Massive in Appearance but Not a Slow Read
Truly, this Book is Only an Introduction to Systematic Theology
Frame, on the other hand, does not seem to be as interested in discussing or interacting with all the opposing positions. In fact, he alerts his readers, in chapter one, that he has no intention of doing so:
A Tone of Humility
Get Ready for the Triangle
For Frame, the presupposition of the Lordship of God is not only the prism in which all other doctrines are to be understood but it is the only prism in which all knowledge can be properly ascertained. Because God is Lord, He not only creates reality, He is the only authorative interpreter of reality. Without submitting to God as Lord, man stands upon his own false belief of epistemological self-autonomy. Upon this unstable foundation, man will always go astray in his knowledge of God, self, and reality. The only way to build a house that will stand the test of time is to build it upon a solid foundation. The Lordship of God, therefore, is the foundation of epistemology.
Consequently, according to Frame, God’s Lordship is to be understood from three different but interrelated perspectives: 1) control, 2) authority, and 3) presence. Each of these three perspectives implies the other two perspectives. And these three perspectives of the Lordship of God correspond nicely to the three perspectives of knowledge: 1) normative, 2) situational, and 3) existential. That is, without the Lordship of God, which can be viewed as God’s control, authority, and presence, we cannot properly ascertain normative, situational, and existential knowledge.
To reinforce and help explain the relationship between God’s Lordship and epistemology to all the other branches of theology, Frame uses a triangle diagram (with the authority/normative on top, control/situational at the bottom left, and presence/existential at the bottom right). With just a quick thumbing through the pages of the book, I counted no less than 35 triangles, missing, I am sure, many in the process. So get ready for the triad pyramid.
Mixing the Order of Things
A Minor Inconsistency
Frame does a brilliant job explaining the “already, but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God. Concisely, clearly, and convincingly Frame lays out how all redemptive history is divided into two ages – “this age” and the “age to come.” “This age” is the period in which sin reigns. “This age” began at the fall and will continue until the second coming of Christ, when Christ puts a full end to the reign of sin. On the other hand, “the age to come” is the age and dominion of righteousness. “The age to come” was introduced with the first coming of Christ, when the Lord Jesus conquered sin, the Devil, and death in life, death, and resurrection, but the “age to come” will not be fully consummated until the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth where only righteousness dwells. Christ, in other words, established the kingdom of God and introduced the “age to come” to all those who by faith are born again into the kingdom of God.
Consequently, believers presently live in both ages at the same time. “So the biblical data,” Frame remarks, “is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the last days are here in Christ. On the other hand, much remains future. The age to come is present: the present age lingers. From Jesus’ ministry until his return, the two ages exist simultaneously” (90). In another place, Frame states: “So the kingdom is here, but yet to come. The fulfillment of history has occurred already, in Christ, but is also not yet, for there is more to come. This is the tension that theologian refer as the already and the not yet” (1094).
I am in full agreement with Frame’s assessment of the matter, but I find it strange that, just a few pages away (97-98), he quickly, and without much explanation, dismisses “Two Kingdom theology.”
Yet, Two Kingdom theology is founded upon the “already, but not yet” nature of the kingdom of God that Frame so nicely articulated. Frame agrees that there are two separate ages/kingdoms that currently coexist. Frame also agrees that these two ages/kingdoms will continue to run side by side until the return of Christ. Thus, Frame must agree, to some degree, that every Christian has his foot in both ages/kingdoms.
Although having written a whole book upon the subject (The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology), Frame presents Two Kingdom theology in an overly simplistic fashion, as if Two Kingdom theology teaches that the secular civil order and the sacred church are two spheres or jurisdictions that have no point of connection. Or, as Frame represents it, the church “should never (or very rarely) try to influence the secular world” (97).
