Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The motivation of Frame

John Frame generally does not present his views polemically, or in an historical context, but they are offered as permanent biblical orthodoxy. The thrust is, as always with Frame, to make doctrine practical. So that the reader may gather that God is always at his shoulder, seeing the world from a human like perspective.

There is a pattern of discussion of God’s relation to creature time and space similar to that of Scott Oliphint. The transcendence of God, his timeless and spaceless eternality, is affirmed. And then the immanence of God. God, as immanent, dwells in time and space. He is the God (or better, the Lord) of the covenant, but Frame does not write of God’s acquisition of covenant properties, as far as I can see, though it must be that these are implied. For new things are true of God once he creates, not simply the fact of the creation but new things concerning God himself, the way that he relates to, and is present in, created time and space. Certain attributes of God are said to have both a timely and an eternal expression, such as covenant faithfulness. (568)  This, covenant presence,  is for Frame his third Lordship attribute.(158). He is fond of Dorothy Sayers’s analogy of God’s relation to the created order as that of a playwright to his play. ‘The author is always present in the drama, arranging it to fit the characters, and the characters to fit the drama…He does not treat them as robots, even though he has complete control over then. Rather, he interacts with them on a personal level…’ (158)

What motivates Frame’s theological work? I’d say, besides what has already been mentioned, a hermeneutic. The Bible, particularly the Bible’s language about God, is to be interpreted literally wherever possible. The genre of literal description is to prevail unless there s a very strong reason to disallow it. As Kevin Vanhoozer might say, the spirit of Carl Henry lives in KJV’s old teacher, John Frame. So wherever possible what God is said to be in Scripture, God literally  is.

This hermeneutic is in evidence in Frame’s attitude to change in God, and to his various perspectives in time and in space, as we saw in our earlier piece on Frame’s outlook. ‘When he is present in our world of time, he looks at his creation from within and shares the perspectives of his creatures’. (570 ) ‘God engages in a conversation with man, as an actor in history. The author of history has written himself into the play as the lead character, and he interacts with other characters, doing what they do.’ (571) It would not be surprising if Frame has imbibed some of the modern outlook of the Christian religion as consisting in personal interaction between God and his creatures, despite holding that if one rejects libertarianism then the strongest argument for God being in time vanishes.

As already noted, another strong theme in Frame’s systematic theology is his concern that theology should be readily applied in the life of the believer. This is understood as having an everyday relationship with God as he interacts with his people. Such an interactive God must change, he thinks. It is important for obvious reasons that theology should be user-friendly, though it should not be forgotten that, say, Stephen Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God contains numerous ‘applications’ in the Puritan style. Charnock’s theology is by no means purely cerebral. And – while we are on the topic – the nature of the worship of God will clearly be affected by the worshippers understanding of God. Worshipping a God who is at our shoulder is likely to be different from worshipping one who is simply ‘Our Father in heaven’. But that’s another topic.

The consequences of God being both Lord of eternity and Lord of Time is, as Frame candidly acknowledges, a certain bipolarity in the being of God, even being prepared to think of the universe as God’s body, though he quickly distances his view from the bi-polarism of process theology. (572-3) I think it is fair to say that these views arise because of the literalness with which Frame takes biblical language about God changing, coming down, being present and hiding his presence, and so on.

Covenant contact through time  and space

The dominant theme in Frame’s theology is divine change, by comparison with the Reformed theological tradition, is divine changelessness, and the consequent existence of a God who is equally timeless and in time. And it is not surprising that it is such relationships that he deals with in the bulk of his book. Let us look at these in turn….*

Not necessary therefore to regard the creation ‘from within’, perspectivally, for him to have contact with it. From the fact that many of God’s decrees come to pass in time, it does not follow that God the decreer is in time, and no longer eternal. There is an important difference between.  Frame shows no appreciation of the distinction between

