Systematic Theology: An Introduction

Article by   January 2014
FrameSystematic93.jpgJohn Frame. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013. $49.99/£39.99

John Frame has managed to write a systematic theology (1280 pages). This is an extraordinary achievement when one considers that he has already written several significant volumes on certain theological loci. Those familiar with Frame's writings know that he has specialized in prolegomena and theology proper, with previous books on the doctrine of God (864 pages) and on the word of God (684 pages). He has also written extensively on the Christian life (1104 pages). Based on these works, and others, Frame has a significant reputation in broadly Reformed circles. This might explain the plethora of commendations (70 - how biblical!), covering an astonishing twenty pages. With such a glowing list of theologians, the work marks a significant landmark in systematic theology. Does the work live up to the praise offered by the septuagintsia

The book itself is made up of twelve parts, each covering the major loci in systematic theology. There are appendices at the end, one on Frame's "triads" and a helpful glossary of theological terms. There are many positives in this book (see below), but I do have certain methodological questions that need to be raised.

Up to page 767 Frame covers his areas of expertise: prolegomena and theology proper. These five parts constitute almost 70% of the book (767 out of 1124 pages). Frame candidly admits that "in many places some text has been cut and pasted from those past books" (preface). But he also claims to have done more than summarize the big books. He has also tried to be more "biblical, clear, and cogent" (preface). Clarity and cogency have always been a hallmark of his writings; and his Systematic Theology is certainly biblical, perhaps even to the point of biblicism in some places. Unfortunately, the current work fails to improve in the areas he has already addressed in previous books (the footnotes in chapter two, for example, bring attention to his previous work on the topics addressed). We could more heartily welcome this approach, if he made some further contributions to the other loci on which he has not already published. But those other loci do not receive the attention worthy of a thinker of Frame's caliber. Another issue warrants discussion: Frame acknowledges that his Systematic Theology is less historical than other similar volumes. This method, I think, hurts Frame's analysis of key doctrines in several places. I understand his desire not to be slavish in his dependence on others, but the great minds of the church would have been a help to Frame in key areas.

His lack of historical-theological interaction leads to a number of queries from my perspective. For example, I appreciate that he holds to the eternal covenant of redemption (pp. 58-60), but his discussion of this covenant differs slightly from the classical Reformed treatments of the topic. Consulting previous works on this covenant may have helped his discussion immensely, and perhaps Frame may have then been able to give some scriptural justification for what has been a thorny problem for Reformed theologians: "the faithful obedience of the...Spirit" (p.60) in this eternal covenant. In addition, there are places where Frame does not simply modify classical Reformed views, but in fact goes against them. Surprisingly, he holds to the eternal subordination of the Son and the Spirit (pp. 500-502). I wonder whether over-zealous complementarians are responsible for this theological anomaly. Whatever the reason, such language needs to be jettisoned. Moreover, Frame also rejects the historic Reformed view of God's impassibility (pp. 412-18). His reasons were not compelling, and I think his specific Christological argument to help his position is tenuous (p. 416). Denial of divine impassibility is a fairly serious error, as I see it, and others such as Bruce Ware and Rob Lister have also advanced this aberrant view in recent years. I raise these two issues in order to show that when Frame departs on significant doctrines from the theological tradition he belongs to, he should have interacted with the best from his tradition. On page 413 Frame critiques theologians who understand God's emotions as anthropomorphisms, but we are not told who these theologians are. Frame approvingly cites Don Carson's critique of Anselm's idea that God is "passionless." This "Greek metaphysical thought" (p.413) is not biblical, according to Frame. But one should note that the Westminster Confession likewise denies that God has passions (WCF 2.1; see also R.A. Muller, PRRD 3:309-11; 551ff.). The Westminster divines held to this because they held to God's immutability; and when you strike at one attribute you simply strike at them all.

It almost appears as though the "Bible-alone" approach handicaps Frame in places where he needs the Reformed tradition most. John Murray was radically biblical, but he was also vigorously exegetical, and did not simply engage in proof-texting. Frame is radically biblical, but not (in this volume, at least) vigorously exegetical - something he needs to be if he is not going to engage in serious historical-theological analysis where he departs from his own tradition on important doctrines.

Where Frame does rely on previous scholarship, such as the work of Meredith Kline, he affirms that the Mosaic covenant resembles the form of a suzerain treaty (pp. 18-19). Here Frame shares much in common with Michael Horton (!) insofar as both make use of the work of Kline, who himself relied on the work of George Mendenhall. But Ancient Near Eastern scholarship has developed quite significantly since Mendenhall, and I happen to think theologians today need to show more care in their appropriation of ANE treaties and how these treaties relate to biblical covenants. Incidentally, Frame does not appear to follow through the conclusions of Suzerain treaties as Kline did (see pp. 24-25). 

The other issue I raise concerns the lack of substance in his chapters on theological loci that move beyond prolegomena and theology proper. For example, in the area of Christology, Frame spends 20 pages on the person of Christ. Again, he does not really interact with the best from our tradition on key topics, such as the relation between the two natures (pp. 889-92). As a consequence, his thinking is a little muddled on the communication of attributes. He argues - correctly, I might add - that "We should never say that 'Jesus' human nature did this or that'...Jesus himself was the actor" (p. 891). But on the very next page he makes the error he warned against in a few places, such as the following: "We may say, certainly, that Jesus' human nature constantly pleased God..." (p. 892). Jesus pleased God; his human nature did not please God. There are a host of other Christological issues that remain unsolved in this volume, including Frame's idea that Christ's miracles are "presumably...proper to his divine nature" (p. 891). The Scriptures are quite clear that Christ performed miracles in the power of the Spirit (Matt. 12:28). The whole point of the Reformed communicatio, as understood by John Owen (see Works, 3:160ff), for example, was to explain how the Holy Spirit could have any meaningful role in the life of the God-man. I'm not sure how Frame could explain the pervasive role of the Spirit in the life of Christ based on his understanding of the relationship between the two natures. 

Only 19 pages are devoted to the work of Christ - half a page to Christ's intercession (p. 907). And his treatment of Christ's offices is too basic (see pp. 900-10). His handling of the states of Christ simply contains lengthy quotations from the Westminster Larger Catechism (pp. 910-13). Furthermore, chapter 39 on the Holy Spirit is a mere 10 pages (pp. 923-32). 

There are some notable high points in the book, especially his treatments of God's Word and epistemology. I deeply appreciated his discussion of whether believers are totally depraved (pp. 865-71). His triadic structures are occasionally helpful (p. 58), but often perplexing and strained (see p. 233). Nonetheless, he has a remarkable gift for clarity. He makes theology practical from beginning to end, with a final chapter on how Christians ought to live. No one can ever accuse Frame of not loving his Bible, and making it pre-eminent in his theological discourse. For that I am grateful. No wonder his writings have been hugely beneficial to the Reformed, evangelical world. This work has, as its crown jewel, much of Frame's thought in one volume. Students new to theology will find this to be one of the very best systematic theologies ever written for accessible Reformed theology, and they need not be intimidated by its size.

However, for the more experienced theologian, Frame's Systematic Theology is too uneven. There are sections that do not do justice to the stature and brilliance of Frame's thinking. Could Frame revise and substantiate this otherwise good volume? I think so. Indeed, I would like to think that is a possibility.

Dr. Mark Jones is Pastor at Faith Vancouver Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein).
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