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(Dis)Engaging Our Reformed Fathers (?): A Review of John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology: A Review Article

John V. Fesko

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, by John M. Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015, xxix + 875 pages, $59.99.

Introduction

John Frame has been a popular fixture in Reformed and Evangelical theological discussions for the last forty years. He has concluded his formal academic career and has published a number of works. Among Frame’s books is his recent A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, which he wrote over decades of teaching. Frame’s work is a massive survey that spans from the peripatetic philosophers to the present day and thus covers roughly two thousand years of the interaction between philosophy and theology. He explores philosophy and theology from his own peculiar triperspectivalism. While some may find this as a constraining feature, readers can still profit from his analysis even if they do not agree with his approach. Frame has thirteen chapters on the Greek philosophers, patristic, medieval, early modern, enlightenment, and modern periods. Frame writes for a seminary-level audience given that the book originated as his lectures for a course titled “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought” (xxv). I believe, however, that laymen who are willing to invest the time can profit from the book, as Frame’s style is easy to follow, and he breaks most of his chapters into smaller sub-sections. This division of his subject matter facilitates briefly exploring the thought of an individual theologian or philosopher without being overwhelmed.

Strengths

Frame’s book has a number of positive qualities. First, one of the biggest holes in a seminarian’s education is his lack of philosophical knowledge. Many are unaware of the connections between philosophy and theology and thus come ill-prepared for the serious study of theology. Frame’s book, therefore, helpfully identifies key figures, ideas, and texts that equip students with an overview so they can get their bearings when first introduced to various theological ideas. How important is Aristotle to Aquinas or Kierkegaard to Barth, for example? Frame’s work addresses such questions in a useful manner.

Second, Frame’s work has important pedagogical aids that assist the uninitiated reader. Each chapter has a running outline, which enables readers to know where they are in Frame’s exposition. He also provides a list of key terms, study questions, and a bibliography of print and online primary and secondary sources. Professors who want to form discussion questions or exams will find these features useful, and students who want to learn more about a philosopher or theologian will benefit from the bibliographic information at the conclusion of each chapter.

A third positive aspect of the book is the breadth of Frame’s survey. Students have a resource where they can begin to investigate large periods of history or get their bearings for one particular theologian or philosopher.

Weaknesses

At the same time, a book’s greatest strength can also carry weaknesses. In a book that covers such a large swath of history, theology, and philosophy, there are bound to be gaps and limitations.

Methodology

The first weakness pertains to methodology and the others relate to substantive historical-theological issues. On matters related to methodology, I question the routine use of Internet sources. Granted, with the advent of the information superhighway a number of academic discussions and publications have migrated to the Internet. Many of the sources to which Frame points are therefore legitimate. Identifying webs sites, for example, that provide previously published books in pdf format are useful to budget-constrained seminarians. At the same time, there are citations to websites where one has to wonder exactly how long they will last. I discovered, for example, two links that no longer exist (517n18; 528n49). How many of Frame’s cited sources will evaporate over the years and unnecessarily hobble the book’s accuracy? Cambridge University Press, for example, places a disclaimer on the publication information page warning its readers that it does not guarantee the accuracy or permanency of cited URL’s. What does this say about the long-term viability of a book that relies so heavily on Internet sources?

My greatest concern, however, pertains to how students will use Frame’s cited Internet sources. When students see primary sources alongside websites like Wikiquote, which one will the student choose? Does the presentation of one beside the other legitimize both? My fear is that the frequent use of Internet sources unintentionally sets a bad example that students will follow, which will possibly harm the scholarship and knowledge of future seminarians. Why slog through Gadamer when you can go to Wikiquote to get what you need for a research paper? In some cases, Frame cites Wikipedia as a source (e.g., 449n135). Since anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, how can students and the uninitiated ensure that the cited page is accurate and thus reliable? Why not cite a published version of the Auburn Affirmation, for example, rather than the Wikipedia summary of it (309–10)? The use of Wikipedia sources for an academic book is a deficiency that could have been easily avoided by citing reputably published sources.

