Close to this time last year, the most controversial book in the evangelical world was Rob Bell’s Love Wins (or at least, the most controversial anticipated book release). This year, John Frame’s Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (hereafter, ET) has garnered a reaction from almost everyone in the Reformed community. There has already been an entire response released from Westminster Seminary California (WSCal) written by Robert Godfrey, a response by Michael Horton, and a couple of blog posts from Daryl G. Hart.
The following is not a full-fledged review, but it is a collection of thoughts on the book by a young preacher in the Reformed tradition (my own denomination is the ARP Church). I provide a summary of Frame’s main contentions, some helpful quotes, and my own analysis at points. Overall, I am in agreement with Frame where he critiques ET, but that doesn’t mean he himself can’t be more balanced or is immune to critique.
The book suffers from some immediate problems that might frustrate a serious reader. First, the content of ET is book reviews, most of which have been published online or elsewhere. Thus, unless you think a few new book reviews are worth $25, the book is a bit expensive. (Though I do think the introductory chapter is worth a lot to one who is interested in this debate.)
Second, Frame’s critique of ET is limited in two significant ways. He is only critiquing three full-time professors at WSCal (Hart is an adjunct), and the critiques aren’t comprehensive. Indeed, it is probably the case that Horton, Clark, and VanDrunen have views that are, for the most part, shared by their colleagues. However, this isn’t necessarily clear from reading ET. Yet, if only three full-time faculty are being critiqued, is it fair to call their views the “Escondido Theology” and perhaps implicate the rest of WSCal’s faculty? Maybe the label “Klinean Theology” would be better, or perhaps HorClarDrunen Theology (only half kidding). It would be a shame for all WSCal faculty to have a negative reputation. I have personally benefited from certain full-time (Dennis Johnson) and part-time (Edward Welch, David Powlison, Timothy Lane) faculty.
In addition, whatever one thinks of Frame’s book reviews, a critique of someone’s thought should include a more comprehensive critique that spans most of the major works of the one being critiqued. In taking Horton, for example, Frame only critiques three of Horton’s books (Christless Christianity, Covenant and Eschatology, and a very brief critique of A Better Way). Yet, other works by Horton may need examination to offer a more competent critique (e.g. Where in the World is the Church, People and Place, The Gospel Commission, The Christian Faith, The Law of Perfect Freedom, etc.). This would require an entire restructuring of the book, and Frame notes how he values book reviews. Still, a different format with a more comprehensive critique of ET theologians might better serve the Reformed community.
Third, as Frame admits (p. xl-xliii), his personal history with the men critiqued and the school examined makes him a target to be accused of allowing unfair bias to color his theological critique. Reading Frame’s testimony of his departure from WSCal is saddening to the reader. Yet, throughout the book, Frame gives details of his tenure at WSCal that border on hearsay. I wish Frame would have left the issue alone after the introductory chapter as his comments don’t promote unity, and they may drive away some readers. (Frame also seems less than charitable a few places in the book. His critique of Horton’s academic climate is a bit harsh (p. 199-200), as is his handling of Hart’s book, A Secular Faith, where on p. 249, Frame asserts that Hart would call non-2k views heretical.)
Despite these setbacks, ET is a very interesting read, and I think it is an important book which covers an important theological debate. I’ll limit the rest of my comments in examining how Frame approaches the various themes of ET.
Worship, Confessionalism, Ecclesiology
Perhaps the issue that hits home with Frame the most has to do with the doctrine of the church, ecclesiology. Within ecclesiology are other debatable topics that Frame takes on such as worship, confessionalism, preaching, and contextualization.
The logic of Two Kingdoms extends pretty well to the above mentioned topics, and Frame often notes the logical connections for the reader. In sum, if 2K (in the Klinean/Escondido sense) is true, then the visible church has its own isolated, separate existence from other earthly affairs. This means that its corporate worship should be a culture unto itself, should emphasize the “not of the world” over the “in this world” motif, should concern itself with proclamation and redemptive-historical preaching, being gathered over being scattered, etc.
