Monday, October 06, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: John M. Frame

This is the second in our series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

GD: Hello John Frame and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

JF: I was born in 1939, raised in the Pittsburgh area. I came to trust Christ as savior and Lord around the age of 13, through the youth and music ministries of my home church. Almost immediately I took an interest in theology, being encouraged by leaders in the church and the proximity of such theology professors as John H. Gerstner, Robert L. Kelley, and James L. Kelso. I majored in philosophy at Princeton University, then attended Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. At Westminster, my teachers were largely from the “old faculty” that had been teaching there since the 1930s, including Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and E. J. Young. I also studied there with some younger guys like Meredith Kline and Edmund Clowney. Then some grad study at Yale with people like George Lindbeck, Paul Holmer, and David Kelsey.

I taught at Westminster in Philadelphia from 1968-80, at Westminster in California from 1980-2000, and have taught since at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.

My wife Mary and I have five children, three living on the west coast and two with us in Florida.

GD: Your blog is called "Works of Frame and Poythress". What made you start blogging?

JF: Our site, Works of Frame and Poythress, is not really a blog, but a repository of articles, reviews, and some books by Vern Poythress and myself. There is a blog page, but that just reproduces the articles in blog format. At the moment, I don’t have time to blog, since I’m trying hard to finish some publishing projects, especially Doctrine of the Word of God. However, I do have an interest in blogging, and it strikes me as a likely post-retirement activity.

GD: In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of theology blogging?

JF: Strengths: (1) It’s a great way to bypass the system of publishers and copyrights, which often slow down and otherwise inhibit the distribution of ideas. (2) It’s a means to distribute ideas for discussion, which one has not completely thought through or has not been able adequately to document. (3) It’s inexpensive. (4) It provides a way of sharing aspects of one’s life other than the professional. (5) Bloggers often provide responses to developments with a speed not possible in other media.

Weaknesses: (1) The downside of freedom of expression (above) is inadequate oversight. Theology in blogs is often not supervised by the church in any meaningful way. (2) Blogs have become virtual sewers of slander, character assassination, bad arguments, ideological dogmatism, etc. (3) It is hard for the average web-surfer to distinguish the good from the bad.

GD: Which theology blogs (if any!) have you found helpful?

JF: I don’t spend a lot of time on blogs and web sites, but there are some I visit from time to time and have found useful. A number of them are written by friends of mine, and I like to keep up on what they are doing.

First our own site, of course (, which includes not only my contributions but those of my friend Vern Poythress, one of the most profound Christian thinkers around. I have also profited from Exiled Preacher and from these: Andrew Sandlin,
Center for Cultural Leadership, Common Grounds Online, Helm’s Deep, Paul Helm’s theological and philosophical writings. John Armstrong, Monergism, Reformed Blacks of America, Reformation 21, Third Millennium Ministries, together with their associated sites, Reformed Perspectives, Reformed Answers, and their Discussion Forums. Many of my own writings can be found at Reformed Perspectives. Third Millennium is the ministry of Richard Pratt. Triablogue, Truth XChange, Peter Jones’s site exposing neo-paganism. World Magazine Blog, especially the contributions of AndrĂ©e Seu.

I also occasionally look in on sites where I generally disagree with the content, but which are interesting to me for some reason. I prefer not to list those here.

GD: What is it that you enjoy most about being a systematic theologian?

JF: Among all the theological disciplines (exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, practical theology) systematics is the one that adds it all up. When we have a question about God, or Christ, or salvation, systematics is the discipline that looks at all the biblical data, sifts through all the work of past theologians, and tries to formulate an answer. So it answers questions of the form “what does the whole Bible say about…?”

I could not easily get excited about working through scholarly problems about, say, how Turretin’s view of the sacraments developed from 1680-83, though I’m happy that God has provided the church with people who have that kind of skill and interest. But I can get very excited about questions of what we today should believe and do (about the sacraments, the hypostatic union, abortion, or anything else). So to me systematics is the most directly contemporary, practical, and pastoral of all the theological disciplines.

GD: Why should pastors be interested in systematic theology?