Though I would not say that Frame built a straw man, he did not give an accurate presentation of Two Kingdom theology. Yes, Two Kingdom theology believes that the secular kingdom is like a ship that is sinking and the hope of the believer is not found in “this age” but in the “age to come.” And, yes, within Two Kingdom theology there may be debate as to what degree the believer should give his or her attention to polishing the brass railings of a ship that is doomed to sink. But to say that those who hold to Two Kingdom theology teach that the believer should totally neglect polishing the brass altogether is an overstatement at best.
Although our citizenship is in heaven, we are still residents of this word. In fact, the idea of two kingdoms implies that we are members of both realms. Thus, we should be concerned about politics, social justice, and environmental conservation. I guess the amount of time and energy that we should give to polishing brass (being a positive influence upon the culture), is dependent upon just how fast we believe that the sinking ship is sinking. If we knew with certainty that the ship would be sunk by today’s end, then of course we would all likely quit our jobs (as many of the saints did at Thessalonica) and not worry about conservation and planting any new trees. If it was Election Day, we might not even worry about casting our votes but rather spend the rest of our allotted time preaching the gospel to as many lost people as possible. But since we were not given a certain date and we are commissioned by God to live our lives as if the ship may continue to sail for future generations, then of course we should want to put a little attention in polishing the brass. We should desire for our Christian values to have the greatest impact possible upon this “present evil age.” We should desire to influence the culture for good, knowing that even on our deathbed an apple tree is worth planting if our children and grandchildren will benefit from its fruits.
In fact, to be a good citizen of the kingdom of God is to seek to be a good resident of this world. Christian musicians, welders, bakers, doctors and the like should want to practice their art and go about their jobs for the glory of God. This is not opposed to Two Kingdom theology.
But regardless of how much we become politically involved, environmentally concerned, and worried about polishing brass for the glory of God, our chief hope and aim is not redeeming this fallen world (that is ultimately doomed to destruction) but is rather seeking to spread the gospel that redeems fallen people out of this “present evil age” – a gospel that provides a narrow passageway to the “age to come.” This is the essence of Two Kingdom theology, not hiding ourselves in an isolated bunker with absolutely no contact or concern for the culture around us, but rather living in both spheres to the best of our abilities for the glory of God.
Nevertheless, with Frame leaning towards the postmillennial position (“I suppose I’m more of a postmil than anything else,” p. 1094), I can understand why he reacts negatively towards Two Kingdom theology.
A Major Inconsistency
And, according to Frame, not only is the Mosaic covenant conditional, every other covenant – including the new covenant – is also conditional, as he made clear with these words: “God’s grace and human obedience in the Mosaic Covenant is the same as that in the other covenants” (73).
The tension for Frame, therefore, comes when he seeks to explain how conditions fit into the covenant of grace. Is the obedience that is necessary to remain in the covenant of grace the evidences of faith (e.g., evangelical obedience), or are they works that merit God’s continual blessing?
The answer to this question is where Frame wavers. In order to protect the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Frame at times insists that the condition requires merely “evangelical obedience.” “[A]ll covenants,” Frame says, “require obedient faith … obedience itself, springing from faith, is simply a requirement of all relations between God and human beings” (70). This sentiment is repeated several times by Frame: “The new covenant is unconditional in that its very content is God’s unconditional gift of a new heart, fulfilling all covenant conditions. But it is conditional in that those conditions are real and necessary. We are justified by faith alone, not by any effort to earn our salvation … But the faith by which we are justified is a living and obedient faith…” (81). “We are not saved by keeping the law, but we are always obligated to keep the law, and once we are saved and raised from death to life, we desire to keep the law out of love for God and for Jesus” (97). “So God’s love both initiates the covenant and continues as his people respond in obedience. It initiates the covenant unconditionally, but its continuance is conditional on human obedience” (240).
But at other times, Frame states that this condition can be broken. It is inconsistent to say, as Frame does, that “evangelical obedience” (which is the evidence of faith) is conditionally necessary. However, it is even more inconsistent for Frame to admit that some within the covenant of grace do not meet this conditional requirement. Consequently, this places these covenant breakers under the curse of God. Such was the case for many of the Israelites as Frame explained: “So although the election of Israel is by grace, there is an important place for continued faithfulness. In this historical form of election, people can lose their [historical] elect status by faithlessness and disobedience” (216). In other words, not everyone who enters into the covenant of grace by grace alone remains in the covenant by grace alone. Some, due to their lack of covenantal faithfulness (e.g., works) are cut off from God and His covenant people.
