While the social fabric of our nation seems to be unraveling before our very eyes, the American Church has also been unraveling over the last several years in discussing everything related to Social Justice, Black Lives Matter, White Privilege, White Fragility, Police Brutality, etc.
Social media sees Christians labeling one another ‘Cultural Marxists’ and ‘White Supremacists’ sometimes based on the use or non-use of certain terminology.
And with the recent national unrest our denominations, seminaries, parachurch ministries, podcasters, bloggers, etc. are at it again and there seems to be little if any progress in mutual understanding to chart a path forward.
Over the last few years I’ve been sketching in my mind a way forward, and I have yet to see anyone propose this particular thesis. So, I’ve decided to throw the jello against the wall and see what sticks.
For nearly twenty years I have appreciated and followed John Frame and Vern Poythress in their theological method known as multi-perspectivalism or tri-perspectivalism. It is a multi-decade project best summarized in an article by Frame as well as in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of Godand Vern Poythress’ Symphonic Theology, triperspectivalism has earned much praise and criticism in the conservative American Reformed tradition.
Without going into my personal narrative of being generally supportive of this project, I agree with my former professor, Robert Cara, that while I do not agree with triperspectivalism as a “philosophical system” I am convinced it is a very helpful pragmatic tool in theology and Christian ethics. (Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame, xxxviii)
So, the triperspectivalism project of Frame and Poythress, while perhaps not without some flaws as an overall hermeneutical. method is a pragmatically helpful tool and paradigm, especially in epistemology and Christian ethics. In particular, I believe triperspectivalism might be useful in bringing the necessary nuance and balance to discussions about race and justice.
To begin, what is a brief summary of triperspectivalism? Here is my formulation of it (which may differ slightly from Frame and Poythress).
First, our knowledge of God and our knowledge of applying the revelation of a God (two books) to all of life is limited. Our perspective is never complete and never matches God’s perspective. As finite, temporal creatures we only have a limited range of knowledge on any subject, but God as the infinite, eternal Creator has the comprehensive and total knowledge on any subject.
Second, our knowledge and theology is analogous rather than univocal or equivocal. A common example of this is the proposition “The rose is red”. While I may affirm the truth value of this proposition and God may affirm the truth value of the same proposition, the knowledge of this true proposition is markedly different between myself and the triune God. There is overlap and continuity while also being discontinuity. So, my knowledge of any true proposition is, at best, analogous to God’s knowledge of that same proposition.
This is different from a univocal or equivocal view of knowledge. The former (affirmed strongly by the late Gordon Clark) claims that my knowledge of the proposition and God’s knowledge of the same proposition must match exactly. The latter would claim that there is little to no overlap of my knowledge and God’s knowledge of the same proposition.
Third, the meaning of revelation is also the application of revelation. While some posit a stark dichotomy between meaning and application, Frame and Poythress have helped popularize William Ames’ definition of theology as the application of God’s Word to all of life. Thus, meaning IS applicatiom.
AND, that meaning is a ‘circle’ (to borrow an illustration from Robert Cara) which we will never fill given our finite creatureliness. God’s knowledge fills the entire circle of meaning of any proposition or point of knowledge in all his revelation, but our knowledge takes up a tiny spot in that circle.
Fourth, a helpful way to fill out our overall perspective is through three distinct perspectives: normative, situational, existential. Frame expounds these three perspectives in his four-volume Theology of Lordship series while Poythress applies it to a variety of academic fields. These three perspectives are philosophical categories, especially in the field of ethics. But Frame and Poythress have found them useful to diagram a number of doctrines and issues.
Fifth, the normative perspective deals with the objective, more absolute claims of revelation (particularly Scripture) which transcend personal experience and culture. The focus is on the ethical norm or obligation by God toward all his creatures.
Sixth, the situational perspective is bound to the systems, persons, and cultural problems we deal within a particular ethical situation. The situational may emphasize the biblical category of wisdom and the means by which one obeys God’s normative obligations.
Seventh, the existential perspective is bound to the individual’s relationship to the ethical situation. Their conscience, consciousness, etc. are bound up in the person as an ethical agent to discover what it means to obey God’s will.