JF: As I said, systematics, rightly understood, deals with the real questions about thought and life that pastors have to deal with. This includes questions about theological controversies, but also about ethics, evangelism, church order, contemporary religions and ideologies, social order, and so on. Now of course if you understand systematics as a more abstract and academic discipline, its connection to the pastorate is less direct. But even then the pastor should be able to draw on the writings of traditional systematicians to draw applications for his own ministry and his own people.

GD: You employ a multiperspectival approach to systematics, regularly bringing normative, situational and existential perspectives to bear upon your theological discussions. When did you first think of this approach and why do you believe that it is so helpful?

JF: In a university philosophy course (maybe 1959), I was impressed with the professor’s ability to look at philosophers and philosophical ideas from various angles. It later occurred to me that this is an important aspect of Christian thought. Only God can see everything simultaneously from all perspectives. Since we are finite, we need to seek the assistance of people with other perspectives from our own, and especially from God himself, who has revealed something of his own perspective to us.

As for the threefold perspectives, they have a number of roots. Cornelius Van Til, drawing on the Westminster Confession 16.7, taught me to think of ethics in terms of goal, motive, and standard. He also emphasized the correlation of revelation given from God, nature, and man himself ABOUT God, nature, and man himself. Edmund Clowney also developed a series of triads correlating the officers and ministries of the church with Jesus’ offices as prophet, priest, and king. Vern Poythress showed me some additional triads from the field of linguistics that correlated significantly with these. So in my own work, I tried to bring all these together in a broader system. I think it derives ultimately from the three persons of the Trinity.

Why is it helpful? Well, in understanding God’s revelation, we need to understand his world (“general revelation”) in the light of his word (“special revelation”) as applied to ourselves in his image (what I now call “existential revelation”). These I call “situational,” “normative,” and “existential,” respectively. Misunderstanding of any of these can lead to wrong conclusions and/or to theoretical and practical confusion. So the three perspectives serve as checks and balances on the theologian. When we advance an idea, does that idea do justice to Scripture (the normative question)? Does it show a good understanding of the situation or question to which we are trying to apply the Bible (the situational question)? Do we as theologians have sufficient intellectual and spiritual maturity to be trusted on this matter (the existential question)? We need to keep asking these questions at each stage of the theological inquiry. For more on all this, see here.

GD: What do you intend by "meaning is application"?

JF: People tend to think of “meaning” as some strange kind of object that we dig for underneath the surface of language. Actually, to ask the “meaning” of something is to ask a very practical question. It is to say, “I don’t understand this language; what can I make of it?” Now this kind of question arises in very different contexts, such as the following: (1) If you are confronted by Gen. 1:1 in Hebrew, and you don’t know the language, you might say, “what does it mean?” In this case, you are asking for a translation into English. (2) But let’s say that you already have a translation. You might still have a question about the passage, such as “Who is God?” or “What does it mean to say that God ‘created’ the heavens and the earth?” Here the question of meaning is not a request for translation, but for explanation. (3) But let’s say that you already have some idea who God is, and what creation is. You might still ask “what does it mean?” because you don’t understand what role this statement should play in your life. These three types of questions (and I could mention others) are very different, but they are all questions about meaning.

So it’s difficult to come up with a general definition of “meaning,” unless you make it very broad. But I do think that most questions about meaning have a situation in common: a person is looking at some text that he cannot really make use of, without some help. That is, in general, he cannot use it (here I nod to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein); he cannot apply it to what he is doing. Application is anything that resolves a question or problem with a text: a translation, a paraphrase, an explanation of the historical setting, an understanding of context. Context is especially important; but there are many contexts: the immediate passage, the book it is from, the other works of the author, the life of the reader, and our general worldview. I think that in most cases, then, when we ask the meaning of a biblical passage, we are asking how it “applies” to ourselves, as we seek to answer some question or use it in some situation.

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure in post-biblical church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him?

JF: Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria during the controversy over the Nicene formulation of the Trinity. He is a great hero of mine. I would ask how he was able to be so steadfast in his purpose, with most all of the world, and even the church, were arrayed against him.

GD: In your preface to Always Reforming (IVP Apollos, 2006), you have a little dig at fellow "triangulator", Kevin Vanhoozer. What did you make of his proposals for dramatising theology in The Drama of Doctrine?

