A Young Preacher’s Thoughts on John Frame’s “Escondido Theology”

20 thoughts on “A Young Preacher’s Thoughts on John Frame’s “Escondido Theology””

  1. Thanks. I was wondering about this and knew there was some strong push back from Westminster West.
    I admit to being very frustrated when I read Escondido guys like Clark, Stedman and Horton’s more polemical works (he can be quite good when he’s not being critical). They focus on the kingdom of God and don’t really address how to live in the kingdom of God.
    Just Sunday we were talking about this at church and the push back to theonomy was raised. I also agree they pick the wrong things to be “confessional” about- often majoring in the minors while playing willy nilly with things actually in the WCF (this was particularly true of Clark’s book). They seem like a Reformed-Lutheran hybrid. Perhaps because they serve in more Continental Reformed groups than Puritan/Presbyterian branches of the Reformed Heritage (Hart & Stedman excepted).
    I guess Frame’s own humanity (fallen) is revealed as he allows the personal history to perhaps color things. I know things there ended in an ugly fashion. Gossip is like a tasty morsel, but I need not know the details of it.
    Hope you’re weathering all the changes well.

    1. Thanks for your insights Steve. I hope that better, more unifying, days are ahead for the Reformed community, and the evangelical church.

      Our changes for our family are going well. We are moving to Rock Hill, SC this Saturday and will begin our ministry officially on April 1, assuming everything goes well at presbytery on March 13.

  2. Great review Daniel. I have not read Frame’s book, but I have read a bit of Horton on the two kingdom issue. I do wish that, given Frame’s history with Westminster West, that someone else could have written this book. This is an important debate. Horton can be quite polemic and therefore he tends to draw his lines in the two kingdom debate a bit narrowly. How does he see these issues working out in the church? I like DeYoung’s What is the Mission of the Church better. He seems to take a two kingdom view, but is willing to be a bit more flexible in his working out of the issues in a real church with real people living in a real culture. I agree with your observation that Horton is probably fighting against some abuses that he sees in Reformed circles where the church can do almost anything and call it Kingdom work. And, he also understands that this can lead the church away from its primary goal of Gospel proclamation in Word ministry. There is a great video somewhere of Horton and Keller conversing on this.
    Blessings to you…

  3. “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.”

    I really do hope that you’re right, Daniel Wells!

    Congratulations on your first baby!!

  4. Good review. Fair, thorough, clearly willing to take stances on different sides of different issues without towing some kind of party line. I appreciate your approach, even though we disagree on some matters.

    As I am a WSC alum – and one at that who feels greatly blessed by his time studying with the *entire* faculty (yes, even Horton, Clark and VanDrunen!) – hopefully my compliment will speak to the care and thoughtfulness of your review.

    Thank you posting this!

    1. Andrew, thank you for your kind words. Also glad to hear you had a positive experience at WSC. My first seminary class ever was with Horton (he taught “Ministry in a Postmodern Context” at RTS Charlotte in summer 2008). Great experience. Also pretty cool to have pizza lunch with a well-known scholar.

      1. Daniel,

        Why isn’t this a defense of some of Osteen’s health & wealth theology?

        “I think the word “entirely” overstates Osteen’s position, but certainly he does believe that our attitudes, actions, and obedience are necessary to receive the full blessings of God’s grace. Here I think Osteen is quite right, though Horton associates his position with Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Scripture often teaches that obedience is the road to the fullness of God’s blessing, indeed that obedience is the mark of a living faith. See Matt. 5:1-12, 43-45, 6:2-6, Gal. 5:6, James 2:14-26. Paul presents the proper balance:
        …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12b-13).”

      2. Dr. Clark,

        It is true that Frame defends an aspect of Osteen’s practice over and against what he perceives to be an overreaction from Horton. But if you look on pages 30 and 37 of Frame’s book, you see that he is also critical of Osteen. My point is that we shouldn’t present Frame as “defending Osteen’s theology” as if Frame buys into the whole product. Frame seems to be merely doing the work of a systematician and logician in being more nuanced in his critique. Certainly, Horton comes at it from a more polemical angle. Perhaps unlike Frame, I have nothing against this approach, but I think it explains where Frame and Horton are missing each other.

