Should I Buy It? A Book Review

Frequently I receive the question in my inbox: “Should I buy this book?” What I would like to say is, “Yes, buy every book but don’t buy every book you buy.” I think it is a good idea to own and read books liberally. Sometimes I have the impression that the unstated premise of the question is something like this: “I suspect that I won’t agree with the book, so tell me if that is so and I’ll know not to buy it.” I do not share that view. I regularly purchase books with which I do not agree. This gets us to the second sense of “buy.” I think readers should read widely but they shouldn’t believe everything they read. So we should read liberally but we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?” “What is the writer assuming?” With these notions in mind I thought it would be helpful to consider the latest systematic theology to be published, John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013).

There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist (on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession), has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.

The first divergence is methodological. To put it briefly, Frame has adopted what is essentially a dialectical approach to theology.1 I understand that this might surprise some readers. After all, when we think of dialectical theology we might think of Karl Barth and his view of revelation. Nevertheless, there is more than one way of arriving at a dialectical method. By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time. Frame does this through a method he describes as triperspectivalism. This method is sometimes taken, naively I think, as a sort of common-sense approach to theology that seeks to take into account three perspectives: the norm to be applied, the situation in which the norm is applied, and the person doing the applying. Were that all that triperspectivalism entailed there wouldn’t be much reason for concern. That account, however, is only part of the story. There is more.

The second divergence, closely related to the first, is theological. Frame has come to defend views that are flatly contrary to the Reformed confession on a number of topics from the definition of theology through to Christian ethics.

  • In his earlier volume on the doctrine of God, he defended the proposition that God is three persons and one person, a view at which, in the present volume. he seems only to hint.2 Last I knew, few reviewers noted this significant departure from catholic (i.e., universal Christian) dogma and the Reformed confession.
  • Under the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), Where the orthodox Reformed writers all rejected categorically and heartily the very doctrines now described as the “Federal Vision” theology, where Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) dismissed Norman Shepherd for teaching justification through faith and works (or “faithfulness”), where the Reformed churches, including his own denomination (PCA) have rejected the Federal Vision theology, in contrast, Frame has defended the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrines. In the present volume he offers a (remarkably revisionist) defense of the principal godfather of the FV theology, Norman Shepherd.3
  • Under the heading of ecclesiology he published a book that presupposed the elimination of the marks of a true church.
  • He has, as I documented in RRC, proposed significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of the second commandment.

For the purposes of this review, let’s consider one result of Frame’s method. His method is not only dialectical, it is a latitudinarian, i.e., the goal is that we should tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned. The results of his method also appear in his doctrine of God.

On p. 428 there is a heading, in bold typeface, that reads: “God Is Simple.” He says, “[t]heologians also speak of God’s oneness in another sense: his simplicity. He then turns immediately to a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of simplicity that continues through the top of p. 431. To Thomas, whose doctrine of divine simplicity he characterizes as “Plotinian” (the neo-Platonic view; p. 430) and “natural theology ” (p. 433) and to what he characterizes as “scholastic metaphysics” (p. 431), he contrasts the teaching of Scripture. According to Frame, if we follow Scripture we will get “a doctrine of God’s necessary existence rather than a doctrine of simplicity as such” (p. 431).

He argues that God is both simple and complex. About the divine attributes he writes: “Note that these arguments do not rule out all complexity within the divine nature” (p.430) and “But does this pattern justify talk of divine simplicity? If the attributes are perspectives on a single reality, that reality will be simple by comparison, though also complex, as I must keep insisting” (p. 432).

According to Frame, simplicity so defined does not rule out “all multiplicity.” For Frame, the doctrine of divine simplicity is really just a way of talking about God’s necessary existence and his “fully personal” relationship to us as Lord (p. 433). Everything comes back to divine sovereignty and tri-perspectivalism.

So, we began with an apparently clear, boldfaced affirmation of divine simplicity but as we continue we find that, via a dialectical method, God is also complex. How is he complex? It is not clear. At points in the discussion it seems as if he is suggesting that the Trinity itself implies complexity in God. At other points it seems as if the existence of attributes might be the reason. I’m not sure but he does say that God is complex.

Why is this an issue? Well, in Belgic Confession, Art. 1, the Reformed churches confess: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (emphasis added).

Westminster Confession 2.1 says,

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (emphasis added).

