Book Review: The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God by John Frame

DOTKOG

The following is a book review on one of the most important and influential works of our time, especially for any Christian who seeks to have their whole life placed a posture of submission to God.  Epistemology is not an area of neutrality, and Frame brings forth a methodology for having a Christian epistemology that reflects the truths of scripture and honors Christ as Lord.

Introduction

John Frame’s exquisite work, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, extensively details a triperspectival approach to knowledge, which submits to the lordship of Christ, and explains, in summary terms, how this is applied to all areas of life.  This masterpiece should be read by all Christians who desire to place their whole life in submission to their saviour.  A brief summary and analysis of this book, as well as a criticism of the areas of weakness, will demonstrate the value and limitations of this landmark volume.  Frame formulates a version of perspectivism, which he calls triperspectivalism.[1]  In triperspectivalism, truth can be looked at from three different perspectives: the normative perspective (mostly referring to the rules that govern reality);[2] the situational perspective (referring to the world around the knower, as well as the non-physical things that can be known);[3] and the existential perspective (primarily dealing with things pertaining to individual doing the knowing).[4]  This concept becomes the organizational factor of the book, which is broken into three sections.  Each section adopts the emphasis of one of the perspectives of perspectivalism and then analyzes all three perspectives from the nuance of that singular perspective.  Throughout all sections of his work, Frame details and refutes secular views in each of the three perspectives; however this review will focus on Frame’s triperspectivalism as it is promoted rather than the arguments that are refuted along the way.

Summary

Part One

Part one deals with what may be considered the situational perspective nuance of the three perspectives of truth.  In this section, Frame considers God as an object of knowledge and expounds who God is, the world’s relationship to God, and the human existential (personal experience) relationship to God.  First, in looking at the situational nuance of the normative view, God is presented as the Covenant Lord.  This fact has many implications.  “If God is covenant head, then He is exalted above His people; He is transcendent.  If He is covenant head, then He is deeply involved with them; He is immanent.”[5]  This biblical view of God is helpful for resolving the problems inherent in epistemology – the metaphysics of the universe, its knowability, and Yahweh’s knowability, are determined by the nature of God.[6]  His transcendence (that of his being and thoughts) necessitates that neither He nor any of the knowledge He has of the universe can be known completely – humans cannot know as God knows.[7]  However, this does not mean that there is no hope for knowledge because God’s immanence means that He is personally involved with each individual’s thought processes.  Thus He is able to guide and direct thought processes in such a way that the limited amount of data one receives truly does reflect an accurate, but finite, aspect of truth.  This implies that a person can create a mental universe that accurately, although not exhaustively, reflects the true states of affairs in reality.[8]  This also implies that one can take the truths received and corrupt them in order to create a false mental universe. [9]  Thus, the act of knowing, as part of one’s covenant relationship with God, can be done either obediently or disobediently.[10]  Whether one is obedient or not to the covenant relationship with the transcendent and immanent God of the Bible will determine whether one’s knowledge is true or false.

Second, the situational nuance of the situational view considers God’s relationship to the world by introducing a formal discussion of Frame’s triperspectivalism.  In triperspectivalism, the three vital aspects of knowledge (self, God, and the world) are interdependent inasmuch as they are merely three different perspectives of a singular truth.  To know the world is to have general revelation about God, the necessary information to understand the scriptures, and to have learned of the self in the process of coming to learn of the world.  To know the self is to have knowledge of God, in whose image the self is made, and of the world because the self is only discovered by interacting with the world.  To have knowledge of Yahweh is to have knowledge of the world and the self – both of which are made to display truths about God.  So, all three perspectives are interrelated and interdependent – none can be known apart from the other two.  The implication is that having light shed on one sheds light on all – everyone knows a little bit of something about everything, if they know something about anything.   In other words, knowledge takes places triperspectivally and when an individual  learns of the world, the individual also learns of themself and God.

Third, existential nuance of the situational perspective considers the studies, types of knowing, that are done by persons.  People engage in theology, philosophy, science, psychology, and other forms of knowing in the triperspectival situation of a covenant relationship with God.  So, theologians will emphasize the normative view (special revelation) in their studies, scientists and philosophers will emphasize the situational view (general revelation) in their studies, and psychologists and apologists will emphasize the existential view by focusing on the individual.  All three nuances, however, are merely nuances and must take into account all three views even while stressing one.  All of these tasks are either done in covenantal obedience or rebellion.  So, every aspect of knowing that is done in the world is done in direct relationship with God.

Part Two

The second section of Frame’s work focuses, with greater brevity, on the normative nuance of justification as considered by the three perspectives.  Justification, according to the normative view, primarily focuses on the fact God is the ultimate authority par excellence.  The Christian presupposition, the belief that trumps all beliefs, is that the God of the Bible exists.[11]  As the Christian God is best revealed in the scriptures, the self-verifying scriptures become the norm that the existential and situation perspectives must line up with.  While the justification of the scriptures is circular – they testify to themselves as God’s accurate word – there is no problem with this, because of the nature of the justification in this matter.  The highest authority can have no justification other than itself, and so this is a uniquely permissible form of circular argument.[12]  The broadening of the circle, namely looking at how this presupposition deals with the sciences and other facets of life, demonstrates whether a presupposition both coheres with reality and is livable (and is thus true) or is not so (and is thus false).  This means that not all presuppositions are equal; there can only be one ultimate presupposition that coheres with the situational and existential perspectives.