Historical Theology

The remaining weaknesses in Frame’s book relate to his uncritical use of the concept of worldview, and his treatment of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology. Frame acknowledges that he writes from a Van Tilian perspective, and one of the hallmarks of Van Tilian thought is to subject to biblical critique the underlying presuppositions behind a system of thought. What unbiblical assumptions do theologians bring to their enterprise? Yet, on the very first page of his book Frame immediately uses the concept of worldview: “I define philosophy as ‘the disciplined attempt to articulate and defend a worldview.’ A worldview is a general conception of the universe” (1). Frame then employs the concept and term throughout his book. What is problematic about employing the concept of worldview in his assessment of the history of philosophy and theology? Prior to the Enlightenment theologians and philosophers did not think in terms of systems and worldviews. James Orr (1844–1913) was one of the first, if not the first, theologian to use the term, and he noted its German Idealist origins.[1] Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) then picked it up from Orr and promoted the concept in his famous Stone Lectures (1898) at Princeton Seminary.[2] But few have asked questions such as, What are the origins of the term? What does the concept entail? And, if its origins lie in Kantian philosophy, would anyone prior to the eighteenth century approve of the application of the concept to their theological or philosophical claims?[3] Worldviews are systems of thought, yet such a manner of evaluating the history of philosophy has been brought into question and subject to trenchant critique.[4] One might employ the concept of worldview, but he should first subject it to careful examination to ensure that in his efforts to explain pre-Enlightenment philosophical or theological ideas he does not press them into a foreign mold.

The second historical-theological weakness in Frame’s book pertains to elements of his treatment of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology. Frame makes a number of unsupported claims, such as the reason medieval theologians employed Greek philosophy was because they sought academic respectability, and that this quest for respect lead to the creation of scholasticism (140–41). Yet when one consults medieval works, Frame’s claim does not match the evidence. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) did not employ Aristotelian philosophy out of a desire to seek academic respectability but because they sought a means by which they could dialogue with and evangelize Muslim philosophers.[5] In his efforts to explain medieval and Protestant scholasticism, Frame does not cite or interact with established authorities in the field, such as Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Willem Van Asselt. Frame writes as if these scholars never existed. Frame instead relies on the questionable analysis of Peter Leithart, who claims that medieval theologians such as Peter Abelard (1079–1142) organized their theology around topics rather than following the course of the biblical text (142–43). The implication of Leithart’s claim is that medieval theology was not truly biblical and imposed concepts on the text rather than directly engaged it. Mishandling the Bible might be true of some but certainly not all medieval theologians. The overall structure of medieval theological works such as Aquinas’s Summa or Peter Lombard’s (1096–1160) Sentences, for example, follow a chronological pattern—they move from God, to man, Christ, salvation, ecclesiology, and eschatology.[6] Frame also accuses Aquinas of developing his doctrine of God from natural reason because he supposedly followed Aristotle and was thus incapable of insulating his theology from autonomous thought (146). Such an opinion is common among contemporary Protestants, but there is a sea of literature that makes the opposite case based on a close primary-source reading of Thomas.[7] All one has to do is consult Aquinas’s opening arguments of his Summa Theologica and his numerous biblical commentaries to see that Frame’s claim does not square with the evidence.[8] Frame instead paints Aquinas as a rationalist (154). One may certainly make such claims, but not apart from evidence.

The same type of pattern unfolds in his analysis of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Repeating the canard that the Reformation was a nearly total break with the medieval past, Frame claims that Calvin’s epistemology was a “sharp departure from the patterns of medieval and Renaissance philosophy,” and that he makes “no accommodation to Greek philosophical views, or to intellectual autonomy” (174). Frame ignores the rather large body of secondary literature that notes Calvin’s use of Cicero’s (106–143 BC) arguments from his De Natura Deorum in the opening pages of his Institutes, for example.[9] How is Calvin’s use of Cicero different than Aquinas’s use of Aristotle? Moreover, scholars have noted the continuities (and discontinuities) between Aquinas and Calvin on a host of issues.[10] Calvin was more indebted to Thomism than Frame admits. Frame believes that Calvin and Luther completely broke with the medieval past and “admitted no obligation to Greek philosophy and were able to set forth in relative purity the biblical metaphysic, epistemology, and ethic” (206). Such a claim is very popular but has little basis in fact. How does such a claim square with Calvin’s explicit positive appeal to Plato (ca. 428–347 BC), for example?[11]

