Review: John Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

Though Dr. Frame has published prolifically throughout his professional career, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief is his long anticipated single volume systematic theology. His work is notable for being grounded in Reformed orthodoxy while open to fresh reflection upon key doctrinal formulations and judicious restatement when necessary. Previous reviewers, like DeYoung, have favorably noted Frame’s clarity, his diligence in unfolding the doctrine of the knowledge of God and the word of God. Due to space considerations, this review will focus on Dr. Frame’s latest thoughts on key “flashpoints” within modern “conservative” American Reformed and evangelical circles. These issues include the interpretation of the Genesis account of creation in light of the current science, the endemic issue of the relation between justification and obedience lately rekindled by the “New Perspective on Paul” and Norman Shepherd, and the broader evangelical question of “open theism” and God’s “emotions.”

These controversial issues defy easy resolution; simple “verse cataloging” no longer passes for “systematic theology.” Perhaps now more than ever, the systematic theologian must deal with issues of philosophy, hermeneutics, and biblical theology (the study of how theological themes unfold in scripture itself). The call for organizing vast fields of knowledge should create more demand for systematic theology. The opposite, however, has occurred to date, and that shortfall has not gone unnoticed.

One endorsement for the book hopes Frame’s efforts can reverse the trend of “biblical theology” having greater prestige than “systematic theology” at Reformed seminaries. Oddly enough, the “imbalance” deplored has largely transpired thanks to Reformed biblical theologians starting with Geerhardus Vos whose insights into the text made the work of earlier systematicians seem somewhat oblivious to theological concerns of scripture itself. Recognizing the problem, Frame appropriately spends a significant time discussing the “contexts” for interpretation and unfolding three key themes from “biblical theology”: covenant, kingdom, and family of God. His goal is to lay a foundation for quoting scripture in context rather without the “proof texting” that mocks the text of scripture while asserting it for one’s own ends.

The Historic Adam

The 71st General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 2004 produced a 141 page report on Creation offering guidance to their presbyteries for examining candidates. The length and intricacy of the report demonstrates the issues alive within conservative Reformed circles pertaining to this subject. Frame’s statements in the area will simultaneously thrill and confound some of his audience.

Frame clearly favors the “Young Earth Creationist” approach exegetically, while recognizing that other factors contribute to making broader theological pronouncements (199). He addresses the issue some raise against Young Earth Creationism by saying a young world that appears to be “old” would be a form of divine deceit. He notes how this complaint assumes the infallibility of current scientific measurement models, which are, of course, frequently adjusted to accommodate new information (200) such as the recently noted ability of lightning to create rock formation changes formerly attributed to much slower thaw and freeze patterns. The debate over what came first, the “chicken or the egg” is not entirely irrelevant here if special creations have attributes of development that, in their offspring, require an “aging” that the original creations did not experience. He posits, with James Jordan, that the fossil record is skewed because of God filling the earth with entombed dead bodies at the very point of origin. Some will find Frame’s assertions at this point quite odd, no doubt. Frame rejects macroevolution as a plausible explanation for the world as we know it (202). With Phillip Johnson he believes that evolution’s popularity as a theory does not come from its ability to present compelling evidence, but simply because it provides an alternative to theism and theism’s moral consequences (203).

In discussing Adam specifically, Frame notes in Chapter 10 that Christians must be careful to discern what Genesis 1-2 actually say. In Chapter 34, Dr. Frame argues that scripture’s overall depiction of Adam is not as “everyman” (suggested by Barth, 803), but as a particular man. While an appeal to ancient near eastern literary forms may be used with regard to Genesis 1-2 as a contemporary way to portray Adam as “everyman” again, Frame notes that other references to Adam occur throughout scripture in different literary contexts that presume Adam to be a discrete and unique person (804). He asks rhetorically (804), “If the story of Adam is unbelievable, is not the story of Christ unbelievable for the same reasons?”

At that point, Frame considers how the claims of evolutionists—and specifically human geneticists—relate to Adam’s historicity. Based on patterns of human genetic diversity, a variety of calculations have been made to determine what the smallest initial population might be that can yet account for human diversity as we know it. Scientists differ, and many variables factor into final figures. The general consensus among geneticists studying the matter ranges anywhere from a population of 1,000 to many more (805). Would such a theory, if true, undermine Frame’s entire theological project? No.

