Monday, December 09, 2013

Thoughts Upon John Frame's Systematic Theology

Two things I like a whole lot – books by John Frame and systematic theology. I have a whole section in my library dedicated to books on systematic theology. Extensively, I have read Calvin, Dabney, Hodge, Bavinck, Brakel, Gill, Boswell, Berkhof, Boyce, Shedd, Erickson, Grudem, Reymond, Horton, and others. These books are among my most treasured. I love me some systemic theology. And I also love John Frame. After reading the first and second volumes of his four volume series of “A Theology of Lordship” I was hooked. He quickly became one of my favorite authors, and I was committed to reading whatever was written by his golden pen. When I close a book by Frame, I feel closer to God and more enlightened to His Word. What a treasure John Frame is to the Church – and to me personally. Thus, when I learned that John Frame had written a book on systematic theology, I began foaming at the mouth. I ordered it the day that it was released, and had a good portion of it read soon after it arrived in the mail. Every other book that I was working through was quickly pushed to the side…for the crown jewel of books had arrived.
Here are a few of my initial thoughts upon John Frame’s new book on systematic theology.

Endorsement Overload
When I opened the book, one of the first things I noticed was the amount of pages that are dedicated to endorsements. How many endorsements does one book need? I guess for John Frame and P&R publishing, a book can never have too many. But who wants to read 69 endorsements that take up 20 pages? I have never seen so many endorsements for a single volume. I would think 50 would have been more than enough. No, I would say, 25 is sufficient in getting the point across? Wait? Is not 5 or 6 the standard? The truth is, I may have miscounted, but I thought it too weary of a process to double check … so please forgive me if there happens only to be 68 endorsements. At least for me, 69 endorsements seems a little over-the-top.

Massive in Appearance but Not a Slow Read
Nevertheless, I was not disappointed when I first held the book in my hands. Massive in size – the book is wider, thicker, and taller than Reymond and Grudem’s respective works on systematic theology. Yet, it did not take long to learn that the physical size of the book was somewhat deceptive. As I was reading, I noticed that I was making fast progress. Partly, this is because after I bypassed all the endorsements, I felt that I was almost halfway finished. All joking aside, as I was reading, pages were turning and my hand was moving much faster than I thought they would. This was because of the large print, healthy size margins, and about two to three pages that are easily skimmed or skipped at the end of each chapter that are dedicated to “Key Terms, Study Questions, Memory Verses, and Resources for Further Study.” So, what I thought was going to be an in-depth treatment of the various doctrines of Scripture, really turned out be a quicker read than I first imagined. Though the book is massive in size, each chapter is brief and to the point. Thus, the large book should not intimidate even the slowest of readers.

Truly, this Book is Only an Introduction to Systematic Theology
With that said, Hodge and Bavinck, in their respective works on systematic theology, like to take their time turning over every stone as they work through a variety of different interpretations upon each subject matter at hand. After explaining the forest, they move to examine the different types of trees, but they are not content until they microscopically explain the structure of the atoms that makeup the bark attached to the trees. That is, with Hodge and Bavinck, we learn at least four to five major (orthodox and unorthodox) positions upon each subheading of 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:
I have no objection to theologians who want to include in their work a larger component of historical and contemporary discussion. As I said before, this is historical theology, and that discipline is often a great help to systematics. I do object to theologies in which the historical emphasis detracts from an adequate biblical focus. I question whether it is possible to do an excellent job of combining a systematic theology with a history of doctrine, though many have tried to do it. Certainly I am not competent to do it (Page 11).  
Frame does not take a polemical approach in this book, but rather seeks to provide a basic overview of the various doctrines of the Bible. His main objective is to have us readers submit ourselves to the Lordship of God, not merely filling our heads full of academic jargon. Thus, each chapter remains fairly brief, simple, and easy to navigate. Rather than being a robust treatment upon systemic theology, I was surprised to learn that this book really does live up to its subtitle, “An Introduction to Christian Thought.”

