Of Nice And Men

In a recent foreword to a book advocating Norman Shepherd’s peculiar brand of covenant theology, John Frame attacks some of Shepherd’s critics as “stupid, irresponsible and divisive.” Apparently, someone complained about Frame’s lack of civility so he issued an apology that the publisher slipped into the front cover of the book, a sort of moral errata sheet, saying that he should not have described as “stupid” those (including “official statements of two small denominations”) who say that Shepherd’s doctrine denies the gospel. By way of mitigation, he appeals to Calvin, “who used such expressions rather freely.” He says that he knows he is risking his reputation as a “peacemaker” by using strong language.

According to Frame some of Shepherd’s critics merit condemnation because they have not met the “extraordinary burden of proof” warranting their charge that Shepherd’s doctrine of justification denies the gospel. What is the burden of proof for calling someone stupid? Presumably one must have some objective standard such as unsuitability (e.g., drafting an elderly woman to be a major league shortstop) or unreasonable danger of harm (e.g., willfully standing in front of a moving truck). Frame does not supply us with criteria or evidence beyond his implied syllogism: Shepherd is orthodox. Intelligent people (such as Frame) can see that. Ergo those critics who question his orthodoxy must be stupid. The reader will be excused for doubting the soundness of the syllogism. The first premise is the very one in question.

Did Calvin meet Frame’s “extraordinary burden of proof”? After all, in his commentary on Galatians, Calvin described the Roman doctrine of justification as “another gospel.” Yet, official Roman doctrine affirms everything Frame has (and selectively quotes) Shepherd as saying on justification. Frame might object that Rome vitiates the good in their doctrine by what they add to it. Yes, and Shepherd does the same hence the criticisms.

It is also interesting that Frame, writing as a private person, feels free to dismiss not one but two Reformed and Presbyterian denominations as “stupid, irresponsible and divisive.” He mentions two grounds for this assessment: first, only two denominations have thus far spoken; second, they are small. This is not intended as a set up for a joke, but how many Presbyterian denominations must condemn Shepherd before Frame will reckon them as thoughtful, responsible, and unifying? How large must a denomination be in order to warrant consideration? On Frame’s rationale, Athanasius, who had considerably fewer supporters after Nicea than Shepherd has critics, should have been rejected. Imagine all the good the church might have done had they not spent so much energy wrangling over one iota.

Beyond the doctrinal aspects of this controversy are questions about the morality of Christian rhetoric. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a vigorous, honest, and even masculine, theological argument anymore. Frame’s apology is evidence of this trend. Remarkably, the foreword appears in a book published by theonomists, not noted hitherto for delicate prose. Why should Frame apologize? He obviously believes that some of Shepherd’s critics are “stupid, irresponsible and divisive.” He believes it but someone thinks he should not have said it but why not?

The attempted bridling of Frame represents an unhappy trend in Christian speech. For St Paul, the greatest virtue is “love.” For evangelicals, however, the greatest is “niceness.” They are not the same. As a matter rhetoric this trend is troubling, to say the least. To begin every sentence of criticism with bromides such as, “That is a very interesting and challenging point, but…” is tedious and condescending. It is tedious because it replaces the genuine and serious with the insubstantial and sometimes insincere. I doubt that Augustine ever began a sentence, “Pelagius is a very creative and thoughtful theologian, but….” He did not say it because he did not believe it. Augustine thought Pelagius a threat to the welfare of souls and he said so (and no I am not comparing Shepherd or Frame and Pelagius). Because of the power, truth, and passion of his criticisms of Pelagius—he called him “blind” and “deceitful”—they hold up and continue to command our attention. Phony chumminess hardly deserves attention now let alone 1500 years from now.

Some would have it that Frame’s language is immoral because it may damage the subject. More thoughtful thought police argue that such speech is wrong because it devalues the humanity of the subject. To the contrary, sometimes strong language actually affirms the humanity of the subject. It is because humans are made in God’s image and endowed with a rational soul that one expects certain things of them.

The sort of evangelical niceness operating now is morally problematic because it threatens to place the Christian above the Christ and above the apostles. As Frame himself indicates, rhetoric of the type so objectionable today, is a part of the biblical pattern for dealing with doctrinal and moral error. Our Lord used quite pointed language about the enemies of the kingdom. Jesus attacked them as “hypocrites” (Matt 23:13), sons “of hell” (v.15) and “fools” (v.17); this from him who issued the command against calling someone a “fool” in (Matt 5:22). St Paul warned the Philippians to “watch out for the dogs” (3:2), i.e., for the Judaizing legalists who were corrupting the doctrine of justification. What burden of proof did Paul meet before wrote? (hint: “Inspiration” is cheating) Was he “divisive?” In Paul’s context, “dog” was rather worse than “stupid.”

It is uncertain exactly what Frame’s burden of proof is but I think the Apostle has met a reasonable burden of proof. He already established the Christ is the ground of our righteousness (Phil 2:5-10). He justifies his description by contrasting the Judaizing arrogance with Christian trust in Christ’s finished work (3:3). The attempt to supplement Christ’s obedience with their own deserved an ironic rebuke. The Judaizers were “dogs.” They made unclean (the justified) what was clean. They considered the uncircumcised “unclean” but it was really they who corrupted the gospel who were unclean and hence “dogs.” Like the Judaizers Shepherd has repeatedly and publicly rejected the biblical doctrine that faith justifies solely because it trusts Christ. It is hard to see why it is stupid to conclude that Shepherd denies the gospel.