Frame’s understanding of the covenantal structure of scripture and salvation come into play at this point. “As to the interpretation of Scripture, we should consider the possibility that Adam and Eve, though historical figures, were not literally the first parents of all present-day human beings.” Mentioning a hypothesis in Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist (Collins, 121), Frame mentions the possibility that “Adam and Eve may not have been the first human beings, but rather ‘king and queen’ of a tribe….Covenant headship in scripture does not necessarily presuppose biological parenthood: the relation of Christ to his people is adoptive. And such a hypothesis would more adequately explain some perplexing data of the Genesis history” - i.e., Cain’s fear of vengeance, Cain’s wife, and the rapid development of culture and cities (805 ff).

With some cautionary notes, he adds “But the development of such interpretive hypotheses is in its infancy, and certainly no such interpretation should be made normative in the church.” Noting that the geneticists have already reduced their estimates on the required base population from millions to thousands, he reminds us that, “we should consider that the scientific consensus in favor of an original human race of thousands is wrong” or may change yet again (805-806). He concludes that Collins “analogical view” never threatens age-old assertions of Adam and Eve’s “special creation... in God’s image, their distinctive lordship over creation, or the historicity of the fall” (806).

On issue of creation and Adam’s historicity, Frame is a young earth creationist. His theology allows for a covenantal view of Adam’s historicity in the event exegetical and scientific evidence call for it. He does not work out how such a covenantal/old earth view, though, redefines the implications of death and entropy which would necessarily exist in that scenario--at least in animal life--except for a footnote on page 855.

The New Perspective on Paul and Norman Shepherd

In a section under the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Dr. Frame discusses the “New Perspective on Paul” and the case of Norman Shepherd, topics that have done much to animate and divide the conservative Reformed household. In dealing with the first, Frame offers what seems to be a fair summary of Wright’s position--that justification is primarily a reference to an “ecclesiastical” reality instead of a primarily “soteriological” term (972-973). Oddly, though, Frame never offers his sources to derive such a definition except for a single review article that critiques Wright alone. In fact, no writing of any “source” for the New Perspective on Paul is ever referenced as being consulted in the bibliography. The same review article, Frame notes, forms the basis of his own critique of “the New Perspective.” The “New Perspective,” Frame finds, though correct about Gentile inclusion based on faith alone, is wrong because it “fails to deal adequately” with key Pauline passages like Ephesians 2:8-10, Philippians 3:9 “which make it plain that Paul rejects not only legal barriers between Jew and Gentile, but also all attempts of people to save themselves by their works” (973).

In an awkward moment in the book, the “New Perspective” (or presumably N.T. Wright made to speak for everyone associated with that term) is slighted for its definition of the phrase “righteousness of God” (“dikaiosune,” 973) in ways not approved by existing Greek lexicons. Frame’s pet phrase and concept “triperspectivalism” (121) was not used by Charles Hodge or other Reformed theologians previously either. Does the absence of “triperspectivalism” from the theological lexicon prove the term erroneous in and of itself? So while Frame may ultimately be correct in rejecting “justification” as mainly related to “covenant membership,” the methodology described in arriving at that conclusion does not do justice to the great professor.

Related to the “New Perspective on Paul,” Dr. Frame turns to discuss his old colleague, Rev. Norman Shepherd. As his old friend, Frame offers Shepherd a benefit of the doubt not offered the “New Perspective” it seems. He explains that while Shepherd’s formulations may not be “wise,” perhaps (974), they do not teach human works as the “meritorious cause” of justification. Indeed, Frame notes, “[Shepherd’s] idea is quite commonplace in Reformed theology; it’s faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone” (974).

While the N.T. Wright considers “imputed righteousness,” in general, a “sub-Pauline idea” pointing to the benefits rightly attributed to union with the Messiah, (N. T. Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 142.), Shepherd came to speak of the imputation of Christ’s “passive righteousness” alone. That is, it was Christ’s death and resurrection, which constitutes the “righteousness” imputed to the believer. Shepherd’s opponents contend for the imputation of Christ’s “active righteousness” too… all the “merit” of Christ’s Good Deeds and Holy Life. Frame disagrees with Shepherd on this point noting that, “I believe that we are saved ‘in’ Christ, and therefore by union with his righteous character, displayed in all his works. That character is constituted by everything in his nature and all his works including his ‘active righteousness’” (975). Despite this disagreement, Frame believes Shepherd to be “wrong, but not wrong to such an extent as to question any fundamentals of the Reformed system of doctrine.” Furthermore, he finds Shepherd to be in complete conformity to the earlier Reformed confessions on this point (975).

