Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Living dangerously!

I've been asked by several people to comment on Tom Chantry's recent screed about John Frame:

To lay my cards on the table from the outset let me say this: it is my firm opinion that John Frame is one of the most dangerous characters in the broadly Reformed world today.  His ideas are so disruptive of any system of doctrine and ultimately of any reasonable approach to holiness that I find myself distrusting of those who cite him.  Perhaps this is unfair.  Perhaps they have not read far enough, or understood sufficiently.  But when I see John Frame referenced favorably among those who are meant to be confessional Reformed Baptists, I find that I am terrified by what is coming in our movement.
Thankfully, some of Frame's students took the precautionary measure of wearing a garlic necklace or crucifix under their T-shirt to ward off evil spirits emanating from his sulfurous lips.

By 1992, when I entered seminary, Frame was among the better-known professors in Escondido.
I don't know what that's supposed to mean. WSC was a smallish school with a smallish faculty. I expect all the faculty were more or less equally well-known to the student body, as well as to members of the respective churches in which the faculty ministered. 
Then in 2011 he published The Escondido Theology, a wide-ranging attack on his former employers which suggested that Westminster Seminary in California has departed from Reformed tradition.
Actually, it was mainly a critique of some of his former colleagues, not his former employers
I have interacted some with these questions online, and following the publication of The Escondido Theology my letter of support for WSC was published on their website.  
That's odd. One of Frame's targets was Scott Clark. Yet Clark excludes Calvinistic Baptists like Chantry and his dad from the ranks of the truly Reformed. Go figure. 
In addition, Chantry acts as though Frame is an outlier. But Frame is by no means their only critic. Take this site, which has many erudite objections to WSC:
However, in Frame’s discussion of history, an oddity arose.  His understanding of the advance of truth was somewhat revolutionary in character.  On more than one occasion he suggested to us that whenever the church has grasped some new understanding of the truth, the breakthrough has been accomplished by two men: a revolutionary and a systemetizer.  For instance, in a day of confusion regarding the nature of Christ, Athanasius was something of a revolutionary – both in doctrine and in personality.  He aggressively – one might even say pugnaciously – advanced a new and better understanding.  He was followed, however, by Augustine, who gathered the strands of his thought together into a comprehensive system.  The other example of this which leaps to mind is Frame’s discussion of Luther and Calvin – an analysis which would drive any Lutheran to utter distraction!...Frame, however, was not quite doing Hegel, whose philosophy and methods Frame rejects.  His view, however, tended to glorify the revolutionary.  
But if Luther is the revolutionary to Calvin's systematizer, does Chantry have any evidence that Frame glorified Luther rather than Calvin? 
The ultimate systemization was not a synthesis of old and new, but rather a triumphant re-assertion of the new.  As a Reformed and biblical Christian, I did and still do find this rather disturbing.  Frame would assert that the “revolutions” of men like Athanasius and Luther were in fact recoveries of old biblical truth. 
So it's not in fact a "reassertion of the new," but a "recovery of old biblical truth." Yet those are hardly interchangeable concepts. So Chantry's characterization is incoherent. 
More disturbing, though, was a growing suspicion among my classmates regarding how Frame saw himself, particularly in the history of the field of apologetics.  Frame was long considered the star pupil of Westminster apologist Cornelius Van Til, whose presuppositional approach has certainly been revolutionary in some sense.  During my time in Escondido we often heard Frame complaining that reconstructionists such as Greg Bahnsen had misread Van Til; they wanted to be his interpreters but had misunderstood his legacy.  The question emerged: did Frame perceive himself as the systemetizing successor to Van Til’s revolutionary legacy?  The publication of Cornelius Van Til, an Analysis of his Thought in 1995 seemed to give legitimacy to that speculation.
Notice that Chantry offers no counterevidence to rebut Frame's interpretation of Van Til. In Chantry's eyes, Frame is wrong because Frame is right. 
Frame’s answer was a resounding “No!”  The perspectives, he insisted, are and must be equal.  The situational and existential inform the normative as much as and in the same fashion that the normative informs them.  To put this again in layman’s terms, yes, the objective word of God ought to affect the way in which I view the opinions formed from my own personality and my context, but at the same time and in the same way my personality and context ought to inform my understanding of the word of God.  And that, my friends is relativistic hermeneutic – plain and simple.
I'd simply point out that you don't have to depend on Chantry's slanted summary. If you want an exposition of Frame's position, you can go straight to the source:
And if you want a sophisticated analysis of his position, try this:
Second, Frame must essentially reject many of the implications of the Fall.  To the Reformed thinker (which by this time it should be evident to the reader that John Frame is not), it is true that my existential person was created by God, but it was also wrecked by the fall, and in my sin I am quite bad at distinguishing which parts of my own opinions are divine in origin and which are corrupted.
Chantry's description of sin's noetic affects is more Manichaean than Reformed. The unregenerate are "totally depraved." But due to regeneration and sanctification, the Christian mind is no longer "wrecked" by the Fall. 
The Reformed thinker, then, may acknowledge that his personality and his context play a role in his reading of Scripture, but he views this as a shameful fact, a result of his fallen nature and continuing sin – something to be fought against with all the power of the Spirit.
There is nothing inherently "shameful" about a Christian's personality and social context playing a role in his reading of Scripture. That's both unavoidable and providential. 
The Word is to take precedence over our own prejudices.  
No doubt. But the fact that we don't come to Scripture as a blank slate is hardly equivalent to "prejudice" (with its pejorative connotations). 
The effect of this on every theological discipline is profound.  I once attempted to posit to Frame a hierarchy of theological disciplines.  It seemed evident to me that at the root of all theology is exegesis.  Exegesis drives hermeneutic, hermeneutic drives systematics, and systematics drive all other applications of theology.  This was scarcely original to me; I learned it in systematic theology lectures, where Dr. Robert Strimple’s mode of lecture was to spend days in the original languages parsing texts to arrive at answers to theological questions. 
That's not how I remember Strimple's teaching style. Although Strimple spent some time on linguistic analysis, exegetical theology wasn't really his metier. His general emphasis was more on historical theology. 