Yet, this is blatantly inconsistent. Even when dividing the covenant of grace into an outer and inner membership (which Frame does not explicitly articulate in this book), it still does not resolve the fact that those who turned out to be covenant breakers were given conditions which they were unable to fulfill. And how can this properly be called a covenant of grace for those members who never received grace or lost their grace? For covenant breakers, the covenant of grace was merely works based.
Moreover, for covenant keepers, those who are born again by the Holy Spirit and those whom God initially and continually supplies the grace that is “necessary” for them to fulfill the conditional requirement of the covenant, they proved to have remained members of the covenant of grace by their synergistic efforts that cooperated with the grace of God. As Frame makes clear, he believes that believers keep the condition by grace:
And if this is true, then the condition of the covenant of grace is not fulfilled in Christ’s merits alone. This is troubling. For if remaining within the covenant of grace and under the favor of God is due to covenantal faithfulness (even when that covenantal faithfulness is evangelical obedience that is wrought by God’s grace), then man’s synergic efforts play a role in their enjoyment of the covenantal blessings of God. And, if God’s covenantal blessings hinge to any degree upon synergism, then this effects the glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone. (For this reason, I find it even more troubling that Frame seeks to rescue Norman Sheperd from his critics, 974-975).
So, regardless, if the condition of the covenant of grace requires either “evangelical obedience” or “meritorious works,” placing conditions within the covenant of grace turns it into a covenant of works.
Frame makes it absolutely clear that justification is grounded upon the finished works of Christ alone (968-969). Though his covenantal nomism contradicts this, he thankfully does not push his covenantal nomism to its logical conclusion.
15 thoughts on “Thoughts Upon John Frame’s Systematic Theology”
Great analysis Jeff. I just got my copy this past weekend as well and I was thinking a lot of the same things you wrote in this review. You seem to be a little more familiar with Frame than I am though, as aside from a few books in which he wrote a chapter in and his “Econdido Theology”, I am only familiar with his Apologetics. I was let down that Frame seemed to either ignore or was not familiar with current literature on various doctrines and issues. This may be because he added some of his older books into his Sys Theo and did not feel like revising what he said in them, or as he expressly says that he does not feel it is important, but for me it is not only important but vital to any “new” Systematic Theologies. For instance, he is careful to give space to various views of the days of creation but leaves the issue of the Eternal Subordination of the Son a little flat. I am still a little bewildered at the “cold war” between Frame and Horton (Frame nowehere even mentions Horton, not even in disagreement). I understand disagreeing, even profoundly with a Theologian, but this seems to run deeper. I, as well as you, think that Reymond is currently the one to beat, although I am hopeful that Sam Waldron, Fred Zaspel or yourself will fix that delemma.
Thanks Scott. I have been wishing for a Reformed Baptist systematic theology for years. We have Gill, Strong, Boyce, and Dagg, but it would be nice to have a more contemporary expression (that interacts with the latest issues) that is both holistically cohesive and thoroughly Baptist. A Baptist version of Reymond, if you would.
Is anyone familiar with Robert Duncan Culver's Systematic Theology?
Actually, I recently heard Phil Johnson highly recommend it, and Curt Daniel agreed that it is a good work, but I have not personally read it … yet.
Armenian, I prefer Reymond's (as well as Grudem's, Horton's and Frame's)treatment of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption better than Culver's. See what Culver has to say about it on pages 332-333 and his chapter 17 where he says on page 575 that “There is a particular aspect of Christ's work on the cross and a general aspect” and a little later he adds “Much about the Calvary work of Christ falls into this category of the inexplicable…” . Reading him in the best light possible he is a low calvinist, in the worst he is an Arminian Calvinist. So although there is much in his Sys Theo to appreciate, the doctrine of the atonement is an essential that I do not budge on and would rather recommend a paedobaptist over his credobaptist work. For a great discussion of the Atonement from a credobaptist perspective, I recommend you read Tom Nettles section on limited atonement in his book “By His Grace and For His Glory”.