JF: Kevin is a former student of mine, and I have a huge admiration for his work. He has done more than anybody to promote conversation between Reformed theology (of which he is a strong representative) and contemporary theologians, both evangelical and liberal. More than anyone I know in the Reformed community, he has gained the appreciation of the theological mainstream, without compromising the authority of Scripture or its doctrine of redemption.

If I took a “dig” at Kevin in my Preface, it was also a dig at myself. When people like Kevin and I try to do theology by triangulating norms, situations, and existential factors (as in my above description of triperspectivalism) there is the danger that the simple truth of Scripture will get lost amid all the complexity. In the Preface I was only seeking to warn theologians of this danger. There are dangers both on the side of oversimplification and of overcomplication, and we need to guard against both. Sometimes the meaning of Scripture is obvious: God exists, Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. Even here there may be some need of clarification, to some hearers. But we dare not lose these basics as we seek more sophisticated understandings.

Now the idea that Scripture is “drama” is one of many attempts to summarize what kind of book it is. Theologians today are pretty well agreed that Scripture is not a list of theological propositions or of ethical commands. But what is it, then? Kline argued that it has the elements of a “treaty” between a great king and a vassal. But that is not, certainly, its overall literary form. Others have said that the Bible is “history;” but Psalms and Proverbs don’t fit well into that model, at least as history is understood today; nor does Revelation. David Kelsey pointed out that the differences between theologians in their use of Scripture often arise less from their doctrines of Scripture than from their ideas on what kind of book the Bible is, how it should be “construed.” (See here).

“Drama” is one such “construal,” and there is much to be said for it. It incorporates the idea that Scripture has a historical narrative, but it also allows for literary features, character development, moral teaching, worldview communication, etc., such as we don’t always connect with narrative alone. So I think that as a general model for construing Scripture, drama is a promising vehicle. But in literary terms we would never think of a collection of 66 books, with many different authors, subject matters, and points of view, as a “drama,” as we use the term today. Scripture is like a drama in many ways, and “drama” is a useful metaphor for construing the whole. But it is best, I think, to say that Scripture is sui generis. It incorporates many literary genres, but it escapes categorization.

We would certainly be wrong to think that any construal will be a theological watershed, a way of finding large numbers of answers to theological questions that we would otherwise have missed. If we agree that Scripture is “drama,” what difference does that make in answering questions about whether God’s love is universal, whether Christ was able to sin, or whether the return of Christ precedes or follows the thousand years of peace? At most, a construal of Scripture will have subtle effects on the theologian’s emphases and priorities, on what he is likely to take literally or figuratively, etc. So I tend to be more interested in specific theological questions than about large questions of structure, model, or construal.

GD: Is it possible to be both faithful to the Scriptures and contemporary?

JF: Yes. I think Vanhoozer is a good example of this. I think the concept of theology I outlined above encourages, indeed requires, both faithfulness to Scripture (because it is God’s revelation) and contemporaneity (because we are applying Scripture to the world in which we live). Certainly the theologians of the past, especially the writers of creeds and confessions, are helpful to us now. But we need to understand our own times and speak the language of our own times if we are to do our job as theologians.

GD: Why do you think that a persuppositionalist apologetic is better and more biblical than evidentialism? Do presuppositionalists have any time for things like the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection, the "proofs for God's existence" or Intelligent Design?

JF: “Presuppositionalism” simply means that in all our thought God’s word is our supreme authority. We presuppose it, in the sense that its teachings take precedence over any other ideas we have, from any other source. “Let God be true, though every man a liar,” Rom. 3:4. That means that we must presuppose God’s revelation in all fields of study and all our conversation, even in apologetics, when we are arguing the truth of Christianity with an unbeliever. We cannot at any time pretend to be “neutral.” We should, rather, honestly admit our bias. Of course we should point out also that non-Christians are biased in the other direction: according to Rom. 1, they know God, but they repress that knowledge, exchange it for a lie, prefer not to have God in their knowledge. Insofar as evidentialists deny these biblical teachings, presuppositionalism is far better and more biblical.

