Should I Buy It? (2)

frame-systematic-theologyIn part 1, I used the word buy in two senses. In this post I’m 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’ve 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?1 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.2 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.3

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 and 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.” 4

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor.5 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’re 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.”

Stay tuned to the Heidelcast for an upcoming episode in which I will interact in more detail with Frame’s account of Shepherd’s doctrine of justification and with Shepherd’s own doctrine of justification.

1. 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.

2. Published as The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter.

3. 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).

4. Here are other critiques of Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation:

5. Frame writes:

I wish especially here to honor Norman Shepherd, a friend for about 40 years and a colleague for 12 of those. Shepherd was the man who first hired me to teach theology. I joined him in 1968 in the systematics department at Westminster Seminary. Although he was only about five years older than I, I was always in awe of him, praying that I could attain some small measure of his understanding of the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith. After I had myself been teaching theology for ten years or so, I audited Shepherd’s lectures in the Doctrine of God and the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (salvation)—not just to get a direct line on the “Shepherd controversy,” but for my own edification. Anyone who knows Shepherd’s work on the doctrine of God and has also read my book on the subject1 will know how deep his influence on me has been. Besides that, he has been an example to me of godliness and gentleness, always an encouragement to a younger man who must have seemed to him often more like a student than a colleague.


  1. ?typo
    “is that so many orthodox Reformed folk would [be] commending to readers a volume ”
    Priestly redactor: feel free to delete this.

  2. This is an excellent post. Reading this reminds me of an incident during the trial of Norman Shepherd in Philadelphia: It struck me that a passage from Lloyd-Jones’ commentary on Romans 6:1,2 (pp 9,10) was very pertinent:
    “There is a sense in which the doctrine of justification by faith only is a very dangerous doctrine; dangerous, I mean, in the sense that it can be misunderstood. . . I say therefore that if our preaching does not expose us to that charge and to that misunderstanding, it is because we are not really preaching the gospel. Nobody has ever brought this charge against the Church of Rome, but it was brought frequently against Martin Luther. . .”

    This passage was read in the Presbytery and elicited a very angry response from Norman Shepherd!

  3. Is J.I. Packer’s name like a Good-Housekeeping seal of approval? I see his name on so many books not authored by him, but with a foreword or something else by him.

    Every time I see Packer’s name, I think ECT.

  4. I agree & sympathize at least to some degree about not being comfortable with recommendations from FV proponents. But what of the other men who also endorsed Frame’s ST, including Packer (whom you cite above) and others? Do we now look upon them with some sort of skepticism or suspicion? (Were they not discerning enough to see how questionable this ST supposedly is?)

  5. Unlike Doc Holiday in Tombstone, I do not know Latin. (I get the English usage of “Caveat” but will need your help a little with the rest.) 🙂

    “That’s Latin, doll. Now I’m sure I hate him” 😉

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