Archives For Triperspectivalism

It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since I last made it to an ETS regional. Actually, looking at the timeline, I think I go every three years because my first one was in 2011. I also have presented at each one (you can read the previous papers here), and continue that tradition this year.

I re-worked a paper from my Romans class at Dallas. It need some revision and updating, both for newer resources and evolution in thought. The result is called New Perspectives on Paul: Reconciling Wright, Schreiner, and Thielman on Justification. Here is the intro:

The purpose of this paper is to offer an epistemological framework that is suitable for harmonizing differing positions on the nature of justification. The focus here is first, on introducing the framework, and then second, on demonstrating its usefulness in some recent dialogue, namely, the plenary addresses from the 2010 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Rather than a rigorous exegetical defense, this is a proposal using a tool of epistemology to attempt to solve a theological difficulty. While all the different perspectives are not completely resolvable, the three presented at the 2010 annual meeting just might be.

I don’t pretend to think it solves all the problems associated with interpreting Paul’s theology. I do however think that John Frame’s triperspectivalism is a useful tool for navigating the different emphases and integrating various conclusions into a coherent whole. As to whether anyone agrees, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

A couple of weeks back my father in-law Tim Kaufman published his first book, Singing Hallelujah When You Feel Like Hell. The title plays on both his gifting as a singer and his experience with clinical depression. Though the subtitle is “a true life story of how to triumph through depression,” it is not a typical self-help book. It is also not prosperity gospel nonsense that may promise that if you just believe enough or follow these steps your depression will go away. But it is the story of how Tim lived through periods of time when darkness was nearly his only companion. And it is an example of how a variety of factors work together in helping someone through the valley.

I was glad to read through the book when it was still in the editing stages. Here is the blurb that I submitted:

Singing Hallelujah When You Feel Like Hell isn’t just a book with a clever title. It is a firsthand account of someone who has been through the darkness and lived to tell about it. Tim is not just my father-in-law, he is also a wise and godly man who is willing to be vulnerable with his own story in order to reach out and minister to the many friends and loved ones we have who deal with depression. Odds are that even if you haven’t struggled with it, you love someone who has or does and they would benefit from reading this book.

While I don’t have firsthand struggles with depression, I did have a period of about 6 months of burnout where I had many of the same symptoms. In retrospect, I’m glad because I think I am able to be more sensitive now to advice people give that isn’t particularly helpful. Part of the issue with struggling through depression is that you just don’t have the will to do much of anything. Because of that, advice, while possibly true and godly, isn’t necessarily what you might need. It is true that you need to believe the gospel, pray, and search the Scriptures. But when you’re really depressed, it is hard to even get out of bed, much less focus on anything of value.

Since Tim has struggled with that, and been in ministry for decades, he is able to tell his story from between two worlds so to speak. Depression is a spiritual issue, but it is not only a spiritual issue and Tim is more than aware of that. I tend to think of things like depression triperspectivally (not a surprise if you know me well). As such it has normative dimensions which are the spiritual components. But, it also situational factors that are usually life stories that have left scars resulting in shame and perhaps internalized anger. And there is also the existential components of brain chemistry and dietary and exercise habits (or lack thereof).

To treat any of these in isolation is to miss part of what’s going on. What’s good about Tim’s book is that though he doesn’t use this terminology, he is aware of how all those issues have come into play in his story of the triumph of grace in his life. And if that is something you’d like to read more about it, you ought to make sure you pick up a copy of his book for yourself!

9781596382176

John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. November 2013. 1280 pp. Hardcover, $49.99.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to P&R Publishing for the review copy!

Back in the fall, P&R Publishing was gracious enough to send me a review copy of John Frame’s latest 1000+ tome. Not only have I been reading, but several guys in the systematic theology read-thru have as well (see my post on Sunday Night school).

In order to give myself time to read through the book, and to interact with a little more depth, I thought I’d do a series review. The idea is that it will run in parallel to the series review of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, which also came out last fall (see my intro post, and the first part of the review).

