Tuesday, 20 October 2009

part of a Frame

A Review of John Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002)

Under the wider umbrella of a ‘Theology of Lordship’, Frame sets out his doctrine of God. This work is a sequel to The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (1987), or perhaps that work was merely the introduction to this one. Major books on the Word of God (in progress) and the Christian Life (P&R, 2008) also come under this umbrella, and are part of the multi-perspectival approach to doctrine advocated by Frame and Vern Poythress. So in fact it is inappropriate to speak of any work as ultimately ‘prior’ to the others, whatever the heuristic or pedagogical value in starting with the volume on epistempology, for example.  

So Frame says of metaphysics, ethics and epistemology that each presupposes and even determines the other two, and thus none is prior to the others (pp.196, and passim). Thus there is great validity in approaching a subject from various directions, each of which is admitted to be incomplete

The Doctrine of God (DG) is a mere 806 pages, including Frame’s helpful appendices, which review contemporary discussions of theology proper and respond to some incompetent attacks on his earlier works. This review pertains only to the first 18 of the 29 chapters, since I have not yet got through the rest of the book. This is simply a question of time, not any weakness in the presentation of DG – Frame’s writing is lucid and a real pleasure to engage with. It is hard to imagine how one might communicate the subtleties of his discussion any more helpfully for the educated layman.

Frame has already presented a detailed outline of the work (xi-xx) so I won’t summarise here. Basically, I agree with everything I have read so far. DG is steeped in Scripture, extremely reasonable and careful in tone, confident in all the right places and generally amazing. Regarding reasonableness, the section on 6-day creation (pp.302-12) is a prime example of Frame’s humility and alertness to the variety of positions that are permitted by the text of Scripture, while still making clear which position he tends towards. His overall confident approach, the theology of lordship, beginning with analysis of how the OT in particular presents God as Lord/LORD is a useful fresh take on the subject. When he speaks of covenant lordship he does not use the adjective as a banner as some might, but he actually discusses what that means, such as the aspect of ‘covenant presence’ – God is near/here to bless/judge (pp.95-101). Rather than enthuse too much more, I will spend the rest of this review on interesting questions thrown up by DG and on a few places where Frame has been slightly less careful than usual.

Natural Reason.

In his (probably correct) critique of Aquinas on natural reason (as prior to revelation; pp.224-5) Frame almost ends up as an unwitting critic of his own position (as expressed in his discussion of ethics, pp.195-6) that that situational (sensory, factual) knowledge is necessary for us to be able to hold normative (Scriptural) knowledge. For Frame, these different types of knowledge are arranged in an equal triad, but sometimes he comes close to saying that ‘situational knowledge’ is mere fodder. This undermines the internal equality of the triad’s perspectives.


Frame convincingly argues that transcendence/immanence language in Scripture is not primarily spatial, but is about lordship and authority. But this does not in itself remove the ‘problem’ of how to conceive of ‘spatial’ transcendence/immanence. A footnote (p.105, fn.4) refers the reader on to chapters 24 and 25 so maybe my question will be answered there…!


DG contains a superb account of the greater-good defence of a sovereign God in the face of evil. Frame disagrees with the privation theory of evil because it posits degrees of being (unwarranted from Scripture, and tending towards pantheism) and because it doesn’t actually absolve God, since in the universe posited by the privation theory an omnipotent God is still responsible for ‘non-being’ as much as for ‘being’. Of course, Frame’s second point there does not tell us whether or not the privation theory is true, only that it is insufficient to defend God. To me, there does seem to be something more real about the triune God than anything in his creation, and thus something is left of the privation theory if used as a support to the greater-good defence. I was pleased to see that a little later on Frame agrees (p.180, fn.41)! But he is not completely consistent in his formulations. The main text continues to maintain equivalence between God’s being and our being (e.g. p.217, ‘there are no degrees of reality… God is real, and we are real’) while also saying that there is a difference, too – ‘ours at its very best, even perfected by grace, is the goodness of creatures’(p.218). He notes a distinction between uncreated being and created being, and thus implies that evil as a species of the latter may indeed be ontologically different from the (uncreated) goodness of God. There’s hope for modified privation after all.

He briefly returns to theodicy in a neat discussion of concurrence (pp.287-88). All good, but driven by his (plausible) rejection of any ‘laws of nature’ and the corresponding definiton of a miracle as simply an unusual event brought about by God for various purposes (see esp. pp.258-61) Frame is reluctant to identify any events that have ‘no secondary cause at all’ beyond Creation, Incarnation and the regeneration of the believer. What about the return of Christ!? And I’m sure we could think of some miracles that involved the addition of matter to the universe at a particular point in history after the 6 days of creation…


On the question of the drawing of lots Frame is rather hesitant (p.52) but this is because he has moemntarily forgotten to be careful over the use of the phrase ‘God’s will’. Sure, we never use lots to decipher God’s moral will (it is revealed in Scripture), but why not to reveal or precipitate (as it were) his permisive will for our particular futures? On questions where there is no right or wrong choice, that is. Of course there is plenty of biblical precedent for a thorough scripturalist like Frame to take more comfort in flipping a coin over his choice of burger relish or house purchase, or whatever.


A great many authors and speakers intimate, imply or even state that individual believers are the bride(s) of Christ. But I am surprised that Frame is one of them! ‘It is important for both male and female Christians to know, and to meditate deeply on the fact, that in relation to God they are female – wives called to submit in love to their gracious husband’. (p.385) Notice the plural wives there. I’m really sure about this. I think God relates to each believer as Father, Brother, Helper (and much more besides) but not as husband. That is his relationship to the church/Israel.


Frame on the ‘simplicity’ of God (pp.225-30) brings to mind the Islamic discussion of the attributes of Allah, and early medieval Christian critique of said discussions as compromising Allah’s supposed unity. There is more to think about here when my head is clearer!

More please!

Sometimes Frame refers to controversial issues only in passing. This is not necessarily a problem – in a book on the doctrine of God, a paragraph and a list of useful secondary literature are adequate for the subject of human gender relations – but there were a couple of places where the brevity was more unfortunate. First, soteric pluralism gets only a couple of biblical quotes without any interaction with the exegesis of those passages by proper pluralists or woolly liberal Anglicans (pp.92-3). This ought to be a significant topic in the context of a theology based around revelation, covenant, etc. Second, Frame twice speaks of ‘the rejection of Israel’ without grounding his discussion. Once it’s a passing reference (p.86, fn.10) concerning the faith of the centurion, whose faith – greater than any Jesus had seen in Israel – is ‘a sign of the Gentiles election and Israel’s rejection’. The other occasion is in the midst of a discussion of election without the full benefits of salvation. Frame gives two examples – Judas, an individal, so raising no conceptual problems, ‘and national Israel, which, because of unbelief, lost its special status as God’s elect nation’ (p.49, fn.3). I’d want more clarity here. Maybe en masse they were “elected without the full benefits”, but if so, in what sense does particular “rejection” need to follow, if the election was never unto full (numerical or depth across the board) salvation anyway? After all, we already know of plenty of apostate and judged Jews in the OT. Hmm.