Should I Buy It?

frame-systematic-theologyFrequently 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 don’t 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 post, 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).


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. 1John 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’re 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.

Consequences: When Did Norman Shepherd Become Orthodox?

Above I used the word buy in two senses. Now 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’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?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 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.” 8

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor.9 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. 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:

9. 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark, you accidentally omitted the word “no” when you quoted 1 Timothy 6:16.

    “1Timothy 6:16 says “one has ever seen or can see” God.”

    I only bring it up because I’m thinking you’d want to be told about it and correct it. I’m not trying to be a stickler.

  2. At $30 plus, this will not be one of those “disagreeable” books that I will be purchasing. Too many (good) books, not enough time (for the more expensive disappointing ones). I have already read enough of Frame’s stuff on worship to be sufficiently disheartened and disturbed. Defiinitely not P&R! I also await part 2. Thanks Dr. Clark.

  3. I am bothered by the anti-intellectual disposition of many within the Reformed camp. “If I read x, therefore I am x or have sympathies towards them.” Know what the opposition believes, know with what they agree with you. Things seem more in the order of being propagandist than reason at times within some of the circles in which I dwell. I bought this book, therefore I agree with them. No. I am interested in what is said. I try to figure out the position being advocated. That would presuppose I already know the position in the book. I try to accurately represent the position, and then I critique it.

    As Thomas would say in the

    EIGHTH ARTICLE [I, Q. 1, Art. 8]

    Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Matter of Argument?

    Objection 1: It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says (De Fide 1): “Put arguments aside where faith is sought.” But in this doctrine, faith especially is sought: “But these things are written that you may believe” (John 20:31). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

    Obj. 2: Further, if it is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), “faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience.” Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

    On the contrary, The Scripture says that a bishop should “embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9).

    I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.”

    • To be fair, I think part of the reason behind the lack of willingness to read books by opposing viewpoints, especially among laypeople, is simply an attempt to be efficient in how we use our limited reading time. Many of us who work full-time, have families, and have additional commitments vying for our time can only work through so many scholarly or semi-scholarly works in a year (rarely enough to sate our appetite, sadly). Because we’re reading more for our own edification and enjoyment rather than for the purpose of engaging in polemics or making scholarly contributions, we’d rather, generally speaking, read those books from which we feel confident we can learn the most.

      I certainly believe there is value in knowing what the opposition believes in their own words and do on occasion read those sorts of things (often when I am, in fact, engaged in some sort of meager polemic), but in the usual course of things I find the return on investment rather too paltry to indulge in reading a book of Frame’s, for instance. We’re not all scholars, even though many more than are qualified do like to try and don that garb in the comboxes of the blogosphere.

      • Agreed.

        And who exactly is the opposition? Liberals? Atheists? Feminist? Postmoderns? Dispensationalists? Marxists? New Age? Buddhists? Arminians? Reformed of Other Stripes?

        Nobody can read deeply in all those areas. There are always going to be some areas that we can only have cursory knowledge.

        Therefore, to a certain extent, we must all rely upon the resources of our chosen community to test and mediate knowledge of unselected positions that we ourselves lack resource to investigate.

  4. “It is observed that ‘a corrupt society has many laws,’ and I know not whether it is not equally true that an ignorant age has many books.”

    -Samuel Johnson

  5. Dr. Clark, I just read the first paragraph, and I’ve got to say “Thanks!” for that alone. That was very helpful! Now on to reading the rest of the post…

  6. Thanks for the article. I just wanted to point out a small typo though. When quoting from Dr. Horton’s book on God’s simplicity, “… his attributes are identical with is existence (p.230)” is missing the letter “h” (i.e. “his existence” rather than “is existence”). Also, in footnote #3, I think there was a glitch where “pp. 974–75” probably means “pp. 974-75”.

  7. I’m no scholar; I’m just a farm boy from North Carolina … but when I hear people talk about *the* Reformed view of anything, I always feel like they’re over-playing their hand, or trying to play on the sensibilities of the laymen.

