In 1987, John Frame embarked on his series, A Theology of Lordship. He began with his first work, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Fifteen years later, he released The Doctrine of God. In 2008, he completed The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Each book is noteworthy in its own right. However, I must add that outside of Scripture, Frame’s Doctrine of God is by far the most helpful and impressive book I have ever read.
Today I begin the final installment of the Theology of Lordship Series – The Doctrine of the Word of God. And the author inserts a bombshell in the preface: “And the more I think about it, the more I think this book is my best work ever.” Quite a statement from an author who has already penned the most significant book in my life to date!
Here’s the deal. When I dig into a Frame book, it is something akin to being invited to the White House. The tour guide invites guests to explore all the rooms in the house. “Take your time and enjoy yourself. Make your self and home. Stay as long as you like.” Such an invitation would be both exhilarating and intimidating. Welcome to the world of John Frame!
Frame divides his work into four parts which include, 1) Orientation, 2) God’s Word in Modern Theology, 3) The Nature of God’s Word, and 4) How the Word Comes to Us. He includes (as in the other three volumes a very helpful analytical outline) which has helped me over the years in writing my own curriculum for theological education. Additionally, Frame maintains these outlines help readers see the flow of argumentation throughout the book.
PART ONE: ORIENTATION
This section merely introduces readers to the theme of the book: “The main contention of this volume,” writes Frame, “is that God’s speech to man is real speech. It is very much like one person speaking to another. God speaks so that we can understand him and respond appropriately.” Frame, then, articulates his thesis: “God’s word, in all its qualities and aspects, is a personal communication from him to us.”
Frame argues that our response to God’s revelation should be one of obedience that comes from the heart: “When God speaks, our role is to believe, obey, delight, repent, mourn – whatever he wants us to do. Our response should be without reservation, from the heart.”
The author distinguishes the God of the Bible from other world religions. He summarizes work previously set forth in The Doctrine of God (DG): As such, he is set forth as a God who is an absolute personality. He is absolute in that he is unchangeable, eternal, and infinite. Yet he is also personal (or as Frame puts it “tripersonal”). His point is that some religions and worldviews acknowledge the existence of a personal god. And others recognize gods who are absolute. But only historic Christianity acknowledges and worships a God who is personal and absolute.
God is the Creator. As such, the creation is set apart from the Creator; hence the Creator-creature distinction. The creature is wholly dependent on the Creator (Acts 17:28).
God is the Covenant Lord. Frame is quick to remind readers that Lord “represents the Hebrew Yahweh, the name by which he wants his people to remember him.” God is a covenental; he is the God of control, authority, and presence (what Frame calls the three lordship attributes; a theological reality that is teased out in DG).
Frame relates the lordship attributes to three perspectives respectively. The situational perspective is the area where we teach and preach the authoritative Word. The normative perspective focuses on how Scripture defines the word. And the existential perspective is where God’s Word is transferred from the words we speak to our hearts.
PART TWO: GOD’S WORD IN MODERN THEOLOGY
Part two discusses modern views of revelation: “What distinguishes modern views of revelation from orthodox views is their affirmation of human autonomy in the realm of knowledge. Intellectual autonomy is the view that human beings have the right to seek knowledge of God’s world without being subject to God’s revelation.” Autonomy is always irrational; always sinful.
Frame argues that when man seeks to become his own lord, he “denies God’s ultimate control, authority, and presence.” He articulates the classic Van Til idea of irrationality/rationality: “Either he denies that there is such a Lord or he ascribes lordship to something in creation. If he denies that there is a Lord, he embraces irrationalism, the view that there is no ultimate meaning in the universe. If he ascribes lordship to something finite (i.e., idolatry), he embraces rationalism, the view that a godlike knowledge can be obtained from the creation alone.”
Frame’s conclusion is that “nothing can be validated by autonomous reason … for such reasoning leads to a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic, which destroys all knowledge. For that pottage, much of the church has forsaken its birthright, God’s personal word.”
Anyone familiar with John Frame will recognize that he does not oppose reason itself. Indeed, “reason itself is a good gift of God.” This good gift, however, is “fallible … and affected by sin.” Rather, he rightly reacts against two bedrock principles in liberal theology: (1) Autonomous human reason, and (2) The notion that autonomous reason provides the ultimate criteria of truth and error, right and wrong, “by which everything (including Scripture) is to be judged.”
The author argues that it is sinful to substitute human rationality, history, or a subjective event for the “ultimate authority of God’s personal words” a feat that has been virtually perfected by theological liberals. Frame has not only identified a key marker of liberalism; he has his finger on some of the error that is creeping into biblically-minded churches and followers of Christ. Liberals and conservatives alike should recognize that rationalism, historicism, and subjectivism are unable of dealing properly with God’s personal words, i.e. God’s revelation.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, the so-called “father of theology” is the name most associated with the subjective event which is substituted for the authority of God’s Word. He view of revelation should be familiar to evangelicals because many fall into the ditch of liberalism and do not even realize their shoes are dirty. Schleirmacher believes that “revelation is primarily subjective, not objective. It is not objective truths, but our subjective responses to objective truths.”
PART THREE: THE NATURE OF GOD’S WORD
Frame defines the Word of God as (1) “God himself, understood as communicator,” and (2) “the sum total of his free communications with his creatures.”