A Tone of Humility
Several places I was amazed to read Frame saying something along the lines of, “I am not sure,” or “I tend to believe.”  For instance, when discussing the age of the earth and the days of creation, Frame openly admitted: “I have no new insight on these issues, nor even any view on the matter that I can argue with confidence. I would direct readers to the many other scholars who are producing articles and books on these subjects. Frankly, I tend to be persuaded by the last person I listened to…” (196). This is refreshing to read. We all have gaps in our learning, thus it is nice to read someone, especially of Frame’s caliber, who does not feel as if he has to be an expert upon every subject.

Lordship Theology 
If you have read any of John Frame’s books, especially any of his books upon Lordship Theology (they are very good by the way) or his “Apologetics to the Glory of God,” it will not take long for you to notice that the overarching theme of this book is “Lordship.” Every section of the book is presented and explained as it relates back to the Lordship of God. In fact, Frame does not seem to be worried as much about how each doctrine of the Bible relates and connects with the others doctrines of Bible as much as how every doctrine relates back to God’s Lordship. Grant it, Frame is seeking to present a cohesive system of theology, but for Frame, the golden string that binds all the branches of theology together is the Lordship of God – and his assessment may be dead on.

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
As I mentioned earlier, with the “Lordship motif,” Frame is not as concerned about how each branch of theology fits together with the other branches of theology as much as he is concerned about explaining how each biblical doctrine ties back into the Lordship of God. Of course, how to order or arrange the various branches of theology in a systemic way has been debated and will continue to be debated as long as there is more than one systematic theologian. But Frame’s order of things seems unhelpful at places – even unnatural. With his “Lordship motif,” I do not mind and I completely understand why he would choose to discuss Theology Proper (the doctrine of God) before talking about Bibliology (the doctrine of the Scriptures). I found it odd, however, that Frame opens up the doctrine of God with “the doctrine of miracles” (which is typically seen as a subcategory of providence). It is as if Frame arbitrarily works backwards. He begins with the doctrine of “Miracle[s]” and then moves on to “Providence,” “Creation,” “Decrees,” and only afterwards treats the various “Attributes of God.” It is more natural and helpful, it seems to me, to start with the major headings of theology before trying to explain the subheadings. On a positive note, at least Frame, more than likely, will not be charged with the “evils” of scholasticism.

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
Frame’s rejection of Two Kingdom theology may merely be a matter of emphasis, but a more blatant contradiction is found in his covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism is inconsistent and completely incompatible with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Covenantal nomism is the idea that we enter into the covenant of grace by God’s grace but we remain within the covenant of grace by works. And no matter how one tries to explain it, once conditions are incorporated into the covenant of grace, the covenant ceases to be a covenant of grace
Frame lays out covenantal nomism when explaining the nature of the Mosaic covenant. For instance, Frame states: 
Is the election of Israel based on works or grace? As we saw in Deuteronomy 7:7-8 and 9:4-6, it is not because of Israel’s numbers (power, influence) or righteousness, but wholly because of God’s unmerited love, that is, his grace .... On the other hand, Israel’s continued status in God’s covenant depends on obedience. God told the people at Mount Sinai, during the covenant-making .... The covenant relationship itself, here, is conditioned on obedience (215).
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:
“God’s covenants are unconditional in the sense that God will always carry out the purposes for which he made the covenants. In the covenant of grace, God the Father will certainly save all those he has given to belong to his Son. But they are conditional in that those who would receive those blessings must respond to God with a living faith (James 2:14-26). By God’s sovereign plan, however, he sees to it that the conditions are met in those he has ordained for salvation” (67).
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.

Even with his inconsistency, John Frame is still John Frame and the strengths of this book far outweigh its shortcomings. It lines up nicely with the rest of my books on systematic theology. As a pastor, I am in search for the perfect systematic theology book to recommend to the next generation of pastors. At this point, Calvin’s Institutes has yet to meet its rival and Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology is hard to beat for a contemporary presentation.   


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Is anyone familiar with Robert Duncan Culver's Systematic Theology?

    1. 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.

    2. 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".

  4. Thanks for this review Jeff. Do you see any connection between Frame's perspectivalism and his major inconsistency?

    cf. (#5-6) (scroll down half way to "Letter from John Frame")

    1. 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.

  5. 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 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.

    1. Thanks Jeff,

      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.

    2. "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:

  6. 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.

  7. 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"