By setting up a contrast between Thomas and Scripture, Frame creates the impression that he is merely relieving us of an unnecessary problem, a leftover from “natural theology,” as he puts it. The doctrine of divine simplicity, however, is not a remnant of Thomas’ neo-Platonism. It is the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple, that he is without parts and we do so, as Luther said, without horns (we don’t say this and not this or Sic et Non). Neither the Trintarian persons nor the attributes make God complex. That is why we say that God transcends our ability to comprehend him.

Frame says, “God’s essence is not some dark, unrevealed entity behind God’s revealed character. Rather, God’s revelation tells us his essence. It tells us what he really and truly is” (p.431).

This passage gets us closer to the heart of the problem, his apparent revision of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.4 As a matter of truth, God’s essence is a dark, unrevealed entity. God, as he is in himself (in se) is hidden from us. This is basic Protestant theology. Understood on its own terms, the theology of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed orthodox will not allow us to say that God’s essence is hidden and it isn’t. When Luther taught that God is hidden (Deus absconditus) he was saying that God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Our Lord himself said: “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

1 Timothy 6:16 says “no one has ever seen or can see” God. 1 John 4:12 says that “no one has ever seen God.”  Were it possible to come into contact with God as he is, unmediated, unaccommadated, we would be destroyed. God, as he is in himself, is utterly transcendent, holy, just, etc in a way that, as he is in himself, we are not capable to apprehend, let alone comprehend. This is why the Reformed orthodox repeatedly taught the that “finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non capax infiniti). Calvin picked up Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed as did the Reformed orthodox after him.

We know that God’s hidden essence is but we don’t know what God’s essence is. We’re not capable of knowing or understanding that essence. We know what God has revealed of himself to us. God has given us pictures, illustrations, analogies, but he has not revealed himself as he is in himself.  This is the Reformed doctrine of divine accommodation. Dialectically, formally, Frame affirms Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation (p.704) but that doctrine was premised on the very notion of divine hiddenness that Frame denies. Traditionally, Reformed theology has distinguished between what God knows (theologia archetypa) and what creatures know (theologia ectypa). Again, Frame formally affirms this distinction (p. 699–701) but he denies what the Reformed intended to teach by it.

Finally, consider how Frame proceeded on the doctrine of divine simplicity. He set up Thomas Aquinas as a foil and then proceeded to Scripture. What was missing in his account of divine simplicity? Any meaningful dialogue with the broader Christian and Reformed traditions. Certainly readers are not alerted that Frame is not entirely comfortable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this point.

Contrast his handling of divine simplicity with that in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Under the heading: The Unity of God (p. 61) Berkhof distinguishes between the unity of singularity (unitas singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (unitas simplicatatis; p.62). The first distinction refers to the numerical simplicity of God: He is one. The most fundamental OT confession is: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4).

The unity of simplicity refers to the truth that God is not composite. He has no parts. The persons of the Trinity “are not so many of which the divine essence is composed, that God’s essence and perfections are not distinct, and that the attributes are not superadded to his essence.”

There he was following Turretin almost verbatim. He noted that it was the Arminians and Socinians who rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity (p.62). More recently, the classical Reformed doctrine of simplicity has been a bulwark against the heresy of Open Theism, the doctrine that future contingents are unknowable to God. Berkhof observed that it has been common in the modern period to deny divine simplicity as the product of metaphysical speculation and that Dabney argued—strangely—that God is no more simple than finite spirits.

In The Christian Faith (2011), pp. 228–30, Mike Horton’s account of divine simplicity is simultaneously more catholic, engaging with a broad variety of writers across the Christian tradition, more concise, and more orthodox. He gives not a hint that there is complexity in God, who is, according to Horton, “everything that all the attributes reveal” (p. 228). He appeals to the essence/energies (working) distinction in Basil. God is simple but his works are various. He is never self-conflicted (p.229). “None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence” (p.230).

Horton’s language about the divine essence, as distinct from his revelation to us creatures, also resonates with the Reformed tradition:

One of the advantages of the “way of negation” (as in immutability) is that is halts before God’s majesty, content to affirm God’s infinite perfection without probing into the mysteries of God’s hidden being. We do not know how God is immutable or how realist the comparison is between his analogies and his essence. Yet God teaches us enough to be able to know that he is infinitely other than we are and at the same time inseparably one with us—the object of our awe was as well as our assurance (p. 242).

