Tri-Perspectival Discipleship

discipleshiptitleHe mentioned that he had been to Bible College more than once while he sat across from me. It was important for him to remind me that he “knew the truth.” The problem, however, was that he had come to see me because his three-year affair had destroyed his family. Bible College, as helpful as that may have been for him, did nothing to talk him out of sleeping with another woman. I thought to myself, how did he get to this place in his life? Then I thought of my own life and the countless places where seminary training has done little to stem the tide of sinful practices. How do we all get to that place in our lives? Many of us know the truth but don’t seem to be changed by it.

What we know does not always translate into how we live, and that’s because, we are composed of more than just what we think. We are loving, desiring, craving people too. True discipleship, then, must do more than engage our brains; it must be concerned with more than the dissemination of information. A more comprehensive anthropology can help us develop a more comprehensive discipleship. We want to make whole person disciples and that happens as we engage whole persons. That’s why I am seeking to explore a tri-perspectival approach to discipleship that includes orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. A look at each of these perspectives will help unpack what I mean.

Tri-perspectivalism is a term I’ve borrowed from the theological work of John Frame. Frame explains:

Human knowledge can be understood in three ways: a knowledge of God’s norm, a knowledge of the situation, and as knowledge of ourselves. None can be achieved without the others. Each includes the others. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 75)

Frame refers to these three perspectives as the Normative, Situational, and Existential perspectives. The normative perspective focuses on the rules, laws, and norms of belief and action. It emphasizes the authority of God, the objective standard of truth. The situational perspective emphasizes the human experience, the context of our knowledge. Here we might explore subjects like history, science, and evidences for the convictions we hold. Lastly, the existential perspective focuses on the individual doing the knowing. This perspective includes subjects like our dispositions, temperaments, biases, presuppositions, and memories, among other things. In each category we are exploring truth from another angle (see Joseph Emmanuel Torres, “Perspectives on Multiperspectivalism” in Speaking the Truth in Love) . All the perspectives combined give us a fuller picture of truth. Applying the same framework to the discipline of discipleship provides us with a more comprehensive methodology.

I will use the terminology of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy to mark my categories, but I am borrowing the language and layout of Frame’s model. In this model, then, Orthodoxy applies to the normative category. Here we are looking at the truth of Scripture and the Biblical worldview. We are still expected to communicate information within the work of discipleship. Jesus’ command to “teach them to obey all that I have said” surely involves more than just information, but people can’t obey what they don’t understand. So we must impart information. The standard of objective truth for discipleship is God’s Word, so we communicate God’s Word. We teach it. We help fellow believers understand it, explore it, read it, and discern its applications. Paul’s words to Titus ring true for all disciple-makers, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).

The category of orthopraxy corresponds to Frame’s situational perspective. Here we are exploring the application of sound doctrine to practical life. It is the practice of doctrine which produces growth in godliness, not the mere retention of information. Knowledge is not what shapes us so much as practice of said knowledge. James K.A. Smith speaks of the “practiced shape of the Christian life” (Desiring the Kingdom, 131). So, he says:

We are fundamentally affective beings; thus being human takes practice, so to speak. We are shaped by material bodily practices that aim or point our love to ultimate visions of human flourishing – to particular configurations of what “the kingdom” should look like.

We know that this is particularly true for sinful practices. A young man who repeatedly engages in looking at pornography is being deeply shaped and influenced by those images and by the practice of masturbation (see William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy). Regardless of what he knows about God, sex, and porn he is being shaped by his practice. So discipleship must focus not merely on information but on practice. This is where the relational component of discipleship is going to become so essential.

The final category, orthopathy, corresponds to Frame’s existential perspective. Here we are exploring the disciple himself, noting his passion. Orthopathy is often neglected in these conversations, but passion for God is a vital component of genuine discipleship. Helping believers to cultivate a heart for God is a necessary part of what it means to be a disciple-maker. Jonathan Edwards spoke so clearly about the relationship between knowing, doing, and loving. He wrote:

The soul does not behold things as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting…In every act of the will whatsoever, the soul either likes or dislikes, is either inclined or disinclined to what is in view: these are not essentially different from those affections of love and hatred. (The Religious Affections, 24-25)

Orthopathy is the third key piece of a comprehensive discipleship methodology. Without it we encourage behavioralism and moral living, but not Christianity. There is a vast difference.

In the coming weeks I will explore these three perspectives in more detail, noting in particular their interrelatedness. I will also explore the process of discipleship and what it looks like for disciple-makers to do comprehensive discipleship. Most of this won’t be news to many readers. We know that discipleship is about more than just imparting information but pastors in particular repeatedly adopt models of discipleship that do little more than this. Partly, we do this, because it’s easier. Engaging people’s lives and hearts is messier and more time-consuming, but what I want to argue is that it’s essential. True discipleship is about making whole-person disciples, which happens by engaging them as whole persons.

My friend needed to see the difference between his knowledge and true discipleship. He needed to be trained as a genuine disciple to discern the difference between knowing right doctrines, and actually following Jesus. He needed to be held accountable to practices and have his imagination captured by a vision of the glorious Christ. He needed to know about, obey, and love Jesus. That’s what we worked on for the next several months, because that’s what real discipleship is.

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  1. […] may be identified as the existential perspective in our triperspectival approach to discipleship. The existential perspective focuses on the character and inner […]

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