God decrees the rising of the sun at 5.30am


At 5.30 am God decrees the rising of the sun

Importantly, the second does not follow from the first. So when Frame says  ‘History involves constant change, and so, as an agent in history, God himself changes’ (571), this does not follow. God may be an agent in history without changing. Pursuing this line, he says ‘In my view, this is more than just an anthropomorphic description. In these accounts, God is not merely like an agent in time, he really is in time changing as others change.’ He writes this entire section of his work in such a way as to suggest that he is not aware of this distinction, or else he thinks that it is not worth bringing up. He implies that otherwise this is no more than an anthropomorphic description for God. It is not clear what words he has in mind. But if it is that ‘On Monday he wants a certain thing to happen and on Tuesday he wants something else to happen’ this is quite compatible with eternalism, indeed as it stands it does not necessarily denote any change.  As eternally decreed it may be that he expresses that he wants A on Monday and B on Tuesday.  Why not? If I want to go to Oxford on Monday and to Cambridge on Tuesday, why is this even a prima facie account of me changing? I haven’t changed my mind, but to achieve what I want it is necessary to undergo changes. All at once we have a major doctrinal innovation, apparently with the least biblical justification, with God having two forms of existence. It must be that Frame sees an overriding need for such a proposal.

He says that God has these two forms of existence and that they are not contradictory. This is not clear. God changes and yet he is changeless.  It is true that Frame says that God has an eternal plan, to which his agency in time is subject, it is part of his eternal plan coming to pass, being realized. (571-2) But if we say this, that what God brings about in time what he eternally decrees, there is obviously no change in God.

It is clear that one motive here is the avoidance of having to think that what God does in history is anthropomorphic and therefore less real than his eternal existence. (571) But this is a bit of a red-herring, I think. Of course if God acts then he acts, but the way that this is represented to men and women may be in human-like terms. Not even a God in time, if we suppose one, has hands or feet or a voice. So to say that he has is anthropomorphic. When God made a covenant he spoke, but sounds did not come from his mouth, nor were lungs and larynx employed. They heard a voice, but saw no man. So I don’t see how the new proposal does without anthropomorphism

We need to remind ourselves that the Lord of Creation is pure spirit. So the problems of anthropomorphism are not solved by invoking him, they are simply relocated. For this pure spirit must be without bodily parts. When at the Annunciation, the words ‘This is my beloved Son…’ are heard ‘from the excellent glory’ as Peter says (which in any case does not suggest a creaturely site), this happens without any aid from human lungs and larynx. So if the invoking of a Lord of Time to do what the Lord of Eternity (as we might call them) cannot do is meant to deflect the problem of anthropomorphism, it must fail.

Theology and pagan philosophy

Like Oliphint, Frame is ambivalent as regards the tradition. At various places in The Doctrine of God, (particularly in the Introduction) Frame expresses his dissatisfaction with Reformed Orthodoxy’s use of pagan philosophy, as well as in Dooyeweerd’s recommendation of his own philosophy.

Nevertheless it is true that Protestant scholastics were generally too uncritical of the Greek philosophers and of the Medieval systems. Therefore, particularly on the doctrine of God, their thought was not always firmly grounded in Scripture. ((Emphasis added) 10)

The implication is clear: we can do better than they did on the doctrine of God. Part of this involves shaking the dust of pagan metaphysics and epistemology from off his feet. Instead he proposes a development of scriptural, theistic epistemology and metaphysics. All well and good. But we see here the dangers of the project. In general, these are the dangers of unintended consequences. Another is the danger of a multiplication of gods. Ditheism is no doubt far from Frame’s mind, but here he is proposing a Lord of Eternity who transcends the creation, and another, the Lord of Time, (there must be another for the Lord of Time possesses a set of incompatible attributes to those possessed by the Lord of eternity, and vice versa), immanent within it. One is reminded of the Stoics, who had gods of the evening and the morning, of the winter and of the summer, and so on. The eclectic ways in which the Reformed Orthodox appropriated from pagan philosophy may seem to be untidy, but they were employed inter alia in elucidating a pure theism. Frame’s metaphysics has the effect (I do not say the intention) of weakening such theism.