White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

A Response to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology

Release date:

February 10, 2012

I’ve been reluctant to respond to Professor Frame’s The Escondido Theology, published recently by Whitefield Media. Since the book focuses its critique on Westminster Seminary California, where I teach, I’d encourage readers to visit the Seminary website for a brief response from our president, W. Robert Godfrey. It would be of no edifying value to anyone to go into the details of John Frame’s departure from WSC. Suffice it to say that there are two sides to every story and if you’ve read The Escondido Theology, you have only heard one side whose details many of us would dispute. None of this matters in any case for the general good of the church and the Great Commission, so I will not raise it here.

There are a lot of criticisms in the book directed at my writing, so I’ll say a brief word about it. Having read the book recently, my reluctance is due primarily to the fact that I don’t know quite where to begin and to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.

The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. I’m encouraged to hear that various Reformed companies declined to publish the book. It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset. If I held some of the views John attributes to me, I would be alarmed as well. Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment, even to the point of defending Joel Osteen, for example, against my critique (which, again, he caricatures). I hope readers of John’s book will also consult the books that he attacks rather than take his word for it that they say what he claims.

John Frame has consistently defended “evangelical reunion,” even while questioning the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, and downplaying many historic categories of classical Reformed theology. He often scolds those who take creedal and confessional subscription seriously, while even defending people like Joel Osteen with remarkable sympathy.

There’s a history here of being nicer to those outside Reformed circles than within. A while back, John’s critique of David Wells’ scholarly study of evangelicalism and American culture (acclaimed by many outside as well as inside Reformed circles) went in tandem with his odd arguments against Richard Muller, the dean of Reformed scholasticism specialists. (See Richard Muller’s response in Westminster Theological Journal 59 [1997]: 301-310.) I wish I had the good sense of humor expressed by David Wells’ response, “On Being Framed” (in that same issue). John seems to be the least charitable to those who are most convinced of the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and who, despite their long and serious contributions to the evangelical movement, are worried that it has become too captive to modernity.

A number of John’s claims cluster around the charge of being “Lutheran.” Yet he does not represent Lutheranism fairly (lacking serious documentation for sweeping generalizations); nor does he represent my views accurately. So there is only a vague suspicion, with the terrifying prospect that in spite of all of their notable feuds, Luther and Calvin—and their heirs—might nevertheless have been leaders of the same magisterial Reformation. Apparently, my association with Baptists does not raise eyebrows, but Lutheranism is beyond the pale.

This would have been odd even to American Presbyterian and Reformed folks a century ago. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck, would not have understood this development. Of course, they also defended Reformed distinctives over against Lutheran, Baptist, and other positions. Nevertheless, they took it for granted that confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians were natural allies, joined at the hip on major issues.

Just for the record, I am not a Lutheran or a Baptist, as my Lutheran and Baptist friends will attest. Unlike Calvin, Bucer and other Reformed leaders, I have never signed the Augsburg Confession. My confession, without reservation, remains the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. That should be clear enough to anybody who has read my books, including my systematic theology, The Christian Faith.

Doubtless, there are many reasons for the fear of “Lutheranism” among some in our circles. Since the Great Awakening, pietism and revivalism have formed the ties that bind American Protestants. Confessional Lutheran and Reformed immigrants didn’t quite fit and they were often only too happy to remain in relative isolation. Ever since the “Shepherd controversy” (see below), some (like Professor Frame) have sought to distance Reformed theology as much as possible from Luther and Lutheranism, even as they embrace other non-Reformed traditions (from broad evangelicalism in some cases to Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives in others). So “Lutheranism” becomes the bogeyman for a lot of sweeping charges that are not fair to Lutherans, much less to Reformed people who recognize important areas of common agreement.

