Marco Gonzalez interviewed me on Dec. 2, 2005, for his blog, Reformation Theology, http://www.reformationtheology.com/2005/12/an_interview_with_john_frame_b_1.php#comments. The blog is associated with www.monergism.com. What follows is the interview, with my answers slightly revised. Marco’s Introduction follows.-JF
John Frame (b. 1939) – Is a Reformed Presbyterian, superb theologian and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (formerly at WTS). At RTS he teaches Apologetics & The History of Philosophy and Christian Thought. The content of his works include in-depth explorations of biblical doctrine while remaining easily accessible for the average reader. Many of his students appreciate his charitable spirit and willingness to take a hard look at both sides of the issue. He is known for treating the opposing view fairly before demolishing it. His arguments against libertarianism are particularly effective. Rev. Frame is a musician, media critic and is committed to the work of ministry and training pastors. Important titles include: Apologetics to the Glory of God; No Other God: A Response to Open Theism; The Doctrine of God & The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Frame’s passion is in seeing the Lordship of God in every aspect of Christian life and thought. We appreciate his willingness to be interviewed by us.
1. Many people are unaware of your background, could you please give us a short biography of your life?
I was born (1939) and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA, came to know Christ personally around age 13 or 14 through the ministry of Beverly Heights UP Church and of some Christian friends. The church’s youth and music ministries were equally influential in bringing me to faith. Since then, I have always been involved in the music/worship ministry of the church; that has been a large part of my life. I play piano and organ. I married Mary Grace in 1984. We have five children: Debbie, Doreen, and Skip, who live on the west coast with families of their own, and Justin (19) and Johnny (17) who live with us.
I did my undergrad work at Princeton University (AB in Philosophy), then went to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. At Westminster I studied with the “old faculty:” Van Til, Young, Stonehouse, Woolley, Murray—plus some young guys like Skilton, Sanderson, Kline and Clowney. Then I spent some years at Yale, finishing with an M. Phil. degree. I never finished my dissertation there (my fault, not theirs).
From 1968-1980 I taught at Westminster, then went west as part of a team to found Westminster in California. I stayed there 20 years. Then in 2000 I went to teach at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.
2. When did you first become introduced to reformed theology and what difficulties did you have, if any, accepting the doctrines of grace?
I first became aware of the doctrines of grace from John Gerstner and his disciples, many of whom ministered in Pittsburgh churches including my own. In high school I sometimes took an Arminian position in arguments with friends, but that was mostly an experiment, to see where it would lead. But when I studied the Bible seriously, the Reformed view of things always seemed more cogent. I can’t say that I had any serious difficulties with it, once I had a clear understanding of what was being asserted. But I did have problems with supposed Calvinists who thought that the Reformed faith excluded personal decisions, that the atonement yielded no universal benefits, etc.
3. You were very influential in the founding of Westminister Theological Seminary (CA Campus), Why did you see a need in founding a California Campus and how did you become involved in its development?
Well, there was very little Reformed Christianity on the west coast at the time. There still isn’t much, compared with elsewhere. Those of us who went west had a real missionary vision. We wanted to see planted, not only a seminary, but churches as well. Graduates, students, and staff at the seminary did in fact plant and nurture a number of churches there.
I was happy to be invited to participate. I was single, so I didn’t have to worry about moving a family. Things were going a little sour in Philadelphia as Westminster was dominated by the Shepherd controversy. My church had gotten taken over by a radical “truly Reformed” faction. So it seemed a good time for me to move. I also had the opportunity to teach smaller classes and therefore had time to write. It was in California that my writing projects finally reached publication.
4. After 30 years of teaching and educating, why did you decide to leave Westminister and move to Reformed Theological Seminary?
It would take a lot more hours than I have available to answer this question adequately. To give a bare summary: between me and WTS/C there were personal issues and theological ones. The personal issues were basically sins of my own, which I confessed on a number of occasions and in some cases received forgiveness. Still, some of these relationships were never put right.
