Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

Written by John M. Frame Reviewed By Paul Wells

John Frame holds the J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and needs no introduction in the arena of evangelical theology. His voluminous contributions to present include a four-volume Theology of Lordship and an introduction to systematic theology entitled Salvation Belongs to the Lord as well as a variety of monographs. The present weighty tome bears the modest subtitle “An Introduction to Christian Belief”, a pointer to evaluating it, as apparently Frame is not writing for academia but for the edification of a broader informed public.

Whether one likes Frame’s way of doing theology or not, this is a magnificent achievement that caps an outstanding career. Frame is biblical in content, clear in expression, accessible to those outside the huddle of theological literati and above all, because theology is all about application, practical in the service of the church. Nor is Frame one to hide his light under a bushel. Even if polite restraint is everywhere formally observed, the reader is left in no doubt as to what the writer does not like about the current scene, whether it be open theism, libertarianism, gender equality, panentheism, Arminianism or just plain old academic compromise for reasons of respectability, as well as a few in-house Reformed problems that are treated more briefly, such as two-kingdom theology.

In so far as method is concerned, as in Frame’s other writings two features have prominence, namely, the status of biblical revelation and the triadic approach to theological questions, which is more than just a simple heuristic device. First and foremost, Scripture is determinative for Frame. For this reason he is not particularly interested in discussing the contribution of extra-biblical considerations to theological method either in a broad sense or with regard to particular issues. The kind of questions generated by Vanhoozer’s “first theology” methodology are bypassed, which does not mean that Frame does not use his well-honed linguistic analytical skills when he needs to get out of a corner.

So much is clear from the outset: “The Bible is the most important thing. Only the Bible is the written Word of God made available to us. It must have the final word in all historical and contemporary controversies. So the most important aspect of theological work is to present to readers what the Bible says. And if some choice is to be made (as it must) of what to include and exclude, that choice must be on the basis of what is best suited to express the Bible’s teaching to contemporary readers” (p. xxxi). Frame aims, self-consciously and explicitly and perhaps more than many of his predecessors or contemporaries, at writing a theology that corresponds to sola Scriptura, taking it as the exclusive principle and letting Scripture speak. If words are the theologian’s tools, then words warranted by Scripture itself are best. Definitions too are necessary, but biblical definitions are the best. Scripture is our authority because it is God’s word, not because of its content.

In evaluating the validity of the tradition, Frame often brushes aside some received idea for biblical reasons, as he does quite typically when considering the Augustinian idea of privation: “I know no biblical reason to assert that created things by nature tend to slip into nonbeing, to lose their being, or to become corrupt. Scripture says nothing of the kind, and in the absence of scriptural warrant I know of no other reason to say such a thing” (p. 288). Even Van Til’s generally appreciated distinction about paradoxes and real and apparent contradictions which are ultimately reconciled in the divine mind is criticised: “I see no scriptural basis for such a claim. I don’t think Scripture tells us what apparent contradictions are reconcilable by creatures and which are not” (p. 332).

Of course Frame is going to be accused of biblicism, which does not particularly embarrass him as is shown by his riposte “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” published in his previous book The Doctrine of the Word of God. Frame’s concern is not only to write a distinctively Christian systematic theology, a book that could not “have been written by a Jew, Muslim, or secularist” (p. 914) but above all to write a biblical one. This will strike some as being an excessive and even a fundamentalistic variant of foundationalism. Frame denies that his position can be equated with the foundationalism he criticises (pp. 724–27). No self-evident foundations are necessary in the theological quest because if one is confident that all Scripture is God’s truth, one can start anywhere: “When we have a settled view that Scripture teaches p, then we must believe p, over against any claim that p is false. Applying this maxim throughout our quest for knowledge gives us a firm basis for finding truth, firm enough to describe it as a ‘foundation’ of knowledge. But this is not the kind of foundationalism so regularly discussed and dismissed today” (p. 727, italics Frame’s). Such a frank position will doubtless irritate modernists and postmodernists alike, but this is hardly something to bother Frame as it is a hallmark of his theology and constitutes its originality. “Biblical” is always the operative and final word even if, in Frame’s understanding, this does not eliminate “good and necessary consequences” which are applications of Scripture (p. 355).