Let me briefly summarize the rest of my response under the four following points of criticism:

1. Two Kingdoms

First, WSC has no official litmus test on “two kingdoms.” Our president, Robert Godfrey, is a committed Kuyperian and Kuyper’s legacy is seen by many of us here as closer in some respects to a “two kingdoms” view than many neo-Kuyperians assume today. (For example, Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes clearly between what the church is authorized to do as an institution and what Christians are authorized to do in various callings.) None of us has presented the idea as a test of orthodoxy in Reformed circles; on the contrary, some of our friends have turned its denial into a test.

Where Reformed theology sees distinctions without separation, John often seems to press a false choice. If you distinguish our heavenly and temporal citizenship, then he suspects that you separate them, denying the latter. (The same tendency is evident in the law-gospel distinction below: either law and gospel are really the same or you deny the former.)

From the days when I was John’s student, I have heard his defenses of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction). Although he dissented on some points, he seemed to appreciate the movement’s broader emphases. Years ago, the faculties of Westminster Philadelphia and California produced Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990), edited by William Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Richard Gaffin, Jr., defended amillennialism and Will Barker articulated a biblical-Reformed case for political “pluralism.” Put those together and you basically have “two kingdoms.” Other great essays were included by Tim Keller, John Meuther, and terrific historical chapters by Robert Godfrey (on Calvin) and Sinclair Ferguson (on the Westminster Confession). John Frame contributed a chapter trying to unite theonomists and their critics. My point is that a critique of “one kingdom” thinking by the joint faculties of both Westminsters was mainstream in 1990. I’m sure that John didn’t agree with everything in that volume, but to my knowledge he didn’t call his colleagues “Lutheran,” even though it expresses the views that we at WSC still hold today.

Calvin embraced the “two kingdoms” doctrine explicitly—in those terms. Of course, it was the era of “Christendom,” where Luther no less than Calvin expected the civil magistrate to defend the true faith. Nevertheless, at least in theory, he made precisely the same arguments as Luther. I wonder if those sympathetic to theonomy or making America a “Christian nation” are really serious. Do they really want the White House or the legislative or judicial branches to enforce the first table of the law? Will orthodox Protestants be the only ones allowed to rule, or will a few Roman Catholics, Jews, and perhaps a conservative mainliner or two pass the Senate confirmation hearings? This is not to say that God’s moral law is no longer in force, that it no longer expresses God’s eternal measure of righteousness. Rather, it is to recognize that the New Testament teaches us to live as “strangers and aliens” in this present age, loving and serving our neighbors through our callings, witnessing God’s Word to them, and contributing toward the common good of a city that is important but never ultimate.

Although John’s book claims that this idea of “two kingdoms” is an extreme view, he explicitly states that he isn’t interested in engaging with David Van Drunen or others who have explored the history of Reformed interpretation in detail. So he turns to an exegetical critique that turns out to be thin on exegesis. Only by reducing the view to a caricature is he able to refute a straw position.

With Luther, Calvin, and, yes, Kuyper, a proper Reformed view of Christ and culture affirms God’s lordship over all spheres of life, while nevertheless distinguishing between the way Christ rules his church by his Word and Spirit from the way he rules in providence and common grace. Why did Luther call them “the kingdom of the left hand” and “the kingdom of the right hand”? Because they were both God’s hands! It affirms that special revelation clarifies general revelation, the latter of which we by nature suppress in unrighteousness (although, as Van Til pointed out, sinners can’t suppress everything at the same time). The church proclaims God’s Word, both the law and the gospel, to the world. Where it speaks, we speak. Neither I nor my colleagues teach anything remotely suggestive of the idea that the Bible has no bearing on the convictions and actions of Christians in the public square.