Justification, according to the situational perspective, means that the facts of the world will line up with the normative perspective and thus can be used as proofs for the Christian presupposition.  The Bible itself testifies to the theological concept of general revelation and so one ought to expect great correspondence between the scriptures (special revelation) and the world (general revelation) because both come from a consistent God.

The existential nuance of justification relates to cognitive rest and livability.  Since truth must also be true according to the existential perspective then it must be livable, since the Bible claims that God made man to live in the world to His glory.  If the claims of a system are unlivable, then they do not cohere with the three perspectives of truth and this stands as evidence of a faulty system.  Similarly, the livability of the norms of the Bible is evidence of their justification.  This means that one ought to be able to find cognitive rest (peace of mind) in living out the truths proclaimed in the Bible.  However, the hampering of sin prevents the fullness of cognitive rest from residing within the daily experience of the believer.  In this case, the progressive growth in cognitive rest is itself sufficient evidence, along with livability, for the justification of scripture.

Part Three

The last of Frame’s three sections focuses on the existential nuance of the three perspectives of knowledge.  When the normative perspective is in view, theology takes the stage and is analyzed for its strengths, weaknesses and limitations in relation to the human experience.  When the situational perspective is in view, language, logic, and the inductive studies (science, history, and philosophy) are considered according to their strengths, weaknesses and limitations in relation to the human experience.  Ultimately, all are required to function in unison and none can be held in the highest regard over the rest.  Theology, since it is normative, seems to take the highest seat but even it is meaningless apart from being able to make logical sense of the language of the scriptures and how they relate to the self and the world.  The existential nuance of the existential perspective focuses on the qualifications of the individual and ultimately concludes that to truly understand truth one must have a regenerate heart (this includes the Christian presupposition), be living according to God’s standards in covenantal faithfulness, with a recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

 Review

 Relation to Systematic Theology

Some of the great benefits of this work are seen in its relationship to systematic theology.    For example, a perspectival approach to the dispute over the order of divine decree between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism resolves the conflict as to whether election preceded the Fall.[13]  Neither one nor the other would have priority in the logical order as both would be perspectives on a singular reality.  In Frame’s mind, this debate is merely a matter of pedagogical preference where the Infralapsarianists were looking at the order through the lens of God’s unfolding historically ordered drama, while the Supralapsarianists desired to see everything in the context of God’s electing love.[14]  This entire dispute, according to Frame, could have been avoided if both sides had been willing to admit that their order of priority was merely the result of the perspective that they were using to view the data.  Another of many possible examples would be the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  Rather than pitting the two against each other, they can be viewed as complimentary perspectives of reality.

On the other hand, Frame warns his readers that not every aspect of theology should be viewed in perspectival relationship in the sense that one ought not to equate justification and sanctification as being two perspectives on the same truth.  Consequently, the ordo salutis (the order of events that bring about salvation) ought not to be viewed perspectivally in the same sense that the order of divine decree is viewed.[15]  So, while some areas of dispute are resolved by perspectivalism there are other areas that would it would be dangerous to treat in this manner.

The greatest benefit to systematic theology that triperspectivalism brings is its clarifying nature on the relationship between the primary theological disciplines and its emphasis on the appropriate topics of consideration when formulating or analyzing theology. The primary disciplines (exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology) are viewed perspectivally – these three are interdependent.[16]  The common conception of a formal progressive relationship (exegesis leading to biblical theology leading to systematic theology) is questioned by demonstrating that exegesis cannot be done apart from some details of an already understood biblical and systematic theology and vice versa for the other two.  Also, triperspectivalism helps the person seeking to understand or formulate a theology by giving a criteria of analysis – have all three perspectives been adequately dealt with in the theology at hand?  A theologian may produce a series of seemingly solid normative statements, which, apart from asking if they are livable and correspond to visible reality, may otherwise seem true and profound.

 Limitations

For all of the strengths this volume brings to the table there are various limitations that ought to be noted.  First, the range of topics discussed are vast and Frame, due to limitations of space, is unable to delve deeply into any topic.  This leaves the reader with vague understandings of many issues vital to gaining a comprehensive epistemological picture of triperspectivalism – this by Frame’s own admission.[17]  Second, footnote references are few and far between; the vagueness of the volume is not solvable by following references for more details.  The reader is left to browse the bibliography in hopes of luckily identifying what source Frame had been using or doing independent research from scratch.  Third, the cogency of the work is left as highly questionable due to failure to address obvious areas of difficulty, as will be seen below.  These problems are not devastating to the volume, but are quite noticeable.

