Review: Systematic Theology, by John Frame

John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 1219 pages.| P&RJohn Frame ST

John Frame, J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic
Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando
, has already authored a number of sizeable works in theology. His series, A Theology of Lordship, comprises four volumes on specific Christian doctrines: The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (1987), The Doctrine of God (2002), The Doctrine of the Christian Life (2008), and The Doctrine of the Word of God (2010). In addition, Frame has already written a slender primer to systematic theology, Salvation Belongs to Our God: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2006). Now, Frame has put together a single massive volume of systematic theology.

Summary

For those who are familiar with Frame’s thought, many of the same features are present here. The work attempts to do systematic theology in what we might call a “plain language” mode. Footnotes and conversation partners are sparing, as Frame seeks to make this work accessible to non-scholars with little knowledge of inner academic debates. Indeed, the book intentionally sidesteps traditional historical disputes that often give structure to theological discussions; rather, it is self-proclaimed as “biblicist” in its outlook. Frame states clearly that “this present volume of systematic theology will be focused on Scripture, not on history of doctrine or contemporary theology” (p. 11). He even wonders if such a historical task is not fraught from the start: “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” (p. 11). Although Frame certainly has his theological adversaries (open theism, Arminianism, panentheism, feminism, scholasticism), the work reads very conversationally as an exposition.

In this vein, one of the strengths of the volume is its readability and straightforwardness. Frame aims for and achieves general clarity in his approach. Familiar to Frame’s past works, he argues for a flexible method of ordering and prioritizing the topics of theology. He also tries to be even-handed in considering the different options for doctrinal positions, a paradigm he has coined as “multiperspectival.” This gives Frame’s non-speculative approach an air of modesty and balance. Additionally, the overall tone is pastoral and practical, making frequent use of hymns and church catechisms. Scripture is not just referred to but quoted often and in large portions.

Also characteristic of Frame’s previous works is the centrality of “lordship” as a principal theme. For Frame, the concept of “lordship” is “central to God’s nature, uniqueness, dignity, actions, and relation to his people” (p. 16). Within lordship is the inclusion of God as a “covenant lord”: “Lord names the head of a covenant. His essential relation to us is that of a great King who has delivered us from death and calls us to serve him by obeying his written Word” (p. 20). Frame further delineates this “covenant lordship” by what he calls “the lordship attributes”: control, authority, and presence. It is here that Frame’s “multiperspectivalism” is specified as “tri-perspectivalism.” According to Frame, these three attributes of God are stamped on all human knowledge of reality as the normative, situational, and existential perspective. This triad (as a sub-heading of “lordship”) appears in each doctrinal topic that Frame covers and as a central organizing feature of the whole Systematic Theology.

Critique

Though I am sympathetic with Frame’s broad Reformed evangelicalism and his modest approach, I do have a few of critiques, both with Frame’s overarching project and with this present volume. I’ll begin with a few larger themes and then point out some concerns in his Systematic Theology.

I find Frame’s “biblicist” method both refreshing in one sense but also lacking in another. The lack is in principle and in execution. Principially, Frame’s emphasis on the biblical revelation is admirable. My greater concern, however, is that Frame’s lack of historical context for doctrines such as Christology and the Trinity can lead to some imprudent formulations. For example, Frame uses the phrase “three divine beings” in a number of places (pp. 441, 446, 488). He also attributes Jesus’ miracles solely to the divine nature of the hypostatic union, states that Jesus’ human nature was “affected by his divine nature,” and maintains that “Jesus’ human nature constantly pleased God” (p. 892). More attention to some of the traditional articulations would help sharpen Frame’s work. Even the most sola scriptura Protestants have something to learn from the catholic tradition.

There is also the point of Frame’s biblicism in execution. Though the Bible is affirmed as central to his task, Frame’s biblical exegesis is often flat-footed. Large portions of Scripture are quoted without much commentary, but simply as proof-texts. One area in which this is seen is his use of Hittite suzerainty treaties for his larger outline for covenant theology. Even if suzerainty models are as central to understanding covenants throughout Scripture (and I am skeptical), Frame’s own use of the category seems stilted. The definition of “lordship” is another place where one could ask Frame to show us his biblical-exegetical work, instead of simply quoting familiar passages.

