This is a review of
Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002.864 pp. $39.99
Copyright ?? 2007 by Alex S. Leung. All rights reserved.
The popularity of J.I. Packer???s classic book, Knowing God (1973), is evidence to the widespread desire in today???s church to reclaim the center of Christianity in the knowledge of God. In recent times, the need to understand why major disasters and calamities have occurred underscores the yearning of the society at large to understand who God is and why He does what He does, why He would allow so much suffering to occur if He is truly good. More recently, in response to 9/11 or the bridge collapse in Minnesota, many Christians are even questioning whether or not God truly had control of the events. Some have argued that God allows and uses suffering in the world to amplify the dire need in people to repent of their sins, including unbelief, and to put their trust in the atoning work of Christ on the cross. In spite of this, many still are left dumbfounded by life???s circumstances about the will of God in all these things.This pervasive rejection of the God of Scripture in secularism and alternative spirituality and religions compels us as Christ???s ambassadors to call unbelievers to be reconciled with God (2 Cor 5:20). What this undeniably implies is that we actually know this God of whom we confess, so that we would be ready in season and out of season, to give a biblical defense for the hope we have in Jesus Christ (2 Tim 4:2; 1Pet 3:15). While postmodern epistemology may be accurate to assert that we cannot exhaustively know everything about God, we can however know with certainty everything that God has explicitly revealed about himself in Scripture. In ???The Doctrine of God???, John Frame, professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, provides a concise exposition of theology proper as defined in Scripture.
John Frame expounds his doctrine of God from the foundation of Sola Scriptura which forms the basis of all biblical doctrine. Through an analysis of the major themes about God found in Scripture, Frame explains that there may be other ways to understand our relationship with God, like marriage, sonship, and friendship (34). However, it is visibly evident that upon an examination of the relationship between God and His created people throughout biblical history that covenant Lordship is the central motif of the Bible, and thus, it is the central theme of Frame???s book. Frame also notes that while other themes such as community, hope and liberation are present within Scripture, they should be included within this central motif of covenant Lordship for they are most accurately understood for their wonderful redemptive unity through this lens. Just as the author argues, ???The central motif of this book is that God is the Lord of the covenant. Since God chose the name Lord for himself, since it is found thousands of time in Scripture, and since it is the heart of the fundamental confession of faith of God???s people?????? (12)Frame???s methodology is regulated by God???s special revelation in Scripture, and as a result, it is a ???theology from above??? (14). In seeking to show that the acts, attributes and personal distinctions of God that are all expressions of his Lordship, the author sets forth a theological triad to help the reader understand the Lord of the Bible???the lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence. The structure of his book is thus organized around this triad and correspondingly are related to how God has chosen to reveal himself in Scripture???by a narrative of His acts (control), by authoritative descriptions of his nature (authority), and by revealing the Trinitarian persons (presence). Although these elements of the doctrine of God are dealt with in an unconventional order, Frame asserts that there is some pedagogical difference and appropriately clarifies why he has chosen to discuss God???s nature in a method that is inverted from traditional Reformed theologies (14).The body of the book is divided into six parts which, when read, flow logically from one chapter to the next. Frame first outlines the foundational element for the rest of the book by explicating with significant biblical support ???Yahweh the Lord??? (21-25) in terms of the Lordship attributes of control, authority and presence; the conclusion of this first section provides a helpful distinction between the transcendence and the immanence of God in a manner that borrows heavily from the work of Cornelius Van Til (112-115). In part two, Frame defends his theology proper against the ???problem areas??? of human responsibility and freedom (119) and the problem of evil (160). As will be noted later, these two chapters of part two alone are worth the price of this book, since the author contends in detail for a high view of the sovereignty of God???s Lordship in a postmodern culture which questions all forms of authority and control. In section three, the philosophy of Lordship is explained in terms of ethics (185), epistemology (199), and metaphysics (214), but is done so in a way that sees Christian philosophy as an application of Scripture to philosophical questions. Frame asserts that Scripture has much to say concerning these philosophical matters and confronts them with a biblical worldview that is consistent with the premise of sola Scriptura.Parts four through six could very well be considered the meat of this book where John Frame expounds heavily on the covenantal framework he has provided in the first three sections. He surveys Scripture broadly to explain the control, authority and presence of God that correspondingly relate to the acts of the Lord, the biblical descriptions of God and the triune names of God. As Frame writes, ???The narrative of God???s actions shows us how God controls the situation to accomplish his sovereign purposes??? It presents authoritative descriptions of God, exhibiting in them God???s own authority. And it also presents to us, not only an account of God???s involvement in our history, but also some glimpses of God???s own inner life??? (242).Upon reading completely this heavy volume on Theology Proper, one is provided with a multi-faceted, fully orbed view of the covenantal Lord that is first and foremost based upon the foundation of Scripture. This brief summary pales in light of the intricate details of God???s character and work in the world that is presented in this book.
