John Frame’s odd criticism of Barth


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.



  1. I have a big “?” next to this section as I also found it odd and surprising. Not only do I find it hard to criticize Barth’s quote (not just cuz it’s Barth, it could have been written by Packer and I’d still find it difficult), but I also can’t understand why he thinks Barr is relevant here.

    • Thanks, Jordan, I am glad to see that I’m not the only person who found it strange. He moves from talking about theological definitions to the definition of theology itself, without any transition whatsoever — as if they’re the same thing. And then the bizarre appeal to Barr! Very strange indeed. The whole chapter is poorly constructed and slipshod.

  2. There is certainly a difference between Barth’s definition and Frame’s. The difference? Frame then has to go on and define good theology, theology that is done well according to standards.

    There’s another difference, more fundamental. Frame views theology as applied exegesis. Scripture is theological data. But for Barth, scripture is not the data; it is the field in which we are to search for relevant data. It is a raw, dragnet collection of data points, minimally curated by canonical selection, in which may be found the information we are looking for. It is the standard corpus for such a search, and we are accountable to it, but simply being in the Bible is not enough to make something relevant for the knowledge of God, much less for our moral obedience.

    And at that point, reading the long quote from Frame, I find that even he does not believe that theology is simply applied exegesis. Even he does not believe that it is as simple as applying scripture to life. All of his pedantry here has simply left him with the problem that Barth’s sort of definition solves already. But he hasn’t solved it himself, for his readers, yet. He has only mocked a better theologian for doing so!

    • Very well-stated, Matthew. And surely this “data mining” approach is why Frame (like Grudem and Geisler and many others) is so tedious to read and only enjoyable to those who are cheerleading for Team Calvin, as they perceive it. Frame gives them the answers they want, with the appearance of breadth and depth.

      Interestingly, Frame does (immediately after this section) slightly criticize Hodge’s definition of theological science, as a fact-gathering that does not properly account for the personal mode of engagement, but Frame’s own practice is little different than Hodge’s. I’ll actually take Hodge any day over Frame. Hodge was at least competent with the grand scholastic tradition.

      • Indeed. These are enablers, and they give answers broad and generic enough to shelter their readers’ real and discrete answers. Barth will never be such an enabler. He is obsessed with iterating the question until he gets suitably precise in answering it!

      • Yes, Barth is drawing us into the text — or, more precisely, into a confrontation with God.

        By the way, I also added a little bit about Hodge in my reply to your comment.

      • Seen and granted. 🙂 I wonder, to what extent does this mode of doing systematic theology belong to the maintenance of codified orthodoxy? It’s one thing to be critical, and another thing to be critical of critique. Competence in being critical of the tradition, and in using it to do theology as a new necessity today, is very difference than competency in riffing on the tradition and using it to do something deeply in continuity with a body of orthodoxy.

      • Yes, it is a maintenance of codified orthodoxy. They do believe, of course, that it is an eternal wisdom of sorts, applicable to all ages and of which they are the studious custodians. I have a conservative nature myself, so I can sympathize, but every generation is responsible to rethink anew this confrontation with God. This is uncomfortable and fraught with dangers, but fidelity requires as much.

  3. “The application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” sounds way too much like the endless topical sermon series on “The Biblical Guide to X, Y, or Z” that characterize so many evangelical churches.

    • Yes, this is indicative of Frame’s pietism, which has resulted in a public dispute between Frame and the faculty at Westminster California (Michael Horton et al.). Frame is echoing a transformationalist ethos, similar to Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism, plus an extra dose of biblicism.

      Frame insists that his definition is not Schleiermachian in its anthropocentrism. Yet, it is oddly anthro-focused, is it not? It is surely one of the worst definitions of theology that I have ever come across. At least Schleiermacher has God, not Scripture, as the objective pole of his definition.

  4. While I agree that Frame’s characterization of Barth is odd (at least in that section), I would hope you guys would be more thoughtful before ripping on him. Frame works incredibly hard to do theology that is both doctrinal and practical. I’m on board with that. He also aims to be guided primarily by Scripture rather than current academic trends or historical debates. I can sympathize with that. I’m not saying that good intentions = great theology, but he’s not a foolish biblicist by any means. And, for as much as has already been said, I’m not sure the same would be said of Vanhoozer – someone who dedicated his Remythologizing to Frame. There are clear differences between the two, but perhaps more similarities than is often realized.

