of WTJs in the Religion department, so I will
              check it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. This is an area that I
              am trying to read more about lately. And I’m definitely all for classic
              Reformed ecclesiology.

  8. Dr. Clark

    Well spoken! Triperspectivalism is a philosophy but theology is not. As all philosophies triperspectivalism begins with some truth, but the question needs to be asked, to what is this truth applied? Is it applied to what it came from?

    Triperspectivalism is an explanation of John Frame’s own interpretation of theology. If one looks at John Frame’s conclusion of worship, one sees this well. Although laying claim to the RPW, he claims as valid worship a broad never mentioned (both implicitly and explicitly) forms of worship, and yet, he concludes his statement with a list of forms that are not valid for worship to him. There is no textual validation of his decision of what is in and what is out; it is simply his experience that becomes normative.

    There are instances when triperspectivalism is valid (not that it is correct), namely when one starts to fill in the parts which the Word never mentions, such as scientific details. If one “feels” or one “wants” to see these in the Word one necessarily uses triperspectivalism to arrive at them. Every time, historicaly, the Word is used as a science book one uses a connection of the absolute, the Word, and the relative, subjective connection of data, science, and this leads to incongruency as one, the Word is not a science book, two, scientific conclusions change, thus one has invalid and incongruent results. If something is not explained for us in the Word, we need to say so and not try to fill in what God did not fill for us. There is some mystery to the Word, such as the Lord’s Supper trying to fill in what one is not told one will use triperspectivalism and will be off the narrow path – neither Zwingly nor Rome!

    Triperspectivalism is sometimes and lately often used to apply to clear texts in the Word – often simply because one has not studied the matter. Well, that is precisely why we are to hold on to the traditions and the Word and why we have confessions. “I feel so close to God when we have XYZ…” — Begs to ask, God or god?

    So, how does John Frame arrive at the hypothesis that we can not know God’s truth objectively and only know it through the subjectivism of our experiences? It is true that God has given us these as help and to protect and guide us e.g. my brother was eaten by a lion – next time I see a lion I will be careful. The Word is not to be approached as such, some certainly are doing so. The Word is objective, certainly must be or else we end up with liberal theology. Again – just like with my previous example of worship and John Frame, how does John Frame stop the descent into liberal theology when he starts with triperspectivalism. How does he draw the line? Objectively or subjectively?

    I am sorry if this is a bit disjointed. There is so much to write on triperspectivalism and John Frame and a blog is not the place where one can be detailed, and thus I tried to shorten what I am thinking…Yes, the sponge and the shotgun are good examples of available and used toolds; we need to know what is being used.

  9. Triperspectivalism seems useful as descriptive of our epistemological processes. Where it becomes a pattern for subjectivity seems to be when it is used as the primary tool for comparative analysis, as well as when it is prescriptive for the construction of our theology.

  10. Dr. Clark, glad you have the ball and are running downfield with it.

    These “moderns” scare me. Isaiah 66.1-2 for tone, tenor, response, content and colour re: His Majesty’s Word and Sacraments.


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