    Presbyterians (for example) can’t even come up with a single voice of agreement on the status of infants in the covenant (as Lewis Bevans Schenck’s classic book on the subject so ably illustrates)…so wouldn’t it be presumptuous to talk about *the* Reformed view of the covenant status of infants? There are many competing views. In the same way, I seriously doubt the view that Dr. Frame is some Reformed maverick.

    On top of this little quibble, I’m also scratching my head over the accusation that Dr. Frame is engaging in “dialectical” theology – that seems like a pejorative use of the word, and has a lot of negative connotations.

    I smell what you’re stepping in, Dr. Clark.

    • So there’s no Reformed consensus on justification sola fide?

      As it happens I am a scholar and, if you’ll read the materials linked, you’ll see that there is “a Reformed” view of covenant children. We’ve certainly NEVER taught that baptism creates a temporary union with Christ.

      That’s why the URCNA, the PCA, and the OPC study committee reached the same conclusions.

  8. I suspect that if I pulled my Hodge off the shelf and compared him with my Bavinck, then compared them both with an introductory book from R.C. Sproul, I’d find three views of “justification” that, while similar, (and within the same tradition), have minute differences to them (even if only in emphasis of certain particulars).

    I couldn’t imagine Sproul (for instance) claiming that Hodge was a theological maverick for disagreeing in some small way, though.

    I’d love to hear how Dr. Frame responds to all these criticisms.

    • Well, I know for a fact what those writers and many before them taught on justification.

      There IS a confessional Reformed doctrine. See CJPM for starters. See also James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification.

      There’s much more to read after that.

      Lloyd-Jones, Sproul, Nicole, Packer, Smith, Reid, Hughes, et al were right. Greenville, MARS, the theological studies dept at WTS/P, and the faculty of WSC all agree: Shepherd’s view has never been orthodox, ever.

    • What is wrong with them over there? Seems like a lot of friendly fire from that site lately.

      I don’t always agree with Dr. Clark, and I seldom agree with his tone, but such alliteration (“hardened hypocrite”) with such flimsy justification is reprehensible.

    • Who is Steve anyway? I checked his bio, and all I basically know about him is that he is from the Seattle area, has a degree from RTS (another reason I don’t automatically care for people who have a degree from a Reformed institution), takes a symbolic view of the sacraments but likes a “traditional Lutheran” service but is a low churchman (yet still likes some high church elements) and so on. He sounds like a cafeteria evangelical; his description of himself has a bit of an emergent like sound to it, but with a theologically conservative twist.

    • Sean,

      I reply the same way I have for years in RRC and before that in the the “Janus” article and on the HB. His first conclusion is false. It doesn’t follow. It is true that we don’t and can’t know God as he is, as I showed from Scripture but apparently quoting Scripture doesn’t count if a confessionalist does so. Quoting Scripture only counts if a revisionist does it.

      That’s the point of the Reformed doctrine of accommodation. God is pleased to reveal himself analogically, which includes the various forms of speech in Scripture. We do know God truly—to deny that is skepticism and to deny salvation—but we know him in the way that God wills.

      The Reformed have NEVER thought that we must know God as he is in himself to be know him truly. That’s a rationalist premise. The Reformed faith isn’t rationalist. As I keep saying, once the triperspectivalist magicians are done, they think they have God in a headlock. That’s why it’s near impossible to argue with them, which is why I generally don’t do so.

      Consider this passage from Amandus Polanus 1590 handbook:

      God, is an eternal, infinite, omnipotent, and most holy spirit. John 4. 24. Psal 9. 2. & 92. 8. & 102. 13. Esa. 63. 16. Dan. 6. 26. Heb. 1. 12. Rev. 4. 8. & 11. 17. & 16. 5. 1. Kin. 8. 27. 2. Chro. 6. 18. Job. 11. 7. 8. Jere. 23. 23. Psal. 139. 7. 10. Esa. 6. 3. Gen. 17. 1. & 35. 11. Exod. 6. 3. Deut. 7. 8. & 10. 17. Num. 11. 23. Esa. 40. 12. Matt. 19. 26. Luk. 1. 37. Rev. 1. 8. Mat. 19. 17. 2 Chr. 30. 18.