    • Perhaps you are right, Jordan, but what I have read in a couple of his Lordship volumes and now in this ST volume — I am not impressed. Not that my “impressions” really matter, but I am concerned about theology for the sake of the church’s witness to Christ. My problems with Frame go much deeper than I have indicated in this post — it has to do with the way Reformed theology in America, stemming especially from Westminster Seminary, has reframed itself around worldview and presuppositional apologetics, which I am rather convinced is neither Reformed nor even faithful to basic Christian convictions about God’s engagement with the world. This is a complex and wide-ranging discussion, which I have touched upon in the past at several points and likely again in the future as well. For now, I’ll have to leave it at that. Thanks for the push back — I always need it.

    • Also, Vanhoozer is a graduate of Westminster Seminary and comes from that milieu. There are still residual effects in his theology, to be sure, but my admiration for Vanhoozer is in his capacity to expand beyond the highly limited horizons of “worldview” Calvinism (obsessed with epistemology). Anyone who benefits from Barth-Torrance-Webster knows that metaphysics should be in the driver’s seat, and I trust that Vanhoozer has been making this shift himself as he moves beyond hermeneutics, without rejecting (of course) his admirable contributions to that field.

      • That makes a lot of sense and I can definitely understand your concerns. I look fwd to some posts on this issue when you find the time. It’s one I need to think on more and I have benefited from your previous posts

    • Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t mean to be hard on Frame’s overall work in this or any other of his books. Which I have not read. I’m sure he does work quite hard! I think with claims like he’s made in only this small space of quoted text, he has no choice! He has at one blow renounced using existing complex systems, and also relying on any stores of imported theological meaning that his concepts might otherwise borrow. ¡Que valor!

      That suggests to me that the author has made the mistake of trying, in a professional project, to build an entire system himself and from scratch in order to meet the same needs as a far more evolved and complex existing project. And were I grading such a project, I’d be reading to see if he cheats, and where, and how. And if not, to see how far he actually gets in what is surely a herculean—if not sysiphean—effort.

      Assuming that large code is bad code is always a mistake. But here it’s compounded with subtle insult and condescension. Frame says that “theologians often prefer very long definitions,” and proceeds to treat a longer, more nuanced and precisely evolved piece of mature code as though it were mere self-indulgence on the part of the theologian in question—though he certainly understands the motivation. What brass!

      Students should have this instinct drilled out of them. If you don’t understand or appreciate what a piece of code does, or why it needs to look that way, then that’s exactly what you should take away from the encounter with it. If you can do without it, chances are something else is serving that function for you, and you should find out what. If you can eliminate everything that serves that function, then the function itself might be redundant. If not, it’s not worth getting down on code that makes explicit what in your context is implicit. Explicit code is portable in ways high-context code is not.

      Now, sometimes code just is long or complex, and shouldn’t be. Novices often hide ineptitude behind obscurity! (Though in most cases, they do it by being terse, not verbose. Give me a talkative, eager student any day!) But that kind of judgment should always be a last resort. Better to say that one doesn’t understand why the length and complexity is warranted. Better by far to say, “While I see why Barth needed to make such a claim, in my context the demands of defining theology are different.” Both are preferable to looking like you’re either not up to the challenge, or trying to score points.

      Is Frame better than this? I certainly hope so. Did he do it anyways? Apparently. Does he deserve more than a slap on the wrist? Probably not.

  5. Just from the bit that you’ve posted here, Kevin, I’d have to agree that Frame does not appear to be reading Barth all that closely. I haven’t read Frame first-hand, so I won’t render a judgment as to whether he reads Barth well. But in this instance it appears as though he isn’t attending all that carefully to what it is that Barth is actually saying: that theology entails seeking the Word of God where God has revealed Himself.

    It reminds me of the student who renders a judgment about a theologian and then goes hunting for a good “gotcha” quotation to illustrate that judgment … and the best quotation she can find doesn’t really end up fitting.

    • And yet Frame is an established theologian, decades of experience teaching and publishing — so why the sloppy work? A doctoral student could never submit this first chapter as it stands — it would not make it past the first draft under any competent adviser.

  6. In an interview, Frame revealed that he doesn’t like to read Barth. For me, this was disappointing, but now I understand.

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