The theological issues as I see them: Over the 1990s, the seminary became more and more the tool of a faction, rather than representing the Reformed faith in its fullness. In the view of this faction, my theology was not “truly Reformed.” In my view, their narrowness prevented me from recommending the seminary to prospective students. I could not, of course, teach at a school that I could not honestly recommend, and I could not teach at a school where my Reformed commitment was not respected.
So I sent out resumés and attracted interest from a number of schools. But RTS gave me the warmest welcome I had ever seen. There are seven former students of mine at RTS/Orlando and two more at the other campuses. There is no factionalism here, either on the faculty or in the student body. We are laboring together, supporting one another. Nobody is trying to undermine anyone else. For me, coming to RTS has been a little like dying and going to heaven.
5. One of your works that has touched me the most is your short pamphlet “Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus.” Can you share why you wrote this and what are the marks of “Studying theology as a Servant of Jesus “?
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of grandfatherly advice to share with incoming seminary students. When I came to RTS, they asked me to write something that could be given to students entering their course of study. The basic idea of the pamphlet is to get students thinking of seminary study as part of their spiritual walk with the Lord. Theology itself is a spiritual task, in which we learn to apply the Word of God to ourselves and others. This work is not for everyone, but for those who are mature in the faith (1 Tim. 3). Those who undertake this without a willingness to trust and obey the Lord will be worse off, rather than better, for the Word can harden those who don’t receive it in faith (Isa. 6). Theology also demand rigorous thought, mental discipline.
The pamphlet also contains warnings about the importance of moral standards, interpersonal relations, partisanship (!), and relationships with people in the church. It’s all impossible in our own strength, but God’s grace is sufficient.
6. You have deep convictions concerning presuppositional apologetics, why are presuppositional apologetics the best approach when compared to evidential, classical, ect.
Presuppositional apologetics is simply a matter of putting God first in our apologetics as in the rest of life. For the Christian, God’s Word is the ultimate criterion of truth. This must be true in apologetics as in every other part of life. We cannot relinquish our fundamental criterion simply because the unbeliever refuses to acknowledge it. So there is a sense in which our apologetic argument is circular: we presuppose the truth of Scripture even when trying to prove it. But of course the unbeliever does the same: he presupposes the truth of human reason, or secularity, or materialism, when he seeks to prove these. Nobody can be neutral. Either you accept God’s word as your standard, or you reject it in favor of something else. In either case it is a presupposition.
Nevertheless, it is possible to engage in fruitful dialogue with non-Christians. In their hearts, they know God’s revelation is true, though they suppress it (Rom. 1:18ff). We can point to that knowledge that they have, but suppress, in confidence that the Holy Spirit can use that to bring them to faith. We can show that their presuppositions cannot account for meaning and truth.
This is not to say that everything in evidential or classical apologetics is wrong. Much of the apologetic tradition does just what it should do: it brings God’s revelation before the unbeliever. What presuppositional apologetics emphasizes is that in doing so we should not claim neutrality, but should reason as servants of Jesus.
7. Can you share with us a bit about your relationship toward Vern Poythress, who was in fact one of your students.
Vern was my student in the early 1970s. He came to Westminster having already earned a Ph. D. in mathematics from Harvard, and having had also advanced training in linguistics under Kenneth Pike. We designed an “honors program,” largely with him in mind, giving the student freedom to attend classes (or not) as he wished and testing him by exams and papers in various fields. Vern was very brilliant; soon he was teaching me as much as I taught him. He was also a godly man, seeking above all to honor Jesus in his work.
As it turned out, our minds seemed to mesh. I would think of something that seemed new to me and then discover that he had already thought up the same thing. In 1987, my first book, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God was published. In the same year, Vern’s Symphonic Theology was released. Although we had been on different campuses for seven years, the two books made many of the same points. So over the years we have tended to reinforce one another’s ideas. Now we are sharing a web site, http://www.frame-poythress.org/, that seeks to publish all of our writings.
8. What works can we expect from you in the future?
I have completed Doctrine of the Christian Life, the third volume of my Theology of Lordship series. I expect that book to be published in two volumes by P&R. At least the first volume should be available in 2006. Also in 2006 P&R is planning to publish my Salvation Belongs to the Lord, a mini-systematic theology. Now I’m working on Doctrine of the Word of God, the last volume planned for the Lordship series. That will take a lot of time to research and write. Don’t expect it before maybe three or four years.
