Speaking the Truth in Love

Article by   December 2009
Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame
By John J. Hughes
1500 p.
P&R Publishing (October 2009)

Speaking the Truth in Love is a collection of essays marking the contribution to theology of Professor John Frame. Currently the J.D Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, John Frame has taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and at its daughter campus in California. As a regular writer on theological topics, whose articles and books have been appearing regularly over the past forty years, John Frame's influence has spread far beyond the three campuses on which he has taught, and his works continue to be read and appreciated throughout the evangelical world. That his seventieth birthday falls in 2009 makes a festschrift appropriate.

But as both the editor and the honoree of this particular festschrift acknowledge, this is an unusual collection of essays. It is usually the function of a festschrift to honour a scholar by gathering and editing a collection of studies by his peers, and usually without his knowledge. Speaking the Truth in Love was not only a project known to Professor Frame, but one in which he played an active and collaborative part from the outset. The resulting work is intended to honour him with his full co-operation; it is very much about him and about the distinctive categories of his thought, as well as being very much shaped by him.

Frame's remarks in the Preface that 'this may be the biggest festschrift ever published' (page xxi - Frame is quoting the editor) is probably true. This volume runs to 81 prefatory pages, and 1118 main pages of text. The thirty-nine main chapters come from a wide variety of scholars, and some from Frame himself. That is not to speak of the foreword by Jim Packer, the special note of appreciation from Ric Cannada, the forty-eight personal notes of gratitude, thankfulness and congratulations from friends and colleagues, and the response, the directory of Frame's ideas, triads and writings. By any standard, it was a mammoth undertaking, involving over eighty contributors in all (and many others whose contributions behind the scenes are mentioned in the editor's acknowledgments), and it has certainly produced a volume with few parallels as festschriften go.

The whole work is framed (pun intended) around eight themes - introduction, theology, apologetics, the church, worship, ethics, culture and future relevance. The editor informs us that 'the authors and topics in this [festschrift] were selected by the honoree, so that the resulting book functions as an introduction to John's theology' (p33, n.10). Indeed, for an introduction to John Frame's writings and ideas, as well as the men and movements which influenced them, one could profitably read the first two chapters, written by Frame himself, on 'My Books: their Genesis and main ideas', and 'Backgrounds to my Thought'. Equally helpful for contextualizing Frame's theology are the editor's chapter on 'The Heart of John Frame's Theology', and an interview with John Frame usefully republished from the journal Christian Culture, and entitled 'Reflections of a Lifetime Theologian' (chapter 4). Frame's 30-point advice to prospective and actual theologians (pp106-110) is sobering, biblical commonsense. Among the things he passes on are these gems: 'consider that you might not be called to theological work' (p106), 'learn to write and speak clearly and cogently' (p107), 'Guard your sexual instincts' (p108), 'Respect your elders' (p109), 'Don't lose your sense of humor' (p110). All sound, sage wisdom.

The festschrift proper - as one would expect - is a collection of essays of unequal weight, covering the main emphases of Frame's thought. But if there is one issue that runs through Frame's writings, it is the idea of multiperspectivalism - a concept which built on Van Til's idea of there being different perspectives on revelation. Professor Joseph Torres summarizes Frame's view on acts of knowing in terms of the normative perspective (the perspective of the one knowing), the situational perspective (the perspective of the object of knowledge), and the existential perspective (the criteria by which knowledge is obtained). In theological terms, all our knowing is under the lordship of God: his authority is absolute, and we are subject to it; his control of history is axiomatic, and we need to acknowledge it; his presence in judgment or blessing belongs to our being made in his image, and we must be aware of it.

These triads are important both for theology and ethics. Frame's writings develop multiperspectivalism in connection with our knowledge of God himself as a Triune being, an idea explored by Vern Poythress in an illuminating chapter on 'Multiperspectivalism and the Reformed Faith' (chapter 8). Poythress explores the twin influences of Van Tillian Apologetics and Vosian Biblic Theology in the development of Frame's thought, and helpfully suggests that biblical concepts can be expressed in different ways, with a flexibility that is often missing from theological discourse. Yet, to quote Poythress, 'flexibility is next door to perspectivalism' (p197). The Creator-creature distinction, the hiddenness of the God of revelation, the absoluteness and accessibility of God, the equal ultimacy of God's oneness and God's plurality - these are issues which may be studied from the different perspectives offered in Scripture. Poythress is surely correct to credit Frame with enriching the Reformed tradition at this point (p199).

