For the past forty years, two Reformed theologians—Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando—have collaborated to develop a “multiperspectival” method for theology. The premise is simple. Our knowledge is limited and partial. We see through our own eyes, hear with our own ears, and bring our own priors to bear on what we experience. To deepen our knowledge of anything, to see things in three dimensions, we need to supplement our limited perspective with the perspectives of others.
Though the premise is simple, the elaboration is not. Frame frequently uses a triperspectival model. God is Lord, and that means he’s in control of every situation, speaks with absolute authority, and makes himself present to his people. These “lordship attributes” are the foundation of what Frame calls the normative, situational, and existential perspectives. One can analyze ethical questions, theological problems, biblical texts, anything at all within these perspectives. And each perspective implicates the others. To make an ethical decision, for instance, it’s not enough to know rules (the normative perspective); we need to know the facts to which the rules apply and the persons involved. Properly understood, the normative perspective includes the situational and existential. Alternatively, we can begin with persons, the existential perspective. But persons are in situations and the ultimate norm of God’s word is always the primary factor.
Over the last decade, Poythress, who earned a PhD in mathematics from Harvard before beginning his theological training, has applied this method to logic, language, philosophy, science, mathematics, and sociology. In his 2018 Knowing and the Trinity, he explains how multiperspectivalism reflects God’s Trinitarian nature. And in his most recent book, The Mystery of the Trinity, he elaborates a “Trinitarian approach to the attributes of God.”
Poythress contributes to an ongoing debate among Evangelicals concerning “classical Christian theism.” In an early section of the book, he briefly defends central affirmations of classical theism. God, he says, is absolute, infinite, immense, eternal, immutable, omniscient, and simple. But he also probes the problems of classical theism, and critiques certain formulations that, he argues, are inconsistent with God’s Trinitarian nature.
Getting the relation of transcendence and immanence right is a critical issue. Christians agree God is both transcendent and immanent, but the relation can be misconstrued. “False transcendence” sees transcendence and immanence as contraries; God is inaccessible and absolutely unknowable. “False immanence” also views the two as contradictory, claiming that an accessible God cannot be transcendent. A Christian view denies that transcendence and immanence are in tension; rather, they imply each other. God can be present in every time and place only if he transcends the limits of time and space. Thus, God isn’t immanent in spite of being transcendent, but immanent because he’s transcendent.
False views of transcendence and immanence lie behind erroneous views of Scripture and theological language. On a false view of transcendence, God is too far beyond human knowledge to be “captured” by words. But that undermines confidence that Scripture speaks truly at all. When we don’t trust Scripture, we might be tempted to speculate about what God must be like. Our speculations are a prideful effort to “watch God over his shoulder” rather than to accept Scripture as his verbal self-revelation. Poythress argues human language can reveal God (immanence) but never exhaustively (transcendence). Scripture is truthful but surrounded by mystery.
Classical theists, Poythress argues, sometimes lurch toward false transcendence and end up speaking of God’s attributes in ways that contradict Scripture. Puritan Stephen Charnock, for instance, argued that God doesn’t acquire a “new relation” by virtue of creation. In Poythress’s view, Charnock’s worries arose not from Scripture but from his commitment to a “philosophical principle of no change.” When we take Scripture at face value, we must say that a new relation does arise at creation: From creation, “God has a relation to the world he has created,” which “arises because God himself has both brought the world into being and established the relation.”
Poythress applies Trinitarian categories to every theological question. All the fundamental structures and patterns of created reality have their source in structures and patterns within the Trinity. All created things, especially man, image God in some fashion. But this archetype-ectype relation is rooted in the Triune life, since from all eternity God has been imaged by his Son (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). God creates a world outside of himself, but this is rooted in the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, which produce “others” who are in relation to the Father. Diversity isn’t a flaw in creation, the result of a fall from primordial unity. Rather, creation’s diversity has its origin in divine diversity, because creation comes from the God in whom unity and plurality are equally ultimate. God’s responsiveness to creation is rooted in the responsiveness of the Persons to one another.
Frame and Poythress aren’t relativists. God’s word in Scripture is an absolute standard for faith and life. But perspectivalism inculcates irenic theological habits. Many theological issues are tangled because the parties approach issues from different, but not contradictory, perspectives. Conflicts can be defused, if not resolved, when each side recognizes the truth in the other’s arguments. Perspectivalism leads us to ask, “Why does my opponent say this? What truth is he trying to protect?”
Years ago, I took a hermeneutics class from Poythress. It felt like brain surgery. He gently twisted my mind inside out and turned it upside down. On one memorable day, he told the entire story of the Bible as a story of plants. For all his creativity and complexity, Poythress’s work has a strong pastoral dimension. Each chapter of Mystery of the Trinity ends with a prayer. Poythress and Frame want theology to speak to ordinary people in ordinary language, rather than become a playground for professionals who bandy intimidating technical terms about to keep the riff-raff off their turf. Perspectivalism is a method not just for theologians but for the whole church. There’s no higher praise than that.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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