The Reformed want to affirm both the mystery of God’s hiddenness and the utterly reliability of his self-revelation. The Reformed theological method has never been dialectical. Read the classical Reformed writers. They don’t affirm divine simplicity and then deny it. There is no perspective from which God may be said to be complex. He is either simple or he is not. The God whom we worship is not simple and complex. He just is.

So, should you buy this volume? It depends on how you intend to use it. If you are looking for a reliable, careful, modern summary of the historic Reformed faith, then this does not appear to be such a volume. Fortunately, that volume already exists. If you’re looking for a speculative, dialectical, and idiosyncratic account of the Christian faith, then this volume will fill the bill quite nicely.

In this review I have used the word buy in two senses. At this point I am most interested in the second sense of subscribe or to agree. Should the reader accept the ideas that the author and those commending the book are selling? Publishers have included “blurbs” (which my dictionary defines as a “short description of a book, movie, or other product written for promotional purposes and appearing on the cover of a book….”) in their products for a long time. In recent years, however, I have noticed the tendency to blitz the reader with a enormous volume of blurbs. Such is the case with this volume. As I noted in an earlier post, at least a few of the blurbs are a little surprising. The endorsement of this volume by leading proponents of the so-called and self-described Federal Vision theology should give orthodox Reformed and evangelical readers pause. Would you trust a systematic theology endorsed by Jacob Arminius, Simon Episcopius, Richard Baxter, and Laelio Sozzini?5 The larger question is why would orthodox Reformed and evangelical folk endorse a volume that seeks to rehabilitate a modern-day Richard Baxter?

Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century, and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and desire so to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why he was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right.

—J. I. Packer, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology
Regent College (1992)

I have my disagreements with Packer but he knows a latter-day Baxter when he sees one. He did his DPhil. thesis on Baxter in the 1950s at Oxford.6 Packer was not alone in his assessment. Dozens of orthodox Reformed theologians and pastors condemned Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as contrary to the Scriptures, the Reformation, and the Reformed confessions. Among them were: R. C. Sproul, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, , W. Robert Godfrey, O. Palmer Robertson, Roger Nicole, Robert Reymond, George Knight III, W Stanford Reid, Morton Smith, William Hendrickson, Philip E. Hughes.7

Lloyd-Jones wrote about Shepherd’s doctrine of justification:

Another big defect is his misunderstanding of and misuse of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms. They were concerned as James was to warn against mere intellectual assent or what the Puritans called temporary professors. They rightly emphasized works as regards church membership and admission to the Lord’s Supper, etc., but Shepherd constantly applies this to justification. He does not realize that the purpose of works is: 1) to test profession, 2) to glorify God and to please Him and show our gratitude to Him, 3) to help in the matter of assurance, 4) to prepare us for heaven (1 John 3:3).

His teaching is contrary to that of the evangelicals of the last 400 years and he seems to rejoice in this!

It seems to have been forgotten that, by the time Shepherd was dismissed from WTS/PA, even though only a minority of the faculty then opposed his doctrine of justification, virtually the rest of the Reformed world had rejected it. At the time of his dismissal, Shepherd was facing renewed charges against his doctrine in the Philadelphia presbytery of the OPC but his request for dismissal to the Christian Reformed Church was taken up before the charges could be laid against him. He mostly disappeared from broader public view until after his retirement when he began speaking at conferences, where he continue to advocate the same views that merited (pun intended) his dismissal. When that book, The Call of Grace was published, it was roundly criticized. In his review Cornel Venema wrote:

Fourth, these features of Shepherd’s reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant raise questions regarding his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Though Shepherd studiously avoids any explicit formulation of the doctrine of justification in this study, the trajectory of his position clearly points in the direction of a revision of the historic Reformation position. Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.

But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.

There have been numerous assessments of his doctrine of justification that reach the similar conclusions. According to David VanDrunen,

the evidence points to the conclusion that Shepherd indeed prefers an understanding of faith that makes good works not merely the fruit of faith, but an element of faith itself.

In Shepherd’s definition, “faith has been turned from the extraspective trust in the obedience of another into an act in which the believer himself offers obedience.” When “Shepherd says that we are saved by a living and obedient faith he means a different kind of faith from that of the Reformed tradition.” 8

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor. He has indicated his intellectual debt to and support for Shepherd for many years. In this volume he is only re-stating what he published 10 years ago and what he wrote to the faculty during the original controversy, in which he was among those who defended Shepherd. What should surprise us, however, is that so many orthodox Reformed folk would commend a volume that defends the teaching of Norman Shepherd on the doctrine of justification. Remember, we’re not talking about the logical order of the decrees, the nature of the creation days, the nature of the Mosaic covenant, or even the imputation of active obedience (which Shepherd rejects). There have been orthodox Reformed folk on both sides of those questions, even at our most important ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly). No, we are talking about justification sola gratiasola fide, the article of the standing or falling of the church.

