Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Frame’s Response to Dolezal
Frame’s response to Dolezal’s book is worth examining in some detail because it reveals a number of serious misunderstandings. I do not intend to respond to every line of his response, but there are several significant problems that simply cannot be ignored.
The Scholastic Bogeyman
One problem in Frame’s response has to do with the first word in his title and in the first word of the response itself: “scholasticism.” First, Frame’s definition of “scholasticism” is confused and confusing. He speaks of it initially as “a type of theology.” He then speaks of “the methods and conclusions of scholasticism,” “the doctrines characteristic of scholasticism,” and “aspects of the doctrine of God that were stressed in the scholastic tradition.” In a later section, Frame speaks of “‘classical Christian theism’ (i.e. the scholastic approach).” In short, more often than not, scholasticism is equated with a particular doctrinal content, specifically classical Christian theism. Second, throughout the response the reader observes a not-so-subtle attempt to equate “scholasticism” with something bad or dangerous (e.g., “a slippery slope that could end only in Roman Catholicism”). In short, he seems to equate classical Christian theism with scholasticism while also implying that scholasticism is a dangerous slippery slope to Rome.
Two points (at least) need to be made. First, scholasticism has to do with method, not any particular theological content. It is a method that involves careful and precise definition, distinctions, and argumentation, and it doesn’t always take an identical form. The scholastic methodology as applied by the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard differs in some ways from the scholastic method as applied by the Reformed theologian Amandus Polanus. Both of their applications of the method differ in some ways from Francis Turretin’s use of it. In any case, the scholastic method does not determine or imply any particular theological content. It can be and has been used to teach Roman Catholic theological content, Reformed theological content, Lutheran theological content, and even nontheological content. This point has been demonstrated repeatedly over the last few decades (for a helpful and concise explanation, see Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, pp. 34–37).
Second, the idea that scholasticism equals Roman Catholicism (or a slippery slope to Roman Catholicism) is untrue and misleading. In the first place, Roman Catholics have used other methods (e.g., catechetical) in constructing their theology. In the second place, the Reformed and Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were the strongest opponents of Roman Catholicism and the strongest advocates of sola Scriptura used the scholastic method. There is simply no excuse for the continued perpetuation of these straw-man versions of “scholasticism.” Continuing to push these distortions in spite of the mountains of evidence demonstrating scholasticism’s true nature comes across as a scare tactic intended to frighten Protestants away.
The confusion evident in this misunderstanding of scholasticism provides as clear an argument as any for the necessity of historical theology in the work of systematic theology. If one’s systematic theology is going to involve discussions of scholasticism or any other concept with a long history, one needs good historical theology to ensure that those concepts are defined accurately. A disdain for historical theology can lead one to perpetuate errors and attack straw men.
A Consensus on Theistic Mutualism?
One of the most perplexing (and simultaneously ironic) statements found in Frame’s response is located close to the beginning of his article. He writes:
Dolezal thinks that “theistic mutualism” (TM) is very common among evangelical writers today and in the recent past. He cites as examples Donald MacLeod (21), James Oliver Buswell (23), Ronald Nash (23), Donald Carson (24), Bruce Ware (24), James I. Packer (31), Alvin Plantinga (68), John Feinberg, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig (69), Kevin Vanhoozer (72), Ryan Lister (92), Scott Oliphint (93), and, yes, John Frame (71-73, 92-95). Wayne Grudem joins the group later for his adherence to “eternal functional subordination” in the Trinity (132-33). This group brings together many of the most important thinkers in evangelicalism today, and I am honored to be included in it, though I do not agree with all of them on everything. Dolezal, I think, should be more respectful of this group than he is. Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?
Again, at least two points need to be made. First, I have read Dolezal’s book more than once, and I do not detect any disrespect. Obviously, he believes that the doctrine of God being taught in the works of these writers is wrong, but to equate disagreement and critique with disrespect is mistaken. Calvin disagreed with Luther on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but there is no evidence of which I am aware indicating that Calvin disrespected Luther. If theistic mutualism is unbiblical (and I believe it is), it would be disrespectful to Christ and His church to remain quiet. Second, there is some irony here considering the names of the proponents of classical theism from the last two thousand years. We are not speaking only of Augustine and Aquinas. We are talking about the consensus of all the orthodox Reformed theologians and confessions as well. These were many of the most important theologians in the history of the church. Could we not ask Frame his own question? Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?
In fact, it raises a question concerning Frame’s view and its relation to the teaching of the Westminster Confession on this subject. The WCF clearly expresses the classical Christian doctrine of God, including the doctrine of divine immutability. Presumably, as one ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America, Frame subscribes to the WCF. But how can one who holds to the views Frame expresses subscribe to chapter 2 of the WCF? These are two different doctrines of God.
Charges of Docetism
A seriously problematic part of Frame’s response is found in his suggestion that Dolezal (and by extension all classical Christian theists) advocates a docetic view of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the section of his response explaining why he rejects the classical theistic understanding of immutability, Frame writes:
Christ came to be with us in space and time, to take to himself our sins, and to bring us new life in him. He came to be our covenant Lord. This is the Gospel, and I determined not to accept any metaphysical premise that compromised this covenantal relation between God and man.