Frame's enrichment of the tradition is acknowledged in many chapters throughout this volume. Tim Trumper, for example, states that perspectivalism is 'simply generic Calvinism' which takes seriously both general and special revelation, yet he also argues that 'Frame's introduction and articulation of it constitutes a significant landmark in the development of constructive Calvinism' (p160). Not least, says Trumper, Frame's approach enables us both to appreciate our own Reformed tradition and to be critical of it when that is required.

The enrichment is also apparent in K. Scott Oliphint's comparison of Frame and Bavinck on the issue of prolegomena. For all his emphasis on the authority of Scripture, Oliphint accuses Bavinck of conceding too much to non-Christian epistemology. Frame, he suggests, has successfully reminded us that all knowledge is dependent upon the Word of God. Similarly, Mark Garcia reminds us that for Frame all theology is applicable and practical. Biblical theology is the history of redemption, but it is more than history. This, as the title of Luder Whitlock's essay suggests, makes Frame both orthodox and creative (chapter 11).

But Derek Thomas makes the point that 'in avoiding historical trajectories and their consequent language, Frame invents categories  and terms of his own with considerable flair' (p353). While Thomas's remarks are qualified by his deference to Frame's 'towering genius' (p351), he raises some important points on the apparently absent perspective: the perspective of history. Nonetheless, as Thomas points out, Frame's contribution to theology avoids the barrenness of the rationalistic tendency in some of the older works. The section on Theology (the longest section of the festschrift) concludes with a masterful exegesis of Psalm 19 by Bruce Waltke.

Professor Bill Edgar introduces us to 'Frame the Apologist', in an illuminating chapter highlighting Frame's view of apologetics as theology - the application of the Word of God to human unbelief (p400). For Frame, apologetics was more than the defense of the faith - it includes the way in which we know God. Edgar shows again how Frame has built on the inherited tradition, particular the tradition of Van Tillian apologetics, where Frame exposed weaknesses as well as developing the idea of presuppositionalism. The essays by James Anderson (chapter 19) David Collett (chapter 20) and Steve Scrivener (chapter 22) further explore the comparisons and contrasts between Van Til and Frame, while William Davis, writing on 'Frame in the Context of Recent Apologetics' reminds us that Frame's approach had as its goal both the growth of confidence in, and the awareness of the limitations of, traditional arguments used in defending the faith (p506). Davis is surely correct to suggest that Frame's 'adaptation of Van Til's presuppositionalism' is an important factor in the development of an apologetics which, from the outset, defends the faith 'with open dependence on God's authority, grace and revelation' (p520).

Eight (fairly demanding) chapters on the topic of apologetics are followed by shorter sections on the church (four chapters), worship (two), ethics (three) and culture (four). From one perspective (!) there could an imbalance here. Certainly there is much that is controversial, but little that is not stimulating. Dennis Johnson applies Frame's triperspectivalism to pastoral ministry, reminding us that all preaching unfolds the Word of God (the normative perspective), ought to transform the man of God (the existential perspective) and applies this to the context of the hearers (the situational perspective). This provides a Frame-work for all pastoral ministry, as Johnson reminds us: it 'calls pastors to bow to Scripture as the norm for their message and their methods, to submit to the Spirit's transformation by the Word in their own lives, and then to convey the Word clearly and persuasively to their hearers. Neglecting any of these perspectives will produce ministry that lacks biblical balance' (p656). Amen to that.