Thanks for this review Jeff. Do you see any connection between Frame's perspectivalism and his major inconsistency?
cf. http://www.puritanboard.com/f77/peter-leithart-pacific-northwest-presbytery-38206/#post475274 (#5-6)
http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=122 (scroll down half way to “Letter from John Frame”)
Thanks for the input and the links, brother. As usual, I can rely on you to keep me up to date on some very important matters.
Brandon, thanks for these links. They are insightful, helpful, and sadly troubling. I am not convinced that Frame's tri-perspectivalism is the same thing as Poythress' “perspectivalism. Perspectivalism places “meaning” in the hands/minds of finite man–thus perspectibalism is another way of saying “relativism.” Frame, though he includes an existential element in his epistemology, he also believes that only God has the right to interpret meaning, thus there is an objective element in divine revelation. Since God is “Lord,” there is also an ethical element…in that we must submit to God's objective Word. The proper “existential” element only comes after the “objective” and “ethical” elements. In this way, Frame does not leave “meaning” to mere subjectivity. But I did not realize how connected Frame was to the Sanders' debate. This troubles me most of all and I can't help but feel disappointed in him.
Frame considers his position the same as Poythress'
“Perspectivalism is a name that has come to refer to some aspects of my theological method and that of my friend and colleague Vern Poythress. We have set it forth especially in Poythress’s Symphonic Theology1 and Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,2 and we have applied this method in a number of other writings.”
Yes, Frame's involvement in the Shepherd case and other ongoing departures from sola fide are very troubling. That's the context for the animosity between he and WSC.
“fn38… (“Developments in Reformed Theology in the Twentieth Century: A Response,” paper presented at the 45th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Washington, D.C. [November 18-20, 1993], 4). In this paper Godfrey also questioned the compatibility of John Frame’s perspectivalism with confessional Reformed interpretation” – See more at: http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=122#sthash.B1Scjfjp.dpuf
One more example of Frame being on the wrong side of things. This may explain why Frame wiggles around so much. This is sad, because on some things he is very insightful.
I haven't read his systematic theology, so I don't know what his defense of Shepherd looks like in that volume, but elsewhere he said “I must here also use some harsh language with some of Shepherd's critics (including official statements of two small denominations) who have accused Shepherd of denying the gospel or of preaching “another gospel.”… It should be plain that such criticisms are stupid, irresponsible, and divisive. Theological professors who make such comments, in my judgment, do not have the intellectual, theological, or spiritual maturity to prepare students for gospel ministry.” Foreword to “Backbone of the Bible”
Jeff, I’m Tyson James, National Chapters Director for Reasonable Faith and native of Conway, AR (now living in North Carolina). Just wanted to say I appreciated this review and would love to get together for coffee and theology next time I visit Conway. God bless!
Yes, that would be great. Please contact me the next time your in Conway.
I’ve read parts of Dr. Frame’s The Doctrine of God in his Theology of Lordship series. Like you, I found his insight and teaching in this work very helpful. At the time, I was studying the decrees of God and was looking for a thoughtful treatment of the problem of evil. Frame’s was the best I found at that time. (If you know of a better one, please recommend.)
Since then, like those who’ve commented here, I’ve learned that Frame has taken some positions that seem to depart not only from the best of the Reformed tradition, but from Scripture itself. I consider his reinterpretation of the regulative principle of worship (as articulated in chapter 22 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith) to be one of his regrettable strayings from orthodoxy.
I’m curious what your thoughts are about this.
(Currently re-reading your The Kingdom of God book and growing in my understanding and appreciation of Baptist covenant theology. Thank you for your labors in that.)