This is an odd statement given that classical Christian theists have been discussing for centuries how and why the incarnation does not contradict the doctrine of immutability. None of them believed divine immutability compromised the reality of the incarnation or God’s covenants with man. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the very theologians who developed covenant theology were classical theists who believed and defended the doctrine of divine immutability.
Frame continues by explaining that in his view, God’s relationship with His people involves “a kind of ‘change’” in God. He then states, “But if we say that God only appears to change in these contexts, must we also say that God only appears to enter time, that the Son of God only appeared to become man (that is the textbook definition of Docetism), that he only appeared to die on the cross and rise again?” Again, the assumption is that the incarnation requires some kind of divine mutability and that to affirm divine immutability entails incarnational Docetism. However, the incarnation does not mean that the divine nature of the Son transformed into the human nature as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Nor does it mean that the divine nature empties itself of attributes, as kenotic Christology teaches. I do not believe that is what Frame believes or intends to communicate, but when “the Word became flesh” is opposed to divine immutability in the way Frame opposes them, one is left wondering what he does mean. Certainly, classical Christian theism has never denied either and has defended both. The Definition of Chalcedon guards both the immutability of the divine nature and the reality of the incarnation. Orthodox Christians have always defended both because both are taught in Scripture.
Frame continues by saying something that is baffling. Concerning Dolezal’s view, he states:
It implies that Jesus did not “literally” become man, suffer, and die for us. He was not literally born of a virgin. He did not work literal miracles. Of course Dolezal confesses that there is “something true” about these doctrines of the faith, but every heretic in the history of Christianity has been willing to say that much.
These sentences suggest that Dolezal himself says that there is merely “something true” about the doctrine of the incarnation, virgin birth, suffering, and death of Christ and that these are not things that “literally” happened. However, Dolezal says nothing like this. On page 20, which Frame notes is the source of the phrase “something true,” Dolezal is discussing anthropomorphic language. It is necessary to quote what Dolezal wrote in full to avoid any misunderstanding.
Those who subscribe to the softer version of theistic mutualism are usually willing to deny that the Bible speaks literally or properly of God when it speaks of Him possessing body parts (e.g., Ps. 18:7–9; 89:13; Isa. 65:5), moving about locomotively in space (e.g., Gen. 11:5; Ex. 3:8), or even changing His mind (e.g., Ex. 32:14). But when the Bible speaks of God as experiencing changes of relation, affection, or agency, we are told that these changes are properly in God and that the text would be meaningless or even untrue if this were not so. But it is not at all obvious that this is the case. The classical theist simply regards these as yet further instances of the Bible’s anthropomorphic (or anthropopathic) language, revealing something true about God—such as His true opposition to sin, His gracious compassion, or His providential guidance of historical affairs—progressively in time and under a modality (viz., change) that is improper to His plenitude of being. Such improper or nonliteral forms of attribution do not obscure the truth about God any more than talk about God’s right arm or nostrils obscures the truth about Him. (pp. 20–21, emphasis mine)
Notice how and where Dolezal uses the phrase “something true” and compare that to the way Frame says that he uses it. Frame writes: “Of course Dolezal confesses that there is ‘something true’ about these doctrines of the faith.” Frame takes the phrase “something true” out of its context and uses it to suggest that Dolezal denies the literal incarnation, virgin birth, suffering, and death of Christ. Dolezal, however, is not discussing “these doctrines” (the incarnation, virgin birth, suffering, and death of Christ) when he uses the phrase “something true.” Frame’s comment is, therefore, extremely misleading. In the following paragraph, the same misleading idea about what Dolezal is saying continues when Frame asks, “Why should we believe literally that God is changeless, but not that God literally became flesh in Jesus?” The false dilemma appears repeatedly throughout Frame’s response, and the clear suggestion that is being made is that Dolezal and other classical Christian theists choose immutability and deny the reality of the incarnation. However, neither Dolezal nor any other classical theist denies the reality of the incarnation or the historical reality of His life, death, and resurrection.
Biblicism and Historical Theology
There are a number of other problems that could be addressed here, including but not limited to the apparent misunderstanding of the classical Christian doctrine regarding essential properties and personal properties in the Trinity as well as the implicit move toward a social Trinitarianism. But I want to conclude by focusing on the issue of theological method revealed in Frame’s response. I believe that issues related to this theological method underlie many of the theological aberrations that we are witnessing in contemporary evangelical and Reformed theology.
Frame has made it clear in a number of places in his writings (e.g., Speaking the Truth in Love, p. 17) that he follows the theological method of John Murray (1898–1975), professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary for thirty-six years. Frame says that Murray’s method was basically the exegesis of Scripture. Frame’s views on the matter are most clearly expressed in his essay “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism: Reflections on Sola Scriptura and History in Theological Method.” His main goal in that essay is to call theologians back to sola Scriptura in their work. This in itself is a laudable goal and one reflected in the work of Reformed scholastic theologians who taught that Scripture is the principium cognoscendi externum, the external principle of knowing in theology. The exegesis of Scripture is certainly required in order for it to serve as the external principle of knowing in theology, and such exegesis was done by these theologians. All Protestants heartily embrace the doctrine of sola Scriptura, but there are significant differences in the way it is understood.