Another central disagreement between Frame and ET theologians is how “Reformed” is defined. Clark in his Recovering the Reformed Confession gives a much narrower views of “Reformed” than Frame. Frame states, “What Clark does in this book is to advocate a kind of Reformed theology and church life that appeals to him more than the recent versions…I would propose understanding the Reformed community as a historical community that began as Clark describes, but which no longer follows the original pattern in detail.” On top of p. 73, Frame correctly asserts that the original Reformed community wasn’t uniform on everything, and greater diversity entered later. Indeed, the amazing story of Reformed Orthodoxy is that there is much uniformity and many issues of theology, but the seeming unity that Clark describes is a stretch. This is why the word “Reformed” has “fuzzy boundaries” (p. 74), not in the sense that any content may be poured into the term, but that no Christian theological tradition ever maintains its monolithic structure for very long. I think many, including ET theologians, would benefit from William B. Evans’ thoughts on confessional hermeneutics.
I agree with Frame that Clark and others would seem to violate their strong stance on confessionalism. First, issues that ET seems to make a priority for Reformed folk are not talked about in the Reformed confessions (RH preaching, law-gospel dichotomy, 2K theology, etc.). Second, 2K theology as construed in ET is in contradiction to the original 1647 WCF in 23.2-3 (p. 87). Even the revised versions in America, 23.3 would seem to contradict 2K theology in speaking of the civil magistrate as a “nursing father” to the church. Frame’s point is not that 2K is necessarily wrong, or that Clark’s view of confessionalism is wrong (though he does think they are wrong). Rather, Frame is pointing out the glaring inconsistency in ET and that history is not on their side (see Frame’s critique of Hart on this matter, p. 268-69).
Regarding contextualization in ministry, worship, and preaching, Frame goes after Horton pretty hard, though he paints all of ET as being against communicating the gospel in a relevant manner (p. 16). At one point, Frame takes Horton’s critique of contextualization as a confusion over the relationship between God’s sovereignty of human moral responsibility (p. 20, n18). (Which itself is a confessional issue.)
While Horton’s language regarding relevance, contextualization, and communication is wrong at worst, and confusing at best, I wonder if Horton really dislikes contextualization as such but is reacting against certain movements in their attempts at contextualization (seeker-sensitive, emergent, etc.). Frame does note Horton’s concern for communication on some level (p. 278).
I will cover some aspects on the debate over preaching later in this review, but I found Andrew Sandlin’s appendix to chapter 2 to be helpful. In sum, Sandlin claims that Frame’s case against Horton’s view that preaching should be less about practical application, felt needs, subjective response, etc. and more about the objective work of Christ in the gospel. Horton promotes a redemptive-historical model of preaching that some would classify as a monoredemptive-historical homiletic. Yet, as Sandlin points out, the NT has examples of exemplary exegesis, calling the reader to positively imitate OT saints, etc. Though Frame/Sandlin are correct, I think even they should give WSCal a little more credit with what they are trying to do. A preacher might preach a text, and he could apply it in its micro, macro, or meta (i.e. canonical, Christ-centered) sense. Sandlin/Frame are upset that the micro (and even macro) are swallowed up by the meta in Horton’s homiletic. In my reading of Horton (as well as Dennis Johnson, WSCal’s preaching professor) there is an affirmation of the micro, but it should never be preached apart from the meta (the indicative –> imperative paradigm). Obviously, the overall thrust of the NT would have us emphasize the meta and not the isolated micro, but Frame/Sandlin are correct to point out that there is no written rule in the Bible which says the preacher of a text must always give such emphasis to the meta. I myself think the approach of WSCal is very helpful and produces great sermons (obviously, when done well, e.g. Tim Keller). But Sandlin/Frame win the debate in terms of precision. (Interestingly, Horton has recently published a blog on “Application in Sermons” which is very different from his rhetoric in Christless Christianity. Although, he is still off point when he claims that a sermon must never end with an exhortation or imperative, but rather must go back to the indicative of the gospel. In general, I think ending with Christ and the gospel is the best and most affection-rousing means to end a sermon, but the Bible never states such a requirement either explicitly or implicitly.)