But, Frame’s is much longer, and contains more sections, so here’s what the series posts will look like:

  • Introduction
  • The Biblical Story
  • The Doctrine of God Part 1
  • The Doctrine of God Part 2
  • The Doctrine of the Word of God
  • The Doctrine of The Knowledge of God
  • The Doctrine of Angels and Demons
  • The Doctrine of Man
  • The Doctrine of Christ
  • The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
  • The Doctrine of the Church
  • The Doctrine of the Last Things

Alert readers might notice that several of Frame’s systematic sections share titles with full length books in his Lordship series. Frame knows what you’re thinking and so he just goes ahead and clears things up in the preface:

Certainly these earlier books have been a great help to me in writing this one, and readers of those books will see here a basic continuity of thought and approach. They might even suspect (rightly) that in many places some text has been cut and pasted from those past books. But I have tried to do more than to summarize the big books and to expand chapters of the smaller one [his Salvation Belongs to The Lord]. Rather, I have tried to rethink everything to make it more biblical, clear, and cogent (xxxi)

What I’ve read so far is original material, but looking at the sections on the Word of God and knowledge of God, much of the material is similar, but it is very condensed. This still leaves his section on the doctrine of God at almost 500 pages (the largest of the book). This is compared to the section on angels and demons coming in at under 20 pages (similar incidentally to Horton’s treatment).

Typically, I’d expect that the the areas of systematic theology that an author has extensively treated elsewhere will be stronger than others (very true of Horton’s work). This also appears to be true of Bird who is light on philosophical foundations and epistemology, but heavy on Christology (which he has published several books on). It is hard to say at this point if it is a detrimental defect, but it is certainly a weakness if a one is attempting to systematically treat all the topics (though I realize there is some justification for less space on angels and demons than other doctrines).

In any case, I’ve enjoyed the opening two sections and am looking forward to reading the rest in community and offering up thoughts to you here. It’ll probably take until later this fall to finish, so hopefully you’re willing to commit to the long haul.

3 Types of Book Reviews

September 12, 2013 — 6 Comments

Up until now, I’ve mainly only done two kinds of reviews. Originally it was only one, but it slowly evolved into two, and so it’s only natural to move on to a third category. Here’s the rundown on what I’ll be doing from now on.

Critical Reviews

My initial foray into reviews was primarily critical reviews. These are the type of reviews that make into academic journals and other “real” publications. It requires a pretty close reading of the book and some level of critique of the contents, structure, or other aspects of the work. Ideally, all reviews should be critical reviews, but a) this is just a blog and more importantly b) I do reviews for free and also work a few jobs, so I don’t have time to do that kind of thing.

Summary Reviews

A third point could be added, and that’s what more or less led to the second kind of review: c) if I’m not completely obligated to, it’s hard to sustain enough interest to do a critical review of every book that comes in my mailbox. This creates the second level, or what I will now call the summary review. When I read a whole book but don’t feel like critically interacting with it, I’ll offer you a summary of its contents and some insights into its value. Usually the noticeable difference is less length as well as less depth. I may have the occasional deep insight, but it’s not necessarily evenly spread across the contents.

Because of time constraints, my standard review at this point is the summary review. If I request a book, I intend, initially at least, to offer a summary review. If it really piques my interest, or conversely, really annoys me, then I’ll launch into a critical-extended review. This happens from time to time, but by far the bulk of the review I do on here are summary reviews.

Partially Read Previews

However, to keep things triperspectival, and to adjust for my lack of time due to more work (a good thing to be sure), I’ve decided to add a third type of review. Negatively, you might call this the incomplete review, but in reality it’s still fulfilling some of what I think publishers expect by sending me a book (because I’m devoting a blog post to telling you about the book). In essence, it’s a general review of what I’ve read so far, but coming after the decision to not read the rest of the book, for whatever reason. I’ve seen Challies and Kevin DeYoung do similar things. I want to add this category to still offer some thoughts on books that I’ve received, but that I just don’t have the energy or the interest to fully review. I like to keep my turn-around time relatively short, and I’d like to actually get back to a point where I’m reading/reviewing shortly after receiving books so they don’t pile up on me (not that that’s a bad thing).