      Of the knowledge of God, or of faith concerning God, are two parts, the first concerning the essence of God, the second concerning his works.

      The essence of God, is the nature of God, whereby God is indeed, and doth subsist.

      And that essence is but one: and therefore God is but only one also.

      There are two parts of the knowledge of the essence of God, the first concerning the attributes of God, the second concerning the distinction of the persons.

      The attributes of God, are those titles, which are attributed to God, to declare his essence better unto us.

      The attributes of God, are either simple, or compared.

      The simple attributes of God are the essential properties of God, which do agree to him without comparison.

      Of these some have such a similitude of him, as is in the creatures by creation: some have not.

      …And that will is only one and most simple if we respect God himself, but so far as we respect men, to whom it is either revealed or hid, it is two fold: manifest or secret. The schoolmen do call the former of these, the will of the sign, the other the will of the good pleasure of God.

      …The compared attributes of God are those titles which do belong properly to creatures, but are by a metaphor or similitude attributed to God. For the Scripture oftentimes do speak of God, according to man’s capacity.

      Of them some are taken from man, some from other creatures.

      Those which are taken from man, are said to be attributed to God, by a human passion. A human passion is a metaphor whereby those things which pertaine to man, are by a similitude attributed to God.

      Polanus knew that we cannot know God as he is in himself. Nevertheless, God does reveal himself to us. God’s accommodated revelation does “declare his essence” to us in analogy (similitude).

      This is why Berkhof wrote:

      Alongside of the archetypal knowledge of God, found in himself, there is also an ectypal knowledge of Him, given to man by revelation. The latter is related to the former as a copy to the original, and therefore does not possess the same measure of clearness and perfection. All our knowledge of God is derived from His self-revelation in nature and in Scripture. Consequently, our knowledge of God is on the one hand ectypal and analogical, but on the other hand also true and accurate, since it is a copy of the archetypal knowledge which God has of himself (Berkhof, ST, 35).

      Read Muller. He’s been explaining this since 1978.

      • I reply the same way I have for years in RRC and before that in the the “Janus” article and on the HB. His first conclusion is false. It doesn’t follow.

        Thank you Dr. Clark. I’m not exactly sure how anything you wrote in the “Janus” piece answers the above objection (see my reply to “Janus” here: As a fellow Vantillian, I have my own problems with Hays, but here it seems his argument is perfectly valid and his conclusions follow necessarily. I mean, simply asserting that an argument doesn’t follow doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. Not surprisingly, his argument appears to mirror GHC’s oft repeated argument like this one:

        If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy, it follows that he does not have the truth. An analogy of the truth is not the truth; even if man’s knowledge is not called an analogy of the truth but an analogical truth, the situation is no better. An analogical truth, except it contain a univocal point of coincident meaning, simply is not the truth at all. In particular (and the most crushing reply of all) if the human mind were limited to analogical truths, it could never know the univocal truth that it was limited to analogies … Such skepticism must be completely repudiated if we wish to safeguard a doctrine of verbal revelation.

        As you probably know, my main objections to your take on the E/A distinction, which is an objection Dr. Calvin Beisner also raised, is that what is properly a matter of ontology, you and those you follow erroneously extend this distinction to epistemology. In doing so, you undermine the historic and Confessional doctrine of Scripture in the process. I know, the irony.

        Anyway, thank you for your time and have a wonderful holiday.

  9. Hays isn’t stupid. He understands that more writers at TB is better than just him. Why he doesn’t plug into the reformed tradition instead of what is, best I can tell, evangelical biblicism is beyond me.
    As for the good professor he’s already sold the pass and signed his own death warrant as a theologian when he started arguing for the lawfulness of images in teaching/worship. Yeah, maps and blueprints, but that isn’t theology or worship.
    The Well Meant Offer? Murray’s take on his proof texts doesn’t seem to quite follow the historical reformed trajectory. 2 Pet. 3:9 has a universal referent instead of pointing to the elect? Are we sure about that?
    Long story short, might has to buy it and scribble disagreement all over it just like pretty much anything else he’s written that we’ve read.
    And Frame’s Worship Children is ©ed. Every FV player spouts his arguments on worship whether they acknowledge it or not. It’s high time the P&R noticed. Of course then, they might have to do some house cleaning of their own. OK maybe not.
    Anyway. So it goes. Thanks for the review.

