This post is about two concepts colliding during my recent studies. Independently, they are both incredibly interesting but as they came together in my mind I thought my head was gonna explode due to sheer excitement. When I get all fired up about stuff I have to talk about it, so in order to keep my head from exploding i’m sharing these concepts with you. The first concept is called Triperspectivalism (tri-perspec-tie-vul-ism) as coined by Professor John Frame and the second is called The Golden Triangle of Freedom as coined by the Social Critic, Os Guinness.
My goal in writing this blog is to introduce my readers to John Frame’s theory of knowledge. In future posts I’ll be using this theory (or as he says, his “Theology Of Knowledge”) so I want you to become familiar with it, also I think it’s a truly unique and beautiful tool to use in everyday life. I chose to use the Golden Triangle of Freedom to demonstrate Frame’s theory because the election is coming up and many American’s, including myself, have lost the heart behind our republic and the ideals that gave rise to the freedom we enjoy. Lord willing, I’ll do a good job of explaining these two brilliant concepts and you’ll end up being just as pumped about freedom and knowledge as I am.
What I’ve found in my studies is that big words can scare people away. I’ve learned this through first hand experience because well.. I’m scared away by big words all the time. So when you see a word like “Triperspectivalism” I get that you’re probably turned off right away but when we break it down it’s super simple. “Tri” as in three, perspectival as in perspective, and “ism” as in a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy. So Triperspectivalism means a system or philosophy based on three perspectives. Even more specifically, it’s a philosophical theory of knowledge based on biblical support that looks at life through three perspectives: the Normative perspective, the Situational perspective and the Existential perspective.
When you see “Normative” think Norms, standards, rules, guiding principles, laws, logic, reason.
When you see “Situational” think different situations out in the world, interactions with other people and things in time and space, perception, sensation, data. The application of your norms out in life.
When you see “Existential” think personality, subjective experience, emotional, inner thought life, preferences etc.
These three perspectives are exciting because together they make up a theory of knowledge, when based on the Bible, actually works! The normative perspective has traditionally been known as “Rationalism”. In this theory, laws of thought tell us all we can know and our senses deceive us so they shouldn’t be trusted. Rationalists are all about innate knowledge and “a priori” (Latin: “from the earlier”) conceptual frameworks. They are very mathematical and rational in their approach. They seek to find certainty through axioms and deductions in their conceptual systems of thought. But Rationalism has failed over and over because it can’t give us knowledge about ourselves or the reality we inhabit. And more importantly it can’t justify it’s own first principles or axioms. Rationalism cannot justify it’s own rationale. It ends up in irrationalism, like a snake eating it’s own tail. So rationalism, alone is inadequate.
The situational perspective can be associated with “Empiricism”. Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that basically says we can only gain knowledge through our five senses. We are born blank slates without any prior knowledge or innate concepts, it’s concerned with “a posteriori” (Latin: “from the latter) knowledge and probability rather than certainty. Empiricists deal with the inductive rather than the deductive. This theory gives us knowledge of our surroundings but like Rationalism, it’s found wanting. This theory, taken by itself, ends up in the snake analogy also because if we can only know truth through our five senses we can’t know this theory to be true. How can we test this theory of knowledge by it’s own empirical standards if the theory says we can’t know anything outside of empirical data? If the conclusion were to lead us outside the theory of Empiricism we’d never be able to know it because right at the start the theory says we can’t know that kind of conclusion.
Empiricisms’ sweeping implications cannot be justified by it’s own theory of knowledge and thus is self-refuting. While empirical data is extremely helpful, if we reduce all knowledge to empirical data then we can’t know that theory of knowledge to be true. They have to turn into rationalists to make their statement that all knowledge can only be known through sense experience but they didn’t come to that claim by sense experience, it’s a non-empirical statement that can’t be tested empirically. Again by it’s own standards Empiricism can’t get off the ground by itself.
