I don’t know what’s in your garage, but from time to time mine has become pretty cluttered and stuff has to be pitched. What we keep and what we pitch says something about us. People have theological garages too, in which they keep all their theological influences and that collection can say a fair bit about the owner of the garage too. Recently John Frame wrote a review of Mike Horton’s book, Christless Christianity. In that review John opened up his garage and gave us a peek as to what he has kept, wants to keep, and what he wants to throw away.
Most people probably know John only from his books and to those who don’t live and breathe Reformed theology, piety, and practice he seems like a sweetly-reasonable bridge builder between Reformed theology and broad evangelicalism. Thus, folk who don’t share much in common with Reformed theology as it is (or at least ought to be) confessed and practiced by the Reformed churches favor John’s work not because it gives them insight into that odd creature in the zoo (Reformed confessional theology) but because its message is, “Sure you’re Reformed too!” The spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) is subjectivist (I define reality) and inclusivist (everyone plays and everyone wins) and John’s theology fits right in. That’s great unless, of course, one knows well the Reformed theology of the confessions and the older writers. In that case things are rather more complicated since John has lobbed out several radical proposals over years, which, if adopted and implemented, would virtually transform Reformed theology and, as I’ve said before, not in a good way.
With this pointed review we seem to be thrown again into controversy. Any disagreement of this sort is unpleasant but sometimes these things are necessary. Eric Landry, at the WHI blog has published a response to Frame. Fair-minded readers who’ve read Horton’s book (and the marvelous follow-up, Gospel Driven Life) will not recognize the book in John’s review. The WH response explains why that is. In the publishing business John’s review is known as a “hit piece.” Books reviews are notorious for becoming opportunities for settling scores. In that sense it would be tempting to say with the cops on Monty Python, “Right then, nothing to see here, move along,” but there is something to see here.
This review is a fine distillation of most of what makes John’s theology what it is. Consider this: In the “Warrior Children” piece Frame endorses Norman Shepherd as one of the most brilliant theologians of our time. He says the same thing in the recent festschrift and Shepherd reciprocates in the same volume by acknowledging Frame as his “defender.” This is the same Norman Shepherd who was dismissed by WTS/P in 1981 because, during a seven-year controversy, he was unable to explain how his teaching agreed with the Word of God as confessed by the Westminster Standards. Shepherd genuinely does not understand that he has taken a Pelagian or at least Pelagianizing position. He genuinely doesn’t understand the difference between sola fides (faith that is alone) and sola fide (by faith alone). In his volume published in 2000 Shepherd made flatly Pelagian arguments (which have roots in his 1959 ThM thesis which had Pelagian arguments). On this see the relevant chapters in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry where these things are documented. For more on the development of Shepherd’s theology see Guy Water’s essay in the festschrift for Palmer Robertson. For that matter see Palmer Robertson’s history of the Shepherd controversy. Either Norm Shepherd is a technically incompetent, biblicistic, moralist who teaches covenantal Arminianism (when covenant is in view the theology is essentially Arminian) on a trajectory toward Socinianism or he is a genius who has made a great breakthrough in Reformed theology. Both assessments cannot be right. Blessedly, many of the (NAPARC) Reformed churches (PCA, OPC, URCNA, RCUS, RPCNA) have considered Norman Shepherd’s proposed revisions of Reformed theology and rejected them. John (and Shepherd) may be right that Shepherd is a visionary and the rest of us are just trapped by the dead weight of traditionalism, but we haven’t seen it and this piece isn’t likely to help us see it.
Consider also that, in the review, Frame ends up siding with Joel Osteen versus Horton (whose theology he calls “narrow, factional, even sectarian”) on the question how obedience relates to wealth and remonstrates with Horton for being too hard on Osteen. What kind of a theology cannot see that what Joel Osteen says is utterly incompatible with biblical and historic Christianity? What kind of theology even bothers to look for something redeeming in Osteen’s message? It is a theology that is premised upon an intentionally vague (but not brief), broad, inclusive evangelicalism, upon the progressive wing of the old evangelical coalition, which is in the process of cracking up. As Darryl Hart has argued, “evangelicalism” doesn’t really exist. In short, John is an evangelical latitudinarian. How can he be the theologian of a broad, inclusive, socially influential movement if it doesn’t exist or if it’s at odds with basic Christian doctrine? Thus, a priori, there must be some way in which Osteen (who, after all speaks to 30,000 weekly in person and to millions on TV) is right. Could there be a deep, structural connection between John’s theology and Osteen’s “glory story”? I think there is. There’s a connection between his long-standing support for Shepherd’s revision of the covenant of grace into a covenant of grace and works. It’s no accident that picked the issue of works and wealth with which to support Osteen. In traditional Protestant (both Lutheran and Calvinist) categories, Osteen, Shepherd, and Frame are theologians of glory. A theology of the cross is about Christ for us (Christus pro nobis) for righteousness, not for wealth or this-worldly power and influence. The theology of glory is about what we can do for/with God.
In the interests of duct-taping evangelicalism together, Frame is advocating confessional minimalism and multi-perspectival inclusivism. By contrast, in the interests of a genuinely biblical and Reformed theology, piety, and practice, Horton is advocating confessional maximalism. He still believes not just the broad outlines (from some perspective or other) of the faith confessed by the Reformed churches but he actually believes the stuff between the first article and the last. He actually wants to see that inform our piety (the way we relate to God) and practice (the way we live out our faith). The practical fruit of John’s theology is that Reformed churches become less distinct from broad evangelical churches. Frame is explicit that, in his view, this is a good thing. He’s argued for this sort of “evangelical” ecumenism in his book Evangelical Reunion. Horton is arguing for a sharp antithesis between what today constitutes “evangelicalism” and confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The function of the review then is to discredit, partly by misrepresenting him, Horton’s case so as to strengthen confidence in the broad, inclusivist approach to evangelicalism.
This review is an outstanding example of latter-day latitudinarianism. If you want to know where latitudinarianism leads, check out Julius Kim’s chapter in CJPM. What happened to the Church of England when it was over run by Latitudinarians?
Finally, the odd thing about this version of Latitudinarianism is that John seems to have room in his theological garage for theonomy, Norman Shepherd, the Federal Vision, and Joel Osteen but he doesn’t have room for Mike Horton and his ilk. That’s an interesting garage but it’s not one in which folk who still believe the Reformed faith should want to live.