Let me offer an example. I hold a pro-life stance as a Christian, on the basis of the biblical truths of creation, fall, redemption, and the consummation—as well as explicit commands for extending love to neighbors. I make those convictions explicit even in talking to non-Christians. However, because they are made in God’s image and cannot suppress everything at the same time, and the Spirit is also at work restraining evil in common grace, I can appeal to what I know they know even as they suppress its logical conclusions. As Calvin reminds us, “The moral law is nothing other than the natural law that is written on the conscience of all.” Of all people, Christians should not remain passive in the face of slavery, abortion, racism, exploitation, injustice, and failures to be stewards of God’s good creation. However, they can work alongside non-Christians in these callings without having the church bind their consciences about specific policies or agendas that are not authorized by God’s Word.

In content, this natural law is a revelation of God’s righteousness, justice, power, and moral will—distinct from the revelation of his saving will (the gospel) in Jesus Christ. Here, as in many cases throughout John’s critique, crucial distinctions are often blurred and then if you deny this synthesis you are accused of not holding to both.

2. Law and Gospel

At first, John seems to affirm the distinction. He even concedes that Calvin and Reformed writers affirmed it as well as Luther and Lutheranism. What he’s against is a “radical law-gospel antithesis.” Yet once again, his own alternative is a blurring of the distinction altogether. The gospel includes commands and the law includes gracious promises, he argues. So it’s not clear to me whether he affirms the distinction or denies it, but the latter seems to be the last word. If he were to say that the covenant of grace includes commands (or that there are commands to repent and believe the gospel), who could argue? But these commands to repent and believe (and obey) are not the gospel; they are the proper response to it. Or, if he were to say that the gospel was promised to the old covenant saints through types and shadows, again, who could take issue? Yet to say that the gospel itself is law and the law itself is gospel is not to hold them together; it’s to make them one and the same thing.

In the 1970s, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was racked by a controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd’s denial of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. The law and the gospel were confused. Well did Calvin’s sidekick Theodore Beza remark that “This confusion over law and gospel has been and remains the greatest source of corruption and abuses in the church.” Eventually, Professor Shepherd resigned and left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Two decades later, the theonomy debate stirred the pot. And more recently, the “Federal Vision” movement arose in our circles, largely out of these two tributaries.

In each of these challenges to the Reformed confession, John’s sympathies have been explicit. While demurring on some points, he has defended and endorsed these movements’ writings even as both “Westminsters” and all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have ruled them beyond the bounds of the confession. The two forewords to The Escondido Theology are written by noted theonomists. One vigorous endorsement of The Escondido Theology comes from a theonomist and Federal Visionist who denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is this neonomian paradigm that conflicts with the Reformed confession. Reformed critics, however, are dismissed as “Lutherans” or “Machen’s warrior children.”

This is ironic. Sadly, I’m not surprised that he appreciates their blurring of the distinction of law and gospel or of justification and sanctification. What does surprise me is that someone who is so adamant against anything that smacks of similarity to a “Lutheran” scheme is so sympathetic to a movement that embraces baptismal regeneration and the possibility of losing one’s justification/regeneration.

In both his exegesis and passing historical remarks, John refutes a position that nobody (at least nobody at WSC) holds and then jettisons a distinction that Reformed as well as Lutheran theology regards as fundamental and crucial. He shows little interest in wrestling with the historical debates, because he embraces “something close to biblicism.” In other words, his exegesis of Scripture trumps everyone else’s; what he believes is “biblical” is therefore “Reformed,” even if it goes against the consensus of Reformed interpretation.

3. Application of God’s Word to All of Life

Related to the previous points, John misrepresents me (and my colleagues) as teaching that we should not apply God’s Word to all areas of life.

First, given the fact that John has been critical of the traditional Reformed application of God’s Word to worship in the “regulative principle,” this is an odd charge. Not even the regular preaching of the Word is an essential element in the public service, John argues in this book (and elsewhere). It would surely be odd if one thought the Bible sufficient for politics, but not for the worship and government of the church.

