Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pious agnosticism

I'm going to comment this post by Scott Clark's on John Frame's new systematic theology:

I think readers should read widely but they shouldn’t believe everything they read. So we should read liberally but we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?”
That's excellent advice. Unfortunately, Clark fails to heed his own advice. 
The second divergence, closely related to the first, is theological. Frame has come to defend views that are flatly contrary to the Reformed confession on a number of topics from the definition of theology through to Christian ethics.
Of course, one could say the same thing about Clark. He's a selective confessionalist. It's a pity that Clark is a hardened hypocrite. He constantly exempts himself from the consistency he demands from others.
There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. 
Is that the starting point? Didn't Clark just admonish us to read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?”
Why is Clark a confessional Calvinist rather than a confessional Lutheran? Do they just have different arbitrary starting points? How does Clark think we should come to believe the Reformed confessions in the first place? Does he think we always ought to read the Scriptures through the lens of Reformed tradition? If so, what about a Lutheran who shares the identical methodology, but plugs that into Lutheran creeds rather than Reformed creeds? 
The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist (on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession), has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.
Does Frame seek to revise Reformed theology? Is that his objective going in? Or is that the occasional, unpremeditated result of his studies? 
By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time. Frame does this through a method he describes as triperspectivalism. 
Clark makes it sound as if Frame affirms and denies the same thing in the same respect. But there's nothing incoherent or contradictory (if that's what Clark is insinuating) about affirming something in one respect, but denying that in another respect. 
In his earlier volume on the doctrine of God, he defended the proposition that God is three persons and one person, a view at which, in the present volume. he seems only to hint. Last I knew, few reviewers noted this significant departure from catholic (i.e., universal Christian) dogma and the Reformed confession.

i) In what sense is that a departure from dogma? Is he saying Frame's conceptualization of the Trinity marks a departure, or Frame's terminology

ii) In Trinitarian and Christological usage, "person" (along with its Greek and Latin cognates) is a term of art. The terminology was fluid in early church history. And theological jargon has stipulative definitions. So it's a question of how the term is used. 

iii) We need to distinguish between Frame as an expositor of Van Til, and Frame's own preferred formulations. In explaining and defending Van Til, Frame is exegeting Van Til's usage. How Frame interprets Van Til is not the same thing is how Frame might choose to formulate the issue when speaking for himself. 

iv) Clark mentions Frame's conclusion while ignoring his supporting arguments. 

The doctrine of divine simplicity, however, is not a remnant of Thomas’ neo-Platonism. It is the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 
i) To begin with, his claim is a non-sequitur. How does the fact that it's nominally codified in Reformed confessions entail that it's not a remnant of Thomistic Neoplatonism? 
ii) What does Clark mean by saying divine simplicity is the interpretation of Scripture? For instance, does Clark think there's no difference between divine justice and divine mercy? Are these identical? If so, that's a problem for Reformed theology, according to which God can be unmerciful, but never unjust. 
The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple, that he is without parts and we do so, as Luther said, without horns (we don’t say this and not this or Sic et Non). Neither the Trintarian persons nor the attributes make God complex. 
i) What happened to Clark's admonition that we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?”
ii) Does Frame say God is composed of parts? 
iii) Clark uses "simplicity" as a buzzword. He stays on the verbal surface. Does he even grasp the metaphysical machinery or varied models? For instance:
In The Christian Faith (2011), pp. 228-30, Mike Horton...appeals to the essence/energies (working) distinction in Basil.
So Frame stands accused of deviating from Reformed tradition because he doesn't recast Reformed theology in Greek Orthodox categories. I didn't realize Gregory Palamas presided at the Synod of Dordt or the Westminster Assembly. I salute his Methuselean longevity. 
More recently, the classical Reformed doctrine of simplicity has been a bulwark against the heresy of Open Theism, the doctrine that future contingents are unknowable to God. 
i) Why would we rely on such a convoluted argument to refute open theism? Surely there are more direct arguments we can deploy against open theism.
ii) Since an open theist won't treat divine simplicity as a given, it would first be necessary to argue for divine simplicity, then argue for how that's at odds with God's ignorance of future contingents. An approving quote from Berkhof is not an argument.  
This passage gets us closer to the heart of the problem, his apparent revision of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. As a matter of truth, God’s essence is a dark, unrevealed entity. God, as he is in himself (in se) is hidden from us…We know that God’s hidden essence is but we don’t know what God’s essence is. We’re not capable of knowing or understanding that essence. We know what God has revealed of himself to us. God has given us pictures, illustrations, analogies, but he has not revealed himself as he is in himself…The Reformed want to affirm both the mystery of God’s hiddenness and the utterly reliability of his self-revelation. 

i) Clark confuses the order of being (i.e. what God is in himself) with the order of knowing (what God is like). Since we're not God, we can't know God as he knows himself. But that doesn't mean we can't know what God is truly like. We just can't can see it from God's unique, first-person perspective. And God must take the initiative in disclosing himself.   

ii) If God's essence is unknowable, then Scripture is not a divine self-revelation. God hasn't revealed himself to us in Scripture. Rather, God has revealed something other than himself. 

Our Lord himself said:  
No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (John 1:18).

So, according to Clark, the Son isn't God in himself? The Son isn't essentially God? The Incarnation of the Son fails to reveal what God is really like? We can't know God's true nature by knowing Christ? 
1Timothy 6:16 says “no one has ever seen or can see” God. 1John 4:12 says that “no one has ever seen God.”
How does Clark make the logical leap from verses about the invisibility of God to to the incomprehensibility of God? 
Frame has defended the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrines. In the present volume he offers a (remarkably revisionist) defense of the principal godfather of the FV theology, Norman Shepherd. 

It's unclear what exactly Clark is alleging. His accusation seems to amount to this:

i) Frame's exposition of justification is traditionally Reformed.

ii) Shepherd's exposition is contrary to traditional Reformed theology.

iii) Frame superimposes his own exposition onto Shepherd. Frame imputes to Shepherd a position at odds with Shepherd's actual position. 

But if Frame's own formulation is sound, then Frame's association with Shepherd, even if that's injudicious, is a red herring. 

Put another way, even if Frame's friendship with Shepherd affects his objectivity, making him an unreliable interpreter of Shepherd, how is that germane when Frame is speaking for himself rather than putting in a good word for an old friend? 

….His method is not only dialectical, it is a latitudinarian, i.e., the goal is that we should tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned. 

That raises an interesting question. Since the classic Reformed confessions weren't responding to the Federal Vision, modern-day Reformed churches must go beyond the historical purview of 16-17C Reformed confessions to adjudicate the specifics of that particular position. 


  1. After all these years I can't believe R. Scott Clark is still blogging. His blog is so unhelpful, where it often seems to me that he's trying to get more heat going than light.
    Thank you Steve for taking Clark to task with his latest complaint against Frame.

  2. I have always enjoyed Clark for both the light and heat. How ever I have always seen him as only one part of the Reformed Tradition. He is a historian after all and can be forgiven for forgetting that a lot has happened in the last 400 years that seems to have escaped his notice.