John Frame’s odd criticism of Barth
December 19, 2013
I am reading through the opening chapter of John Frame’s recently published Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Some have described it as his “magnum opus,” though it appears to be just a distillation of his four-volume Lordship series. It features the obligatory forward by J. I. Packer, the evangelical equivalent of a papal imprimatur or nihil obstat. John Frame is not my cup of tea. Anyone who writes with such bulk must justify the bulk with imaginative prose and wonder-inducing insights. Frame does neither.
Anyway, I was struck by his odd criticism of Barth’s definition of theology:
Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:
“Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God.” [Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 49-50]
Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and so on.
I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more. The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant. [pp. 4-5]
Frame then goes on to expound his own definition of theology: “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (p. 8). As for the above passage, how on earth does Barr’s criticism apply to Barth’s definition? I am basically familiar with Barr’s criticism of Barth in general, and Barth’s exegesis in particular, but how is Frame connecting this to Barth’s definition of theology?
He’s not. It’s just bizarre. Barth is defining theology, not biblical terms like δίκαιος (“righteousness”) and then weighting them with greater theological content than the text allows (which is Barr’s criticism of nearly every theologian!).
Moreover, how is Frame’s definition of theology superior? And what’s the point of all of this, besides appearing to be pedantic?
So, I found this section exceedingly curious.