Put another way, although he was influenced the John Murray's theological method, he wasn't by any means as consistently exegetical as Murray. Indeed, Strimple really didn't have an overarching theological methodology, that I could discern. But his approach was predominately historical theology.

Somewhat to my dismay, Frame was dismissive of the very idea that any theological discipline might take precedence over another.  In his mind such a hierarchy amounted to idolatry of the normative perspective.
Yet Chantry goes on to chide Frame for failing to be sufficiently deferential to historical theology. Indeed, Frame champions "something close to biblicism":
So, once again, Chantry's characterization is wide of the mark.  
In the mid-1990s the faculty in Escondido was in an odd spot with regard to church attendance.  While Westminster is most often associated with the OPC, none of the faculty attended OP congregations.  The regional presbytery at that time was deeply influenced by reconstructionism and was thus very anti-Westminster.  Most of the faculty either attended Escondido Christian Reformed Church (now part of the URC) or New Life Presbyterian Church – a PCA congregation known for its contemporary approach to worship.  John Frame not only attended New Life, he was heavily involved in the direction of its music ministry. While Frame, a gifted pianist and organist, regularly accompanied hymns at Westminster chapels, in church he promoted a very contemporary approach to worship.
From the moment that Godfrey’s selection as president was made known, the student body began speculating about how long Frame would remain on faculty.  It seemed unbelievable that a president so focused on the Regulative Principle and its traditional application would long tolerate a professor who was beginning to formulate the ideas which he would advance in his 1996 book, Worship in Spirit and Truth, and its 1997 sequel, Contemporary Worship Music, a Biblical Defense
Is Chantry suggesting that the worship style at New Life Pres in Escondido was anomalous in relation to PCA churches generally? Does he think most PCA churches operate according to the "traditional application" of the regulative principle (e.g. exclusive a cappella Psalmnody)? For a reality check:
Amazingly, Frame was not only our Professor of Apologetics, he also taught the class on Christian Ethics.  
Why is that "amazing"? Frame was clearly the best qualified professor at WSC to teach Christian ethics. 
While not all of this class was equally troubling, during his lengthy lectures on the Second Commandment we heard a Westminster professor systematically dismantling the traditional Reformed understanding of worship.
To clarify, the Regulative Principle is the view that we may only do that which God commands in worship; any innovation in the elements of worship is a form of idolatry.  The Regulative Principle is often contrasted with the Normative Principle, while the former was the view of the Reformed churches at the time of the Reformation, the latter was favored among the Lutherans.  The Normative Principle holds that anything God has not expressly forbidden in worship is permissible.
i) To begin with, although Chantry singles out Frame, his criticism is really an indictment of the OPC and PCA generally. Neither denomination has a policy of adhering to the Puritan style of worship. 
ii) Chantry illicitly collapses Reformed worship into Puritan worship. By that logic, Anglican Calvinist theologians like J. I. Packer, William Perkins, John Jewel, Nicholas Ridley, and Augustus Toplady aren't truly Reformed. 
iii) Typically, Chantry expresses his disapproval rather than engaging the argument. Here is how Frame argues for his position:
A more Reformed observer could tell you that, sin being what it is, any attempt at balance will always elevate the existential perspective.  Frame’s personal tastes were bound to win out.  The second answer is this: Frame’s epistemology is relativistic, and if all relativists are necessarily dishonest, the dishonesty is even more necessary for someone trying to pretend not to be a relativist in the context of a biblical institution...In other words, logic-bending rhetoric in defense of Frame’s personal inclinations was inevitable. 
