John M. Frame’s Sola Scriptura Systematics
Posted on February 18, 2014
Ever since John M. Frame’s systematic theology was released last November, I intended to promote and explain it for a wider audience, and Tom Chantry’s recent critique has furnished me a suitable opportunity. Did I say “critique”? It’s more like a bludgeoning: “[I]t is my firm opinion that John Frame is one of the most dangerous characters in the broadly Reformed world today,” and, “Frame’s response [to queries about his views on worship] could only be characterized as spectacularly ignorant or intentionally deceptive, and no one ever accused Frame of ignorance.” In other words, Chantry calls Frame a liar. At the very outset, therefore, we might be cautioned, since it’s difficult to write objectively about another Christian’s systematic theology when one’s already committed to such a dire verdict.
My own intent in this short post is not to offer a point-by-point refutation of Chantry’s critique. Rather, I’ll highlight those aspects of Frame’s systematics that have become particularly controversial but, in my view, reflect the genius of his approach. That genius centers entirely on Frame’s view of the Bible.
First, sola scriptura really has teeth in Frame’s systematics. All orthodox Protestants are formally committed to sola scriptura, but, unlike many of theirs, Frame’s theological method marinates in it. One’s source/s for theology is/are the first and most critical aspect of theological method. Your theological source will shape the systematics that comes out the other side. Theology based in reason (Enlightenment), intuition (Romanticism), contemporary culture (liberalism), church history or historical theology (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) looks very different from theology based on the Bible alone. Frame’s uncompromising devotion to the Bible alone as the source of his theology puts him at loggerheads with many in his own tradition [!] (Reformed). When Frame wrote his systematics, he wasn’t intentionally trying to write a confessional Reformed theology. He was trying to write a biblical theology, but his conclusions turned out to be Reformed (that, and that alone, is why Frame’s Reformed). By contrast, Prof. R. Scott Clark, who was not happy with Frame’s theology, wants a theology based on the Bible but shaped by the Reformed confessions. Clark is formally committed to sola scriptura, but he is not committed to sola scripture in his theological method. Neither is Chantry.
This leads to the second point. Chantry criticizes Frame for affectionately adopting theological revolutionaries in church history. Chantry sees a hint of Hegel here. That’s the uncharitable reading. The charitable reading would be that Frame is interested in a theology and theologians who help us to understand the Bible better than we have. To put it another way: Frame does not privilege tradition in writing theology. Frame isn’t interested in revolutionary theology as such. He is simply interested in understanding the Bible better. Reading Chantry’s critique, one gets the impression that he’s not particularly fond of theological sanctification. The Bible teaches that God sanctifies Christians over time and in every aspect of their being (1 Thes. 5:13). It teaches the same thing about ecclesiastical sanctification (Eph. 5:27). The church is being sanctified over time, and that sanctification includes theological sanctification. This isn’t just a biblical fact. It’s an empirical fact. The patristic church developed Christology and Trinitarianism. The Reformation church developed the application of redemption. The Bible is unchanged and unchanging, but theology develops. Indeed, because the Bible doesn’t change, we must. This truth should shape theological method. It does shape Frame’s.
Finally, we encounter what is in my view Frame’s unique (dare I say revolutionary?) contribution to writing theology. For Frame, meaning is application. As it relates to theology, this construction suggests that the task of systematic theology is at once more modest and more Herculean that is usually supposed. Systematic theology in the medieval world was generally based on the sort of scholasticism we find in Aristotle. You see this quite impressively in Aquinas. After the Scientific Revolution, however, the arrangement of systematic theology often moved in a different direction. The Bible was treated as a scientist would treat the data of the physical world, and the theologian was its “scientist.” The goal of a good scientist is to take all of the comparatively un-systematized data in nature and put it into a nice, neat, conceptual arrangement. In this way, science became even more useful than the nature it systematized. In theology, the Bible was analogously recognized as a collection of teachings that could be properly arranged to set forth a system of truth perhaps even more useful than the original biblical data.
Frame will have nothing of this. You can’t improve on the Bible, not even in the way it is arranged, so you shouldn’t even try. This means that Frame has a very different view of systematic theology than most conservative systematic theologians. The job of the theologian is not to create a beautiful system, but simply to help people to understand and obey the Bible. In this sense, the theologian’s task is a lot more modest than many suppose. On the other hand, the task is more Herculean, since we need to apply the Bible to everything, not create a pretty theological system that impresses other seminary faculty. Since the Bible alone is authoritative, creating a system of the Bible’s teaching (and we can and should do this in many different ways, depending on the circumstance) is simply pedagogical and ministerial: we are helping people understand God’s written truth.
This is a doggedly uncompromising sola scriptura systematics, and theologians and theological students who are more interested in defending theological tradition and confessions of faith and grand theological systems than in simply believing, championing, obeying, and teaching and preaching the word of God are likely to find Frame’s theology off-putting.
Even dangerous and deceptive.