Eighth, all three perspectives are legitimate perspectives. No perspective outranks any other perspective as they are interdependent. This is not unlike John Calvin’s dictum that the knowledge of God presupposes a knowledge of self (and vice-verse). And the exploration of these three perspectives are bonded together by the Holy Spirit.
I am being purposefully brief in defining triperspectivalism as the best way to understand it is to see it in action, which Frame and Poythress do in most of their books.
Now, how would we use the normative, situational, and existential perspectives in shaping a Christian ethic about race and justice? This blog post can’t trace out all (or even most) implications and applications, but I will trace some.
The normative perspective would emphasize Scripture’s teaching on the imago dei (Gen 1:26-28; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; 15:49), one human race (Acts 17:26-27), our union with Christ creating a new humanity (Gal 3:28-29; Eph 2:11-22), the church as the place where reconciliation by Christ is accomplished and objectively lived out (Acts 2:42-47; 2 Cor 5:16-21)…especially in the sacraments (1 Cor 11:17-34; 12:13).
The situational perspective would focus on particular scenarios of injustice in a culture, sociological descriptions (this is where intersectionality and concepts like white privilege and white fragility may be helpful). But sociology (especially its secular form) is able to offer descriptions though it rarely offers moral prescriptions.
The existential perspective might relate to things like racial consciousness, racial cultures, etc. A way to understand something like racial consciousness is that there are black people alive today who theoretically knew another black person who someone who existed when slavery was still legal. If slavery ended 155 years ago, then an 85 year old black person would have had a grandparent or great-grandparent alive when slavery was still legal. White people need to show compassion toward black brothers and sisters who speak of still carrying the conscious trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, and other historical racial discriminations.
Now that we have defined our basic terms, let’s apply this triperspectival paradigm to some phrases which are controversial right now: Black Lives Matter and White Privilege.
According to the normative perspective a Christian should confidently affirm that black lives do need matter because of the imago dei. Also, the doctrines of the incarnation and atonement supply more reason to affirm that black lives matter. Jesus was truly human, sharing the same human nature as black people. And Jesus died for black people. Now, this leads us to affirm that all lives matter. But, at this point I think it is important to note that only a Christian worldview can answer WHY black lives matter. It is difficult to construct a reasonable answer as to why black lives matter from a Marxist perspective or a naturalistic perspective since both reject the doctrines stated above. So, while many today are tweeting or chanting “black lives matter” they may not have a basis as to why black lives matter.
The situational perspective. Is “black lives matter” a movement, a hashtag, or an organization? It depends! Context is king in the situation perspective.
As Carl Ellis argues, we need to distinguish BLM and blm. There is an organzation, Black Lives Matter, and there is the situational dilemma where the church and culture must demonstrate that the lives of black people do indeed matter when it comes to public policy.
Now, does this mean a Christian can never partner with a non-Christian organization like BLM? No. Ellis also talks about Francis Schaeffer’s notion of co-belligerency where Christians may align with non-Christians for a good end. So, are Christians allowed to partner with BLM? It is a wisdom issue and it may depend on a number of factors (e.g. some BLM chapters aren’t as radical as others and may offer better opportunities for co-belligerency).
In my opinion, Christians should be gracious about those who want to overlap with BLM as well as those who feel uncomfortable with BLM. In other words, let’s not succumb to the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is harassed simply because he “won’t wear the ribbon“.
The existential perspective might induce a solidarity with one’s skin color. Seeing and knowing others who suffer because they share common characteristic (skin color) as you matters. I think this piece by Rev. Russ Whitfield (a Pastor in my denomination), first published in Heal Us Emmanuel (ed. Doug Serven), is a great example of the existential perspective.
A lot (not all) of white evangelical Christians are ignorant of the importance of the existential perspective when it comes to issues like police brutality. Certain statistics
might favor a conservative viewpoint on this matter, but you can’t ignore how an instance of police brutality against a black person conjures up images of lynching, past police brutality, historical racial trauma in their conscience, etc.
I’ve heard conservative commentators say that statistically a young black male is more likely to be killed by other things like a bee sting than by a police officer, but the existential perspective helps one understand why a black parent warns their black son about how to respect a police officer but doesn’t warn them about avoiding bee stings.
