I’ve never read an autobiography (or a biography) quite like this, and I never expect to again. Perhaps the best description of my reaction after finishing it in three multi-hour sittings (after all, I did have to eat and sleep) is John Wesley’s memorable portrayal of the effect on him of his conversion experience: “strangely warmed.” This book’s objective is not so much to recount life’s leading events as to show God’s good grace and providence in those events, and how theology shaped — and was reshaped — by them. The present review, therefore, won’t be analytical (the sort of review Frame himself advocates in the book), for the simple reason that this book doesn’t invite analysis; it invites love, joy, sadness, hope, consternation, empathy, wonder and, most of all … doxology. Yes, doxology. John’s has been a doxological life. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a friend of John’s for 20 years; therefore this review will not be “objective” [rather, we might call it “relationally presuppositional,” though I have very good evidence for my presuppositions!])
The book recounts in nine chapters, John’s (1) early life and conversion to Jesus Christ, (2) teenage years and their formative Christian influences, as well as his temporary drift toward liberalism, (3) Princeton undergraduate experience, (4) second conversion: to the Reformed Faith at Westminster Seminary-Philadelphia (the original Westminster), (5) postgraduate and doctoral studies at Yale, (6) teaching stint back at his alma mater, WTS-P, (7) his move to the fledgling Westminster Seminary-Escondido, as well as his marriage, (8) trials at and eventual departure from WTS-E due to their creeping, suffocating traditionalism, and (9) move to the “winsomely Reformed” Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (from which he recently retired), as well as extended discussion of his growing family. Through it all, there is copious discussion of church life (on which, more below).
Like all memorable memoirs, John’s includes some juicy, behind-the-scenes tidbits. Did you know that:
John got married at 45 years old?
Wayne Grudem (a student of John’s) once tried to talk John into premillennialism in order to get him a faculty appointment?
John was once present at a sermon when the preacher died in the pulpit — as he was preaching on the glories of heaven?
When renowned Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline once walked into John’s office to claim that John hadn’t been true to the teaching of Westminster Seminary luminary Cornelius Van Til, John tried to correct that impression by offering the unpublished manuscript of one of his (John’s) books, yet Kline refused the offer?
John is a movie buff and has often has gone to the theater by himself?
For years John and his wife Mary opened up their home to the homeless and the mentally and emotionally handicapped?
Even if you’ve never met John or heard his teaching, I suspect you’d find a number of his life’s revelations either humorous, striking, or sobering.
I’ll simply mention seven factors that I found remarkable, actually at times extraordinary, about this book:
First, John came to the Lord is an unusual way. His parents were at best nominal Christians, but like many parents at the time, they wanted their children to have a church experience. John was not a devout child by any means (something rather of a distracted prankster in church), but in time developed a love and aptitude for piano and organ. Soon his Presbyterian church was requesting he accompany various services and meetings on the organ, and he loved practicing at home by playing Bach and the church hymnal. By the time he was 14 years old, God had used the biblical truths of the music he was playing (reinforced, to be sure, by the teaching he was hearing in church) to bring him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This decision was urged along by the fact that his public school had prayer time, and it reinforced at leading points the basic character training he was getting at home and church. We might even say that the three-fold cord of a Christian (or at least Christian-influenced) family, church and school constituted a Christian mini-culture within which trusting and following the Lord was not especially difficult.
Second, I was struck by this book’s remarkable transparency. John frankly acknowledges his own ins and faults and asks forgiveness for those he has hurt along life’s way. I could not help thinking how this is the antithesis of another memoir I’m reading, Richard Nixon’s; but it’s also far more honest and transparent than even many other Christian memoirs.
Third, for a genuinely renowned academic, he spends a lot of time talking about his church experiences. In fact, it seems he spends more time addressing his and his family’s personal church history than his academic history. Clearly this man loves the church of Jesus Christ. He loves sinners; he loves saints; he loves public worship. He has spent many years in church ministry, and this is remarkable considering the fact that he considers himself a failure as a preacher and having failed at pastoral ministry. Yet he has for decades buried his mind, heart and soul in the church.
This leads to my fourth observation: rarely have I encountered such an intellectual less excited by academia, despite the fact that he’s spent his entire adult life there:
So I left WTS [Philadelphia, at his graduation] with a tension that I have never overcome: my passions are pastoral, but my abilities are academic. “Tension” is not a strong enough term to describe what I feel. Successful as I am in the academic field, I am often totally bored with academic theological study. And though I love above all working in the church, seeing up close the work of God, I frequently back away from ministry from fear that I will mess everything up. (p. 72)
That’s an extraordinary admission. Almost all intellectuals gravitate toward academia, or institutions that somewhat mimic academia: think tanks or major intellectual foundations (like the Council on Foreign Relations). American intellectual Richard Hofstadter once famously suggested that intellectuals find sheer fun in ideas, as ends in themselves. This certainly describes John, but he’s far from excited about academia, and would much rather be ministering in the church — where he feels so inept.
Fifth, I noted another rare quality in John as a Reformed theologian: several times he admitted that after he’d made a friendship, he’d stand with that friend in a controversy, largely on the basis of the friendship. I’m sure John wouldn’t endorse sin, even in friends, but the fact that he cherishes friendship so much was especially moving to me. Many Reformed theologians’ stress on “objectivity” wouldn’t permit this default support of friends in controversy. John would designate this part of the “normative” perspective in his tri-perspectivalism. But he’s equally committed to the “existential” and “situational” perspectives and believes that the modern Reformed have underweighted them. Frame’s own life strives to balance these perspectives in very concrete, tactile ways, as in his friendships.
Sixth, at the root of the two main institutional trials he has suffered is the charge that he’s not “Truly Reformed,” meaning: not as traditional as some folks would prefer. The charge that his commitment to Reformed theology is deficient is so wrong as to be ludicrous, but there is another sense in which this charge is entirely on the mark: while he is theologically Reformed, he is not dispositionally Reformed, certainly not in the too-often accurate stereotype, and that is the actual nub of the issue. He tries to see both sides in a serious debate; counsels gentleness; is willing to battle other Christians only as a last resort; is open to learning from other traditions; loves art and music, even of the popular variety; is humble. I describe John to those who have never met him: “He looks and acts like a great big teddy bear, but a very smart one.” The “Truly Reformed” are the antithesis of smart teddy bears.
Finally, what has always amazed me most about John is that in the midst of his towering intellect and learning, as one of the most celebrated conservative theologians in the world, at heart he’s much like a Christian child: He loves Jesus. He believes the Bible. He relishes going to church. He cherishes hymns and choruses. He just wants to worship and please the Lord Jesus. It’s precisely this utter, child-like simplicity that makes his theology so cogent — and profound. A doxological life produces a doxological theology.
There are likely ten more observations that burrowed into my mind and heart while reading this book, but I’ll close with this:
The most sobering line in the book appears right near the end, a line that just won’t leave me in peace: “I hope that one day [God] will give you [the reader] the opportunity to rethink your life.”
Thank you, John, not only for re-thinking yours, but for letting us peek at your conclusions after you did.