Questionable Cogency

The great emphasis of Frame’s work is that all three perspectives are interdependent and cannot truly be separated from each other.  The problem that is left unaddressed is how an unbeliever can have knowledge in such a situation.  If a “person’s presupposition (his basic commitment, his ultimate criterion)” controls their normative view, as an ultimate criterion should, and the unbeliever’s ultimate presupposition is unbelief, then all three perspectives should be thrown into disarray and be made unintelligible.[18]  According to Frame’s system, this should result in unlivable beliefs that conflict with the world around the unbeliever and make it so that no truth can be discoverable because it is filtered through a worldview that is ultimately committed to falsehood.  Frame admits that the unbeliever’s system completely fails to result in a rational universe, which is a vital argument in presuppositional apologetics.[19]  Losing ultimate commitment to a consistent God loses commitment to a consistent universe, as this cannot be learned by observation.[20]  Thus, unbelievers, based on their ultimate commitment, shouldn’t be committed to scientific principles or mathematics since the world, in their view, is entirely chaotic.  By leaving this problem unaddressed, the cogency of the system is challenged by the justification of truth theory that Frame proposes in section two of his book: if a view does not cohere with all three perspectives, including the situational perspective (what is true in the world), then the system is false.  Unbelievers are often committed to science and math and thus Frame’s triperspectivalism, according to its own verification test, does not stand as true.

A generous view of this situation would be that Frame has been purposefully vague in this problem area, as he promotes doing in certain cases.[21]  However, leaving such an intentional hole in one’s argument does little to persuade others, unless they already share his presuppositions.  A brief response to this problem, as promoted by Frame’s old friend Greg Bahnsen, would be that there are at least two orders of beliefs.  First, there are beliefs (first order beliefs – “I believe that God exists”) and, second, there are also beliefs about beliefs (second order beliefs – “I believe that I believe that God does not exist”).  If unbelievers hold the unavoidable belief that the God of the Bible exists, then they will be able to do science, math, and eat food in the morning.  If on top of that first order belief they add, through the process of self-deception, the false second order belief that they do not believe that they believe that the God of the Bible exists, then they will be able to formally produce theories that exclude God while yet living as though He exists.[22]  Through the creation of a false web of second order beliefs the unbelievers can proudly produce theories and prop up false worldviews while yet not being capable of living them out and not even bothering to try to do so– their ultimate presupposition is not what they profess to be their ultimate presupposition.  They also will not be lying when they say that they do not believe in God, since such a statement can only reflect second order beliefs (we can discuss our beliefs about our beliefs, but cannot discuss our beliefs directly).  Frame leaves his entire volume open to the criticism that a single unbeliever who can do science disproves the claims of this volume by failing to make the distinction between first and second order beliefs.  Only through proper accounting of this facet of epistemology, which this work primarily deals with, can this work truly be justified.

 Conclusion

With all things taken into consideration, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God is a volume that should be on the bookshelf of every Christian.  The triperspectival system Frame promotes is useful for everyone.  The layperson who merely desires to have fuller obedience to God gains deeper insight in how to do so.  The theologians, philosophers, and scientists are better equipped for approaching their work.  The apologist also benefits from having a system that lays the groundwork for powerful critiques of false worldviews, as well as a strong defence for the Christian faith.  The few weaknesses that are found within the work pale in comparison to the strengths – this volume comes highly recommended.


[1]Fredrick Nietzsche’s perspectivism argued that all knowledge that people gain comes through their biased perspective (based on their needs and desires) and so everything is relative and no one has absolute truth (because there is no absolute being to assist with this problem).  He did argue that this does not lead to total relativism, where every opinion is valid, but only through logical inconsistency.

[2]Christians would primarily see the normative perspective as the teachings of scripture, which hold highest authority.

[3]Those of a theological bent may view this as pertaining to issues of general revelation and the reality around the knower.

[4]The existential perspective may be most easily understood as being the strengths, abilities, and limitations of the individual in question.

[5]John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1987), 13.

[6]Frame, Knowledge of God, 19.

[7]Frame, Knowledge of God, 22-25.

[8]Frame, Knowledge of God, 25-29.

[9]Frame, Knowledge of God, 63.

[10]Frame, Knowledge of God, 40-48.

[11]Frame, Knowledge of God, 125.

[12]Frame, Knowledge of God, 130.

[13]Frame, Knowledge of God, 192.

[14]Frame, Knowledge of God, 265.

 [15]Frame, Knowledge of God, 266.

 [16]Frame, Knowledge of God, 213.

 [17]Frame, Knowledge of God, 5.

 [18]Frame, Knowledge of God, 126.

 [19]Frame, Knowledge of God, 285.

 [20]Frame, Knowledge of God, 117-118.

 [21]Frame, Knowledge of God, 221.

[22]Greg L. Bahnsen, The Apologetic Implications of Self-Deception: A Conditional Response to the Apparent Paradox of Self-Deception (1978; repr., Nacogdoches: Covenant Media, 2011), 228.

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About salutations75

Born and raised Atheist turned Reformed Baptist.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Ethics, Philosophy, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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