John H. Armstrong and D. Clair Davis both explore Frame's view on the nature of the church, and in particular his call to radical evangelical unity. Davis in particular makes an honest and sobering assessment about the way in which church issues related to the early developments in Westminster Theological Seminary. Referencing Frame's own article in another volume on 'Machen's Warrior Children', Davis asks: 'Is it really possible to stand vigorously for the truth of the Bible without becoming cantankerous?' (p698). If nothing else, Davis reminds us that more church divisions are caused by issues of personality rather than by issues of theology. He acknowledges his debt to the application of Frame's multiperspectivalism in this area too: we need to remember what is normative (the authority of Scripture), what is situational (where we have been put by God!), and what is existential (how is the Bible shaping my life personally?).

Reggie Kidd applies that triad to worship - an area in which Frame's writings have caused much discussion and disagreement. Kidd has a masterpiece of a sentence summarizing Frame's position on the normative and authoritative role of Scripture in worship: 'he recognizes that Scripture speaks in some places prescriptively and proscriptively, in other places paradigmatically and poetically and proverbially' (p716). For Frame, the varieties of Scripture are analogous to the varieties permitted in worship. Paxson Jeancake shows how this has worked out in Frame's contribution to contemporary worship, both by his writings and his own personal example. The principles of importance are Scripture over traditionalism, intelligibility in worship, the Great Commission and denominationalism.

The principle of theology as application comes across clearly in the sections on ethics and culture. Wayne Grudem has a characteristically thorough treatment on the ninth commandment and lying (Chapter 33, with which Frame engages very helpfully on pp973-4). Equally stimulating is Richard Pratt's concluding chapter on 'John Frame and the Future of the Church', particularly in the areas of theological conviction (and applying sola scriptura). We should, says Pratt, 'hold doctrines taught in the ecumenical creeds, the central doctrines of our confessions, and the like, with unyielding tenacity. Yet we must also distinguish them from many other beliefs we hold' (p948). There are matters which are secondary. Pratt also highlights multiperspectivalism and Frame's proposals for theological education as key aspects of his contribution to a robust future for the Reformed faith.

The festschrift concludes with a chapter in which Frame engages with a selection of essays in the work, and provides an appendix of 'Frame's Major Ideas', a directory of 'Frame's Major Triads', a glossary of terms and a topical bibliography and a list of recommended resources. It is impossible, of course, for any festschrift to be the final word on a theologian's contribution - in many cases, more publications can be expected. In the case of John Frame, the festschrift promises the forthcoming publication of the next in Frame's 'Lordship' series - his anticipated Doctrine of the Word of God. Nor is this merely intimated; Frame promises that 'for better or worse, the book will leave the academic mainstream far to one side' (pxxi).

This is all, therefore, a work in progress. Speaking the Truth in Love is an indispensable tool both as an introduction to Frame's distinctive ideas and an analysis of his major contributions. Its bulk is not a problem, but its reliance on abbreviations is - witness page 529, for example! Frame's name lends itself to pun-making, but Chapter 27 on 'I've been Framed!' rather over-trivialises this. And I have to confess that Chapter 6 on 'John Frame: The Closet Radical' fails to convince. Frame is not in any closet. He is a public, and consistent, type of radical: a teacher rooted in a particular tradition, but ready to critique the tradition in its own light. That presence is everywhere throughout the book.  

But from another perspective (sic) that presence is also the most extraordinary aspect of the whole publication. As I said at the outset, this is an unusual collection. It is one thing for a theologian's colleagues and peers to commend his distinctives, but there is something atypical about the theologian himself playing so large a part in the process, and so self-consciously advising readers on how to get started in understanding his views.

But I leave the final word to one of the few female contributors. In a comparative essay on John Frame and Michael Polanyi, Esther Meek wrote that 'It isn't the triad that is the most stunning feature of Frame's work. It is the covenant nearness and solidarity of the authoritative and powerful heavenly Father, whose knowing us constitutes us and then redeems us' (p627). That idea is surely the most glorious of all ideas: that the sovereign Lord of all the earth has committed himself to us, who are less than nothing and vanity. As an exponent of that idea, Frame has put us all in his debt. Along with all the contributors to this remarkable volume, he has not only pointed us to the truth, but shown us how best to articulate it.

Iain Campbell is a pastor on the Isle of Lewis in the United Kingdom.

"Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame (A Review)"

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