The Existential perspective is more straight forward. This perspective deals with the subjectivity of the human experience. It takes into account our feelings and emotions. We all have different personalities, and indeed we are all unique snow flakes, as soft as that sounds. When we learn and experience things we will all end up having slightly different feelings and unique perspectives. This theory, taken alone leads to postmodernism, subjectivism, and extreme skepticism. If this is the only perspective we use, then we have “our truth” but we can’t know if our truth corresponds to any truth outside of us, be it objective truth or even “someone else’s truth”. This theory ends in skepticism because we cannot know any objective truths, standards or laws by which to live in the world, and we can’t trust our senses because we cannot compare them to others or to the world. Again the snake is eating itself.
While these three theories of knowledge fall on their own, together, when they’re taken as perspectives in the theory of Triperspectivalism, they prop one another up and enrich our knowledge. Utilizing norms we can think and make sense of the the world with our own unique feelings. We have a conceptual framework by which we can feed the data from our situations into and we can test our norms and feelings by this data. We humans have a certain je ne sais quoi, and by utilizing our own personalities, feelings, emotions and thoughts we can make a thesis and test it with our reason and empirical data.
I could go on but I think you get that i’m geeked up about this. This theory was put forward by Professor John Frame as a Theology of Knowledge. The Bible gives us justification for this theory. God sets the norms of human thought. He wrote us a book to be our guide and His revelation is our axiom by which we can deduce answers for all of life (Normative). He created this universe that we inhabit in an intelligent and orderly way. Reality, or general revelation, is predictable and can be studied with great accuracy as we are guided by His Word, or specific revelation (Situational). He made us in His image, each unique with different personalities, temperament and emotions. We are made to love, for love, in love and out of love to know God and our fellow man and to care for God’s creation (Existential).
Now let’s see this theory in action, shall we? We’ll consider what Os Guinness calls the Golden Triangle of Freedom in light of John Frame’s Triperspectivalism. Os’ triangle is based on the many ideas and quotes from the Founding Fathers of the United states, the great framers of The Constitution.
Although their writings were numerous, none of them were able to sum up their Ideas quite like Alexis de Tocqueville, a French admirer of American freedom. He hit it out of the park when he said “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor without faith.” (1). Just as Tocqueville summed up the framers’ ideas brilliantly, Os Guinness, likewise, sums up Tocqueville, “Tocqueville called it the “habits of the heart,” and I call it “the golden triangle of freedom”-the cultivation and and transmission of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, with requires freedom, which in turn requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom and so on, like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.” (2).
Can you figure out your own Framean Triangle for The Golden Triangle of Freedom? Freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. Which one is the normative perspective? Which one is the situational perspective? And which one is the existential perspective?
If you come up with a different Framean triad for this then I do let me know, i’d love to debate it but here’s mine:
Faith is normative. Your faith is where you get your fundamental beliefs from. Your faith represents your basic and fundamental heart commitments by which you live your life. Your faith represents your intellectual, moral and spiritual guiding principles (oops there’s another triangle haha). As Abigail Adams says,”The only surety for a permanent foundation of virtue is religion.” (3). And Thomas Jefferson similarly asks, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep for ever.” (4). So the faith that the framers of our nation had gave rise to their belief in inalienable, God given rights. Now for the skeptic reading this who says “I don’t have faith, i’m a free thinker” or “I just believe in science”, every position is a faith position, in order to know anything, you must first believe something. As Dr. Greg Bahnsen puts it, “All argumentation about ultimate issues eventually comes to rest at the level of the disputants presuppositions” (5). All of our normative positions are faith positions, that doesn’t mean they are opposed to reason, but even trusting in your reason is itself a faith position, but I digress.
Freedom is the situational perspective. Freedom allows you to live out your faith in the public sphere. Freedom allows you to interact with other peoples faiths, share your our faith, and act in light of your faith. Freedom secures your right to practice your faith as your own conscience permits without any external coercion. James Madison says: “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘their Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate…. this right is in its nature an unalienable right.” (6). So Faith requires the freedom to practice. Freedom to live out your own beliefs and not be forced to believe someone else’s.
