Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review: John Frame. The Doctrine of the Christian Life.

John Frame's The Doctrine of the Christian Life is a massive volume, at approximately one thousand pages, and weighing in at nearly half as many pounds! As the third installment of the Theology of Lordship Series, this volume written by the Reformed Theological Seminary stalwart is an extremely important contribution to the field of Christian ethical theory. After reading the entire volume--as well as its several appendices--this reviewer has found himself far more widely informed in the arena of ethics generally, and Reformed Christian ethical foundations specifically.

The volume unfolds in several significant parts. Frame opens the book by defining several key terms that will be used throughout. He distinguishes terms such as; ethics, morals, values, norms, and virtues so that the reader has a useful working understandings of the same. In these early pages, Frame lays the technical tools on the table, as it were, with which he will be working for the remainder of the volume. Those who have not read widely in the area of ethics will find themselves gradually dipped into the deeper concepts and terminology in the early stages of the work.

Next, Frame begins to unfold his typical tri-perspectival formulations that are key to understanding most of his works. Neophytes simply must have a working knowledge of his familiar rubric. This requires some brief explanation. In both theology and ethics, Frame sees reality from three primary angles, or perspectives. The normative (the objective, absolute standards of God), the situational (what is going on around us in our present context), and the existential (what is happening inside of us as human beings).

New readers or those already familiar with Professor Frame will be able to see a general connection to the Trinity here: The Father, all-powerful, reigning, ordaining and controlling all things (normative), Jesus Christ the Son incarnate who came into the world  to dwell among us (situational), and the Holy Spirit living and reigning in the hearts of believers (existential).

These three perspectives, are general and ought not to be pushed too far or held too rigidly, as Frame often reminds us. A basic understanding of John Frame's tri-perspectivalism, however, is crucial as these angels will be used throughout the work to analyze all things pertaining to ethics by this grid. The normative perspective will show what is expressly commanded by God's holy Law.  The situational  will seek to show how the Law is to be applied in our context today as Christian believers. And the existential will establish how we are to think, feel, and believe in the inner man. All three perspectives are each indispensable to ethics, he argues forcefully.

In the next major section, Frame delves into the major ethical systems held by non-believers. Here Frame reviews many of history's primary contributors to the field: Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and Hume to name just a few. Frame sees some of these thinkers as helpful to a limited degree, but ultimately finds them all lacking, as none are founded upon God's infallible revelation, the Holy Scriptures.

As a Van Tillian presuppositionalist, Frame assumes (rightly I believe) that the Word of God is our ultimate epistemological foundation. What we know and believe must necessarily comport with revealed truth; and that which is contradicted by the Word must be rejected, no matter how compelling to the natural mind.

All other ethical systems, then, cannot discern or perceive a true normative perspective and are left to grope blindly in the dark through the situational or existential, often desperately near sighted. Thus, all non-Christian ethical systems will inevitably crumble and fail. Even those systems which claim to have a true "norm" are woefully inadequate, as Scripture alone is a sufficient plumb line for ethical truth.

Natural reason alone, he argues, is hopelessly unable to inform the human race as to our purpose and our duties. As with most Reformed theologians, Frame holds tightly to a high view of Scripture and seeks to relentlessly apply the Bible to all areas considered from this point onward. Thus he proceeds sola scripture, by Scripture alone. Those who share this view (as I do) will begin to find this volume more and more powerful. And thus begins the lengthiest section of this volume (and its greatest contribution in this writer's opinion), a significant and weighty exposition of the Ten Commandments.

Frame holds, with some minor exceptions, to the Westminster Confession's view of the Ten Commandments, by beginning with the narrow definition of each commandment (such as 'Do not murder') and then expanding to general applications of the Law (such as just war, abortion, capital punishment etc.).  As in the Confession, each commandment prohibits certain actions while mandating it opposite.

Each Commandment is treated in turn, often with several chapters for each. Frame begins each exposition with a brief grammatical and historical exegesis, showing the reader what the Commandment originally meant in the context of redemptive history. He does not leave it there however. Readers who are interested in contemporary issues will not be disappointed as Frame masterfully brings each commandment (normative perspective) into today's modern context (situational perspective).

For this writer, Frame's treatment of the Second Commandment and the regulative principle was greatly helpful. It is in this section that the Orlando Professor greatly helps the Church with regard to our corporate worship of our great God and Savior. His commentary here is both theoretical and practical.

Throughout DCL, Frame does not shy away from any topic, no matter how taboo to the Church at large. For instance on the Seventh Commandment, Frame treats on human sexuality, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, pornography, and masturbation.

Frame always upholds a conservative ethic that will frustrate progressives and fortify conservatives. His work on abortion, for instance, is particularly compelling and passionate as he defends the sanctity of human life, destroying all counter-arguments in so doing.

The book concludes with another major section related to Christ and culture. This portion would have more naturally been written as a separate, smaller work. But its inclusion here is appropriate as Frame seeks to show the ways that Christians ought to press for change and transformation within society.

Here, Frame enters into some of the intramural debates and in-house discussions common among Reformed thinkers today. Frame argues for a less sharp distinction between Law and Gospel, for example, suggesting that they are often intertwined, even within the same texts. Those who cut their teeth on the more sharply distinguished paradigm advanced by Michael Horton and others will find a congenial "second opinion" given by Frame.

Too, Frame has reservations about the increasingly influential Two Kingdoms view of culture which divides church and state, resisting their intermingling, by emphasizing the church's unique role in word and sacrament. Frame views this tendency as encouraging cultural disengagement rather than driving for real change in society. A Kuyperian (or more properly a Van Tillian), Frame sees Christ's Lordship as holding dominion over all spheres of life, and argues for a more intentional transformation of society on behalf of the church.

Readers of Modern Reformation, for instance, will find some of their convictions helpfully challenged as Frame presses some of these hard-and-fast distinctions to reckon whether they are truly airtight. Each reader, I imagine, must come to that conclusion for himself.

Appendices at the end of the book include reviews of some significant works in the area of ethics. Some are republications of essays Frame has put forward in other places. Their inclusion in the present volume is helpful, if unnecessary to the scope of the whole. Notable among them is Frame's evenhanded critique of Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law, a work advancing a somewhat radical Christian Reconstructionist view. Here as throughout the book, John Frame seems to give every argument a fair chance, even though he never shies from confessing his own protestations and reservations, often strenuously.

Overall, this work has greatly enhanced this reader's understanding of Christian ethical theory, Reformed applications of Biblical Law, and even non-christian worldviews. Pastors preaching through the Ten Commandments will likely find this work exceedingly helpful as they seek to apply the force of the Law of God to a contemporary context in desperate need of an authoritative normative perspective.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Follow on Twitter at @matt_everhard.

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