"The Doctrine of God" by John Frame

Paul Helm
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Mar/Apr 2003

This is a good, big book. The second volume of John Frame's Theology of Lordship Series is firmly Reformed, outspoken, and diffident by turn, fresh in approach, richly biblical, mostly clear. It is the sort of book that informs and provokes thought.

In this short review I shall endeavor to sketch the approach and the outline of the book, draw attention to some of its strengths, and then offer a couple of comments in what is (I hope) the same constructive vein in which Frame writes.

In Part One, Frame begins by setting out the Lordship motif which stamps the book; who the Lord is, and what his attributes are: Control, Authority, and Covenant Presence. (Frame is fond of triads.) For him the doctrine of God is very much the doctrine of the living God. Parts Two and Three form a sort of philosophical interruption or excursus on problems which the Lordship attributes raise, namely, human responsibility and freedom, the problem of evil, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Early on in the book the author goes out of his way (it seems to me) to distance himself from scholastic theology, including scholastic Reformed theology. I do not think that this disclaimer amounts to much in a work that is so obviously indebted to such theology (for example in its treatment of middle knowledge). But the book would nevertheless have benefited from additional shots of it. Part Four offers an account of the acts of the Lord, in miracles, providence, creation, and his decrees. Part Five, by far the longest of the parts, offers "biblical descriptions" of God. An account of the Triune nature of God completes the book, apart from a set of nine appendices consisting of reprints of reviews of Frame's and other material.

One might wonder at the ordering of some of this; how can one sensibly discuss the acts of the Lord before learning who God is? Or miracles before providence and creation? And why discuss problem areas before much of the material that generates these problems has been addressed? But systematic theology has been plagued if not obsessed with questions of methodology and so it would be unwise, in my view, to press such points. As the author himself says more than once, "Ya gotta start somewhere."

Frame's choice of the ordering of the material, particularly the boldness of Part One, does reflect his Van Tilian, presuppositionalist stance. There is no conscious dependence on natural theology to provide elements of a doctrine of God, though the author does rely on pagan ideas of treaty-making to illuminate the biblical idea of covenant lordship (31) and appeals to the abstract idea of perfection to illuminate the biblical idea of God's goodness (402-403). Part of the freshness of the approach of the book is due to Frame's use of different voices; a less oracular style than that of his mentor Van Til, the ability to distinguish a big issue from something smaller, to recognize his own ignorance, and to offer views with differing degrees of conviction. In this connection I particularly enjoyed his section on creation and evolution. At one point he disarmingly confesses that on this issue he tends to be persuaded by the last person he's heard (302). Join the club!

Frame's boldness is nowhere better seen than in his treatment of the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He has no truck with any form of libertarian freedom, overt or covert. Nor does he have much patience with the project of reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He occupies the territory of Romans 9, and of Calvin's Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, and in his outspokenness goes beyond both the Princeton tradition and his immediate predecessors at Westminster Theological Seminary. What he says here is also connected with his discussion of the reach of God's knowledge, in which he deals very effectively with the current "openness" craze, showing how far it strays from Scripture and how much it coincides with historic Socinianism.

The freshness of approach is also seen in Frame's willingness to go his own way. This comes out particularly strikingly in the treatment of miracles, and of God and space and time (of which more shortly). One consequence of this that I found a bit surprising is that the book has a distinctly ahistorical flavor. Frame frequently acknowledges his tradition; Calvin, the Westminster Confession, the Reformed Scholastics, the Princeton theologians, and Bavinck, but there is little at length interaction with it (except in the discussion of miracles). There's no mention of Puritan treatments of the doctrine of God (e.g., Stephen Charnock), hardly anything on Jonathan Edwards.

Frame's discussion of the Trinity is excellent, I think. He avoids the hyper-Trinitarianism of much Barth-inspired theology, and is cautiously Trinitarian in the style of Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, and Calvin. Frame writes, "God has given us, in Scripture, a glimpse of his inner life, but only a glimpse. The Trinity is not an irrational doctrine, but it is highly mysterious. It is not contradictory, but we do not always see clearly how apparent contradictions can be resolved" (705). Amen to that! Frame warmly endorses the work of Robert Reymond, but he does not go so far as to adopt Reymond's rejection of the Nicene doctrine of eternal begottenness of the Son. Frame does have wise things to say about the difficulty of using the language of causation (and therefore, presumably, the language of generation) about the identity of the Son. His remarks here are very much in the spirit of B. B. Warfield and of John Murray.

Space allows for only a couple of comments of a more critical kind. The first concerns Frame's prominent use of the idea of the Lord's covenant presence. Covenant is, of course, a central Reformed motif, and no doubt the phrase "covenant presence" is meant to signal strongly the location of the book in that tradition. But what exactly is covenant presence? Frame says that God acts on and in the creation and evaluates all that happens (94), and so is present everywhere, covenantally so. At times this seems simply to be equivalent to the idea of divine immanence. At other times the author is clearly referring to what some have called the covenant of works and also (of course) to the covenant of grace. But then if God's covenant presence, the same covenant presence, is manifested in the creation and in its sustenance (102), clearly the idea becomes somewhat diluted. One is tempted to say, if every immanent act of God is covenantal, then no act is. In what sense does God covenant with inanimate creation? Are there not biblical uses of covenant language which are metaphorical?

This disquiet connects with another. If covenant presence is another way of referring to divine immanence, then Frame also avers that besides transcending time and space God is "fully present," covenantally present in them, and so immanently temporal and spatial, presumably (496-497). God experiences change, temporal (and spatial?) transition, though being himself changeless. But if God learns new things, even if such language is "anthropomorphic, but not merely anthropomorphic" (497), how can he be omniscient? And if he experiences spatial presence and transition, does this mean, as it seems to, that he occupies space?

In my judgment, at such points Frame comes uncomfortably and unnecessarily close to affirming a self-contradiction, and would have been well advised to make greater use than he does of the Calvinian idea of divine accommodation, and to have employed the scholastic distinction between willing a change and changing a will. I have not checked up, but I suspect that in all those biblical passages where God is said to change his mind he is in pedagogical dialogue with his people, accommodating himself to their space and time-bound existence. As Calvin typically expresses it, God stirs us from our torpor by representing himself to us now one way, now another, as exemplified in his dialogues with such as Moses and Jonah. (See, in this connection, Calvin's brilliant treatment of the death of Hezekiah in his Commentary on Isaiah.) Wondering aloud, it may be that Frame has difficulties in this entire area of divine presence because he thinks of it in physical terms, like an atmosphere or as luminosity. He characterizes God's omnipresence as being "present everywhere in the world he has made" and God's presence as capable of being localized (580-581).

Some years ago, John Frame was kind enough to write, in a review of my book The Providence of God (which he reprints as one of the appendices of his book), that it has a few weaknesses but that it is in general very good. It pleases me that in the providence of God I can now return that compliment about The Doctrine of God!

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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