Second, according to John, I relegate God’s Word to the private life of individuals or the corporate life of the church, having nothing to do with the believer’s stewardship and vocations in the world. I don’t know how anyone could conclude this from anything I have written. In fact, I’ve written books on the role of the law in the Christian life (The Law of Perfect Freedom), the importance of a world-embracing vision of Christian vocation in all spheres (Where in the World is the Church?), and the importance of engaging in culture with godly discernment (Beyond Culture Wars). John even alleges that we don’t talk enough about the Great Commission, when it forms the backbone of much of our curriculum. By the way, I wrote a book on the Great Commission, which also clearly advocates Christian involvement in the world and application of God’s Word to all areas of life.

One point where John is especially egregious in his misrepresentations of my view concerns the third use of the law. At the outset, this would hardly be a “Lutheran” move, since Melanchthon first coined the “third use” and it was included in the Book of Concord in the section against the antinomians. Furthermore, in many places I’ve argued that Calvin and other Reformed writers more carefully nuanced the position and emphasized the third use (including the importance of a disciplined life and church). There are important differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, those differences pale in comparison with the denial of the important distinctions that both traditions affirm together and writers like John Frame either deny or confuse.

4. Translation

In several places John is irritated by my suggestion that we have bent over backwards “translating” the gospel in terms not only that people can understand but that they can accept. It’s not a question of making it communicable, but palatable. Another distinction he doesn’t seem to recognize in my argument. Of course, I affirm translating the Bible into vernacular languages (where would the contrary assumption be gleaned from anything I’ve said)? Of course, I believe that we need to communicate clearly and effectively, drawing analogies from everyday life in our own day. Of all the reviews I’ve seen, only John’s interprets me as suggesting that we should just read the words of the Bible and not try to explain it to people.

What I point to explicitly is something like Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” where you ask the world to define the questions and then go to the Bible for the answers. The wrong assumption here is that we already know what we need before God tells us. In opposing this tendency to accommodate God’s radical Word to the fallen mind and heart, I am simply defending what Kuyper and Van Til referred to as the “antithesis” between godly and ungodly thinking. It’s surprising that a distinguished disciple of Cornelius Van Til would take issue with that argument. (He also takes issue with my advocacy of the archetypal-ectypal distinction—and the analogical view of human knowledge—evidently siding more with Gordon Clark over Van Til in that important debate.)


Speaking for myself, I have endeavored to explore the riches that I have discovered personally in the catholic, evangelical and Reformed heritage. I owe much of my deepest convictions to professors I had at Westminster California, including Edmund Clowney (who helped me understand, among many other things, “two kingdoms” thinking without calling it that), Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, and others.

In spite of the seriousness with which I take my calling as a minister, I don’t doubt my capacity for error and the need to be open to critique. Reviews are great ways of taking on board important critiques that lead to further reflection and correction. However, as I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair. It’s one thing to say that you believe a certain view should lead logically to such-and-such a conclusion; it’s quite another to misrepresent someone’s view as actually advocating a position that he or she in fact rejects.

All that I ask is that those who disagree with my arguments in fact disagree with my arguments, not with John Frame’s description of them. Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California. Like all of my colleagues, I’m trying to participate in a long conversation that is both appreciative and self-critical of our tradition’s interpretation and application of God’s Word so that the church can be more faithful in this generation. It is a work in progress, and our differences among ourselves as a faculty are treated as the grist for the mill of constant dialogue and mutual correction.

Unlike the days when I was a student, there are no factions on the faculty or among the student body. There is a wonderful spirit of mutual trust, spirited discussion—even debate, and, above all, a common conviction that it’s not about us or any party that we might form around ourselves. We’re collaborating in preparing pastors, missionaries, and teachers to bring all of God’s Word to all of the world in all of the ways that our Lord mandates in his Great Commission. We do need to have healthy debate and discussion in our circles of these important issues. We all tend to emphasize the points that we think are being obscured or over-emphasized by others. However, the level of the conversation in conservative Reformed circles has to improve. Otherwise, our internecine squabbles and confusion will thwart the great promise of a tradition that has always sought, at least at its best, to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”