        Indeed, theological dialogue demands charity in our interpretation of another’s work. I must take Frame at his word when he offers a significant critique of Osteen, even while he also claims that not every ‘jot and tittle’ from Osteen is bad.


      3. Daniel,

        With all due respect (and I mean that) it is quite telling that John chooses to defend Osteen on this point. This is at the heart of Osteen’s health and wealth theology.

        Is it true that our “attitudes, actions, and obedience are necessary to receive the full blessings of God’s grace”? Really? Under what covenant? By God’s free, unconditional favor (grace) I am in a covenant of grace (as defined). My reception of God’s “full blessings” is not contingent on my “attitudes, actions, and obedience.” Were it so, grace would no longer be grace! (Rom 11:6 “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”).

        So, not only does John concur with Osteen’s confusion of works and grace (which, doubtless, connects to John’s ardent defense of Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification through grace and faithfulness, a doctrine that most of the confessional Reformed denominations, including John’s own, have judged to be contrary to God’s Word) but it is the very crassest form of the prosperity gospel.

        I’m not a bigot. I’m willing to admit if Osteen gets something right but he hasn’t done it yet.

        Isn’t this a case of John being so opposed to Horton (and other Reformed confessionalists) that he’s blind to Osteen’s gross errors in his attempt to find a place from which to criticize Horton, whom he knows a priori to be wrong.

        Why is it that John is more hostile to and sharper in his criticisms of folk, however frail they may be, who are trying to be faithful to God’s Word as confessed by the Reformed churches and so accommodating to the worst manifestations of evangelical excess like Osteen?

        Why does multi-perspectivalism seem only to work in favor of the Osteen’s of the world (and the theonomists and the federal visionists et al) and not the confessionalists? Doesn’t that tell us something both about the nature of the method and its chief practitioner?

      4. Dr. Clark,

        I’ll respond to the first half of your comment as the second half seems to border on some of the personal issues between Frame and WSCal, and I don’t want to get involved in that discussion. My personal opinion is that some sort of mediated session needs to take place for confession of sin, repentance, and reconciliation.

        Regarding whether our “attitudes, actions, and obedience are necessary to receive the full blessings of God’s grace”, I think it depends on how we define ‘full blessings of God’s grace.’ In context, Frame seems to be less concerned with justification or glorification, but more concerned with sanctification (though with regard to glorification, Frame could cite WCF 13.1). And, he could cite WCF 13.3; 16.2-3, 6; 18:3-4 as evidence of believers growing in grace, in part, through obedience wrought by the Spirit. WCF 18 on assurance especially notes discipline/punishment for those who go astray for a time as well as coming into the grace of assurance at a point in their Christian walk.

        Also, if you want to bring in WSCal’s particular stance on covenant, law/gospel, that is fine. Just know that many Reformed scholars and pastors who might disagree with Frame’s views on worship, evangelicalism, etc. would side with him on covenant and law/gospel. I’m not making a ruling on the issues myself, but it needs to be pointed out that those issues aren’t intrinsically tied to Frame’s view of Horton and Osteen, as if one will favor Osteen if they differ with WSCal profs on law/gospel and covenant.


      5. Daniel,

        I didn’t intend to be personal. I appreciated John as a prof and continue to appreciate aspects of his work but I do think we have to face squarely that he has publicly supported movements that are at odds with confessional Reformed theology and practice. Observing those facts is not personal. I’m asking: what makes it possible for him to do so and to be so critical of Reformed confessionalism? Has he been as charitable toward confessionalism as he has been toward the FV? Is that a fair question?

        At least part of “full blessings” entails health and wealth. Again, the question is how John can support that. John taught us in our Christian Life (ethics) course that there is a relation between our obedience and material blessings. John knows his own mind and he genuinely agrees with Osteen on this.