You guessed it, virtue is the existential perspective. You can say you have faith, but virtue is actually believing what you say you believe and living it out, which requires the freedom to do so. You could say you have faith and the freedom to live it out, but if you’re not virtuous you wont. Virtue comes from your deep conviction to live in light of what you believe. Is it any wonder why I consider virtue to be the existential perspective? Virtue is about who you really are when people are looking as well as when no one is. Virtue is necessary for freedom, as Benjamin Franklin says, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom” (7) and else where he says “No longer virtuous, no longer free; is a maxim as true with regard to a private person as a Commonwealth.” (8). But why does he say this? Because “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” (9). Without virtue freedom commits suicide. The more wicked a population, the more regulation they will require and thus freedom diminishes. When people’s faith makes them live virtuously, the regulate themselves and are in turn able to have less laws and less external regulation from the government.
Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, faith requires freedom and on and on we go. The key to American exceptionalism is this Triperspectival Golden Triangle of Freedom. The Founding Fathers knew it, and even outsiders observing this triangles’ effects took notice. Tocqueville, the frenchman, wrote comparing France and The US, “In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united that they reigned in common over the same country.” (10). And elsewhere he wrote: “The Character of Anglo-American civilization… is the product… of two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporation somehow into one another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” (11).
The British colonies in the new world had faith in the God of the Bible. This faith gave rise to virtue and strong convictions that all men where created equal under God and it was God who gave us inalienable rights. They believed that since God gave mankind rights, it was the governments job to protect them not give them or infringe upon them. American virtue, although not always consistent and definitely possesing horrific blind spots (Slavery!), allowed for us to be a free people, and gave us the motivation to rebel against tyranny. We fought, we won, and a Republic like none other was born and lives on to this very day. The Ideals in our constitution and the worldview behind them dealt the death blow to American slavery and gave rise to the civil rights movement.
The thing about Framean triangles is that the three perspectives hold one another up. If you lose one corner of the triad you lose the whole thing. If American people lose their virtue, their freedom will eat itself. With no personal and moral constraints, the government with have to step in to fill what is lacking. Without faith there is no reason to be virtuous, sure we could talk about deontelogical ethics or pragmatic ethics but you know that if you have no base to ground morality and ethics in, then you have no ought, just opinions.
Without faith and virtue, freedom is in jeopardy. This is not a battle cry for an official state denomination or even religion. It’s just a reminder that the wonderful rights we enjoy are only inalienable because the framers believed that they came from God. Today we see cognitive dissonance about our Republic and our rights all over the place. In our government, in our schools, on the news, in our neighbors and in our own homes, people keep shouting “this is a democracy!” We see people, red in the face, screaming about our rights without recongnizing where their rights came from and what they’re grounded in. We live in a republic. Democracies are trash and they always turn into an oligarchy and then freedom is reduced to nothing! I had to get that off my chest. Secondly, If our rights are merely given to us by our government, then they can also be taken from us by our government. Without faith virtue declines, without virtue freedom’s on it’s way out as well.
I have to admit I feel a little bit like the gladiator at this point, ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?! Isn’t this stuff amazing? Lately God has been showing me how various subjects are related and how they all point back to Him. God is so awesome. I hope you have some good take aways and I hope you’re feeling a little bit more patriotic. If i’ve done my job well then you’ll be seeing triangles all over the place throughout your day. Good luck with that. And remember, our founding fathers gave us a republic, it’s our duty to keep it…
Resources for Futher Study:
John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge Of God, Speaking the Truth In Love, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, Systematic Theology
Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep it: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty
Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
(1) Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise Of American Liberty (New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC), 51. Also see Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Penguin Classics) 21
(2) Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 99
(3) Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 117
(5) Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith Edited by Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covennant Media Press) 71
(6) Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 125
(7) Ibid., 109
(9) Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise Of American Liberty (New York, New York: Penguin Random House LLC), 55
(10) Ibid., 67
(11) Ibid., 69