by John M. Frame
[Posted at Common Grounds Online 9/22/08.]
I’m very enthusiastic about Jones’s presentation, and I have no substantial criticisms of it. So what can I add? Here are several thoughts:
1. We need to give more attention to the biblical doctrine of the unity of the church, both spiritual and governmental. In the interest of Reformed Catholicism, we need to see the present denominational differences in the church as an aberration, an anomaly. New Testament church government makes no provision for denominations. When factional spirit begins to emerge in the early church, the New Testament identifies it as sin and describes it as worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:10-31, 3:1-4). The birth of new denominations is always the result of sin, either by those who leave, or those who stay, or (more likely) both. So why do we glorify our separateness from other Christians? We should be mourning it instead and seeking to reverse it.
But this will mean that we will have to look at other traditions far more positively, acknowledging and celebrating what is good in them, rather than always trying to tear them down. We must reject the pride that seeks always to make our own group look better than the others.
2. We need a clearer understanding of what theology is. Many, I think, regard theology as discovering something within the Bible, sometimes called a “system.” On this view, the challenge of theology is to see who can reproduce this system in the fullest detail. In our circles, many assume that Calvin and the Westminster Standards did it best; they got the system right. So our theology must be a reproduction of theirs. This concept of theology encourages, I think, the “golden age” view of things and the necessity of holding rigidly and in detail to past models.
Let me suggest instead that the work of theology is the work of application. It takes the Scriptures and uses them to answer our present questions and to meet present needs. This is Paul’s concept of doctrine: teaching that is sound(health-giving) (1 Tim. 1:10, 6:3, 2 Tim. 4:3, Tit. 1:9, 2:1). Thus, as Jones says, its focus is upon the present and future, not only the past. And so theology is bound to the mission of the church.
3. The PCA is a “confessional church,” as we are often told. We should, however, forthrightly ask the question whether this is a good thing. If it is, what role should a 350 year old confession have in a contemporary church? Is it plausible to suggest that we should treat the confession in effect as an infallible presentation of biblical doctrine? How then can we do justice to the immense amount of quality biblical scholarship and theological reflection that has taken place since that time? Does confessionalism itself lead to sectarianism? If not, how can a confessional church guard against sectarians who appeal to the confession as a “golden age” document? On these matters I am, for now, content to ask questions, rather than presuming to provide answers.
Frame, J., The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987). On the nature of human thought in general, theology in particular.
Frame, J, Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), available at https://frame-poythress.org/frame_books.htm. My critique of denominationalism.