  10. Just to add something, I listened to a short history of Trinitarian thought from Reformed Forum. Carl Trueman sounds like Dr. Clark in being critical of using creedal language to express non-creedal ideas, which is unnecessarily confusing; Trueman was specifically referring to saying God is a person. Trueman then goes on to say that in the context of the 17th century, the language appears to concede to Socinianism and be moving in a Unitarian direction. Go to about 52 minutes into it if you wish to hear this specific discussion.

    One of the people in the audio (I think Jeff Waddington) claims that Van Til received this use of person from Hodge and Bavinck.

    I think it’s a great episode (perhaps compare it with how it compares with Dr. Frame’s recent interview and their discussion of God as a person). Dr. Trueman’s passive aggressiveness towards some figures in church history and the host is entertaining.

  11. Bob: Hays isn’t stupid. … Why he doesn’t plug into the reformed tradition instead of what is, best I can tell, evangelical biblicism is beyond me.

    Hi Bob, if I might clarify:

    Hays calls himself a “biblicicst” (he goes beyond “something close to” it). I know that Dr. Clark says “we have the mechanisms in the church to modify the confessions” but the question then becomes “which confessions?” (the WCF and “Three Forms of Unity” to be sure, maybe?) — but then you’ve got these confessions with asterisks beside them — note the “American revision”, and some of the responses to it, and you’ve still got people who hold to the 1646 version.

    I think the Clark form of “confessionalism” fails at two levels:

    1. The asterisks
    2. The notion that “the church” has “authority” to do something “binding”.

    As for the asterisks, if we are going to have them, let’s do it the right way. In baseball, Mark McGuire hit 70 home runs using steroids. Now, who was the greater homerun king, McGuire or Roger Maris or Babe Ruth? Different guys, different eras, and it seems like McGuire cheated.

    On the other hand, modern historical, exegetical, and biblical studies enable us to do far better exegesis (with far more explanatory ability) than they could do in 1646. And this is genuine, not cheating.

    Not to say they were lacking for their day, but why not concede that knowledge in “their day” was lacking, compared with the things we know today.

    We can hold the confessions dear as historical documents (even as family history) while looking for ways in which the doctrines they teach can be reaffirmed through our contemporary methods of research.

    I trust that you note that Hays’s theology is very thoroughly reformed in many ways (not in every way) — but these are positions which he arrives at through his biblicism and which can be defended heartily in our day.

    As for 2, I think that’s one of the areas where Dr. Clark’s view of things can’t be well defended. I’ll refer you to another “Clarke”, this time Andrew Clarke, who analyzed all the different forms of authority in the ancient Roman empire; his conclusion was not that any particular individual in leadership had any kind of authority (it was the Gospel itself that had authority), but most important was “the extent to which [an elder’s] life “was conformed to the Gospel” that was Paul’s criterion for leadership. All other considerations “were secondary in importance” (“Serve the Community of the Church”, Andrew Clarke, (c)2000, pg 251).

    Hays isn’t interested in “Reformed identity” though. He’s interested in Biblical Truth, and in spreading that truth to as many people as he possibly can. God’s truth is (or should be) normative for theology — and if the writers of the Confessions (knowledgeable as they were in 1646) didn’t know some

    The “RRC” method of authority seems more to me to be a holdover from medieval models of church leadership than the NT model. Holding too tightly to a fistful of sand.

    • John,

      You don’t believe in sola scripture any more?

      You’ve given up justification sola fide?

      You’ve traded the Roman pope for one in Orlando?