Correlated with the biblical approach is an epistemology which, in some way, corresponds to the unique character of Scripture and provides a key for unlocking its inbuilt meaning: “a triperspectival biblical epistemology,” says Frame, “enables us to form a basically coherent understanding of the world by our own minds under God’s revelation” (p. 726). The triadic method permeates the whole of this work (as appendix A shows) and in his foreword J. I. Packer reckons to have counted a grand total of 110 “cogent triadic analyses,” an estimate that seems modest to me (p. xxix). Frame’s theology has been called “multiperspectivalism” (a word that strangely crops up only on p. 1112), but he does not explain the omnipresent triadic method, which is surprising in the light of the fact that critics, such as Meredith Kline, have questioned whether it is an acceptable way of doing theology. A brief presentation of the triadic approach would have been useful in the introduction, particularly for readers new to Frame, as I hope many will be.

As it is, triads crop up all over the place. We are told tongue-in-cheek that the proper method in theology is of course to divide everything in threes not twos as Ramus did (p. 258n2) and that there is “something mysteriously captivating” about the number three (p. 436) even though a direct Trinitarian rapport cannot be theoretically established (p. 507). It is not until page 1103 that we read in a footnote that Frame is indebted to Cornelius Van Til, whose ethical triad of standard, goal, and motive was the seed of thought behind all his triads.

Triadic thought (also called perspectivalism and triperspectivalism) arises out of the transcendence and immanence of God expressed in the Creator-creature distinction, in divine revelation and in the covenant context in which the divine Lordship attributes (control, authority and presence) are recognisably present. When man encounters God there are necessarily three perspectives involved in this meeting: the normative or the standard, as God is everywhere Lord; the locus in which the nature of God’s authority is made known, or the situational perspective; and the subjectivity of man as the creaturely receptor, or the existential motivational-subjective perspective. Frame insists that these perspectives are three aspects of one reality: “The key point is that in dealing with these triangles, it is important to note what the whole triangle represents. In the triad normative, situational, existential, the whole triangle represents all of reality. So each corner of it also deals with all of reality, and each is ultimately identical with the others.” (p. 971) Thus Frame insists that all knowledge is in some respect covenantal and dependent on the Word of God and that there is no secular “neutral” knowledge, not even arising from common grace in the profane sphere inhabited by the “good pagan.” True, all human knowledge is obviously not derived from Scripture, but it must all be reconciled with Scripture.

Given that triadic theology presents three perspectives on a given reality, it may be asked, and it has been, whether the relation between the perspectives is correlated and complementary, or whether there is any order of importance and subordination of one to the other. But such discussion lies beyond the scope of this review. Readers can refer to Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (part III) for an in depth discussion of perspectivalism. One disadvantage of the triadic method that might be experienced, particularly when it is applied in extenso, as in this book, is that of a certain triadic overkill or repetitiveness, in which the element of surprise that characterises intriguing books (even in systematic theology!) is lost. However it cannot be denied that Frame’s many triangles have not only evident theological warrant but also excellent pedagogical value.

As to the content of this book, Frame follows the traditional pattern of systematic loci expected in a work of this nature, adding chapters on the Christian life and ethics. However, this is primarily a book for first-time “Framers” and I’ll explain why. If you already have read Frame’s four volumes on Lordship and his introduction to systematics a good many of the things found here are already published in them. So part III of this book is a rewritten and abridged version of The Doctrine of God, part IV of the Doctrine of the Word of God and part V is based on the Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (1987). There are of course many tweaks, but basically the ground covered is the same. As far as parts VIII and following of this book are concerned, these are a reprise of Salvation Belongs to the Lord (2006), often verbatim, with some additions. Adepts of source and redaction criticism can do the rest; I make these comments not to detract from the excellence of the contents of the work before us, but those who are closer to their bucks than their books will be interested to know what’s in this package.

Frame himself preempts some expected criticism about the “lopsided structure of this book” with something of a mea culpa: “Some of my correspondents have noticed that the chapters on Christology are rather short compared to other systematic theologies. One would think that a truly Christian and Christ-centered theology would be more voluminous in the sections dealing most explicitly with the Lord of our salvation. But as I have indicated above, I have tried to show how every topic of this book centers on Christ” (p. 880n11). One fully appreciates the fact, and as it stands this book is wholly centred on the work of the Mediator of the covenant from creation and before to final redemption. However, in the light of the complexity and richness of present Christological debate, it is something of a disappointment to find that here the person and work of Christ only occupies 44 pages of the whole. Perhaps we can still hope for a final volume of the Lordship series on the subject?

