When I received this book I was just finishing reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was refining my lectures for a History of Western Thought course that I teach at Toronto Baptist Seminary. Kant—as everyone says—can be hard to interpret, and that of course makes teaching his philosophy rather difficult. I opened to Frame’s chapter on Kant and not only found Frame lucid in his exposition of Kant’s thinking, but also very helpful in terms of organization and teaching methodology. It is very rare to find a book that is both insightful in terms of analysis and clear in terms of presentation—this book is one of the few.
In this book, John Frame has brought together his lifetime of teaching philosophy, apologetics, and theology to provide an analysis of the history of Western thought. He approaches the subject as a committed evangelical Christian, working from the Reformed tradition and as a Van Tillian presuppositionalist. Frame surveys the key eras, thinkers, and movements in both theology and philosophy. This work is descriptive but also prescriptive—Frame evaluates, criticizes, and commends. He seeks to outline a biblical worldview and then traces the contours of Western thought and thinkers, analyzing their contributions and testing them against the standard of God’s truth. The result is a book of considerable breadth and depth. I know of no other author more qualified to write this book than John Frame. He has the necessary expertise in both theology and philosophy that is required to make a project of this scope successful, but he is also a gifted, clear writer.
Frame writes as a Christian who believes that non-Christian thought is in rebellion against God’s Lordship and truth. There is a strong antithesis between the Christian and the non-Christian worldviews. When people try to reason autonomously (i.e. apart from submission to God’s revelation) they are not able to produce coherent and sustainable systems of thought. Frame argues that non-Christian philosophy exhibits a rational-irrational dialectic (i.e. it is inconsistent—it bounces back and forth from rationalism to irrationalism). For example, Plato is a rationalist when it comes to his world of Forms, but an irrationalist in the world of sense-experience, and Kant is a rationalist in the phenomenal world and an irrationalist in the noumenal realm. Frame fruitfully uses this dialectic as a tool for analysis across the history of Western thought.
This book could be used as a course text in either a history of philosophy class or a history of theology class. To bring both subjects together competently under one cover is an immense achievement. Frame’s presuppositional biases are clear (he unashamedly draws attention to them), but this book would still be a tremendous help to readers who are not presuppositionalists. It may even help some thinkers understand how a presuppositionalist engages in analysis.
It is easy to quibble about balance in a book that covers so much ground, and everyone would make slightly different choices in terms of which peripheral thinkers merited inclusion and how much space should have been devoted to particular issues. It is simply not charitable to throw stones about such things. Having said that, however, Frame’s biases are most clearly seen in his last chapter on recent Christian philosophy (he acknowledges this himself). This chapter does seem unbalanced, even when the inevitable subjectivity of writing a book like this is taken into account. Gordon Clark receives over seven pages whereas Richard Swinburne receives four sentences. (Is the Clark-Van Til controversy really that important in the history of Western theology and philosophy?) William Lane Craig’s name is mentioned in passing, but Esther Lightcap Meek gets three full pages. Vern Poythress is held up as a model thinker, but since Frame-Poythress are a duo, the book seems to draw to a close by telling the reader they should really follow Frame. (For what it’s worth, that’s not bad advice. Every thinker thinks they’re right, and Frame-Poythress are in the highest class. Frame also mentions that Poythress surpasses him.)
It is important not to misunderstand—one of the traits of this book is the humility of the author. Of course every thinker engages in criticism and presents their own models as correct—that goes with the territory. But how many books of philosophy and theology have you read that contain this type of footnote: “I regret that in my book [No Other God] I included the name of Stephen T. Davis in a list of advocates of open theism. In fact, he was a critic of the movement. I have asked Prof. Davis’s forgiveness for this error. I repent of my foolish carelessness and consequent failure to protect a brother’s reputation” (pg. 449, fn. 135). That is the only footnote ever published that should be mandatory reading in seminary classrooms.
As he has been in the habit of doing in his recent books, Frame has added a number of appendices to this work (approximately 150 pages, A-T). They consist of previously published articles and reviews. These appendices help the reader see how Frame interacts with contemporary philosophical and theological issues. They are well worth reading.
I hope my future students in History of Western Thought enjoy this book—they are going to be reading it! Of all the history of philosophy books that I have on my shelf, this one is my favorite. It is difficult to see how it can be surpassed. A multi-volume series could obviously go more in-depth, but such a series is less accessible. For a one volume introduction, this book is simply excellent. One need not agree with every one of Frame’s points in order to deeply appreciate this book and glean great benefit from it. His very last words in the book are a call to follow Jesus as Lord, to receive the forgiveness of sins, and to experience biblical mind renewal. Frame not only calls us to this, but he demonstrates what it looks like to live a life ordered by the Lord’s thoughts and priorities. This is a mature work by a mature Christian thinker and brother.
Dr. Steve West is Pastor of Crestwicke Baptist Church in Guelph, Ontario, and adjunct professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary. He is also an assistant editor here at Books At a Glance.
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A History of Western Philosophy and Theology