9. What are the essentials and nonessentials of Christian Doctrine?
The question is … a little ambiguous, so I’ll give you three answers:
If it means “what doctrines must one believe to be saved?” the answer is, None. I hold the Reformed view that children in infancy, even before birth, can be regenerated and saved, presumably before they have any conscious doctrinal beliefs. Of course, regenerate people, as they mature, naturally respond positively to the truths of the Scriptures, because of the Spirit’s work in them. Refusal to embrace these doctrines is evidence that the person is not regenerate.
If it means “what doctrines are essential to a Christian profession?” or “what beliefs should be required of adults who wish to join a church?” I would keep it fairly simple. To join a church, a person should be able to make a credible profession of Christ: “I am a sinner; Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross as a sacrifice to absolve me of sin. I hope only in his grace, not in my own works.” And there should be no evident contradiction between his profession and his life.
If it means, “what doctrines must be held by official teachers of the church?” the question is more complicated. I think a teacher of the church should be able to instruct others in sound doctrine and to refute heresy. To do this, he must be abreast of the church’s growing understanding of the Scriptures. So in 200 AD, I think it would not have been right to expect teachers to hold a doctrine of justification like Luther’s, but in 1600 I think that should have been a requirement. Today, I think that teachers in the church should affirm the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedon Declaration, the “doctrines of grace,” the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works, the five “solas,” and biblical inerrancy. They should also be free from heresies like liberalism, universalism, extreme feminism, open theism, etc. Of course, doctrinal orthodoxy is only one of the biblical requirements for church leaders. They must also lead exemplary lives.
10. What is the largest theological issuing facing evangelicalism? What dangers should we be aware of and what is worth fighting for?
The largest theological issue is probably our doctrine of Scripture. We should beware of dangers stemming from feminist and homosexual desires to revise biblical norms. We should insist that all of human thought as well as human life is under the authority of Scripture as God’s word.
11. You have some of the finest arguments against Libertarian free will theism, could you please share with us the strongest argument against free will?
Well, the strongest argument is simply that God controls all things (Eph. 1:11) according to Scripture, and that “all things” includes the decisions of the human will. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he made Israel’s enemies to hate her, etc. I’ve discussed many such passages in Chapter 4 of my Doctrine of God.
12. What advice would you give to those who are new to the Reformed Faith, especially those who have just accepted the doctrines of grace?
Accepting the doctrines of grace can be an exciting experience. We typically want to share our new insights with others, and that is good. But we need to do that in the right way: not a way that devalues the integrity and thoughtfulness our opponents, not in a way that splits churches. Further, there is much more to Scripture, even to Calvinism, than the “five points.” It’s important to get a full-orbed view of biblical teaching, which, I think, begins with God’s covenant lordship.
13. What differences do you see in the presentation of the gospel with monergists and synergists?
Both typically present salvation by grace alone,1 and both call upon people to make decisions for Christ. (By the way, there is nothing in Reformed theology that deprecates the importance of human decisions.) But synergists sometimes compromise salvation by grace by saying that human decision is free in the libertarian sense, not controlled by God. If that is true, then as Vern Poythress has said, my decision for Christ is the one part of salvation for which I don’t need to give thanks to the Lord.
14. What role does the Holy Spirit take in conversion?
The Spirit regenerates us, producing faith. Without the Spirit a man cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3).
Rev. Frame. Thank you for your time and for sharing these valauble insights. To read more of Rev. Frame’s essays, take the time to explore his writings at http://www.frame-poythress.org/
1 One respondent to this interview objected to this formulation, saying synergists don’t believe in salvation by grace alone. I did not quite say they believed it, only that they presented themselves as believing it. Anyone familiar with the works of Wesley understands that he presented himself as a preacher of free grace. Did Wesley actually believe this? I would say that he did, but his inconsistencies naturally raise questions here. But I don’t think the issue is as simple as my respondent presented it.