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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

A Response to Professor John Frame

Release date:

October 22, 2009

How many blogs must comment on something before the blogosphere can be abuzz? We’ve seen eight or nine posts over the last several days commenting on John Frame’s recent “book review” of Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity. So, we’re not quite convinced that this is a dispute of blogospheric proportions, but we also thought in the interests of fairly characterizing Frame’s review for what it is, we should provide some kind of response.

First, it is stunning that Professor Frame should so totally disagree with Horton’s basic premise: that evangelicalism is in sad shape and getting worse. Literally hundreds of books, articles, and conferences have taken up that issue over the last two decades and arrived at the same conclusion: it is! Frame complains that Horton only quotes “unbelievers” who apparently wield facts as weapons in a deliberate swipe against the church.  Briefly, we would point out that a Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, wrote the forward to the book, agreeing with its premise and emphasizing the need for evangelicals to pay close attention to the errors of their mainline cousins. We have also spent significant airtime on White Horse Inn with Christian Smith, a committed Christian and a noted sociologist, who painstakingly documented his conclusion about the reign of “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Most recently, Mark Galli in a Christianity Today cover story (“In the Beginning, Grace”) makes many of the same analyses as Horton does in Christless Christianity. Galli even names more specific names and movements than Horton does (including names and movements that Frame evidently thinks are doing just fine).  So much for Horton being an axe-grinding, dogmatic observer of the Christian scene! [For readers who are interested in seeing more of the evidence first hand, visit our website and listen to all of the free programs that showcase the problem within both evangelical and Reformational churches.] That Frame cannot or is not willing to see this problem is troubling and calls into question the integrity of this review. It also does a disservice not only to his own readers but to the many, many evangelicals in exile who have seen in the book the sad tale of their own experience.

Second, the strength of a review comes not in what it says, but in what it implies and by this measurement, Frame’s insinuations undercut his own standing to review this book (or nearly any other if this is characteristic of his style). About two-thirds of the way through [rather than read it all, you can just search on the word “disqualifies” to find this quote], Frame writes,

So the qualifications of church officers in 1 Tim. 3:1-13 and Tit. 1:5-9 are primarily qualities of character, so that these officers can be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). When Horton confesses on 117, “…I am not an exemplary creature,” he perhaps unintentionally disqualifies himself for church office.

Of course, context is key and Horton’s remarks were not meant to be read as a sort of pulpit confessional, but as an example of preaching Christ not ourselves. Does Frame think that being “above reproach” means a preacher should lead his congregation to his own character? Sadly, examples like these are to be found in nearly every section of Frame’s review. Thankfully, most people will not take the time to discover for themselves the personal, accusatory nature of Frame’s critique.

Third, Frame’s ten-point summary does deserve some rebuttal because Frame says that these ten points are at the heart of Horton’s work and “are not warranted by the Reformed Confessions and … in my mind are not even Scriptural.” We respond that Fame’s ten points bear no resemblance to the book he is reviewing or the body of work that Horton has delivered via his academic work, popular level books, conference papers, sermons, etc. Here are the ten points that Frame claims summarize Horton’s theology (in italics), with a brief response to each point.

1. Attention to ourselves necessarily detracts from attention to Christ.

No, it can detract from Christ. But it does not necessarily detract from Christ. When it comes to the gospel, “we preach not ourselves, but Christ,” because the gospel is not about us at all.  Confusion over this matter does detract from Christ. However, the good news about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection has implications on the way we live, and so we must give some attention to ourselves as we let the light of the gospel shine in every dark corner, which challenges us to rethink our actions, self-centeredness, etc.

2. We should not give attention to the way we communicate the gospel, or to making it relevant to its hearers.

Relevance and context are clearly different than pragmatism. To which has the evangelical church at large given itself?

3. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are a zero-sum game. The idea that man must do something compromises the absolute sovereignty of God.

This is an outright misrepresentation and we’re disappointed that Professor Frame should characterize Horton’s theology in this way. He is not a hyper-Calvinist and nothing in Christless Christianity or anything else that he has written bears this out.

4. God’s work of salvation is completely objective, external to us, and not at all subjective, internal to us. (Here he backtracks some.)

This is another caricature.  Horton’s argument is that the gospel is completely objective and external to us: it’s the Good News about Christ’s person and work.  However, Horton clearly says that God’s work of salvation includes regeneration and sanctification.  The Spirit applies the redemption that the gospel announces.

5. God promises us no earthly blessings, only heavenly ones, and to desire earthly blessings is a “theology of glory,” deserving condemnation.

Horton’s critique is that we are trying to use God to attain our best life now, rather than to see God as the object of our faith and worship, for “every blessing in heavenly realms in Christ” (Eph 1:3-4).  Lost in exaggeration, Frame’s caricature of this argument misses the point.

6. Law and gospel should be utterly separate. There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.

This is a longstanding complaint by Frame. Not only does he consistently misrepresent the Lutheran view on this point; he seems to be unaware of the consensus of Reformed theologians that the confusion of law and gospel is the heart of theological errors.  This point has been made not only by Calvin, but by Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Owen, and Spurgeon all the way to Louis Berkhof and John Murray.  In Christless Christianity (and elsewhere), Horton very clearly affirms that law and gospel are to be distinguished but never separated.  The one thing that Professor Frame accurately says about the book on this point is that “There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.”  That’s why the law reveals our sin and misery (as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism confess), and the gospel reveals God’s saving grace toward us in Jesus Christ.  One should be far less bothered that Professor Frame is confused about Christless Christianity than that he seems confused about the difference between commands (imperatives) and declarations of God’s promises (indicatives).

7. Preaching of the gospel must never use biblical characters as moral or spiritual examples. Nor must it address practical ethical issues in the Christian life.

Of course there are moral examples in Scripture, and Horton affirms this in his book; the point is that the Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero.  All we ask is that if you use a character as a moral or spiritual example, be sure to include not just the exemplary things that he or she did but also the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a “friend of God” or a “man after God’s own heart” to look forward to a Redeemer. Don’t stop with the example, look to where the example actually points: to Jesus Christ.  And ground your practical ethical issues in the new creation, just as the New Testament writers do. For more on the relationship between doctrine and ethics, see Horton’s People and Place.

8. A focus on redemption excludes a focus on anything else.

This is baffling. Is Frame intentionally misrepresenting the book or is he unable to read the book without even a modicum of Christian charity? Stunning.

9. In worship and in the general ministry of the church, God gives and does not receive; the congregation receives and does not give.

Read Horton’s A Better Way for a substative rebuttal. That Frame and Horton have differences of opinion on what happens or should happen in a worship service is an understatement, but point 9 does not reflect either the points made in Christless Christianity or A Better Way. Horton has consistently argued that worship is dialogical; the congregation is a participant with God in the worship service.  God serves us in Word and Sacrament, and we respond in songs of praise, prayer, confession, and attention.

10. Analysts of the church must compare the Church’s focus on Christ with its focus on other things, rather than considering that many of these other things are in fact applications of Christ’s own person and work.

If churches actually saw their focus on other things as extensions and applications of Christ’s ministry, we wouldn’t have an issue. But the facts (as cited in the works of both unbelievers and believers in many different traditions) just don’t bear out Frame’s optimism about mainstream evangelicalism here.

Much more, of course, could be said about Frame’s review. But we hope that those who only read blog recaps of books and reviews of books will at least be informed now as to the significant weaknesses of his review. It should not be taken seriously and will not be taken seriously by those who are closer to the problems of evangelicalism than Frame appears to be.