On the issue of the “New Perspective of Paul and Norman Shepherd,” Dr. Frame is responding of necessity to heated controversies that threaten to tear his and other Reformed denominations apart. Unfortunately, the discussion in the former case is marred by a failure to quote actual sources and give the topic adequate coverage. In the latter case, Frame defends the “imputation of Adam’s righteousness” in a way that N.T. Wright might use, were he forced to accommodate such language. In both cases, Frame does not take the strident view that would excommunicate both Wright and Shepherd; that may occasion some unhappiness among his constituencies.

Open Theism and God’s “Emotions”

“Open Theism” has a number of faces and emphases, depending on the adherent. Some may either deny God’s omniscience and foreknowledge of all things outright or claim that God refrains from exercising these attributes so that human freedom will not be hindered. They argue that if, in the traditional Augustinian view, God were truly all knowing, all caring, and all powerful, no evil would ever exist. One avenue through which such thought enters theological discussion is through scripture’s own anthropomorphic language that speaks of God’s “emotions.” Our language of emotion in relation to God or man is not precise, and changes over time. Church Fathers used the term “passions” for “emotions out of control” and “affections” for “emotions under the control of reason.” Unfortunately, most discussions do not recognize this distinction, and Frame does not make as clear use of it as one might wish, though it is present (414).

Frame begins his discussion of the issue by noting that all language has emotional content directly or indirectly (412). He notes that while “God’s eternal decree does not change, it ordains change” which call for subsequent evaluation by God and so, while ordained, it is not incorrect to “describe them as responses to these events.” Emotional language, then, Frame argues, is entirely fitting. It does not betray a lack of God’s sovereignty, as in Genesis 6:6, say that “The LORD regretted” something as a result (413-414). His grief, though, while analogous to our own, involves no ultimate injury or loss to God because of his self-existence (aseity) (417).

Frame’s affirmations have been increasingly unpopular because those persuaded by open theism regard any affirmation of God’s comprehensive sovereignty as also an affirmation of God as evil. Recognizing this Frame also considers the topic of theodicy, the vindication of divine goodness in the face of evil (285 ff). He considers evil under the categories of illusion, privation, and the context for “greater good” (including the “free will defense”), evil as necessity as part of an ordered universe, and the ultimate “cause” of evil. Frame analyzes each option and notes what is valuable and yet, incomplete, in each approach. After concluding that these approaches have limited present value and may be challenged in various ways, Frame concludes “the ultimate theodicy is future.” The presence of evil as a viable argument against either the goodness or sovereignty of God, in other words, will, evaporate as God’s supreme goodness is only fully revealed in the culmination of all things. In the meantime we walk by faith (292).

Frame also enters into a discussion regarding terms used to describe the nature of God’s agency in the matter of evil. “Somehow, we must confess that God has a role in bringing evil about and that in doing so he is holy and blameless… a Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God does not imply that God is the author of sin” (294). Frame goes against some of the distinctions of Aquinas and Calvin at this point, though they share the same conclusion. He ultimately allows the use of the word “permission” with regard to evil if qualified as “sovereign ordination” (Ephesians 1:11). He notes, though, that the concept of “permitting” evil is a biblical concept (Job 2:6, 297). One might have thought that a discussion concerning David’s sinful census as it is presented respectively in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 appropriate at this point. In this incident, causation is ascribed first to Yahweh and then to Satan. Unless Samuel’s “he moved” is not linked back to Yahweh, the texts relate to the issue at hand over the matter of proximate and ultimate causation.

In the end, Frame prefers the “problem of evil” to the worse problems that ensue when God’s sovereignty is gutted and Satan’s powers exalted. Famous for his “triperspectival” approaches, on this topic Frame concludes that “human beings have no right to bring accusations against God” (normative), “God will always bring good out of evil” (situational), and “God will comfort us so that our hearts are fully assured of the justness and rightness of His actions” (existential) (301).

John Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief has much to commend it for the pastor and seminarian. Its contributions, while always valuable as a summary of current issues can, as noted above, be less precise than one might wish. Some of that is to be expected from a general and introductory text. Dr. Frame is to be commended for the extensive work required to produce this volume, and his willingness to deal honestly with divisive, hot button issues in addition to the standard categories of systematic theology.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Rev. Chuck Huckaby, is the Minister of Congregational Life at First Protestant Church in New Braunfels, TX. You can follow him on Twitter here: @revchuckhuckaby

Reprinted with permission of Chuck Colson’s