Now that you know this, keep an eye out for some of this partially read previews. I’ll sprinkle them in here and there, but still try to keep offering you a traditional (though not always critical) review each week.

If you’ve got suggestions for further refinement and improvements, let me know in the comments!

About a year ago, Tim Brister wrote a post called “A Triperspectival Approach to Blogging.” In it, he explains how one could utilize the insights of triperspectivalism in the way they approach their blog. 1 The goal is balancing several aspects of blogging so that they blog itself might be better. Harnessing the three perspectives, normative, situational, and existential, here’s how Brister explains it:

The Normative perspective generally deals with content, or text. A good blog must begin with quality content.  They have something to contribute that has value, insight, inspiration, or further exploration. The content encourages to center our lives on truth and make it “normative” in our lives. Examples of this would include Trevin Wax and Tullian Tchividjin.

The Existential perspective generally deals with personal commentary, or subtext. This is where the blogger will get personal with a measure of disclosure and transparency.  The result is a greater sense of relatability with the author as he or she brings “earthiness” to the content. The commentary is an encouragement to experience the truth in real, personal, and life-transforming ways. Examples of this would include Joe Thorn and Tim Challies.

The Situational perspective generally deals with community interaction, or context. This is where the blogger will engage the audience or blog community to “hash it out” in each person’s situation. The result is a greater sense of relevance to the content as people discover ways the content fits in their respective contexts. Examples of those who do this well include Michael Hyatt and Carlos Whitaker.

I think this is a great way to process what blogging involves. Though I’m going to riff on it just a bit, first a confession.

Over the summer, I took somewhat of a break from blogging. You might not have noticed because I still posted pretty much every week. But, if you were paying attention, I really only posted book reviews. That was by design so that I could kind of clear my head about blogging. It was also because of adjustments in my schedule toward the end of the school that left me less time to blog than I’ve had since graduating seminary. Essentially I was just kind of phoning it in to take a break and I think the quality of the content dipped because of that. If you’re a faithful reader of the blog you deserve better. 2

The good news is that my hiatus from offering anything other than book commentaries has resulted in a better vision for blogging. And predictably, that vision has triperspectival contours. Though not supplanting Brister’s analysis above, I’m going to parse my approach to blogging a little differently. 3

I’ve been thinking mostly about content (Brister’s normative perspective) and specifically the kind of content I offer. While I do have a triperspectival division of blog categories, I thought of a simpler way to look at it:

  • Normative content: Anything expound doctrine, explaining Scripture, or unpacking truth. Will always be relevant whether it seems like it at the time or not and isn’t affected by the passing of time.
  • Situational content: Anything commenting on a current event, trend, or happening. Book reviews technically fall here, especially when they are new releases. May be really relevant at the time of writing, but much less so with the passing of time.
  • Existential content: Anything commenting on personal events, either stories from everyday life, or commentary on the self. May or may not have lasting relevance, but helps to establish personal connections with readers who change with the passing of time.

It is intentional that I mentioned relevance and the passing of time in each bullet. To be a bit extistential for a moment, it’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially as I realize that making book reviews a priority in blogging means that I’m shooting for being “on the cutting edge” of relevance (intentionally or not). I’m exchanging making a personal connection with readers and leaving writing of more lasting impact and that is something I’d like to change.

To be fair, I think a good blog post covers all three perspectives. Though it is primarily situated in one of the three, you cannot expound one without the other two. So, as I review books I may include theological or biblical explanations in my critique of the book, as well as my personal reactions to reading it, or how I stumbled upon it in the first place. It is a situational post (commenting on an object in the world) but is doing so with normative and existential sensibilities.