But none of this forbids us to use evidences in our apologetic encounters. The Bible itself says that the heavens declare the glory of God. We should assume, then, that study of the heavens will validate Scripture, not falsify it. And we should be ready to use the Bible’s own evidences for its truth: the New Testament’s citations of the Old, the witnesses of 1 Cor. 15: 3-11, and so on. But we should not present these as neutral observers. Rather we should point out that these evidences must be seen through the eyes of faith, and that they make no sense without faith. Indeed, nothing can be rightly understood apart from faith, for everything is God’s creation and bears witness to him.

GD: In both Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation and Andrew McGowan's The Divine Spiration of Scripture, serious Reformed theologians have called into question the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Is the inerrancy of Scripture still worth fighting for?

JF: I would not live or die for the term “inerrancy,” which is an extra-biblical term and is often used in confusing ways today. But as I understand it, the main idea behind the term is that Scripture, being God’s word, is completely true in everything it teaches. Scripture explicitly affirms that it is true (as in Ps. 119:160, John 17:17). So when God speaks to us, we dare not find fault with anything he says. Our responsibility is simply to believe what he says and to do what he tells us to do. That principle is still worth fighting for. In fact it is the watershed issue of our time: will we believe God, or will we follow human wisdom? This is nothing less than the question of whether God in Jesus Christ is Lord.

GD: Who is you favourite fiction writer?

JF: Mark Twain.

GD: Care to name your top three pieces of music or songs (Christian or otherwise)?

JF: Handel, Messiah; Bach, St. Matthew Passion; Mozart, Symphony 40; Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. “Arise, My Soul, Arise” is probably my favorite hymn right now, in the Eleanor Tracey arrangement.

GD: Which theological book have you found most helpful in the last twelve months? It is a must read because....

JF: Believe it or not, Holy Spirit Revivals, by Charles Finney (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1999). Finney here is very different from the picture of him given in the standard Reformed polemics. He is thoroughly dependent on God’s sovereign working, through the prayers of his people, to reach the lost. His opponents, as he describes them, appear to me to be hyper-Calvinists, not authentic Calvinists: people who think that an inquirer should wait passively for the Spirit to change his heart, rather than obeying the biblical command to repent and believe. On that issue, assuming that he has described it correctly, I certainly would have been on Finney’s side. His Systematic Theology, however, contains some significant errors and confusions. He should have stuck to evangelism.

GD: That's a surprising choice, I must say! Now, what does a systematic theologian have to say about the credit crunch?

JF: Scripture doesn’t forbid borrowing and lending, but it does warn of dangers in this (Prov. 22:7) and commends those who are generous in giving to the needy. Similarly, it doesn’t condemn riches as such or the use of luxuries, but it often presents riches as a spiritual snare. We should not set our heart on riches or use them to oppress the poor.

The credit crunch has occurred because in our society borrowing has become a central feature of daily life and material things are valued disproportionately. And everyone assumes that government has the responsibility to prevent and to solve the problems these attitudes create. Scripture summons us, rather, to repent and turn back to God.

GD: What is the biggest problem that faces Reformed Evangelicals today and how should we respond?

JF: The issue of the authority of Scripture, as I described it above, is the most pressing theological problem, and we need to be uncompromising in our allegiance to the Bible as God’s word. This means saying no to fashionable philosophies and theologies, to much that is called “biblical criticism,” to those who attempt to limit Scripture to certain spheres of human life, to those who would put tradition (Protestant, Catholic, ethnic, denominational, or any other) on a level rivaling Scripture.

GD: Well, John Frame, thanks for dropping by for this conversation.

JF: My pleasure, Guy. Thanks for the opportunity to engage your readers.

GD: No problem.
Watch this blog for more conversations on theology and preaching.


Jonathan Hunt said...

Look, you're just scraping the barrel now. Can't you interview the monkey or something?

.... only kidding. Most interesting and enjoyable!

Guy Davies said...

That's a bit rude, Jonathan. What have you got against John Frame, is it that he's way over your head?

Oh, I've just spotted the bottom line of your comment. Glad you enjoyed it really!

Anonymous said...

As always a great interview. Frame is probably my favorite systematic theologian. Great job Guy!

Blake Reas