i) Frame is a classic music buff. A classical pianist. If his personal tastes won out, New Life Pres would have classical music rather than contemporary Christian music. So Chantry's allegation is patent nonsense. Frame defends CCM in spite of, not because of, his personal musical taste.
ii) Apropos (i), Frame defends CCM as a matter of principle, against what he deems to be artistically and theologically uninformed criticisms. 
To confessionalists – Presbyterian or Baptist – the confessional documents represent the settled corporate interpretations coming down to us from the ages.  They are not individual interpretations (no individual can authorize or adopt a confession), but rather the summary of the teaching of the church.  They are secondary standards under Scripture, but they create safe boundaries around our interpretation of Scripture.  To transgress those boundaries in favor of an individual or private interpretation is to tread on thin ice.  Whereas years or in some cases centuries of theological experience went into the language of the confession – often recognizing the dangers of certain misstatements – we live in an age in which far too many a Christian and even theologian is likely to stand alone with his Bible and say, “It seems to me…”  Confessionalism is intended to prevent this error.
i) Does the 1646 edition of the Westminster Confession represent the safe boundary while the 1788 edition represents thin ice, or vice versa? Which one codifies the "settled interpretation"? Does the 1646 edition of the London Confession represent the safe boundary while the 1677 edition represents thin ice, or vice versa? Which one codifies the "settled interpretation"? What about the Savoy Declaration in relation to the Three Forms of Unity? Or the Augsburg Confession and the Thirty-nine Articles? Whichever one we subscribe to will transgress some boundaries of another. So which one captures the "collective wisdom of the church"? 
ii) Which confession should he confess? Musn't Chantry exercise his individual interpretation of Scripture to decide which competing confession is the most Scriptural? Or does he just flip a coin? 
iii) Why does Chantry hold Frame to a confessional standard while giving Meredith Kline a pass? Chantry tells us "following the publication of The Escondido Theology my letter of support for WSC was published on their website." Yet Kline was a theological maverick who bucked Reformed tradition. And Kline was one of Frame's principal targets in The Escondido Theology. Chantry's double standard is glaringly duplicitous. 
Likewise, Frame also targeted Jason Stellman, who later converted to Rome. Wasn't Frame's critique prescient in retrospect? Wasn't Chantry's supporting letter nearsighted in retrospect? 


  1. I too have found it ironic that some Reformed Baptists align themselves with R. Scott Clark when it comes to confessionalism or criticism of Dr. Frame. I guess they would rather associate with someone who denies their churches are true churches of Christ.

    Frame gets a lot of slack for not being "a company man" with regard to the Westminster Standards. In my view, he goes where Scripture leads and properly uses the Confession as a secondary document.

    "Thankfully, some of Frame's students took the precautionary measure of wearing a garlic necklace or crucifix under their T-shirt to ward off evil spirits emanating from his sulfurous lips."

    Great response to Tom's over the top comments.

  2. A haiku (western style) dedicated to Tom Chantry:

    Regulative Principle
    Thy name is John Frame!

    And again,

    A relativist,
    Reformed Baptist destroyer
    Et tu, Dr. Frame?

  3. Is it just me but Chantry's comments sounds like recycled materials from R. Scott Clark down to the charge of relativism?