When I originally started blogging, it was primarily existential. That was the window into situational commentary and normative exposition. The bottom line is I’d like to do more of that because I think it will make this blog better. It’ll be better for me to clarify my thinking and it’ll be better for you because it means more interesting blog posts. Basically it’s triperspectivalism for the win.

I think in making that my aim in content creation, I’ll probably slide into more balance along the triperspectival lines Brister mentions. My content will improve, you’ll get more inside my head, and hopefully we’ll interact more and a bit more community will develop. Like I tell my students though, I can’t predict the future, 4 so I can’t speak with certainty as to how this will all unfold. But if you’ve noticed this week, we’re off to a great start, and I guess we’ll just see how the coming weeks and months unfold!

Notes:

  1. If you’re not familiar with “triperspectvialism” then read this article: A Triperspectival Map of DKG
  2. Though I imagine that if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you probably still enjoyed and/or looked forward to the book reviews.
  3. Which incidentally is one of the advantages of triperspectivalism as a tool: there is always another way to parse things out and highlight aspects that might be overlooked
  4. This is often uttered in reference to their questions about what will be on tests that I haven’t made yet

ch-5-fall

If you’re interested in my thoughts on the two chapters in Doctrine, you can read them here and here. In the latter link, you can also read an interesting dialogue I had with an atheist. It is probably the most respectful internet comment thread you will ever read, and if anyone was kind of jerk, it was me.

As far as last night goes, we talked about human origins, the meaning of the image of God, aspects of our humanity, and the nature of the fall. For brief bullet points, here you go:

  • Humans are direct, special creations by God (Genesis 2:5-7)
  • The “image of God” would be the God-given mental and spiritual capacities that enable people to relate to God and to serve him by ruling over the created order as his earthly vice-regents (NET Bible Notes)
  • Man is Body + Spirit = Soul. You don’t have a soul, you are a soul.
  • The fall affects both body and spirit (so you are totally depraved) but not to the complete extent (so you are not utterly depraved)

One thing I had prepared but that we didn’t have time for was a discussion of homosexuality. I picked the topic because a) it is a prominent discussion in our culture, b) it deals with the intersection of the fall and humanity in the image of God, and c) we need much more nuanced discussion than the idiot in this video provides. I thought rather than upload the slides (which are up until the homosexuality section mostly just verses) I’d reproduce the notes I had on homosexuality here and then we can talk more next week if we need to. A lot of people missed last night, I am guessing/hoping because it was the last day of spring break and so it wouldn’t make too much sense to go to a class (but major bonus points to you all that did make it!)

We managed to talk through Romans 1:20-32 which I’ll reproduce here:

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them. – Romans 1:20-32

From a Christian point of view, the normalization of homosexual behavior is a cultural sign of the wrath of God. A sexual behavior is considered normalized when the government will allow it without penalty. When the government will offer privileges (what pop speak calls “rights”) to couples who commit to live a homosexual lifestyle together, the practice has taken step beyond normalization and toward celebration Every culture that has gotten to the celebration stage with homosexuality has collapsed not soon afterward. This is how the wrath of God undoes a society from the inside. If you need a case to oppose gay marriage even though it seems harmless, there you go.

I think if Christians are going to talk about homosexuality from a biblical perspective, this is the place to start. Romans provides not only explanation for the why of homosexuality, it also is pretty clear about its inappropriateness from a Christian point of view. Using this as a starting point, we can actually flesh out why someone identifies as a homosexual with our handy triperspectival categories:

  • Normative – worship disorder, fallen nature of man, broken sexual desires (see Romans 1)
  • Situational – failure to establish intimacy with same sex parent, abuse, believing cultural lies and/or being preyed upon (see psychological research)
  • Existential – hormonal and genetic factors, potential gender dysphoria (not identifying with your anatomical sex), unbridled lust (see biological and sociological research)

Notice what this does. It first eliminates being “born this way” from the equation, but not in a way that eliminates biological factors altogether. There is not a gay gene any more than there is a specific gene for any other behavior. Genetics may play a role, but only in concert with other contributing factors. This also eliminates the ability to claim homosexuality is just a lust or sin problem. It is simplistic of gay activists to just say they are born that way (since that opens the door for everyone to claim that), but it is just as simplistic on the part of evangelicals to treat it as a simple sin issue. Rather, for any given person identifying as a homosexual, there is a “perfect storm” of factors combining in a unique way.

