Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
John Frame has such a proven track record in matters of theology that when Reformed types see that he has at last produced a comprehensive textbook on systematic theology, it immediately makes its way onto the “must get” list — even if (because?) it does weigh in at nearly 1,200 large size pages and retail at $50.00. Of course much is expected before we even begin. We expect to see many triads (the normative, situational, and existential perspectives), and here we find more than a hundred of them (all summarized nicely in Appendix A). Because Frame’s theology is already well known, his general conclusions are anticipated also. Because of his established record, we also anticipate clear, readable, solid reasoning and a rigorous biblical grounding for those conclusions. We expect a controlling emphasis on divine Lordship and the authority of Scripture. In all this, in his new Systematic Theology Frame does not disappoint. We are grateful that he has produced this capstone of his decades of work.
Given all Frame’s previous theological tomes — most notably The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (1987), The Doctrine of God (2002), and The Doctrine of the Word of God (2010) — as well as some other of his related works — Apologetics to the Glory of God (1994), Perspectives on the Word of God (2000), No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (2001), Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2006) — we might wonder what this book has to contribute. Yes, there is overlap. Of course. And Frame acknowledges that some “copy and paste” occurs here and there. But, in his words,
“I have tried to do more than to summarize the big books and to expand chapters of the smaller one. Rather, I have tried to rethink everything to make it more biblical, clear, and cogent” (p. xxxi).
So what Frame offers here is his first comprehensive systematic theology capturing the results of a lifetime of study and teaching.
Yet the book does reflect his classroom work. Surprisingly, in his long career Frame has not taught all the various courses of systematic theology, and this “selected” concentration of effort is reflected in this book. With his treatment of foundational matters, theology proper, and bibliology, we are already some 760 pages into the book. Then we have all the rest in just over 400 pages (the doctrine of angels and demons in about 10 pages, the doctrines of man and sin in less than 100 pages, the person and work of Christ in under 50 pages, pneumatology and soteriology all in under 100 pages, ecclesiology in less than 50 pages, eschatology in about 20 pages, and finally the doctrine of the Christian life in about 15 pages). Given this uneven attention to depth and detail, and given that most programs in systematic theology consist of two, three, or even four courses of study, Frame’s work will be more suitable as a textbook for some classes than others. (However, it should be noted that these numbers do not quite tell the whole story: although the number of pages devoted to christology and pneumatology are small, Frame does treat more fully the deity of Christ and some foundational issues of pneumatology earlier under his discussion of the Trinity.)
In Part 2 of the book Frame provides a broad, biblical-theological context in which systematic theology is developed. In these three chapters (chapters 4-6) he spells out a covenantal structure of biblical history, the progressive unfolding of God’s kingdom, and “a genealogy of the family of God” (p. 53) with its attending emphasis on God as father. His purpose here is to provide an overall context for biblical interpretation that avoids a wrong kind (Frame allows a legitimate kind) of proof-texting. The view of the covenants — theological and historical — is rather standard in Reformed thought, and his demonstration of the “two ages” of history and kingdom reflects the inaugurated eschatology of Vos, et al. Frame does not elaborate on how Biblical Theology is related to Systematic Theology or how all this bears on the development of his own conclusions, but the value of this general biblical-theological background remains.
Frame includes in his definition of theology the idea of teaching and edification (p. 6-8), an emphasis not far from Warfield’s insistence that the theological enterprise necessarily culminates in ministry, or “practical theology.” His concern is not for mere abstract information but the building up of the people of God — surely a healthy and needed emphasis in all theological study that is consistently evident in Frame. The lengthy sections of his leading areas of study are superb and reflective of his previous work, and little that is new could be offered here in terms of review. His work in these areas is famously informed, insightful, precise, robust, and enriching. His vision of God is large, and his treatments of all matters related to theology proper make this a textbook well-suited for any seminary classroom.
In these and other areas of discussion Frame addresses a number of issues of contemporary significance along the way, usually in relatively brief but helpful summary. He discusses feminine images of God and the significance of the dominantly masculine imagery. He provides clear explanations of God’s image in humanity as both male and female. He addresses the abortion issue in his discussion on the humanity as body-soul-spirit and creationism v. traducianism. He provides an excellent (and a bit more lengthy) summary discussion of the question of human freedom and responsibility. He expresses general disagreement with Grudem’s view of New Testament prophecy and takes a mild cessationist view with regard to the gifts of tongues and of healings, leaving open the possibility of the gift of miraculous healing and of a devotional use of tongues today. He offers brief objections to the New Perspective on Paul in regards to justification, primarily along the lines of its failure to deal adequately with various passages in Paul “which make it plain that Paul rejects not only legal barriers between Jew and Gentile, but also all attempts of people to save themselves by their works” (p.973-4). He surveys the millennial positions briefly and fairly but remains rather non-committal in his conclusions. In all things Frame is eminently clear, even simple. Perhaps my favorite example, which I read with a smile, is from his discussion of God’s transcendence and immanence: “Roughly, God’s transcendence means that he is ‘up there,’ and his immanence means that he is ‘down here’” (p.39).
In all this Frame is consistently clear, readable, precise, and enriching, and his devotion to God the Lord and His Word is always refreshing.
In common with most Reformed systematic theologies, yet not reflective of the biblical use of the “holy” word groups, in his discussion of sanctification Frame devotes most of his attention to progressive sanctification, the cultivation of personal godliness, the role of the law, and so on, and comparatively little attention to definitive sanctification. Even if David Peterson overstates his case at times in his Possessed By God (as some have argued) his work is a needed corrective, and it is hoped that eventually this will make its way more routinely into Reformed systematic theologies also.
The chapters on christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology are remarkably brief. They serve to “fill out” the subject matter of the book, but only disproportionately so, and they will not serve adequately for seminary textbook reading. Granted, to address all topics “evenly,” in keeping with the depth of Frame’s earlier chapters, would surely have required a second volume. But as it is this work reflects Frame’s proven strengths, and it provides an excellent textbook for reading on prolegomena, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of Scripture.
At the end of each chapter Frame provides several helpful resources: a list of key terms and study questions, both of which will facilitate discussion and further learning; also memory verses, and recommended related reading. The study questions provided are very useful and to the point. In Appendix B Frame provides a very helpful glossary of terms related to theological study.
Fred G. Zaspel is Pastor of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA, professor of theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary, and executive editor here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY: AN INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIAN BELIEF, by John M. Frame