Frame’s analysis is equally inadequate when he addresses post-Reformation developments. He acknowledges that the supposed discontinuities between Calvin and his successors have been extremely overblown, but he nevertheless makes three questionable claims. First, he describes the relationship between the Reformation and post-Reformation as one between Calvin and his successors (175). This is inaccurate because Calvin, unlike Luther, was never designated as the fountainhead of the Reformed tradition.[12] Calvin was undoubtedly a bright star in the Reformed galaxy, but one brilliant light among a sparkling host.

Second, Frame makes the puzzling statement: “But the feeling one gets from the post-Reformation literature is very different from the atmosphere generated by the original Reformers” (175; emphasis original). He claims:

The writings of Luther and Calvin are highly personal, existential responses to the theological and ecclesiastical crises they faced. The post-Reformation theology is more academic, more detailed, more argumentative. It makes more use of philosophy and therefore is often described by the phrase Protestant Scholasticism. (175)

Frame’s analysis is a mile wide and an inch deep. Calvin’s Institutes is as argumentative as any Reformed scholastic work and even more bombastic at times. Nevertheless, Frame never raises the issue of genre in his assessment of the supposed felt discontinuities between Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed works. Assuming Calvin’s normative status for the sake of argument, how do Calvin’s sermons compare with Francis Turretin’s (1623–87)? Turretin was a Reformed scholastic theologian and a pastor.[13] Moreover, Calvin’s Institutes is an introductory theological text whereas Turretin’s Institutes is geared towards technical disputation with Roman Catholics, Arminian, and Socinian theologians. These two works were written towards different ends. One might say, for example, that Frame’s book is overly technical and dry compared with the warm and personal sermons of John Piper. But is such a comparison useful or fair? Should a historian ignore audience and genre and evaluate works in terms of subjective feelings?

Third, Frame makes the unsubstantiated assertion that Protestant scholasticism was possibly to blame for the rise of liberalism: “The reader will have to decide whether the later declension of the churches into liberalism is to some extent the result of this academic movement” (175). From the vantage point of historiography, to suggest that one movement created a complex theological movement hundreds of years later is exceedingly problematic. There are seldom silver-bullet theories that explain the rise of multifaceted historical phenomena. Liberalism arose from many different causes such as climate change, which produced famine, religious wars, economics, politics, theology, as well as unbelief. Frame does not explain how disputing a topic in a precise manner within the context of a university leads to the rejection of biblical authority. In four hundred years will a Frame-minded historian claim the same about Frame’s book? Will his academically oriented treatment of the history of philosophy and theology lead to the rise of a new form of liberalism? Such historiography is neither responsible nor helpful to theological students. If Frame wants to argue that Protestant scholasticism contributed to or was responsible for the rise of liberalism, then he should present objective evidence, not float uncorroborated opinions.

Frame is certainly within his rights to advocate his views regarding medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology, but in these areas, he sets a bad example for seminary students. He hardly cites any evidence to support his assertions regarding the aforementioned weaknesses. Moreover, when I reached the end of the chapter on early modern thought, I expected at least to find suggested primary and secondary-source readings so students could investigate matters for themselves, but I found none. Among the scores of contemporary sources that Frame provides, Calvin is the only early modern name that appears. He also does not list a single secondary source that originates from the Oberman-Steinmetz revolution that produced a massive body of literature that has overturned much of the popular mythology that Frame continues to perpetuate. To that end, readers who want a fuller and evidence-based assessment of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology should consult key primary and secondary sources to form their own opinions. Why does Frame commend the works of Hobbes, Spinoza, or Descartes but ignores Junius, Turretin, Owen, à Brakel, Goodwin, and the like? Ignoring these theologians is troubling because, many of them speak to the very issues that Frame discusses in his book—the relationship between philosophy and theology. Junius and Turretin have excellent treatments on theological prolegomena, as does Richard Muller in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics; his first volume on prolegomena and the Reformed scholastic use of philosophy is especially relevant.[14] Theological students would greatly benefit from the wealth of primary-source research that Muller presents. The same is true about Willem Van Asselt’s Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.[15] But more importantly, these works showcase the incredibly erudite early modern Reformed treatments of the relationship between philosophy and theology. If students ignore these works, they do so to their theological impoverishment.

