A few weeks back, I introduced the review series for John Frame’s Systematic Theology. Today, we’ll get started in the review proper with the first section, “Introduction to Systematic Theology.” As far as sections go, it’s one of the shorter ones, clocking in at just under 50 pages. Much of that is because Frame deals with prolegomena issues in 4 separate sections. This one introduces the nature of theology and some distinctives of Frame’s approach. The next offers a covenantal framework for theology before section three covers the doctrine of God. Interestingly, Frame puts the doctrine of the Word of God and the doctrine of the knowledge of God after the doctrine of God. Typically, theses two discussions form the prolegomena, but hey, it’s John Frame, and he does thinks different. 1
What Is Theology?
Because opening sentences are fun, here is how Frame’s systematic begins:
Theology is full of definitions of things. One of the useful features of a systematic theology is that you can turn there and get quick definitions of terms such as justification, glorification, or hypostatic union. Definitions are useful, but we should be warned that they are rarely, if ever, found in Scripture itself. Such definitions are themselves theology in that they are the work of human beings trying to understand Scripture. (3)
This presents one aspect of the task of theology. Frame goes on to say that theology is also application. That is, it is not just the study of God (it is), but a study of God as revealed in Scripture (5). But even this is not enough. It is true as far as it goes, but Frame wants to see theology defined with a purpose in mind, and he sees that purpose as edification (6). He grounds this exegetically with the biblical concept of sound doctrine (7) and proposes that we understand theology as synonymous with the biblical concept of teaching, which has an emphasis on edification. At the end of this discussion he concludes that “theology is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (8).
From here Frame lays out the different kinds of theology:
- Exegetical (interpreting the Bible verse by verse)
- Biblical (traces the narrative of Scripture for application)
- Systematic (summarizing the whole Bible’s teaching on a topic)
- Historical (analysis of past theological work)
- Practical (though he sees this as a department of systematics, focused on communication)
He goes into much more detail in The Doctrine of The Knowledge of God (DKG), but here he lays out his maps clearly enough. He then discusses theological method, which necessitates a mild rant about the importance of focusing on explaining Scripture in systematic theology and not so much on either the history of the doctrine, or what all the relevant other systematicians have said. Specifically he says,
I think, however, that theology today has become preoccupied with these auxilary disciplines to the extent of neglecting its primary responsibility: to apply Scripture itself. Theological literature today is focused, especially, on history of doctrine, and contemporary thought. Often this literature deals with theological questions by comparing various thinkers from the past and from the present, with a very minimal interaction with Scripture itself. (10)
It is worth weighing what Frame says here and coming to your own conclusions about how much of a problem it is in theological discourse today. He goes into much more detail in DKG, but still hammers home the point here. I agree to some extent, and personally do not care what someone like Karl Barth thought about much of anything. I realize he is influential and “important,” but I don’t think he needs to be an extended conversation partner for every systematic theologian writing today. 2
Still, I think Frame’s approach is open to weakness. I wouldn’t have thought this when I first got into Frame late in my seminary time. However, I’ve come to see the value of including the historical and contemporary dimensions in theological analysis. I think Frame is reacting against an over-emphasis, and his point is duly noted. However, I don’t think the solution is to focus only on Scripture or even predominately on Scripture to the exclusion of other sources. Bird in this regard represents what I think is a better approach, though Frame is refreshingly biblical in some respects. Readers do well to note here Frame’s method. While he might be open to criticism later, he is at least consistent with his intent to focus on Scripture to the exclusion of extended historical or contemporary conversation partners.
In the second chapter, Frame presents his understanding of God’s lordship. As he sees it, it is known primarily through three attributes:
- Control (21-22)
- Authority (22-29)
- Presence (29-31)
It is from here that Frame introduces his hallmark “triperspectivalism” approach to knowledge. Perspectives are not “parts” but are aspects of the same object of study (not saying God is an object). Our understanding is enhanced by viewing the same reality through different lenses, which in this case are the lens of norms, facts, and subjectivity. Frame then explains,
I have suggested that the three lordship attributes presuppose and imply one another. If God controls all things, then his commands are authoritative, and his presence is inescapable. If his commands are supremely authoritative, then God can command all things, thereby exercising control, and since we cannot escape from his authority (Ps. 139:7-12), he is necessarily present to us. Further, God’s presence is a presence of divine control and authority. So it is not as if God could be divided between three parts, each representing one attribute. Rather, each of the lordship attributes describes God as a whole, from a different perspective. (31)
In this way, triperspectivalism can be seen as a way of coming to grips with something we cannot fully understand (in this case God’s lordship over us, his creatures). By parsing it out into different aspects, our understanding is enhanced but not exhausted. This has important implications of our knowledge in general, which is a creature kind of knowledge that should be submitted to the lordship of Christ. Because He is Lord (32),
- The highest rules or norms of knowledge come from him
- The course of nature and history is under his control
- Our knowledge faculties are gifts of God and operate in his very presence
This suggests our knowledge corresponds to the three perspectives on God’s lordship, which Frame then explains using his names for the perspectives (32-33):
- In the normative perspective, we understand the whole world as a revelation of God, governing our thought
- In the situational perspective, we understand the whole world as the factual situations that God as controller has brought to pass
- In the existential perspective, we understand the whole world as a set of personal experiences granted by God, who is present with us and within us
These three perspectives figure prominently throughout the book, and the most popular diagram, as you might imagine, is the triangle.
God’s Lordship as a Unique Worldview
In the final chapter of this section, Frame explains how this understanding of God’s lordship gives a unique worldview. He also introduces two key diagrams. The first is the “Rectangle of Opposition” which illustrates the different between transcendence and immanence in biblical perspective and in their opposing nonbiblical corruptions. It’s very similar to the kind of squares you get in logic differentiating modal statements. If that’s not helpful, just imagine a square where each vertical side represents either the biblical or nonbiblical position, and the top corners are the different understandings of transcendence and the bottom corners of the different understandings of immanence. That still might not help, so you better just pick up the book.
The second diagram is Van Til’s famous Creator/creature distinction. It is a circle with three dots in it (representing the Trinity) over another circle with lines connecting to the two. This illustrates the nature of reality, which in the Christian worldview is two tiered. Reality is not a single circle of which God and man both take part. Rather, there is a vital Creator/creature distinction, but God has bridged the gap through the incarnation.
Taken together, all of this provides a good framework (get it?) for studying theology, and though I was introduced to most everything vital here in Frame’s previous work (specifically, DKG), it was helpful to see him distill the distinction down to brass tacks and smooth out some of the rough edges. The next section covered somewhat newer ground, but you’ll have to wait until next time to hear about it.
- But still uses a PC from what I can tell when I’ve dropped by his office. ↩
- I realize most of them would disagree. The key word is “extended,” just to be clear. It’s not that I don’t think you should reference someone like Barth (although I wish you wouldn’t), just that I agree that the main focus should be Scripture, just not to the detriment of other sources of systematic theology. ↩