Monday, April 11, 2016

On disliking John Frame

Periodically, I return to the writings of John Frame, even though I know they will frustrate me.  Partly that's because there are people I seriously respect who have a high regard for him as a theologian, and I am trying to understand just why that is.  Partly it's because he is the foremost representative, to my knowledge, of a particular way of doing theology, a way which claims to represent continuity with historic Reformed Orthodoxy.  But I just can't get on with him, and I think I've worked out why.

Most recently I've been reading Frame's Doctrine of the Word of God, and it has really brought to the fore where I think things go wrong.  For Frame, everything is revelatory of God; everything is a medium of God's word.  "Clearly, everything that God has made, and every event that takes place, reveals God in some way" (p. 76).  Now, this does not seem ever so clear to me.  The logic behind it is that since the word of God is God (this identification is important), and since God is providentially in control of everything, everything is a medium of the word of God.  Note that he is absolutely not saying that all things and events, being subject to God's providence, are potentially bearers of God's word; he is saying that in actual fact all things and events are media of God's revelatory word.

This means that Scripture is "one word of God among many" (p. 410), albeit a word which in some way corrects and refines our understanding of the other divine words.  Frame is keen on Calvin's analogy - Scripture is like spectacles.  Without it, we do not see clearly what is being revealed of God through nature and history; with Scripture, our blurry vision comes into focus and we can see God in all things.  Note that "this is not to say that Scripture is more authoritative than the words of God in creation" (p. 411) - this cannot be said, because the word of God is God, and therefore speaks with equal authority wherever it is spoken (and it is spoken everywhere and in everything!)  But Scripture does have the role of correcting our understanding and interpretation of God's word spoken in creation and history.

What does this mean for Jesus Christ, whom Frame acknowledges to be the living Word of God, as per John 1?  Well, explicit discussion of this doesn't kick in until chapter 42 (on page 304!), because Frame follows a schema of creation-word, verbal-word, person-word.  In the end, all that he seems to do with the idea of Christ as Word is to say that he is the mediator of all revelation - because he is the creator God and the Lord of Providence, as well as the teacher par excellence.  It is particularly telling that in the next chapter Frame goes on to say that all humans are revelatory of God; Jesus seems to me on this scheme to be just the best of us.

What I really miss here is any sense of the cross in Frame's epistemology.  Everything seems to sail on in smooth continuity: God in creation, God in history, God in Jesus, God in Scripture...  There is no sense of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness; no sense of the revelation of God as that which decisively contradicts and overturns human wisdom.  God is never hidden, he never veils himself.  In fact, he is so clearly revealed in everything that Frame maintains not only that people can know about God from creation, but that each and every individual actually does know God.  He bases this on an exegesis of Romans 1 which I reject.  In Frame, I think it just serves as a powerplay.

And here's the heart of it: I think that what has happened in Frame is that the divine sovereignty has taken over from every other attribute of God.  Everything collapses into providence: God's authority and control.  It's no coincidence that Frame's multi-volume work is A Theology of Lordship, nor that he makes a slightly bizarre attempt to read concepts of lordship back into the divine name YHWH.  It seems to me that for Frame all theology boils down to this: God is in charge.  Now that's a truth, but unless it's read through the cross I think it's a truth which is hugely distorted.  And I see this not only in Frame but in many of the neo-Reformed across the pond.  In the end, it's a theology of glory, and not of the cross.

Oh, also, he says lots of nasty things about Karl Barth, which I understood much better after I read a bit about Van Til and how ridiculous he was.


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  2. Hm. I've never read the doctrine of the word of God, but I certainly never saw why Apologetics to the Glory of God was supposed to be any good. I thought it was hopeless - I seem to recall thinking that the idea of a biblical epistemology seemed as bizarre as a biblical meteorology, but it gets passed off as obviously an option. With respect to the lordship approach, I had similar thoughts - would be interested to compare notes with my own suspicions of frame's framing a few years ago apologetics and authorities. Similarly, my friend liam expressed similar dissafection with the spirit of the approach. Tacit rationalism if you ask me, in evangelical clothing.

  3. PS on a philosophical note, you may be interested in a brief anecdote. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Saul Kripke recently, he commented that back when he was a boy he went to these religious camps, and he recalled hearing statements - presumably influenced by Van Til's presuppositionalism - to the effect that "what people believe is just a matter of presuppositions - what logically follows from a set of basic principles you either accept or you dont by faith". He said even as a 14 year old boy, he thought that just couldn't be the case about logical principles - because unless you had intuitively understood or accepted/adopted principles of logical inference you would not be able to logically derive anything! Ironically, pondering on this insight developed into what is the deepest critique of Quine's scientism I've ever heard. Quine's scientism implied the possible empirical confirmation of logical principles - but Kripke's point was that the explanatory fruitfulness of accepting logical principles as theoretical axioms would be literally zero, unless you had intuitively adopted them.