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‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’

Category Book Reviews
Date August 31, 2007

John Frame’s new book, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, (P&R, 2006) is very fine. In 25 chapters he takes the reader through a crash-course in systematics. The chapters contain many wise judgments, much sound teaching, and good emphases. When caution is needed, Frame is cautious; when boldness is called for, he is bold. Though the book’ll need no help from me, I recommend it.

One or two things caught my eye. Professor Frame has no doubt orientated his book to what he takes to be the current needs and stance of the Christian public. If he’s got that right, and there’s no reason to think that he hasn’t, the result is a bit depressing. For his account of theology conveys little or no sense of history. We have become accustomed to think of modern evangelicalism as being fundamentally ahistorical. If Frame’s book is a straw in the wind, it looks as if Reformed theology is going that way too. I hope not. If it does, going that way will end in its death.

In fact, thinking about this a bit more, I believe that it is a defect of the book that Professor Frame has chosen to present his theology in such an ahistorical way. For one thing, it makes his frequent references to the Westminster documents – nearly twenty, easily the largest number of references to any non-bibical source in the book – seems a bit odd. What is this Westminster Confession? And the Catechisms, what are they? Why give them such prominence? Professor Frame seems to assume that we know the answer. But suppose that we don’t.

More generally, it’s a notorious fact that the intellectual shape of the expression of our faith has been conditioned by historical circumstances, particularly by controversy. And also like it or not, the Reformed Faith has been shaped by controversies. With different assaults upon it, it would have had a different shape, the Reformed tradition would have been a differently-shaped tradition. Frame has little or no sense of being in a tradition; at least, nothing of this is conveyed to the reader. But being in a tradition is important; it shapes identity, provides coherence. Without going into these controversies in any detail, there’s surely a place even in an introduction to systematic theology to say more than Frame does about this historical conditioning. The few words Frame has about historical theology are quite confusing. (80) There must be a mis-print.

Something else that caught my eye. Frame is very keen on making theology relevant, and so on its not being academic, or something to be studied for its own sake. He chides Charles Hodge (incidentally, one of the few mentions in the book of another Reformed theologian, or of any theologian, for that matter), for writing that the systematic theologian properly orders the facts of Scripture, implying that, as we find them in the Canon, these facts are ‘disorderly’. But Frame heads this section ‘Theology is a Disciplined Study of God’. (78) Is the Bible-reader’s study of God necessarily ill-disciplined, then? And he ventures the view that probably Hodge did not know what Systematic Theology is for. What a cheeky fellow Frame is! Theology is, Frame suggests, ‘for the sake of people’, that is, to apply the Word of God to all areas of life. (79)

Theology for the sake of people. Theology as application. Who could demur? Food is for people. But do we eat to live or live to eat? Do we live to theologise or theologise to live? Is theology purely or chiefly instrumental, as Frame thinks? Ought the student’s first question to be, what’s this for? Maybe not. Maybe his first attitude ought to be appreciation, wonder, worship. ‘Great is the mystery of godliness…Oh the depths!…his unspeakable gift…’ Maybe the believer ought first to live to theologise. And then…somewhat later, theologise to live. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

The problem with Frame’s instrumental view, with putting ‘application’ at the centre and the forefront, is that it fosters the mindset that counts as ‘application’ what immediately pays off. I want it all and I want it now. If I cannot at once see a doctrine’s ‘application’, so much the worse for that doctrine. But maybe the application of some doctrine, or some aspect of some doctrine, is far off, and its ‘relevance’ a bye-product of grasping its meaning and truth, and gasping in amazement. Maybe some things are to be studied for their own sake? (What is Vermeer’s ‘Jesus at the House of Mary and Martha’ for?) Of course, this is not easy. Augustine constantly wrestled with the tension between uti and frui, ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’. There has to be that tension, but I don’t find it in Salvation Belongs to the Lord.

Still, it’s a good book. Take up and read. Enjoy!


Taken with permission from Reformation 21 the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

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