The major strength of John Frame???s presentation of the doctrine of God is that it is undoubtedly Reformed in its theology. He notes in the introductory chapter that the doctrine of God has not been sufficiently covered in modern evangelical scholarship, especially from a perspective that is Reformed (9-10). Medieval ???scholastic??? theologians such as Thomas Aquinas heavily emphasized theology proper but depended heavily on a philosophical framework that had its roots in Greek philosophy and ancient Gnosticism (3-4). On the other hand, Protestant Reformers like John Calvin focused heavily on soteriology and ecclesiology rather than the doctrine of God, but consequently had little philosophical influence (4-5). Post-Reformation scholasticism, Frame argues, has been speculative, philosophical and still irrelevant to the practical Christian life (5). Thus, the author submits a doctrine of God that presents ???what Scripture says about God, applying that teaching to the questions of our time??? (10). This book is hence a Reformed elucidation of theology proper that seeks to maintain sola Scriptura as its foundational core and thus a doctrine of God that stands over and against philosophical imperialism and traditionalism.Additionally, John Frame stresses that the Lordship of God in his holy character is deserving of a proper response from God???s people in obedience and worship???implicitly declaring that God alone should receive all the glory that is due to him (soli Deo Gloria). The monergistic view of the God???s efficacious control of the entire universe (51-52) is certainly a portrayal of the Calvinistic understanding of God???s sovereignty in all of creation. Following the emphasis of Reformed on soteriology, Frame saturates each section with a biblical-theological relationship to salvation in Christ alone (solus Christus), although he does not devote one individual section on God???s redemptive work in Christ. Subsequently, the doctrines of election and predestination, as well as the doctrines of effectual calling and regeneration (sola gratia and sola fide) are explained in terms of covenant Lordship within a Calvinistic framework that defends itself against Arminian theology (72-74). As previously noted, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself flows directly from the biblical teaching that God???s authority is given to mankind through his Word alone. As Frame submits, ???No other authority may compete with God???s words. No words may be added to God???s or be put on the same level of authority. ??? Only the Word of God has the ultimate authority??? (88-89).Secondly, Frame???s book responds to current questions related to the doctrine of God in significant detail and with sufficient biblical support. For example, in chapter 9 on ???The Problem of Evil???, Frame confronts the issues head on by trying to answer whether God authors (174), causes (175), or permits sin (177), and he does so in a Reformed vernacular against Arminian positions. The author thus presents a solution to the problem of evil in author-story model (179-180) and potter-clay model (181) that is logical, biblical and Reformed. He explains in simple terms how God can bring about sin for the greater good (169-173) and without sinning himself (174-182). As Frame admits, ???God certainly does will evil for a good purpose. The good he intends will be so great, so wonderful, so beautiful, that it will make present evils seem small??? (173).Moreover, many contemporary attacks on the doctrine of God are also addressed in appropriate detail???Libertarianism/libertarian free-will (137-145), God???s ???middle-knowledge??? (150-152), and open-theism (485-486). Frame responds to these modern theological attacks humbly and respectfully with plain biblical support (e.g., 487).
Few weaknesses could be found in Frame???s exhaustively detailed survey of the doctrine of God. Due to the long length of this book, criticisms can be made about the effectiveness of such a long volume to convey the doctrine of God to a non-academic audience like that of regular church members. The body of this book lies at 742 pages, add to that over 100 pages of appendixes, bibliography and indexes, and thus it is likely a book that a lay person will not pick up simply due to its frightening length. While many of the appendixes (743-806) are good for expanding on ideas and articles quoted in the book, many of them appear off topic and gratuitously extend an already lengthy book.As a supposed ???Reformed??? theology of the doctrine of God, I wish Frame had included separate subsections within his volume addressing the Reformed loci of soteriology and ecclesiology. While a theology of salvation is prevalent throughout this book, it seems that Frame neglected to rightfully apply his theology proper to the (post-)modern church and how such a personal knowledge of the covenant Lord would impact how we should do church. Lastly, Frame seemed to have neglected to make a clear delineation between the name of God (LORD in all capitals, representing Yahweh) and the authoritative title of God (Lord, representing adonai/kurios). While it is true that from the LORD???s name come the attributes of his authoritative Lordship, Psalm 8:1 would however require a proper differentiation.
III. Remaining Questions & Conclusion
Frame leaves few questions unanswered, theological or practical. If there is any aspect of doctrine within his book that seems to be missing, it may very well be outside the scope of theology proper and excluded for that very reason. Any questions regarding responses to current critical issues may be derived from Frame???s first-rate assessment of human responsibility and freedom (chapter 8 ) and the problem of evil (chapter 9), if not from his ostentatious survey of Lordship attributes of control, authority and presence (part one). By and large, ???The Doctrine of God??? is the best Reformed volume on theology proper in recent times, as a result, it is bound to be a reference text that would serve the church well for a long time. I heartily recommend it to any Christian seeking an explanation of the doctrine of God.