In addition to factors underlying homosexual identification, we must make a distinction between levels of ingression in people, which is to say we need to recognize there are three levels of identification that get progressively deeper:

  • People who identify as experiencing same-sex attraction
  • People who identify as homosexual in sexual orientation
  • People who have their entire identity located in their homosexuality

From a Christian perspective, the last level of ingression is incompatible with professed belief in Christ. You cannot simultaneously locate your identity in Christ and your identity in your sexuality (hetero- or homo-). I think to a certain extent you can identify your sexual orientation as homosexual and still profess faith in Christ. However, I don’t think you can act on that orientation. Likewise, I think as you grow in Christ you will move away from thinking in terms of “orientation,” because that in and of itself is making too much of your sexual desires. Because of the triperspectival model though, it is unrealistic to expect every person who comes to Christ from a homosexual background to never struggle again or to suddenly become “straight.” We do not expect heterosexual people who come to faith in Christ to immediately have sanctified sexual desires. Even as they grow, we recognize that lust is a perennial problem and that godly Christians still have broken sexual desires. This is just as true with people whose sexual desires are for the same sex. God can renew them in the image of Christ by his Spirit, but they may always struggle with their sexuality in that way

In terms of how we can respond to the issue of homosexuality, here are just a few brief thoughts:

  • We should treat people who identify as homosexuals with the respect and dignity that an image bearer of God deserves.
  • We should be compassionate and gracious to people within the church who are genuinely struggling with sexual sins of all kinds, of which homosexual desires is one kind.
  • We should not excuse or take lightly the fact that people who practice homosexual behavior are living a lifestyle of sin. If they are in the church, it is an issue of church discipline. If they are outside, it is an issue of repentance and belief just like it is for any other sin.
  • People who come to faith in Christ from a homosexual background may struggle with their sexual desires for the rest of their life since there is no legitimate Christian outlet. We should not treat this struggle lightly.
  • But, neither should be cave to the surrounding culture as if we have no spine and say that somehow homosexuality is acceptable in God’s eyes when Scripture is pretty explicit otherwise.

In the end, we need to preach the gospel of grace in Christ to people who identify as homosexuals. There is not a special gospel for them that is different from what everyone else needs. As Christians we cannot endorse the homosexual lifestyle as acceptable. But neither do we need to vilify those outside the body of Christ who live it. People within the church who think it is compatible with Christianity need to be taught what Scripture actually says on the subject, and that the only acceptable form of sexual activity is between a man and a woman who are united in the covenant of marriage. People outside the church need to see us extend grace and love.

This isn’t an issue that’s going anywhere anytime soon, but it is an issue that evangelicals haven’t always handled well. We can improve our handling, but our message that everyone is a broken sinner with broken sexual desires is going to continue to be offensive.

If stops being offensive, it has stopped being faithful.

0830815317

Yesterday, I finished reading through Gerald Bray’s The Doctrine of God. I would highly recommend it to you, as well the other volumes in the Contours of Christian Theology series. Bray’s work has aged well, and 20 years after it was written it is still a good introduction to contemporary discussions in the doctrine of God. Particularly interesting to me was the way Bray highlighted the Reformation turn in trinitarian thought. While many paradigms of the Trinity tend to emphasize one of the persons as primary, Bray shows how Calvin avoided this and kept the 3 persons primary. He supports his claim by pointing out that the Reformers (generally speaking) believed:

  • The essence of God was of secondary importance in Christian theology (199)
  • The persons of the Trinity are equal to one another in every respect (200)
  • The knowledge of one person involves knowledge of the other two at the same time (202)
  • Human creation in the image and likeness of God cannot be understood as either the image of the Trinity or as the image of Christ (204)
  • The persons possess distinctive attributes of personhood which they share with elect human persons (210)

I’m still processing these ideas. One thing I did notice is that there is a latent triperspectivalism in the way Calvin conceives of the knowledge of the persons of the Trinity. The Son reveals himself, but he also reveals the Father and His Spirit. The Spirit reveals himself, but also the Son and ultimately the Father. The Father can be known, but through the Son and by the Spirit.