The significance of the issue of methodology is in the background of Frame’s response, but it comes to the fore on at least one occasion. Near the conclusion of his response to Dolezal, Frame writes:
Like [Richard] Muller, then, he [Dolezal] tries to make systematic theology totally subordinate to historical theology. But this is to put the cart before the horse. We can learn much from the theologians who have preceded us in history, but sola Scriptura requires us to test everything they say by the direct study of Scripture.
There is not space to get into the debates that have occurred between Frame and Muller. Suffice it to say that these debates have apparently left Frame very wary of historical theology. Evidence of this has already been noted in the confusion about the meaning of the word “scholasticism.” In order to assert what Frame is asserting about the nature of scholasticism, one has to remain unaware of the relevant research that has been done by historical theologians over the last several decades. Looking to the past, however, in an attempt to determine what scholasticism actually was is not subordinating systematic theology to historical theology. It is making sure that when we discuss scholasticism in systematic theology we define it accurately. The same goes for any other theological concept in the history of the church.
This is nowhere more directly relevant than in the discussion of sola Scriptura itself. If one is going to appeal to the sixteenth-century principle of sola Scriptura, one must make the effort to understand what the sixteenth-century doctrine of sola Scriptura was. By going back and actually studying the Reformers and the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—in other words, by doing historical theology—we discover that sola Scriptura was not what contemporary advocates of biblicism confidently assert that it was. In addition, by studying history, we discover that all manner of heretics have defended their false doctrines by appealing to what they claim is the Reformation sola Scriptura principle. Theology is not as simple, then, as merely quoting a chapter and verse of Scripture and attacking historic orthodox biblical doctrines that “make the least sense to modern thinkers.” The Socinians did that. We can do better.
In their introduction to the book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway, 2013), David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson make a helpful distinction between being “biblicist” and being “biblical” (p. 38). The original advocates of the sola Scriptura principle were profoundly biblical, but they were not biblicist in the modern sense or in the sense Frame describes in his essay. The original advocates of the sola Scriptura principle were all classical Christian theists, for example. They worked within the boundaries of orthodox doctrine. They had no difficulty teaching doctrines that were deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence (e.g., divine simplicity). They also critically appropriated the work of past theologians (even Thomas Aquinas). Because of their careful use of the scholastic method, their theologies were rich and profound expressions of biblical truth that nourished the church for generations. The rejection of their methodology and the replacement of their concept of sola Scriptura with a radically individualistic biblicism has been disastrous for systematic theology specifically and for the church generally.
More than a decade ago, numerous books were written criticizing self-professed evangelicals who were promoting open theism, denying and redefining, among other things, the omniscience of God. These open theists, of course, claimed that their view was more faithful to Scripture. Today, other evangelical theologians (many of whom wrote against open theism) are denying and redefining other attributes of God, including simplicity, immutability, and impassibility. I am not convinced that any of the men named in Dolezal’s work are currently teaching open theism, but they are certainly promoting an unlatched theism. It will not take much of a push on the door to move from one place to the next.
James Dolezal’s book is an important one, and he should be commended for his willingness to endure the pressure that his arguments will surely generate. He is saying something in this book that needed to be said. There has been a dramatic shift in twentieth- and twenty-first-century evangelical and Reformed theology, a shift that has enabled theologians from conservative and confessional traditions to adopt and teach with impunity doctrines that had previously been promoted only by those either on the fringes of the faith or well outside of its boundaries. This is a dangerous situation, and I commend Dolezal for publishing this book.
I do not know whether John Frame will read my response, but it is likely that some of his students will. I want them to know that I write all of this with an “iron sharpens iron” intent. I have no personal animosity toward Frame. The little correspondence I had with him years ago was always cordial. I don’t expect him or those who share his views to be excited to read a criticism of those views, but the doctrine of God is not a minor issue, and none of us, Frame included, is infallible. Frame has raised significant questions about and challenges to the classical doctrine of God. But our orthodox forefathers in the faith were aware of these challenges centuries ago, and they provided biblically faithful and thoughtful answers to all of them. Can we think through and sharpen those answers and thereby clarify the classical doctrine? Certainly. But we cannot discard classical Christian theism and replace it with ever-changing theological novelties.
When trusted theologians reject the biblical doctrine of God that has been believed, confessed, and taught by every orthodox Christian in the history of the church, including Reformed proponents of the sola Scriptura principle, something has to be said. Classical Christian theism was not something that previous generations of theologians created out of thin air. This doctrine was based on careful study of Scripture and its necessary implications. Every conceivable objection was considered, and thousands of pages still exist explaining and defending this biblical doctrine. Christians would do well to reacquaint themselves with the riches of the biblical doctrine of God. Soli Deo gloria.