Two Kingdoms and Politics
Frame notes the confusing and contradictory quality of Hart and others in claiming strong historical precedent for their position while also admitting their position is contrary to the Reformers who thought through these issues within the context of Christendom (p. 4). Indeed, Frame is correct in his critique of Clark’s book, Recovering the Reformed Confession, that 2K political theology is a distinctly American, not European, phenomenon (p. 5). Though Kline’s exegesis provides a basis for this theology, it seems to me that 2K theology as construed in ET is a reaction to the Religious Right and other evangelical political movements.
Much of the appeal of 2K is found in David VanDrunen’s case for natural law as distinct from supernatural revelation and that natural law is both sufficient and reasonably knowable apart from Scripture. Frame obviously disagrees with this assessment, and I would side with Frame. Most anyone who considers themselves “Van Tilian” would lean toward Frame in this debate. Frame agrees with VanDrunen as to the existence of natural law, but not its use (p. 128). He also makes the excellent point that supernatural revelation is not just for sinners who need a Savior, but God gave supernatural revelation to Adam and Eve in their prefall state, even in revealing his law (p. 129).
Two problems with VanDrunen’s view of 2K that Frame points out are worth noting. First, Frame makes a comparison between VanDrunen’s 2K and how biblical errantists claim that the Bible only speaks to spiritual matters. (p. 132) Now, to be fair to ET 2K proponents, especially VanDrunen, they do not use the language of “limited inerrantists” or errantists, but the implication of the comparison is that 2Kers may be closer to Barthianism than Reformed theology when it comes to Scripture’s application. Its a critique worth considering. Second, VanDrunen’s biblical-covenantal hermeneutic in support of 2K theory, Frame thinks, reads too much into the biblical text. (p. 140) As Frame noted with Hart, I wonder if our American political context influences VanDrunen’s exegesis. It seems that an important question to ask is what is the chance that a particular relation between two kingdoms taught in God’s Word is finally realized in human history over the last two hundred years? Did God himself presuppose “the secular” before there was a “secular”. (Don’t tell John Milbank. He would be crushed.)
A more balanced view of relating natural and special revelation is summarized by Frame, “God designed us to gain moral knowledge, not by supernatural revelation alone or natural revelation alone, but by an organic combination of the two.” Many have called this a “two books” model of Christian epistemology (p. 132). I think VanDrunen (and ET as a whole) would be better suited to argue, ala Calvin, a distinction between God as Creator and God as Redeemer, and allow Scripture to help decipher the content for each of those categories rather than the simplistic natural law perspective of VanDrunen. This perspective could still preserves religious liberty, separation of church and state, etc. Also, I would commend all readers to read James Anderson’s critique of VanDrunen.
For me, this is the most confusing issue in the debate over ET. I will hear from ET the law-gospel dichotomy hermeneutic, but when I search for any quotes from them that affirm the third use of the law, I find them. In wanting to apply the principle of charity, I should affirm ET theologians and claim that they hold to the third use of the law.
So, is Frame wrong to say that ET is “Lutheran” in its construal of law-gospel? Frame himself “backtracks” (p. 58) and offers an important clarifying point, “Horton here again is arguing for an emphasis, certainly; I cannot believe he intends to absolutely prohibit the use of Scripture to guide us in our ‘secular’ activies. But as he presents his argument, he gives no encouragement at all to Christians who are seeking to apply their faith to the world in which they live.” (p. 52) Perhaps this is the essential problem with ET, a lack of biblical balance. The reactionary nature of theology and philosophy can doom many a persons. I am thankful for the pithy saying I learned in my own seminary studies, “Be as balanced as the Bible is balanced.” I think it is safe to say that Horton is imbalanced in his discussion of law-gospel. Frame offers, in my view, a more balanced view of “gospel” in relation to other emphases that has some overlap with ET writings but , again, provides more balance (p. 297-98). (On p. 312 in a footnote, Frame makes the all important point that there is a difference between emphasis and antithesis.)