I’m thinking the last point is a bit controversial and gets into some significant philosophical issues. Are attributes properties of persons or natures? If the latter, then the persons of the Trinity have to have identical attributes. If the former, then there has to be a sense in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all share the same nature and divine attributes, but somehow have different personal attributes. I’m inclined to say this is not the best way to look at things, but I’m going to do some more digging into the subject.

535572_10100634521541098_719271112_n

So, earlier this year I submitted the abstract for my thesis as a proposal for this years annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Surprisingly, it was accepted, and I was faced with the prospect of editing it down to a paper that could be coherently presented in 40 minutes or so. I put this off of course until the end of the summer, and I’m somewhat glad I did because I ended up not having the funding to go to the conference. Being that it is in Milwaukee, I would have had to fly and get a room for several nights, and miss work. The school I teach at couldn’t afford to pay for my expenses, and since I didn’t want to pay out of pocket, I’m still here in Florida.

However, I thought I’d at least make the paper available for download so anyone interested can read it: Hollywood, Geneva, and Athens: Toward A Reformed Philosophy of Film.

I wish I could have been there and met some new people as well as reconnected with old. If you’re at ETS, I’d love to hear from your thoughts on other papers. Hopefully next year, either at the southeast regional of the next national meeting, I can actually be there!

Each of the four Gospels gives us the truth about the life of Jesus. No one Gospel is exhaustive, nor does it claim to be – each is selective. And each makes choices about how it is going to tell the history. Each is interested in highlighting theological significances and relationships to the Old Testament. Matthew is noteworthy for his Jewishness, for his compression, and for the introduction of subtle hints of extra significance. Mark is noteworthy for action and for concentration on the main points. Luke is noteworthy for care in historical research. John is noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events.

We should also remember that all four Gospels are God’s writing, not simply the product of the human authors. The differences between them in their approaches to writing history illustrate that God himself is comfortable with using distinct perspectives in revealing what happened and its significance. The significance in God’s mind is infinitely deep. He enriches us by providing us four windows on his wisdom rather than merely one.

– Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and The Gospels: A God-Centered Approach To The Challenges of Harminization, 74 (emphasis mine).

Perspectivalism In The Gospels

In addition to providing weekly book reviews, I’ve also had my share of “meta-discussions” on the subject. Sometimes it’s not enough to just review books, we have to also talk about reviewing books and in an inceptionesque sort of way “review the reviewing of books.” So, once upon a time, I explained to you how I do book reviews. I’ve also explained how you too can get free books to review on your blog. The former of these posts spent more time on the overarching process, so today I want to unpack what I think the elements of a good book review are. And to do that, I’ll need to invoke triperspectivalism.

For a quick refresher on triperspectivalism, it’s simply an epistemological tool to help explain and better understand any subject of study (for a few other examples, see my Perspectives on Triperspectivalism series). The “tri-” in triperspectivalism comes from the three perspectives used:

  • The normative perspective
  • The situational perspective
  • The existential perspective

These are derived from the three aspects of God’s lordship: authority, control, and presence. If we were to enter a field of study, observations from the normative perspective evaluate what God has authoritatively said on the topic. Observations from the situational perspective would evaluate facts from nature, history, science, or a combination of similar disciplines. Observations from the existential perspective would evaluate how the study relates to our subjective experience.