        What WSC “particular stance”? The Westminster Standards are not a peculiar property of Westminster Seminary California are they? The covenants of redemption (pactum salutis), works, and grace are the common property of all Reformed folk for centuries.

        I’m saying that, by making the “full blessings” John and Osteen have placed believers under a covenant of works. Now, to be sure, I think that civil life, including employment is a sort of covenant of works (2 Thess 3:10) but we don’t confess, do we, that God blesses us proportionally to our obedience? Were that so wouldn’t we all starve?

      6. Dr. Clark,

        While you know Frame better than I do, in my reading of his works I have seen him be critical of theonomy, Federal Vision, Norman Shepherd, etc. If you and others want to complain that he isn’t as critical of them as he is of ‘confessionalists’ as you define them, that isn’t my issue or the concern of my review. I’m sure Frame’s debate with certain professors of WSCal plays into that, which is unfortunate in some measure, though understandable in a way.

        I have never picked up in Frame’s work that his view of “full blessings” does ‘entail’ health and wealth as Osteen and others would present it. For the third time, I would point you to pages 30 and 37 of Escondido Theology and see Frame’s critique of Osteen. Again, it is important to read other theologians in context and be charitable in interpretation.

        How does Frame conclude that just because a believer can obey God with their heart, mind, soul and strength that they may grow in grace and in God’s blessing (which may or may not include temporal blessings, such is up to God’s providence), he is placing them under the covenant of works? Again, go back to my previous comment where the WCF speaks of believers being blessed and punished by God according to their obedience. The issue is once of sanctification in those sections of the confession.

        Part of the confusion and disagreement may be due to different views of the covenant of works being recapitulated in the Mosaic covenant, which is a debated issue in Reformed circles today.


      7. Daniel,

        1) I’m not sure that the doctrine of republication is entirely relevant. Even so it’s not an WSC peculiarity. Versions of it were taught widely in both the 16 and 17th centuries and thereafter (e.g., Boston). The idea that the Mosaic, old covenant was a legal covenant, if only to illustrate the first use of the law, was virtually universally taught. The fact that it’s considered idiosyncratic today says more about our relative ignorance of the Reformed tradition than it does about the doctrine itself. One finds the same situation relative to the Pactum Salutis. Just because some modern Reformed writers (e.g., Berkouwer) expressed disdain doesn’t mean that it’s not a historic Reformed view.

        2) I wonder if you appreciate how strongly John has defended Norm Shepherd’s right to revise the doctrine of justification. John was on Norm’s side during the original controversy and has published repeatedly in defense of the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrine. A few years back he described, in print, as “stupid” those who dare say that the Shepherd/FV is a denial of the gospel. That makes the URCs, the OPC report, the PCA GA et al “stupid.”

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Perhaps Dr. Frame is defending evangelicals against the dogmatic assertions of the Christian “elite” who profess to have the purist version of the truth and make everyone who disagrees with them 2nd class citizens of the kingdom on the Village Green?

    1. Ron,

      Do you want to let Osteen on the green? Is he an “evangelical”? I’m not an elitist, I’m a confessionalist. I’m a member of and a minister in the Reformed churches who confess a certain understanding of God’s Word. John is also one of those but he doesn’t seem to feel bound by those confessions in the same way I do. He’s tolerant of what the Reformed churches have judged as error on justification and on the 2nd commandment, to name just two.

      Why is democratic v elitist the right category for this discussion? Why not right and wrong or confessional and unconfessional?

      1. Dr. Clark,

        A confessionalist’s “certain understanding of God’s Word” should not be confused with God’s Word itself. This is the heart of the matter. Those who hold to the essentials of the faith, but have an insufficient understanding of lesser matters are not 2nd class citizens of the kingdom. He whom Christ has received I will not reject, and He doesn’t only receive those who hold to the WCF. Only loving, respecting, recognizing, and serving those who do is elitist. None of us have it perfectly right, and what does each one of us have (confession of faith included) that we did not receive?

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