Friday, 16 September 2016

Systematic Theology by John M Frame

In this book John M Frame sets out an overview of Christian Theology. I'm going to level with you, this is a big book. In fact it may not have been written to be read back to back, although there is a logical flow to the chapters and some do build upon each other. I figured that if I read one chapter a week, this would take me a year. However, I did also get it in epub, which meant it was easier to read when I was at work in my lunch hour (as the book is quite heavy to lug around).

The major framework at play in this book is Frame's triperspectival approach to everything. In philosophy the three main ways we know things are from normal rules (like logic), facts and subjective ways (like intuition, imagination). Frame sets out his Systematic by looking at almost every major theological point from the three perspectives of the (1) normative, (2) the situational and (3) the existential. The idea is that you can't just know something from a logical perspective, nor from a subjective feeling. All philosophers who only lean on only one of these methods for knowledge are lacking, instead we need to realise that we can approach anything from one of these ways, but we should still end up at the two others to fully know something. This means if you like triangles, then this book is for you (see the free preview below). Pretty much every chapter has triangles in it as everything comes in threes. On a few occasions I thought this grid was a little forced, but considering the Appendix A which list all the triads in this book goes for eight pages, it generally made sense to me.

The only other Systematic Theology book I have read is Wayne Grudem's, pretty much because I swim in Evangelical circles and everyone in that water has Grudem's. Don't get me wrong, I like Grudems' Systematic (Frame even references him a bit and Grudem wrote an endorsement for this one), but it does mean I only have Grudem as compare and contrast for this review.

I suppose every author has their own hobby horses. With Grudem's Systematic, I go to him for things like the Apostles Creed (and the "descended to the dead/hell" line), a complementarian viewpoint and, because he is a Baptist, his views on baptism. What I don't go to him for is his views on the gifts of the spirit and namely prophecy and apostleship. By contrast Frame's majors seems to be in philosophy and epistemology. Frame spends lots of time on how we know things and hold them to be true. Also he is a Presbyterian which means, particularly more near the end, he leans on the Westminster Confession of Faith and in some parts just expounds on what that says. I will come back to this Systematic for a high view of God who controls all things, even when it comes to human freedom and evil.

The way Grudem presents an argument is quite Socratic (question and answer), simple, forceful and easy to understand. I found Frame's writings a bit more fleshed out and conversational. He kinda just goes on a bit, and while there are positions he disagrees with, I found him to be friendlier. However, because his hobby horse is a bit more in epistemology he was a bit harder to understand in some parts. I did appreciate his sharpness when it was needed. It may just be what theologians do, but Frame was able to cut a theological idea a bit more than my own thinking. For example on the topic of election, Frame divide it into "historical election" (God's choice of Israel as a nation) and "eternal election" (God's choice to save some individuals). On the topic of things changing (and how God is unchanging) Frame introduced me to the idea of a Cambridge Change (which is really the opposite of a "real change"). I could go on with these type of dividing of ideas.

One of my gripes with this book is that it seems to be a condense form of Frame's four volume Theology of Lordship series. Every now and again there is a footnote or some throw away line saying something like "if you want this argument fleshed out you can read it in this other book that I wrote". I kinda would have liked a few more dot points to at least get an idea of what Frame had said somewhere else. I have already invested in this fat book and I'm not likely to buy four more on similar topics by the same guy.

I think one of the things that made me read a book like this was that I heard a talk by Ligon Duncon on the need for systematic theology. In that talk Ligon mentioned how good it was that he knows some New Testament scholars who reads systematics in their spare time. This is because the exegetical and Biblical theology guys need to read systematics and likewise the systematic guys should read exegetical things. I figured that in my circles, everyone is on about the context of a passage, exegeting a text and working out where it fits in the Biblical story line. Studying doctrines and topics don't really rate high in my circles, so I thought reading this would be a good remedy. I didn't mind this exercise and I'm even thinking about reading another Systematic book.

After I wrote the above I saw that Kevin DeYoung has written a good review of this book. This is probably worth checking out if you are thinking about buying it.

You can also check out 12 of the 52 chapters of this book for free in this PDF.


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