Review: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When a systematic theology begins with a series of endorsements that are longer than certain other systematics, you know you’ve got either a goldmine or a naked emperor. I didn’t have to even touch the book before I knew I had the former, because Frame is a favorite of mine. He is biblical, above all else (I took it as a compliment when R. Scott Clark complained in his review that Frame is “more ‘biblicist’ than confessionalist”). Frame is self-consciously Reformed while feeling free to prod his tradition when it becomes doctrinaire or semantically pedantic (like his discussion of the use the words author, cause, permit, etc. on pp. 294ff.). It is precisely Frame’s care with words that often endears me to him; in a field in which definition of terms is extremely important and much-discussed, Frame is a rarity: a theologian who maintains a keen sensitivity to the principles of descriptive linguistics. He’s also a great writer, so clear and simple.
Now, I didn’t have to read all 1,000 pages to write a review—did I? Does anyone really expect that? I wish I could deliver, of course. Some day I may. But systematics are meant to be dipped into, not, generally speaking, devoured like a 52-course meal.
So that’s what I did. I read the problem of evil section, and it was classic Frame. Utterly clear and simple, really. Carefully and frequently biblical. And, by the end, triperspectival.
If you, like one reviewer, count yourself among those who just don’t find Frame’s three perspectives helpful—if you find them arbitrary or even confusing—then I still don’t think you’ll mind. You might scratch your head, like I do when I read books full of alliteration or acronyms. But the idiosyncratic (well, Frame’s buddy Poythress uses it, too) terminology of the “normative,” “situational,” and “existential” will not obscure the real substance of the discussions.
I found that substance in other places I dipped, too. His discussion of the means of grace employed his three perspectives (fellowship, word, prayer) helpfully (1047ff.). Those perspectives also illuminated his discussion of the image of God (786ff.). And I could hardly see a page in which he didn’t cite and quote Scripture extensively.
As in the Ten Commandments section in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, Frame appeals regularly to the Westminster Standards. This alone may cause readers in my own segment of Christianity to suspect his biblicism. But everywhere you will see him use those standards as a help (he’s persuaded me fully that they are) and not an authority over Scripture. He’s willing to point to areas of weakness in the confession (866-867).
The things I’ve always disliked about Frame are present: his totally uncharacteristic uncharitableness whenever Westminster West comes up, his unwarranted charitableness toward Norman Shepherd’s “Auburn Avenue” theology (974–975), and I can’t decide how critical to be of his evenhandedness with C. John Collins’ position on the historicity of Adam and Eve (806—Frame himself does not take Collins’ view). Also, his coverage does seem a little odd, making you wonder if this ST was a little rushed or borrowed too heavily from past work—Christology gets 46 pages, for example, compared to 178 for bibliology and 75 for epistemology. As I flipped through the book, on every page I turned to I recognized Framean themes I’ve read in him before; I can’t say how much here is helpfully new. Other reviewers have complained about these things here and there.
But other reviewers have also concluded what I did: these are minor points in a massive, and massively helpful—at least everywhere I looked—systematic. It has a good glossary of Framean terms as well as a good bibliography, and helpful topical and Scripture indices. He also presents all his triads in a helpful chart form.
Frame genuflects toward more structured and lay-friendly systematics like that of Wayne Grudem by including study questions, key terms, memory verses, and a brief bibliography at the end of each chapter. These sections felt a little half-hearted to me, tacked on. Nonetheless, I think Frame’s ST could be as good a read as Grudem for a lay Bible study.
It was not the purpose of this review to engage in detailed discussion of points of disagreement, or even to mention them all (if I were even qualified to do so), but merely to alert you to a valuable resource which I do think belongs on your shelf. Or maybe your desk.