First, much of this debate gets back to key disagreements between Cornelius Van Til and Meredith Kline. Frame sets up this dichotomy early in the book. In reading Frame’s review of Kline’s Kingom Prologue, it struck me that Kline’s change in theology came in the 1970s (or at least began to manifest itself more in that decade) – the same time that Christian Reconstructionism/Theonomy was on the rise. Kline’s biblical and covenantal theology, which became foundation to ET, was in contrast to theonomy. I wonder if the root cause of this theological disagreement with ET has to do with the rise of theonomy in American Reformed theology and the attempt to see it defeated in all its forms?
Second, I am sympathetic to Frame’s goal for the book. Early on, Frame writes, “I hope to remove forever the perception that the Escondido theology is a standard of orthodoxy, or more orthodox than other forms of Reformed theology.” (p. 16) Frame isn’t necessarily wanting his reader to primarily come away from reading this book as a Framean on preaching, worship, culture, etc. In a surprise to some, Frame admits that certain positions of ET are “within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy.” (p. 18) In reading Frame on this, I thought back to his article “Penultimate Thoughts on Theonomy” where he is most critical not of theonomy’s propositions, but of theonomy’s posture. Or, rather, Frame is critical of the posture of theonomists. In my reading of Horton, Hart, Clark, and others, I would have to agree with Frame that these theologians haven’t presented their distinctive views in the most winsome manner, and I’m afraid the reputation of WSCal has suffered for it. (Thankfully, Clark removed is often controversial blog, The Heidelblog, though Hart still writes on his Old Life blog, mainly against Frame, The Gospel Coalition, and other overtly evangelical perspectives.) Perhaps, if Tim Keller is right, there is a softening of the Escondido edge and more unity is being forged, at least when it comes to the Christ and culture debate.
Third, Frame’s precisionist mindset and method is a partial cause of his dissonance with Horton, Hart, and Clark. In his critique of Christless Christianity, Frame continually critiques Horton’s lack of precision (p. 26-27). Indeed, the academic theologian Horton is a different writer than popular writer Horton (p. 199), as is the case with most theologians who are blessed with different reading audience demographics. Like Frame, I prefer the academic theologian Horton since that Horton is more precise and nuanced. Horton’s other work, though, is mostly polemical (certainly less irenic), and in the end, Horton’s reactionary theology leaves him wide open for critique. This is why Frame goes after Horton’s critique of Joel Osteen. Disappointingly, many, including Horton and Clark, have claimed that Frame defends Osteen, when in reality Frame offers his own strong critique of Osteen (p. 30, 37). I am upset that many Reformed folk, including scholars, have misread Frame on this issue.
In my own reading of Horton’s popular books, I’ve tried to be charitable and ask if he is defining terms in a manner that is less denotative and more connotative. Two words that come to mind, again, are contextualization/relevance and subjectivity. Its possible that Frame is correct in his strong rebuke of Horton’s handling of these concepts and terms, but I wonder if Horton is reacting to certain functions of these terms and lacks clarity to the reader. Perhaps Frame could have (maybe should have) asked Horton for clarity, but the strained relationship between these men contributes to their lack of conversation. (Though Frame admits in a footnote on p. 245 that Horton may be working with different definitions of these terms. Yet, I still agree with Frame that Horton would be of better service to readers of his popular books to provide a definition of these terms if he is abandoning the more common usage of them.) In the end, Frame rightly notes that ET theologians, like Horton, would be better off to provide examples and analysis of relevance/contextualization so that there would be less confusion as to where Horton and others stand on the issue (p. 296).
Also, Frame takes Clark to task for his lack of clarity and charity (p. 77). I wonder if Clark and others were more charitable and had more clarity if there would be more Christlike conversation between Frame and ET theologians. Then again, part of this lack of unity may be due to Horton and Frame’s disagreement as to how the Reformed community relates to evangelical Christians with Horton’s “Village Green” analogy (p.155).
While I don’t suspect that this book will foster greater unity between the scholars involved in this debate, perhaps the goal of Frame’s book will fulfilled (i.e. younger theologians not viewing ET as the only Reformed option). I myself know young men in seminary who used to agree with ET theologians on these controversial issues, but now they would offer a critique in the same way Frame does (at least on some issues). So, I don’t see WSCal recruiting and influencing young pastors and young men to their “tribe” as well as other sectors in the American Reformed context are doing.