John Frame: Doctrine of God

In this volume John Frame applies his “perspectival approach” (Frame, 1987) to issues relating to the doctrine of God. In other volumes, Frame analyzed a topic by placing it within its normative (law), situational (fact), and existential (person) dimensions. The approach is quite clever and does shed light on many issues. In this volume, Frame approaches the doctrine of God in terms of authority (normative), control (situational), and presence (existential).

Aside from the above triad, Frame’s work covers much of the same ground as many other manuals on theology proper. The book’s value, though, is that it is quite recent and responds to issues that 300 year dead Puritans had not dreamed of. In this book Frame confesses God as “covenant lord” (Frame, 11). The covenant Lord interacts with his people according to the above triad: authority, control, and presence. Frame is obviously interacting with Meredith Kline’s work on suzerainty treaties (Kline, 1997). That is: The Name of the Great King; Historical Prologue; Stipulations; Sanctions; Continuity (Frame, 2002: 438).

Despite some of the hysteria that usually accompanies Frame’s works, this book remains solidly within the Reformed tradition, even if Frame questions large sections of that tradition at times. Sometimes, I suspect, Frame himself does not realize he is doing it. Frame deals squarely with issues relating to man’s interaction with God (free will) and with one another (ethics). In other words, as far as books concerning the doctrine of God go, this one is quite relevant.

Observations

It’s difficult to review a systematic theology textbook. They all follow the same general order and in reviewing one, you have already reviewed about 35% of the next one. Frame’s book is that, to be sure, but he also deals with specific issues that do require a response.

Libertarian Free Will

Frame ridicules the alternative to what he perceives the Augustinian tradition to be. He defines compatibilism (determinism) as the “view that every event has a sufficient cause other than itself” (136). Libertarian free will (not to be confused with the economic position) argues that humans have the power to choose between different alternatives (138). Frame then gives fourteen or so reasons why libertarianism is false (139-144).

His main interesting objection is that Scripture never grounds human responsibility in libertarian freedom.

The Triune God

Much of this section of the book reads like a proof-text list arguing for the deity of the Son or Spirit. That’s not a fault, but the question often facing people is not whether the texts say this person is divine, but how does his divine status relate to the questions of unity and plurality. Frame gives a helpful list on how the Church confessed the Trinity throughout history. There are very good critiques of Aquinas and Boethius. For example, take Boethius’ definition of a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” (700). If this is the case, and there are three persons in the Godhead, then how are there not three (four?) natures in the godhead?

Frame draws upon the soon-to-be published work of Federal Visionist Ralph Smith (2003) in critiquing Thomas Aquinas. If the persons are simply alternative names for the divine essence, then how is this not modalism? Frame concludes, following Smith, “ And when we take Father, Son, and Spirit as names of relations…are we not reducing concrete persons to abstract entitites” (702)?

Frame’s take on the Filioque is interesting, largely because he doesn’t really care (718). He affirms the Western view and offers the same standard arguments for it, namely since there is an analogy between temporal sending and ontological procession, therefore they are the same (717).

Conclusion

This book is a welcome addition to the Reformed community. Frame passionately interacts with the texts and there is much material for sermons and lessons. The book has some weaknesses, though. There is little (nothing?) in the way of historical understanding and the student leaves the discussion without a real knowledge of how this worked out in history

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