He reiterates a central theme of the Lordship Series, namely, God speaks to us as Lord. “We should therefore expect that is speech, like all his actions, will express his lordship attributes: his control, authority, and presence.” As such, Frame examines each lordship attribute respectively.
First, he explores the controlling power of the Word of God. God’s Word exerts power over inanimate objects as well as creatures. God’s Word is an instrument of judgment as well as grace/blessing. In the final analysis, “God accomplishes all his works by his powerful word: creation, providence, judgment, grace.” The efficacy of God’s Word is God’s sovereign prerogative.
Second, Frame examines the Word of God as his meaningful authority. When God speaks, his words are meaningful, thus authoritative. Consequently, God’s authoritative words create obligation on the part of the creature: “When he questions us, we should answer. When he expresses his grace, we are obligated to trust it. When he tells us his desires, we should conform our lives to them. When he shares with us his knowledge and intentions, we ought to believe that they are true.”
Jesus carries the fully weight of authority as he comes to bear witness to the truth and accomplish the redemptive act that was ordained in eternity past. Frame concludes, “To hear the words of Jesus, then, is the same as hearing the words of the Father. We are to hear the words of Jesus as Abraham heard the words of Yahweh, as words of supreme authority. We are not in any position to find fault with the words of Jesus. They rather create obligations on our part to hear, believe, obey, mediate, rejoice, mourn – whatever the words may demand of us.”
Lastly, Frame explores God’s Word as personal presence – the third lordship attribute. The author presents nine practical ways that God manifests his presence in a special way to his people.
1. God’s nearness to his people is the nearness of his words.
2. Where the Word is, there is God’s Spirit.
3. God performs all his actions through speech.
4. God is distinguished from all other gods because he is the God who speaks.
5. The persons of the Trinity are distinguished from one another in Scripture according to their role in the divine speech.
6. The speech of God has divine attributes.
7. The Word does things that only God can do.
8. The Word of God is an object of worship.
9. The Word is God.
The three lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence are inseparable. In other words, when God exerts control, there is a corresponding authority and presence that complement one another. Frame puts it this way: “So if God performs all his actions by powerful and authoritative speech, then his speech is never separated from his personal presence.”
PART FOUR: HOW THE WORD COMES TO US
Part four makes up the bulk of the work and is concerned primarily with how the Word of God gets into our hearts and minds. Dr. Frame explains how God reveals himself via events and words (the divine voice, the apostles, and prophets).
Frame discusses Jesus’ and the apostles’ view of the Old Testament respectively. He includes a helpful section on the canon of Scripture. His treatment of inspiration is extremely valuable and encouraging.
The author tackles what he calls the content of Scripture and parallels it with the Hittite suzerainty treaty which unfolds as follows:
1. Name of the great king
2. Historical prologue
3. Stipulations (laws) and includes exclusive loyalty which is equivalent to love and specific requirements.
4. Sanctions (blessings and curses)
Frame maintains the “covenantal model of canonicity is enormously helpful in dealing with questions concerning biblical authority, infallibility, and inerrancy. On this model, God is the ultimate author of Scripture, and we vassals have no right to find fault with that document; rather, we are to be subject to it in all our thought and life.” And he argues that the five sections also point to five types of revelation that emerges in Scripture respectively:
1. Revelation of the name of God
2. Revelation of God’s mighty acts in history
3. Revelation of God’s law including love and specific requirements
4. Revelation of God’s continuing presence to bless and curse
5. Revelation of God’s institutional provisions: Scripture, church, sacraments, discipline, etc.
Frame argues that the covenants bolster the unity of Scripture by their “pervasiveness, complementarity, and their perspectival relationship.”
The inerrancy of Scripture is explored in a thoughtful and comprehensive way. Frame’s argument is convincing and compelling: “Scripture is both inerrant and infallible. It is inerrant because it is infallible. There are no errors because there can be no errors in the divine speech … Error arises from two sources: deceit and ignorance. Deceit is intentional error, lying. Ignorance may lead to unintentional error. But God does not lie, and he is ignorant of nothing. If Scripture is his Word, therefore, it contains no errors. It is inerrant.”
Frame unpacks the clarity, necessity, comprehensiveness, sufficiency, and the transmission of Scripture. Concerning the transmission of Scripture in particular, the author articulates the process as follows: the divine voice communicates via prophets and apostles which leads to the written word. Frame argues “there is no decrease in power, authority, or divine presence, as we move from the divine voice, to the prophets and apostles, and to the written word.” Additionally, the written Word proceeds through a number of processes before it reaches the human heart and mind. These include copies, textual criticism, translations, teaching, preaching, sacraments, theology, confessions and creeds, interpretation, and assurance.
Frame summarizes the essence of his thesis: “He [God] is our covenant Lord. So his word to us reflects his lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence. His word has a power that controls all things. It has supreme authority, so that it creates obligations in its hearers: obligations to believe, obey, and otherwise participate in what he presents to us. And the word is also the location of God’s very presence to us.”
Finishing volume four of the Theology of Lordship Series marks the end of an incredible journey. But in many ways, the journey is just beginning. For followers of Christ recognize the mandate to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Indeed, our God is the God of control, authority, and presence.
I consider Dr. Frame’s Theology of Lordship Series a labor of love that the church will appreciate and benefit from for years to come. Every young pastor should set a goal to purchase and thoroughly digest each volume in the Lordship series. I count these four book among the most valuable resources in my theological library.
Many thanks to John Frame for courageous writing and his diligent approach to God’s Word.