In the case of something like book reviews, normative becomes norms for good writing, situational becomes the situational content of the book itself, and existential becomes the fit between author, intended audience and actual reader (i.e. in this case me). A good review, in my opinion at least, looks at the book from all these perspectives. As I have been reviewing books over the last couple of months, I’ve tried to follow what I outline below, but without using the “framework” I’ll unpack here. Even if it’s just a sentence or two, I try to comment on all 9 aspects below (because of course each perspective has its own triperspective inside it).

Normative

When it comes to evaluating a book from the normative perspective, you need to ask whether the book is well written, well organized, and meets its own internal goals. Not to get too crazy with the triperspectival parsing, but you’ll notice this is a triad as well. When I review a book I want to see writing that follows good English style and syntax (a norm for all writing), whether the material in the book is organized in a clean way (it has a sensible situational structure to it), and that it succeeds in accomplishing its own internal aims (it is in sync with its own existential criteria).

In the past I’ve criticized books in this perspective usually for either being disorganized (e.g. Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith) or having unnecessarily clumpy prose (e.g. Christopher Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture). In a rare case, I’ve felt like a book didn’t meet its own internal goal (e.g. The Driscoll’s Real Marriage). The mistake that some book reviewers make here is to criticize a book for failing to meet a goal that the author did not set for himself. However, that would be elevating an existential preference of the reviewer to a norm from which to criticize, and that’s never a good thing.

Situational

The more critical (in the sense of “conceptually interactive”) a book review is, the more time the reviewer will spend in the situational perspective. In fact, most of the time you pick up a book to review it is for situational considerations: the ideas advanced in the book, the sources it uses, and the implications it suggests. In this sense, the situational perspective deals with the “situation” the book presents, or what the book is about. If you’ve been keeping up with the recent issues with David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, it was pulled from the shelves by Thomas Nelson because it struck out in all three of these areas. Barton misused his sources to come up with ideas and implications that are not historically accurate. Because of that, it didn’t matter how well written, organized, and true to its own goals the book was, it was a situational disaster and so got the axe by the publisher.

This is the area of book reviewing where expertise comes into play. To evaluate a book normatively, you just need a good grasp of English style and syntax, and pay attention to what the author says the book is trying to do and then what it actually does. But to review a book situationally, you need to have some level of conceptual expertise in the subject the book covers. For instance, in my review of Meaning at The Movies, I felt that the author mishandled Romans 1 exegetically (a source) and so drew an interpretive principle from that text to then apply to culture in a way that did not work well (an idea and resultant implications). Likewise, in Michael Horton’s God of Promise, his sources on ancient Near East literature are outdated, his analysis of the sources yields inaccurate results, and so his implications drawn for his overall system (his presentation of covenant theology) are faulty.

Existential

Finally, when it comes to existential considerations you need to focus on the author, audience, and yourself. With the author, credentials come into play, but usually in the sense of whether or not the particular author seems suited to talk authoritatively on the subject he is addressing. Typically the back cover gives the author info specifically for the purpose of explaining why he or she should have a platform to talk about the subject. The author, in usually the preface or introduction, typically explains who they intend the book to be for. The evaluation you make as a reviewer is whether or not there is a good fit.

What is sometimes left out in all of this is the subjective (because we don’t like that word) impressions of the reader. I’ve tried to include those more often in my reviews. While they may be somewhat out of place in an academic review, I think they are an important part of the existential perspective and deserve their place. Earlier this week for instance, when I reviewed Genesis and Christian Theology, I pointed out that there was a good fit between author and audience, but at a personal level, I just didn’t like the book. It’s a type of criticism that isn’t necessarily saying “this book is bad,” so much as saying “I thought I would like this, but I just didn’t.” Too often we tend to equate the two, but they are really separate considerations. One is a normative evaluation and the other is an existential one. Tripespectivalism can help you keep them apart.

So there you have it. Considering how complicated I could have made it, that wasn’t so bad now was it? All this talk about book reviews though reminds me I’ve got some reading to do…