Consider this: Frame presents Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as though it is patently orthodox to anyone with a modicum of sense and ability to read English. Yet the evidence in the documents from the original controversy, from Shepherd’s own published writings, and from the assessment of at least three different synodical or General Assembly committees is that Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is incompatible with Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches.

I am utterly convinced that the critics are correct: Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is contrary to Scripture and a corruption of the gospel.  Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Frame is correct, that all this time (39 years!) Shepherd has been articulating nothing but an orthodox Reformed doctrine of justification. What does this say about all of those who have read, considered, and rejected his theology? What does this say about Shepherd’s competence? What does it say about someone who supports his teaching?  If a minister and professor of theology has not been able make totally clear his views on the article of the standing or falling of the church for 39 years, is that person a reliable guide to the Christian faith? Yes, we’re only discussing a few pages in a very large volume but riddle me this Batman: how large are cancer cells?

Perhaps the fact that Frame has found a way to justify (pun intended) Shepherd’s doctrine of justification says something about his theological method? In Frame’s hands, there is a perspective from which anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be appreciated and synthesized with Reformed theology and if anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be synthesized with Reformed theology, then nothing (except Reformed confessionalism) is excluded. Do you really want to live in that house? Is that what we want for the future of Reformed theology, piety, and practice? As Allen Iverson says, “we’re talking about practice; not a game, not a game, not a game. We’re talking about practice.”

NOTES

  1. Kevin DeYoung recently registered some discomfort (though he did not describe it as dialectical) with Frame’s method in his brief review.
  2. Van Til first taught this in his syllabus in Systematic Theology. This view has also been defended by Lane Tipton in “The Function Of Perichoresis And The Divine Incomprehensibility ” in WTJ 64 (2002). None of the catholic creeds countenance this way of speaking. The catholic way of speaking is to say that God is personal or tri-personal. He is one in three persons. This is the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed. None of the classic Reformed theologians or Reformed churches, in their confessions and catechisms, even hint at the possibility of saying that God is one person. Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression “one person.”
  3. Here is an archive of primary source documents. I have read most of the more important documents and can say without hesitation that Frame’s characterization of Shepherd’s teaching (pp. 974–75) is without warrant in the primary documents. Read for yourself the board’s grounds for dismissing Shepherd, who along with three other leading Federal Visionists, have offered ringing endorsements of this volume.
  4. He says that, e.g., Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til did not disagree as much as has been thought. In contrast, I have argued that debate was about a basic Reformed distinction that Clark and others rejected. On this see RRC and the chapter on this debate in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. This is the nature of a dialectical theological method. There is always a perspective from which to reconcile opposites. Disagreement (except with confessionalist Reformed theology) is always only apparent.
  5. In reverse order: Lelio Sozzini (1525–1562) was an early proponent of the theological method known as biblicism. Sozzini’s writing raised questions about his orthodoxy. He was a rationalist (as biblicists almost invariably are) who seemed to doubt and to challenge the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the ground that the theological language used by the catholic (universal) church wasn’t in the Bible. As a consequence of his method and his ambiguity Calvin distrusted him but Bullinger accepted him as orthodox. He was associated with the Italian anti-Trinitarian movement that later produced outright and unequivocal denials of the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the Trinity among other things, led by his nephew, Faustus Socinus (1539–1604). Baxter was a notorious moralist (who taught justification through obedience), to whom John Owen replied at length in volume 5 of his works. Episcopius was Arminius’ successor and the leader of the Remonstrants at Dort and after. Arminius founded a movement to subvert the Protestant, evangelical Reformed doctrines of grace, to whom the Synod of Dort answered in 1618–19.
  6. Published as The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter.
  7. For a clear, accurate account of the 1974–81 controversy at WTS/PA see A. Donald MacLeod, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy, ch. 15. For an excellent longitudinal survey of Shepherd’s theology from 1963–2006, see the chapter by Guy Prentiss Waters on Shepherd in Robert L. Penny, ed. The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  8. Here are other critiques of Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation: