by John Frame
[Inaugural lecture on assuming the J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.]
The Bible often divides people into two classes, antithetically related. There are the sons of Cain and of Seth (Gen. 4-6), Israel and the nations (Ex. 19:5-6), the righteous and the wicked (Ps. 1), the wise and the foolish (Prov. 1:7), the saved and the lost (Matt. 18:11), the children of Abraham and those of the devil (John 8:39-44), the elect and the nonelect (Rom. 9), believers and unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:6), practitioners of the wisdom of the world and of the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1-2), those who walk in light and those who walk in darkness (1 John 1:5-10), the church and the world (1 John 2:15-17).
These antitheses aren’t all equivalent. That is to say that they are not simply alternate names for the same two groups. The distinction between elect and nonelect, for example, is not the same as the distinction between believer and unbeliever. There are elect people among the current group of unbelievers, and that fact motivates missions and evangelism. So in Acts 18:10, the Lord assured Paul that “I have many in this city who are my people,” many elect who had not yet embraced the gospel.
Similarly under the Old Covenant, there were Gentiles like Melchizedek, Rahab and Ruth, who entered the people of God; and, as Paul says in Rom. 9:6, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Some Gentiles, then, belong to God’s people, and some Jews, in their hearts, do not. So the distinction between elect and nonelect is different from the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between Israel and the Nations.
Further, the antithesis between wise and foolish, for example, is a division within the body of professing believers. Nevertheless, wisdom and not foolishness is the mentality proper to believers in the Lord. Foolishness really belongs outside God’s people. In a believer, foolishness contradicts his belief in God. In the consummation glory, all believers will be wise, not foolish. The antithesis of belief/unbelief and elect/nonelect, is also a distinction destined for dissolution. In the end, all elect will be believers, just as, even now, all nonelect are unbelievers.
In that way, given these nuances and qualifications, the antitheses actually coalesce. There is a great big ugly ditch, to abuse the metaphor of Lessing, that runs through the human community. Some are on one side, some on the other. Although the location of that ditch is not always plain today, God will make it plain in his final judgment. Eventually the inconsistencies of believers and of unbelievers will be erased, everyone will show their true colors, and the antithesis will be fully manifest.
Now Christians have often used these antitheses in the interest of theological polemics. Let me quote from one: “Whoever wills to be in a state of salvation, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith, which except everyone shall have kept whole and undefiled without doubt he will perish eternally.” So begins the so-called1 Athanasian Creed, which continues by summarizing Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, and then concludes, “This is the catholic faith, which except a man shall have believed faithfully and firmly he cannot be in a state of salvation.” You see, what this creed does is to align the antithesis of saved and lost with the antithesis of orthodox and unorthodox. You can’t be saved unless you profess orthodox doctrine.
That alignment, of course, doesn’t take account of people who are too young, for example, to intelligently profess these doctrines, or of those who do not have sufficient mental capacity or education. I don’t know the extent to which the writers or the original readers of the Creed understood these qualifications, but of course they must be made.
Nevertheless, it is not wrong to define Christian belief in terms of a definite content. That content certainly includes the full deity and humanity of Christ, as the Creed says. Although, I think, one can be devoted to Christ without intelligently confessing the formulae of the creed, surely the church should not recognize as a Christian anyone who understands these doctrines and denies them. Denial of them is the spirit of antichrist, as John puts it in 1 John 4:3. Or, as Paul puts it in Gal. 1:6-9, if anyone preaches a different gospel, contrary to that of the apostles, he is under a divine curse.
We find the same antithetical language in the polemics of the Protestant Reformation, which identifies the Pope as Antichrist and his doctrine as devilish. And often in the following centuries, with varying degrees of justification, theologians have invoked the biblical antitheses against rival theologies.
The most significant, and to my mind most justifiable, recent use of these antitheses has been in the controversy between liberalism and orthodoxy. Liberalism is a movement that developed in the seventeenth century, came to flourish in the so-called enlightenment of the eighteenth century, dominated the academic theological world in the nineteenth century and came to rule many major denominations of the church in the twentieth. Liberalism’s distinctive position is that the Bible is not the inspired word of God, but a group of human reflections about God. That view of the Bible led many to contradict the teachings of the Bible, such as prophecy, miracle, the deity of Christ, his blood atonement, his physical Resurrection and his second coming.
Many who disagreed with the liberals nevertheless regarded them as a legitimate faction within the church, just as US political parties, even when they strongly disagree, recognize the right of their opponents to participate in the political process. In this model, opponents see one another as holding different positions on the “spectrum of opinion.” Many in the church today continue to hold such a view of liberalism. But in 1924, in his great bookChristianity and Liberalism2 J. Gresham Machen evaluated the situation very differently:
In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.”3
In Machen’s view, liberalism was not a faction or party within Christianity, a position along the Christian “spectrum.” It was a different religion entirely.4 In his book, Machen shows that the two religions hold exact opposite positions on everything of importance: doctrine, God, man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church. Machen’s approach is antithetic. Liberalism is by its very nature non-Christian, unbelieving. We may extrapolate that on this view liberalism is also foolish, not wise, wicked, not righteous, in darkness, not light, worldly, not churchly.
Machen’s antithetic evaluation of liberalism led him eventually to leave Princeton Seminary and later the Presbyterian Church, USA, to found new institutions that would maintain the biblical gospel against unbelief. Others followed his example. Significantly, this year we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Reformed Theological Seminary, which was also formed by men deeply convinced that existing seminaries in the Southern Presbyterian Church compromised the gospel itself by liberal teaching.
Antithesis was also a major element in the thought of Machen’s disciple Cornelius Van Til. Occasionally he made joking reference to it, as when he announced on the first day of class that the human race consisted of two distinct groups, Dutchmen and non-Dutchmen. But most of the time, he was deadly serious. As Machen had written Christianity and Liberalism, so Van Til wrote Christianity and Barthianism.5 As Machen regarded liberalism as a different religion entirely from Christianity, so Van Til had the same view of the theology of Barth, Brunner, Hordern, Hendry, Dowey, and others in the so-called neo-orthodox camp.
Van Til’s apologetics also traded heavily on the concept of an antithesis between believer and unbeliever. I have criticized him for overstating the antithesis, as when he says that “the unbeliever can know nothing truly,”6 and for other unclarities in his particular formulation. I have also objected to the fact that he sometimes used antithesis language to refer, not only to believer and unbeliever, but also to Reformed and non-Reformed, and even to Van Tillian and non-Vantillian apologists within the Reformed community. But his basic insight wears well: that the difference between faith and unbelief is relevant to human thinking and reasoning, not only to some narrowly defined “religious” dimension of life. Religious antithesis generates epistemological antithesis. Christians think differently from non-Christians; and when they don’t, they should.
In describing the difference between Christian and non-Christian thinking, Van Til argued that the two groups of people held different presuppositions. A presupposition, for Van Til, was the most fundamental commitment of the heart, a commitment that governed human life. Some people are committed to Jesus Christ and seek to “bring every thought captive” to him (2 Cor. 10:5). The rest are committed to something else, either another religion, a philosophy, a political movement, or their own reason. There is no neutrality. As Bob Dylan said, “you gotta serve somebody.” Our presuppositional commitments govern all of our life decisions, indeed all of our thinking. And in the end there are only two presuppositions: the supremacy of God, or the supremacy of something in creation which Scripture calls idolatry.
To be committed to Jesus Christ is to honor his word, above all other words. Van Til, together with all orthodox believers, held that the word of Christ, the word of God, is to be found in the Holy Scriptures, indeed that the Bible is the word of God. So a short way of setting forth the content of the believer’s presupposition is to say that it is the content of the Bible. Of course, believers vary in the degree to which they know and understand Scripture, and therefore in the degree to which they can apply that presupposition. But they seek a greater and greater understanding, so that more and more aspects of their lives can be subject to God’s word.
Van Til therefore maintained that a strong doctrine of Scripture, such as the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, is an indispensable element of Christian theology. To deny the ultimate authority of God’s written word is to adopt a different authority, one which must in the nature of the case be allied with Satan.
For several years during the 1950s and ‘60s as I recall, Van Til’s Old Testament colleague, Edward J. Young, reviewed books for Christianity Today, often publishing a yearly roundup of writings in the Old Testament field. Although Young reviewed books by liberal and orthodox writers equally, he made a very sharp distinction between them. When there was a book that was hard to classify in these categories, he took careful note of the book’s orthodox elements and of its liberal elements. Like Van Til, Young saw biblical scholarship in an antithetical pattern. Old Testament scholars either honored the Bible as God’s word, or they didn’t, or they wavered unstably between two positions. And for Young, the most important element of a review was to identify where the author stood in terms of these two positions.
Today, Young’s reviews look very old-fashioned, though one cannot deny his expertise and analytical perception. In the years since the 1960s, it has become more and more difficult to classify works of scholarship in the antithetical pattern of Machen, Van Til, and Young. “Liberal” writings and “orthodox” writings are getting harder and harder to tell apart, and many evidently think that it’s something of a waste of time even to make this distinction. Those who come from the liberal traditions of the academic mainstream have (with exceptions, such as the so-called Jesus Seminar) tended to come to more and more conservative conclusions concerning the dates, authorship, and historical accuracy of biblical texts. Those who come from the evangelical traditions, on the other hand, have come more and more to obtain doctorates from institutions of the academic mainstream. They have therefore gotten into the habit of carrying out their scholarship using the methods, and sometimes the assumptions, of that mainstream. So as the two parties have come closer and closer together, there has come about a unity among biblical scholars unprecendented since the 1700s. This is a most remarkable event, that has taken place in our time.
As an example, consider the book The Last Word by N. T. Wright,7 which I recently reviewed in the Penpoint newsletter.8 The subtitle of the book promises that this book will lead us “beyond the Bible wars to a new understanding of the authority of Scripture.” I should mention that the title and subtitle are found in the American edition only, not the original British edition. Evidently the author or publisher wanted to address battles over biblical inerrancy, which European Christians tend to regard as typically American. In fact, however, the book does not address those issues at all. Rather, Wright provides his readers with a context for biblical authority in which, he thinks, questions about biblical inerrancy and the like do not arise.
Wright is considered conservative in his evaluation of biblical history. He displays no bias against the idea of the miraculous, and elsewhere he has staunchly defended belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. He regards the hyper-liberal scholarship of the Jesus Seminar with ill-disguised contempt. But he does not follow the old American Evangelical pattern of declaring Scripture to be inerrant, or of painting a picture of antithesis between belief and unbelief in Scripture. Rather, he gives the impression that those questions don’t even arise if we understand Scripture in its proper context.
That context is that of God’s own authority. Wright tells us,
“that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’” (23)
What is the force of that “through?” How does God exercise his authority through Scripture? God’s authority, he says,“is his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation.” (29) Scripture is an instrument of that authority. Specifically, Scripture is the story, the narrative, of that sovereign power. So we should not read Scripture as a “list of rules” or a “compendium of true doctrines,” though both doctrines and rules can be found in the text (25-26). Although he does not quite say so, I think that the narrative character of Scripture is what, to his mind, should keep us from raising the kinds of questions distinctive of the Bible wars. He seems to think that as long as we regard Scripture as story or narrative, we don’t need to worry about the infallibility of its doctrinal or ethical teaching, much less the inerrancy of its statements on other subjects.
Wright is, of course, not the first scholar to opt for narrative as the basic form of divine revelation in Scripture. The literature advocating “narrative theology” and “story theology” is enormous, and the discussion of it has been going on for several decades.
And we should trace this development back much earlier than the birth of narrative theology in the 1980s. The Ritschlian quest for the historical Jesus sought to turn theology away from a focus on Scripture as an inspired text to a neutral investigation of the history of the origins of Christianity, from which it was thought that value judgments would arise that would guide our theological reflection.
The post-Bultmannian “new quest of the historical Jesus,” of Ernst Käsemann, Ernst Fuchs, Gerhard Ebeling, and others, tried to trace the roots of Bultmann’s existentialist gospel, somehow, to Jesus, and the so-called “third quest” of the 1990s disavowed theological agendas and tried to place Jesus in his Jewish environment. The name of N. T. Wright has been associated with this movement, as well as the movement of narrative theology.
To go back to the early and middle twentieth century, we should note Karl Barth, who also identified revelation with history of a sort. Barth and his associates despised the Ritschlian program and emphasized that God speaks to us from above, not through our autonomous historical research. But Barth, like Ritschl, denied that revelation was to be identified with the text of Scripture. Rather, in the Barthian circle as in Ritschl’s, revelation was event, a kind of history, (a Geschichte). I will not try to unpack Barth’s difficult concept here, but to summarize it seems to me that for Barth revelation is the event in which God opens his mouth to speak—as he once puts it, Dei loquentis persona. What God actually says when he opens his mouth cannot be translated into human words or sentences; these are only pointers to the event of his utterance, a word of power by which he overturns our self-righteousness. Barth did also defend the literal historicity (historisch) of some supernatural events, such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, but the relation of these events to our actual salvation was highly obscure. When Barth said that God accomplished our salvation by historical events, he seems to have meant, not events that happened in time and space, but events within God’s own inner life.
The “acts of God” theology of the mid-twentieth century, advocated by G. Ernest Wright and others, also located revelation in history. In Wright’s view, the events in question may have been unremarkable in themselves, but they became revelation when interpreted by faith. Wolfhart Pannenberg and his circle criticized this kind of subjectivism and opted to build faith on the objective foundation of rational historical inquiry, carrying us back, in some respects, to the Ritschlian project.
So we should see narrative theology as one of many attempts to locate God’s revelation in historical events. This project is not without a biblical basis. Scripture has much to say about God’s mighty acts, his signs and wonders, the events of history by which our salvation comes. These events are revelatory. God says of the events of the Exodus that through them “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Ex. 7:5; cf. verse 17). Similar expressions are found often in Scripture.
But it would be wrong to think that God in Scripture reveals himself only in events and actions, and not also by words and sentences. James Barr in his 1966 book Old and New in Interpretation9 took his fellow-liberals to task for this assumption. As modern men we can, he said, deny the idea of God speaking to people in authoritative propositions, but we cannot deny that the biblical writers affirmed such a concept. And surely we must be blind indeed not to note that verbal communication of God to human beings is a pervasive biblical theme, from the Garden of Eden to the consummation of redemption. Indeed, that verbal revelation often takes written form, as when God writes the ten commandments with his own finger (Ex. 31:18).
If we are to deny that this can take place, it can only be because of a general skepticism about the supernatural, which is in the end a skepticism about the reality of God. If we allow the possibility, but deny the actuality of such revelation, it can only be because of a general skepticism about the claims of the Bible itself. Neither skepticism is worthy of people who profess to be Christians.
Why, then, has such skepticism come to dominate the supposedly Christian discipline of theology? Certainly no church council has authorized it. Certainly there is no argument for it from Scripture or the main body of church tradition. The only explanation that makes any sense is that theologians are no longer willing to think according to biblical and Christian presuppositions. They want, like their colleagues in other fields, to think autonomously or neutrally.
N. T. Wright is not, in my view, a neutralist. He defends biblical supernaturalism, and very effectively. But in his book The Last Word he says nothing about the Bible as a verbal revelation of God. He says that the Bible is a narrative of God’s saving power. He also says at one point (37) that God’s providence gathered together the books that belong to our canon. But there are other books that narrate the coming of God’s kingdom, some written by Wright himself. And God’s providence has placed some of them in my library. Does that make them Scripture? Surely not. To be Scripture, a book must be more than a narrative, and more than a providential collection of books. It must be authored by God, written by God’s finger, God-breathed. Of that, Wright tells us nothing, and apparently he hopes the question won’t arise, lest we get back into the Bible wars.
I have no nostalgia for the fundamentalist-modernist controversy; indeed, I would prefer that there be as little controversy in the church as possible. But the question of a divinely authored text will not go away. And it remains a major point of issue between orthodox Christians and the mainstream of biblical and theological scholarship today.
Wright’s book, I think, is symptomatic of many titles in theology and biblical studies that seek to avoid, disguise, or suppress the antithesis between Christianity and liberalism. We can be thankful to God for what Wright and others have taught us. In other forums, I would gladly commend Wright’s picture of Scripture as a tool of God’s advancing kingdom. Those who seek, for example, to avoid the political implications of the gospel need to deal seriously with Wright’s model. That model is a necessary one for our understanding of the place of Scripture. But it is not sufficient. Scripture is a narrative of God’s kingdom, but it is not merely that. It is God’s own account of that kingdom, and it is that kingdom’s written constitution.
It is, therefore, not only narrative. It is also doctrine, the teachings by which God governs his church. The narrative involves the doctrine, and the doctrine involves the narrative. The narrative shows us how God redeems all aspects of human life and rules us through his word, spoken by prophets and apostles, incarnate in Jesus, written in the Bible. The doctrine tells us that we are saved by God through his mighty acts in Christ. Scripture is both situational, telling us about events of history, and normative, ruling our beliefs and our lives.
The situational and normative sides of Scripture are perspectives—ways of looking at Scripture that necessitate and imply one another. Neither can be itself, without the other. Those familiar with my writings will expect a third perspective, and I shall not disappoint them: Scripture is also existential– a message from God to the human heart.
When Wright expresses reservations about using Scripture as a “court of appeal,” he is questioning the normative perspective. When he criticizes its use as a “lectio divina” (both on 64-65) he is questioning the existential perspective. His lack of balance is therefore due in part to monoperspectival thinking.
In any case, the attempt in Wright and many others to isolate the situational perspective and to negate the others is biblically indefensible, and it obscures a crucial antithesis.
There are lessons here also for Reformed people, especially for those who are self-consciously orthodox in their thinking. We have our own reasons for putting much emphasis on the situational perspective, for we of all people want to insist that God saves his people through historical events, most particularly through the incarnation, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ. As with all historical events, these must be seen in the context of other historical events, especially, in this case, the history of God’s covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, through the history of Israel. Hence the emphasis in our circles upon redemptive history.10 We should remember, however, that the best advocates of a redemptive-historical method, such as Vos, Gaffin, Clowney, and Kline (and to an extent Herman Ridderbos) also insist on the normative dimension: we learn of this history through a divinely authored Bible.
For the same reasons, there are dangers in drawing too close a relation between theology and history, as, I believe, in Richard Muller’s The Study of Theology.11 I have also drawn attention to the dangers in approaches to theology that emphasize church history over biblical exegesis.12 Over the last thirty years it has been common for evangelical and Reformed theologians to earn Ph. D.’s in church history or historical theology, for in these disciplines there appear to be fewer conflicts between evangelical convictions and the liberal academic mainstream. This is understandable, and it may be necessary. But in this atmosphere it is all too easy for young theologians to forget the indispensable normativity of theology. Theology is the discipline of going to the Scriptures and reporting its teaching as a norm, saying “Thus says the Lord.” One cannot say this in a secular university graduate program without being laughed at. That kind of theology won’t earn you a doctorate. But after the doctorate, it is important for the young theologian to recover his roots and return to the normative exposition of Scripture as the infallible word of God.
In the past I have often urged Reformed theologians to put more emphasis on the existential perspective—to avoid pseudo-intellectualism and to put a genuinely biblical emphasis on human feelings, the subjective side of knowing God. I still think that too is an important need in our circles. But in this paper I am urging that we accentuate the normative. Historically, Reformed theology has had a good record on this score; perhaps it has even been guilty of an overemphasis at times. Some may even think that in this paper I am bringing coals to Newcastle. But today the pendulum has shifted to the point where I sense the need to warn us again to see the vast difference between those who understand Scripture as the word of God and those who do not.
I don’t want to go back to the days where we spent inordinate amounts of time debating the historicity of every little thing in the Bible. Theology should be focused where the Bible is, on the gospel of Christ. Nor do I want to simply reject scholarship written from a liberal point of view. That scholarship has much to teach us, as even Cornelius Van Til and Edward J. Young knew well. But it is important to draw a line here, and where the line is fuzzy to describe how and why. In assessing a liberal theologian, there should be a point where we say, not merely that this or that detail is false, or that this theme is over-emphasized or under-emphasized, but that the overall theological method is wrongheaded. We should be gentler, more gracious, and more nuanced in making these judgments than were some of the old fundamentalists. But those judgments must be made. In the end, the doctrine of Scripture creates an antithesis, and we mislead our readers to the extent that we fail to acknowledge it.
And in our own theological work, we should make clear that the Bible is our sole ultimate authority. That is, we should not give the impression that we are merely triangulating, positioning ourselves between Barth over here, Pannenberg over there, perhaps Vos or Ridderbos in some other direction. The theologian, like the preacher, must be willing to say “thus says the Lord.” May he give us the perception and the courage to do that, whatever the cost.
2 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923.
3 Ibid., 2.
4 Many followed Machen in this analysis, though it never became a majority view. Jan Karel Van Baalen, in his The Chaos of Cults (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 283-317, identified Modernism as a cult. On 303, he quotes liberal Charles Clayton Morrison, longtime editor of Christian Century as agreeing with Machen in 1924 that indeed fundamentalism (as he preferred to call it) and modernism are indeed two different religions. On 314, Van Baalen quotes Morrison again and liberal theologian Wilhelm Pauck as agreeing with Van Til’s similar assessment of neo-orthodoxy.
5 Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962.
6 Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995), 187-213.
7 San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. The book was published in Great Britain under the title Scripture and the Authority of God, by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
8 17.4 (Aug., 2006).
9 London: SCM Press, 1966.
10 A redemptive-historical approach to theology is sometimes called “biblical theology,” but that is a misnomer. All theology is biblical, if it is sound theology.
11 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991. My review of this book was published in Westminster Theological Journal 56.1 (Spring, 1994), 438-442, and is now available at https://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1994Muller.htm.
12 “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 269-318, https://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/Biblicism.htm, “Traditionalism and Sola Scriptura,” Chalcedon Report(Ocvt., 2001), 15-19, (Nov., 2001), 434-35), https://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1999Traditionalism.htm.