Ordained Servant Online
Salvation Belongs to the Lord
J. V. Fesko
Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, by John M. Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006, xi + 382 pages, $16.99, paper.
John Frame has written an introduction to the discipline of systematic theology based on material he originally prepared for a survey course in systematics. The book is written to beginning students of theology, those who are looking for a basic introduction to the discipline (x). Frame sets out to survey the loci of systematic theology through the exegesis of key passages, a commitment to the Reformed faith, and the desire to focus upon the Lordship of God and of Jesus Christ (x-xi). There are many places throughout his book where Frame accomplishes his stated goals. He communicates in a clear manner the basic teachings of the various loci of systematic theology.
There are a number of points where one finds traditional Reformed teaching that is helpful to the beginning student: man's fourfold estate (97), the historicity of the fall (106-07), the covenants of works and grace (118-20), the threefold office of Christ (146-58), definite atonement (151-55), the cessation of prophecy (167-68), the doctrine of election (177-78), justification by faith alone and the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ (200-05), exclusivity of male elders (257), rejection of the memorial view of the sacraments (278), the biblical legitimacy of infant baptism (280-82), and the inseparable relationship between theology and ethics (314-27). The author also includes a helpful bibliography at the end of the book to help beginning students identify key theological works for further reading.
There are, however, some peculiarities to the book that detract from the overall stated goal of presenting the reader with an introduction to systematic theology.
The first peculiarity is Frame's use of triads. If one is familiar with the theology of Frame, then his use of triads in his theology should be no great surprise. Throughout the book he identifies a number of triads by which he explains various doctrines: he explains revelation in terms of "the triad of general revelation, special revelation, and existential revelation" (57; also 69, 103, 195, 200, 253, 261, 275). Now, to be sure, Frame does state that his use of triads is a pedagogical device by which one can understand the doctrines of the faith (330). However, one wonders whether such a method is truly helpful to the beginning student of theology, especially given that such a method is unique to Frame? Is it not better to give the key elements of a doctrine regardless of how many points there are, rather than run the risk of forcing a doctrine into a triad unnecessarily? The author's triad may fit his system but runs the risk of confusing the student who will hopefully go on to read other works that do not use such definitions.
The second peculiarity is his perspectivalist approach to theology, one in which Frame divides theology into the normative, situational, and existential perspectives. This is perhaps one of the features that could be most confusing to a neophyte. For example, Frame writes: "I think of election as normative, because it is the plan of God that governs everything. The atonement is situational, for it is the objective fact by which we are saved. And the ordo salutis is existential, for it happens within the experience of each of us; for that reason it is sometimes called subjective soteriology" (177). In the light of what Frame says elsewhere, this statement is confusing. When he defines his three perspectives, he states that the normative is what God's revelation says; the situational is "trying to understand the situations we get into," and the existential is when a person seeks to know himself, "In this perspective, you focus on yourself" (77). If the situational is trying to understand the situations we get into, how does this fit with Christ's atonement? Is the author trying to point to sin and the need for atonement? But then, is that not the existential perspective? Similarly, does not the ordo salutis have normative elements, such as forensic justification and adoption? In places, Frame caveats regarding the three perspectives, "Each perspective on reality includes the whole reality; and each perspective therefore includes the other two" (329). If this is so, then why even try to separate these perspectives?
It is these two key peculiarities that detract from the overall intention of the book. One can call them peculiarities because they are peculiar to Frame's theology. One does not find a perspectivalist triadic theology in any major work of Reformed systematic theology (i.e., Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Berkhof, Bavinck, Berkouwer, etc). Given these peculiarities, it seems that such a presentation would only hamper and confuse the beginning student. The beginner would learn Frame's unique approach only to discover that no one else employs it, and then, have to relearn the most basic categories and definitions so he can learn the traditional terminology and methodology. If the goal, then, is to assist the beginning student with interfacing with Reformed systematic theology, then these peculiarities provide the reader with some obstacles. On the other hand, this book provides an excellent introduction to Frame's theology and an entry point to his other more technical works. In this regard, perhaps the book's subtitle should be: An Introduction to the Theology of John Frame. There is certainly no shame in such a book, and it could be quite helpful to the one interested in understanding Frame's theology. However, if one is looking for a basic introduction to Reformed systematic theology, Berkhof's Manual of Christian Doctrine is still perhaps the better choice.
J. V. Fesko
Pastor, Geneva OPC
Adjunct prof. of systematic theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta
Ordained Servant, November 2008.