      Here’s why I ask:

      You defend biblicism, in this case, you defend the apparently even more radical biblicism of Frame’s lieutenant. In every case of biblicism someone is still interpreting Scripture. That interpretation leads to some confession, whether formal or informal. In this case, it’s his reading of Scripture that trumps all. There’s your pope.

      Without a churchly confession, to whom is the biblicist accountable? No one but himself or perhaps his self-selected pope. Either way he’s back to papalism. In either case, he’s doing essentially the same kinds of things with Christian truth that Rome does with history: affirm and deny at the same time. His dialectical theology makes him infallible. Who can challenge him? It can’t be done. He says p and -p at the same time about the same thing. He’s always right. He’s never wrong. He cannot be wrong. Voilà ! you have an infallible pope.

      Where does this sort of neo-papalist biblicism lead? To the defense of Norman Shepherd. Great! Richard Baxter texted me this morning. He wants his soteriology back—or, you have can have what’s behind door #2, the rationalist-biblicist-moralism of Faustus Socinus. Ding, ding, ding! Either way you lose. With Baxter you get Unitarianism&mdashl-that’s what happened to Kidderminster and with Socinius you get, uh, Unitarianism. Oh well.

      You criticize the Reformed churches for not revising the confessions AND for revising them. Which is it? You cannot have it both ways. Either confessions are irreformable or they aren’t? We confess and PRACTICE sola Scriptura so we confess our understanding of the inherently perspicuous Word of God. Sometimes we have got it wrong. Unlike Rome and the pope and your dialectical-biblicist friends, we can admit that we make mistakes. In those cases, we have revised our confession to conform with God’s Word because the Word is the sole authority for the Christian life and faith.

      We do not read Scripture dialectically. We are catholics and Reformed. We receive and submit to the mystery of the biblical faith. When Scripture teaches that God is simple, we submit to that. We’re not rationalists. We do not think that we know what God knows the way knows it. We don’t affirm the Creator/creator distinction and deny it. We just affirm it and seek to live consistently with it.

      We have no pope. We read and submit to the the Scriptures together. This is why we haven’t abandoned the doctrine of justification sola fide or the catholic doctrine of the Trinity (One God, three persons). This is why the core of our confession has remained stable all these years, because it is a biblical faith and because we are accountable to each other for confessing that.

      You quite misunderstand the Reformed view of authority. We say that the church has ministerial authority. In contrast to triperspectivalism, when the church speaks as church, it does not create reality. We are simply recognizing and announcing what is and what God has said. It is God who does the binding. We do the ministering. As biblicist (of any sort) how can you appeal to Clarke against the unequivocal, quite non-dialectical words of our Lord?

      Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:18-20, ESV)

      When Christ’s church administers the Law and the Gospel, God the Holy Spirit accomplishes his Father’s purposes. The church is not a merely human assembly, though it is thoroughly human. It is a human assembly ordained by Christ and constituted by his Word but it is a ministerial society that serves the Word.

      The confessional Reformed and Presbyterians churches await eagerly your ecclesiastical motions to revise our confessions with explanation as to why these revisions should be undertaken. I trust that your revisions will be more coherent than your criticisms thus far.

      Your account of the confessions is quite like that of the Presbyterian Church USA. You’ve adopted the liberal position that the confessions are mere historical documents. Certainly they are historical documents. We recognize this. That’s why we teach courses on their history, so that our ministers will understand the original context in which they were written and adopted. They are also living documents, that we still confess. Having taught courses in the Three Forms and the Westminster Standards, I’m confident that they teach substantially the same faith. I’m still waiting for someone to make a coherent case to the contrary.

      Your adoption of the PCUSA view of the confessions is not a good sign since, in history, whenever this view has been adopted, the next stop on the line is universalism. How are you going to ride this train but miss that stop?

      The Reformed churches aren’t defending their theology biblically? Really? Did you read the OPC’s defense of justification? The PCA defense of justification? The URCNA defense of justification? What are you talking about?

  12. Interesting is it not that doctrinal innovation and worship innovation travel so often together? Maybe Calvin was right.

    • Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). Whoever controls the liturgy (or the praise band) controls the future of theology.

Comments are closed.