Conclusion

John Frame has provided students with a good survey of the history of philosophy and theology, one that seminarians can undoubtedly use to great benefit, the aforementioned weaknesses notwithstanding. I am grateful for what this book represents—decades of teaching students to think critically about these weighty matters. But readers should be aware of Frame’s uncritical use of modern categories such as worldview and that they will have to go elsewhere to find accurate coverage of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation philosophy and theology. The need to supplement Frame’s engagement of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology is not about an academic shortcoming but should be of vital interest to those who profess the Reformed faith. Presbyterian and Reformed churches look to our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century fathers in the faith for guidance. These fathers in the faith wrote our doctrinal confessions, the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. We should therefore carefully engage their theological works so we do not become sectarians and create a theology that becomes divorced from the catholic witness of the church. Scripture is always the first and last word in matters of faith and life, but we do not come to the Bible alone. We read the Bible within the context of the church from every age, and thus, when we carefully engage the past, we learn from Christ’s gifts to the church (Eph. 4:11–13). We can definitely learn from John Frame’s lifetime of labors, but we should do so with equal interest in medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology.

Endnotes

[1] James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World as Centering in the Incarnation (1893; Edinburgh, Andrew Elliot, 1907).

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1898; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 11n1.

[3] For the history of the origins of the concept, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[4] Leo Catana, The Historiographical Concept ‘System of Philosophy’: Its Origin, Nature, Influence, and Legitimacy (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 1–10, 283–329.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 5 vols., trans. Anton Pegis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), I.ii.3 (vol. I, p. 62).

[6] Karl Rahner, ed., “Scholasticism,” in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, 6 vols. (London: Burns and Oates, 1970), VI:26.

[7] See, e.g., Richard A. Muller, “The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ ‘Proofs’: A Protestant Appreciation,” Fides et Historia 24 (1992): 15–29. W. J. Hankey, God in Himself: Aquinas’s Doctrine of God as Expounded in the Summa Theologiae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 36–37; Lawrence Dewan, “Faith and Reason from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Perspective,” Science et Esprit 58/2 (2006): 113–23; Christopher T. Baglow, “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Doctrine in Saint Thomas Aquinas,” in Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction, ed. Thomas Weinandy, Daniel Keating, John Yocum (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 1–24.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (rep.; Allen: Christian Classics, 1948), Ia q. 1.

[9] See, e.g., Egil Grislis, “Calvin’s Use of Cicero in Institutes 1:1-5, A Case Study in Theological Method,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschicte 62/1 (1971): 5–37; Peter J. Leithart, “That Eminent Pagan: Calvin’s Use of Cicero in Institutes 1:1–5,” Westminster Theological Journal 52, no.1 (1990): 1–12.

[10] See, e.g., Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 363–64, 367–78; Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 70–97; David VanDrunen, “Medieval Natural Law and the Reformation: A Comparison of Aquinas and Calvin,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2006): 77–98, esp. 81–90.

[11] E.g., John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), I.iii.3. In general, consult Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1977).

[12] Carl Trueman, “Calvin and Calvinism,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 239.

[13] See, e.g., Francis Turretin, Sermons sur Divers Passages de L’Ecriture Sainte Par Francois Turretin Ministre du Saint Evangile, & Professeur en Theologie (Geneva: Samuel de Tournes, 1676); cf. J. Mark Beach, “Preaching Predestination—an Examination of Francis Turretin’s Sermon De l’Affermissement de la Vocation et de l’Election du Fidele,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 21 (2010): 133–47.

[14] Francis Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David Noe (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014); Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1992–97), I.viii-xi; Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

[15] Willem Van Asselt, et al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, January 2018.

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