Frame may not agree that Shepherd is teaching another gospel but if a minister is convinced that Shepherd is indeed committing a grievous and harmful error (like that of Gal 1:7-9), he is duty bound to warn the church. If a minister fails to discharge his sworn duty before God and the church, he shall be subject to a scorn worse than Frame’s.



This essay first appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal 9.4 (October 2005): 6–8. I think now that Shepherd’s doctrine is Pelagianizing in significant ways. One of the marks of Pelagius’ doctrine was to make Jesus the first Christian, a model believer. As Cornel Venema and others have noted, Shepherd’s doctrine does this very thing.

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  1. One need only look at Shepherd’s denial of the active obedience of Christ to see how problematic his views are. The way I first learned about Shepherd was through John Piper. I cut my teeth on Piper’s Calvinism. I grew up in Pietism, and benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry after seeing the doctrines of grace in Scripture. He was the first person I stumbled on who taught it. After broadening out and looking into Reformed Theology, it was pretty clear that Piper and Shepherd’s doctrine of justification was deeply problematic. I’m part of the EPC, so I’m not confessional in the way most of the folks on this blog are. Even with being as open-handed as I am, I do not see any way around the conclusion that Shepherd’s view are deeply problematic.

    • Amen! You would think that anyone with a very basic understanding of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone should have seen the heresy of changing faith to faithfulness, let alone so many learned doctors of theology who defended him. It goes to show that we must always be good Bereans and search the scriptures daily, whether these things that are taught to us, even by the most respected teachers, are true. Acts 17: 11

  2. He who errs regarding the covenant of works is to be suspected of to be in error regarding to the covenant of grace, I really believe there is no room for playing nice when it comes to the gospel, there is room for civility one may argue, but it is a shame when nice trumps loving (and sometimes love have to be tough).
    Shepherd’s, Baxter’s and Piper’s view of justification is a denial of the gospel and is rooted in their misunderstanding (or denial) of the covenant of works and the active obedience of Christ, in cases like that it is not loving to play nice, if someone is a judaizer he must be called out and called to repentance.

    • In the comments box to the article linked above, Michail Brown says it best, that the covenant of works is always in effect, “we are graciously saved by works, His works.” That is what God formally promised us in the Abrahamic covenant, when we believe like father Abraham. And we have the signs of circumcision, in the old covenant, and baptism in the new covenant, given to us in our infant helplessness, given to us personally, to show that it really is for me too, when I believe like my father in the faith. That is because God alone walked though the pieces to promise that He alone would do all that the covenant of works requires, and suffer the death curse for our inability and helplessness, just as Abraham was helpless when the promise was ratified by God alone, and we were helpless when it was given to us in our infant helplessness, in baptism. As God promises throughout the Scriptures, “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

    • It is no surprise that the Federal Vision and Norman Shepherd folks don’t hold to the traditional understanding of the Covenant of Works. No matter which way you cut it, if you fudge on the covenant of works, the whole thing pretty much falls apart.

  3. I can’t tell you how many times my friends and I have had this conversation about the “cult of nice”. Thank you.

  4. I can’t help but look at certain situations where the conversation/debate perhaps needed the bromides just to keep it going. Consider: if say, a mr.Borton is debating a mr. Bolson on Calvinism and Arminianism, the audience may be highly entertained by hot-tempered flare ups leading to name calling ( You cad! You buffoon!), but that would most likely keep things aligned along the already existent team loyalties (Gooooo Calvin!). That might prove the point to some; why ‘debate’, or lend credibility, to false doctrine? On the other hand, perhaps there is a ‘manliness’ to recognizing the chops of the opponent, and maybe endorsing a book by a ‘highly thoughtful, well researched, argument for the Roman position on x’ is not after all evidence of smarmy nice-ism.
    Maybe these interactions can get a little too soft and squishy, but in today’s climate of unmitigated tribalism, that still might be the lesser foolishness. Besides, my momma never let me get away with calling someone ‘stupid’, without an apology. I think the time is coming quickly where ‘nice’ will be long gone and sorely missed.

    • BJ,

      This is/was not an apology for rudeness or incivility. Stupid is a strong word but there are times when it is appropriate. Niceness is not love. It is not Christianity. It is a middle-American value which is too often confused for kindness, charity, mercy, and grace. I grew up in the land of Nice (Nebraska) and I appreciate kindness. I’m much more comfortable among the nice than I am among rude, impersonal urban and suburbanites but I recognize that my preference for niceness is preference for a cultural norm.

      Here’s a library of posts trying, perhaps not entirely successfully, to distinguish between niceness and the biblical virtues.


      It’s an ongoing project.

  5. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a vigorous, honest, and even masculine, theological argument anymore.

    Excellent. The effect can also become a cause, as Orwell put it in your next post. I used to wonder why older men didn’t say much. Now I don’t. Some still can’t figure out why there aren’t enough men to lead and “man up”.

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