Another feature of the book, which is justified in the light of its aim and target audience, is the quantity of quotations from Scripture, which occupies considerable page space. For some it will appear excessive, and one does wonder whether more economy in quotation might have been justifiable. For instance almost the whole of page 979 is a quotation from Rom 8 and pages 910–11 quote pp. 46–50 of the Westminster Larger Catechism in full.

These details apart, Frame lives up to his mission of writing a biblical systematics, one which will stand alongside the classics of the past and the Grudems and Ericksons of the present. If his primary aim is to do justice to Scripture, he can hardly be accused that this is a pretext for the neglect of present concerns and interpretations. Not only does he expound Scripture throughout, but he gives fair and adequate treatment to current debate on relevant related issues when the need arises. For example, his discussion as to whether God has “feelings” and of Moltmann’s “suffering God” on pages 412–19 is both to the point and convincing. Here is Frame in full flight:

Moltmann is right to find divine suffering in the cross in the senses mentioned above. But he is wrong, I think, to conclude that the doctrine of God’s impassibility is merely a remnant of Greek philosophy. As we have seen, the doctrine of impassibility should not be used to deny that God has emotions, or to deny that God the Son suffers real injury and death on the cross. But God in his transcendent nature cannot be harmed in any way, nor can he suffer loss. In his eternal existence, “suffering loss” could only mean losing some attribute, being defeated in his war with Satan, or otherwise failing to accomplish his eternal plan. Scripture assures us that none of these things will happen—so they cannot happen. In this sense, God is impassible” (p. 417).

That said, Frame basically regrets Moltmann’s unbiblical speculations, the fact that concerning suffering in God or of God we are largely ignorant and should admit it (p. 416). Quite so, there is something almost insufferable about Moltmann’s dogmatism, even if it is often thought to be “creative.”

In a similar vein, Frame is at his best when aided and abetted by his skill in linguistic analysis; he tackles the big issues such as the problem of evil, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the nature of human freedom. He confronts head-on the “new perspective on Paul” (pp. 972–74), the currently fashionable middle knowledge (pp. 835–36) and libertarianism. His critique of the latter in 15 points (!) (pp. 825–30)—showing that “we must abandon either libertarianism or sola Scriptura”—will undoubtedly be highly unpopular in some circles, but Frame gives anyone who thinks the contrary a good deal to mull over. Likewise, regarding God’s knowledge of the future and the claims of open theism Frame states bluntly: “one of the ‘selling points’ is that it is a new position. But in fact it is an old heresy, rejected by the church four hundred years ago” (p. 310n20). He argues cogently that “God’s knowledge, even conditional knowledge, of a human free act does not cohere with the system of open theism” (p. 315), but his main reasons for rejecting it are biblical ones, either by historical example or in statements such as found in Ps 139:4, that God knows our words “altogether” before they are on our tongues, which is better than any reasoning (p. 316).

On some points the reader might think that Frame has undersold us and wish he had gone another mile. For example we are told more than once (p. 784, 792, 794) that he does not agree with Barth’s sexualising of the image of God, but he neither describes Barth’s position nor states his disagreement more fully. There is no discussion of the whys and wherefores of cessationism as such (but cf. p. 132 on miracles), although we are told why he does not find Grudem’s ideas on prophecy convincing (p. 929ff.). Some may well wish, in the light of current debate on the subject, that Frame had gone deeper into questions such as that of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (pp. 902, 968), or that of whether none at all will be saved apart from a verbal confession of Christ (pp. 957–58). Another tantalising issue that is not fully developed in terms of its consequences concerns Frame’s “holistic” view of body and soul, which gets him over the related problems of dichotomy and trichotomy, creationism and traducianism, and the immortality of the soul without a hitch. However, if the terms spirit, soul, and body are not taken to designate metaphysical components of the human person, as Frame asserts, fascinating questions are raised both in the realm of Christology and as to where we go after death. The numerous questions raised certainly call for some development.

Much more could be said about the qualities of Frame’s thorough and impassioned defence of biblical truth and his willingness to swim against the tide when it is going out, but enough! On every page the reader will find reasons for praise and thankfulness, for reflexion, for agreement (or disagreement!) because Frame speaks to us in such a way that he never leaves us indifferent. His systematics is and will remain one of the major contributions to orthodox Reformed theology since Bavinck.

Paul Wells

Paul Wells
Faculté Jean Calvin
Aix-en-Provence, France

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