Thursday, August 23, 2012

Using Triangles to Understand Everything

So I'm currently in Atlanta at the Fellowship of Presbyterians event and listening around I can't help but see triangles. Now by the end of this post, you'll probably think that I have been watching too much Sesame Street with my 3 year old daughter, but probably it has more to do with sitting under Dr. John Frame at Reformed Theological Seminary who calls his obsession with triangles "triperspectivalism". Regardless of the source, triangles, I'm convinced, are a fine way to help structurally organize thought. They are simple, easy to understand, and provide multiple approaches to whatever topic may be at hand.


The basic format for any of these triangles is as follows: Normative, Situational, and Existential. You place the topic at hand in the center of the triangle and then you consider the topic from these three different angles. The Normative approach is the "normal" approach which includes the dogmatic or usual approach. The Situational approach is to consider the external circumstances, or the topic in context with the world, while the Existential approach is from a more internalized place. The first example should be both familiar and reinforce your love of triangles.

Our God is a triangle God. He is three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and yet also they are all one substance, being God. In our triangle the topic, God, is placed in the center of the triangle and the we examine the three perspectives. Our normative or normal understanding of God, the dogmatic approach to God, is God the Father. He is the primary perspective considered in the Old Testament and He is from whom the Son and the Spirit proceed. Our situational understanding of God is God the Son. Jesus is God in our situation. He is sent by the Father out into the world, and into our context. Our existential approach to God is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the internal experience of God, the Spirit that resides within us, empowers us, and guides us in all wisdom.

Another great theological example is Jesus and his offices. So in this case the topic is Jesus, particularly the roles of Jesus. Jesus functions as Prophet, Priest, and King, these are often called his offices. There are people in the bible who fulfill these offices at different places in redemptive history but only Jesus fulfills them all. The existential approach views Jesus as Priest. He is the one who cares for the people, the individuals, and ministers to them by being the mediator between them and God. He is able to be our High Priest because He fully shares our humanity with us and has suffered temptation as we have (see Hebrews). Situationally, Jesus has an effect on the world. He functions as King and Lord, who sees his Kingdom come in tangible ways to all nations. Normatively, Jesus is Prophet. He came from God bringing the Gospel, the good news from His Father.

Here's an example of one that has popped up at the fellowship conference. The leaders here have referred to the new denomination (ECO) and the fellowship as being a three legged stool of common theological language, missional congregations, and covenant order. While the denomination is new and so is the "fellowship", this concept has been around for awhile and fits nicely into our triangle structure. Normatively speaking, this new expression of church wants to have an emphasis on dogma or doctrine. There needs to be  essential beliefs. Situationally, the church needs to have an effect in the world, the gospel needs to be demonstrated. Existentially, there needs to be a spiritual element, and internal covenant that binds the churches and members together much as the Spirit binds above. This is great, though I've seen it expressed differently, like Head, Hands, Heart or as Tim Keller mentioned Word, Deed, Community. One thing that we in FOP/ECO need to realize is that our presbyterian heritage and tradition have emphasized the normative part of the triangle. We are predisposed, so to say, to emphasize the intellectual and the doctrine. In fact, in one of the breakout sessions about being missional, the speaker told us that the primary way to equip our people to be missional was intellectual training: have them read a book, change the focus of our sermons, get them to intellectual grasp that they should be missional christians, and then off they will go. Because this is our slant, we would do well to focus on the other parts of the triangle to help bring more balance and indeed bring in more influence from outside our tradition who may be focused more on these other areas.

Here's an example of a sub-triangle when we focus on being missional. Normatively, yes we need a biblical understanding, a theology, of mission. We need our people to be educated on what it means to be missional. We, as presbyterians, will naturally focus here. Situationally, we need structures and applications of how mission is actually being done. What are actual world tested ways to see our people get involved and be discipled by doing rather than listening. Wouldn't a great "breakout session" be to take a group of church leaders out of the walls of the host site and see, touch, and feel what it means to be missional? Existentially, what types of spiritual food do our people need in order to be missional? How do we connect with the Spirit of God and see authentic, spirit led and reliant communities that want to be missional? What is the heart, in addition to the head and the hands.

I could do this all night, but let me leave you my last triangle which is the gospel. How do we effectively communicate the gospel? I think one of the answers to reaching those parts of our post-christendom culture is church planting a new micro-expression of church that many call missional communities. My heroes so far in this area are the triangle lovers at Soma Communities. Our church is wading into these waters now for the first time. Normatively, in order to communicate the gospel, it must be proclaimed. We must share the actual good news in real verbal forms. I think primarily this works best through story telling as alluded to in this conference and directly utilized by Soma. Situationally, we must, like Jesus, enter into the situations and realities of the people we wish to hear the gospel. With the proclamation of the gospel came the kingdom of God (another related triangle is Gospel Events, Kingdom of God, and Personal Salvation) and we demonstrate the Gospel when we heal a hurting world. Existentially, we love one another in our communities and "gospel" with one another. The world will know us, after all, by the love we have for one another. When we focus on one section of the triangle, we lose something essential.
I hope this triangle approach (much cooler than three-legged stools) might be helpful to someone out there. If anything it helps me crystallize my own thought to express it, but ideally it would help us to find a balanced perspective and be better for it.

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