This last point also brings us to Frame’s numerous triads and the overarching triad of control (normative perspective), authority (situational perspective), and presence (existential perspective). Two critiques are relevant here: their warrant from Scripture and their ability to be a unifying, organizing theme.  Although his triads sometimes make sense of biblical features, they do often feel arbitrary and forced. I don’t see how “covenant” is normative and “kingdom of God” is situational, for example (p. 87), or why God’s love is associated with “control” and his holiness with “presence” (p. 233). It is even unclear to me that control, authority, and presence are necessarily the best terms to outline divine lordship.[1]

Even if Frame’s triads are not specifically tied to Scripture, there is still the question of how helpful they are in unifying diverse doctrines. Frame’s different doctrinal topics are often related back to divine lordship but are not specifically connected to each other. My suspicions about their ability to bring clarity and coherence are especially confirmed when Frame cannot decide exactly how the lordship triad applies to the persons of the Trinity (p. 507), a surprising admission when he has applied them to nearly everything else.

The above are some concerns about Frame’s thought as a whole, present in Systematic Theology as well as in his other works. I now give a few critiques of this volume in particular: 1) size, 2) unevenness, 3) order, and 4) repetitiveness.

The first point is an aesthetic one, possibly pedantic. Weighing in at 5 pounds and sized at unusually large dimensions (10.3 x 7.4 x 2.4 inches according to Amazon), the book is simply unwieldly and awkward to handle. This point is compounded by the 20 pages (!) of seventy endorsements at the beginning of the book. Does P&R really expect buyers to read all these reviews? This is surely overkill. Added to this is the book’s large font and whole pages of biblical quotations (page 979 is entirely a quotation from Romans 8).

A “weightier” point (pun intended) is the book’s unevenness. Almost three-fourths of the book (about 800 pages) is dedicated to the doctrines of God and revelation (split between “word of God” and “knowledge of God”). Frame spends only 20 pages on the person of Christ and another 20 pages on the work of Christ. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is dealt with in 10 pages and eschatology covers 25 pages. Here Frame’s philosophical and apologetic training significantly shapes the emphasis of his theology. The work’s subtitle—“An Introduction to Christian Belief”—signals its apologetic core, but it is quite lopsided for a comprehensive systematic theology.

Along with unevenness is a concern about the order of topics. Frame dismisses this concern in arguing that theology has no true “foundation” that must serve as a starting place. This point is taken in stride, but a logical and compelling order does help with pedagogical purposes. It is bizarre that Frame begins his section on the doctrine of God with a discussion of miracles (pp. 121–40) and then goes on to cover providence, creation, eternal decrees, and divine attributes—in that order.

A final point is simply about the role of this volume in Frame’s larger corpus. Frame admits upfront that readers “might even suspect (rightly) that in many places some text has been cut and pasted from those [earlier] books” (p. xxxi). This is certainly understandable, but one would hope that areas in which Frame has not written extensively—soteriology, Christology, and ecclesiology—would get new, deeper treatment. Yet even in these short sections the material has primarily been reproduced from his earlier primer on systematic theology. In general, not much has been “advanced” in Frame’s thought for this book. It is primarily a summation of Frame’s earlier works in one volume.

Conclusion

My overall sympathy with Frame’s theology prompts me to recommend John Framethis book as a one-stop-shop for Frame’s thought. It doesn’t really improve significantly upon his earlier Lordship volumes, not even in unifying them together in greater coherence. But it does provide a general introduction to his thought. That is how I would recommend this volume. Unfortunately, because of its unevenness I will not be using it as a central textbook in systematic theology courses, and I imagine this would be the case for other theology teachers as well. But I would recommend this primarily to those new to Frame’s thought. Systematic Theology is more concise (even at 1200 pages) than his four-volume Lordship series and less specialized. For those already familiar with Frame or those more able to read more technically, I would continue to recommend the four-volume Lordship series. One can only hope that Frame would add to that series with new volumes on doctrines not previously covered.

Thanks to P&R for providing a review copy.

[1] I wonder if one could connect Oliver O’Donovan’s three categories of political rule—power, right, and tradition—to Frame’s triad. See The Desire of the Nations, pp. 36–46.

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About Robbie Crouse

I completed my PhD student at Wheaton College with Dr. Daniel Treier in 2016. My doctoral research was on ecclesiology, Christ and culture, and Christian political theology. I'm married to Becky (2008), and we have a daughter, Susanne, who was born in 2012.
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2 Responses to Review: Systematic Theology, by John Frame

  1. Anthony says:

    The fact he doesn’t intend to engage in the historical development of doctrines is a huge red flag for me, and should be for anyone wanting to engage in good theological work or study. While I consider myself Reformed, in no way would I think a strictly ‘biblicist’ position would be a profitable position to do a good Systematic theology. Good review though!

  2. Hank Voss says:

    Thanks Robbie. Helpful review.

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