So, it is understandable why black evangelicals (who may share the same confessional beliefs as white evangelicals) may be more favorable to the BLM organization while whit evangelicals aren’t as favorable.
Next to Black Lives Matter, White Privilege may be the most controversial term being debated today when it comes to race and justice. (Although White Fragility is also controversial.) White privilege was introduced
into academia in a 1988 in a famous article by Peggy McIntosh. Over the last 30 years this term has evolved in its meaning and is used in both substantive and shallow ways in debates about race and justice.
The normative perspective would emphasize God’s providence, this broken fallen world, the instability of culture, etc. and how they all play a role in various forms of privilege. We may inherit privileges from a sinful past or a good past, though children aren’t responsible for the sins of their parents (Ezek 18). The one who possesses privilege should steward it for the generosity and good of others (Gal 6:10) in the imitation of Christ (2 Cor 8:9).
In the situational perspective, there may be examples in our culture where white privilege of a sort is exemplified. Though we should recognize that white privilege (or any racial privilege) isn’t a universal, absolute part of our ontology. ‘Whiteness’ in its various usages is a sociological, cultural, situational term…not a normative or ontological term. However, problems abound in discussing white privilege because many speak of it from the normative perspective.
So, if white privilege may be a valid term from a situational perspective, how does it show itself? Some common examples are cited studies
where whites get more call backs than blacks when applying for a job. The historic practice of redlining is also relevant. Perhaps the most awkward example is that of racial cultures themselves. I won’t go into detail of how certain attitudes and practices within a culture may lead to less privilege than other cultures, but thinkers such as John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, Thomas Sowell, and Anthony Bradley have competently discussed this issue.
The situational perspective would have us recognize that there isn’t some abstract entity known as ‘white privilege’ but rather a nearly infinite number of privileges one may count in our society. Anthony Bradley emphasizes ‘class’ instead of ‘race’ as the driving force when it comes to various forms of privilege. (And this is where the notion of ‘intersectionality’ can be a helpful concept, though it certainly has baggage given its secular academic origins.)
In the existential perspective
, the heaviness of ‘feeling black’ versus ‘feeling white’ (though some whites can feel the heaviness of being ‘white trash’, rural and poor, etc). I once listened to a lecture on Critical Race Theory by Neil Shenvi
, and during the Q&A a young black man said, “If I don’t get a job, I wonder if it is because they knew my skin color.” A white person almost never wonders that.
While I think white privilege is a legitimate sociological and psychological observation which may helpfully illuminate discussions on race relations we need to recognize that it isn’t a neat and tidy concept. Many have noted the difference between American blacks and West Indies blacks in terms of economic and cultural success.
And back to our friend
Anthony Bradley, he has noted that while he doesn’t experience whites privilege (obviously) he experiences other forms of privilege. (Two parents, steady household, valuing education, good Credit score!)
So, when it comes to two controversial phrases, BLM and WP, nuance is need with these terms. There is both common grace and antithesis. Things like Critical Race Theory may display a lot of antithesis, but conservative (white) evangelicals don’t often have a good theology of common grace and they don’t distinguish between various, valid perspectives on concepts within Critical Race Theory.
I believe triperspectivalism can help the American church do the theologizing needed so that we may be as balanced as the Bible is balanced on race and justice. In addition, emphasizing multiple perspective will encourage white evangelicals to be empathetic, to weep with those who weep, to show a Jesus who will not break a bruised reed (existential)….while also being truth seekers in statistical date, sociology, etc. so that we may contribute to reasonable and informed policy (situational)…and we must have a proper systematic and biblical theology to proclaim the gospel of reconciliation (normative).
This is just an initial sketch and tracing of how triperspectivalism might be a helpful paradigm in evaluating certain theses, concepts, and issues with race and justice. I don’t have the entire mosaic completed! That would likely take multiple volumes of capable theologians (male and female, white and non-white, Reformed and one-Reformed, American and international…hopefully engaging with church history and different traditions). But hopefully there would be a few footnotes to Frame and Poythress. 🙂