Notes on John Frame's "Theology of My Life."

In his autobiography Theology of My Life (Cascade Books, 2017), Dr. John Frame notes that he published his recollections because, as he says, “I think they can be of use to some readers.” In this blog post I’ll note some of the things in the book which are of use, or interest, to myself.

1. Notes on Clifford Smith

In The Presbyterian Philosopher I noted a number of pastors (virtually all supporters of Gordon Clark) who left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the wake of the Clark – Van Til controversy. One of these was Clifford Smith. John Frame notes a meeting he had with Smith:

I got a call from Clifford Smith, assistant pastor of Mt. Lebanon U.P., to meet him in his office. This was a fascinating visit. I knew that both Smith and his senior pastor, Cary Weisiger, were Westminster graduates. Both had opposed the merger of the United Presbyterian Church with the liberal Presbyterian Church, USA. Their preaching, indeed, was powerfully Reformed, and it was one of the factors that impelled me toward Westminster. But Smith did not recommend his alma mater. – p. 64

And Frame footnotes:

Smith expressed respect for Westminster’s theological and academic position, but he noted that the seminary was all too quick to enter into controversy, a comment I followed up in my “Machen’s Warrior Children” Smith had spent some years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (against which Chikes and Fullerton had warned me) following graduation and had supported Gordon H. Clark in the 1940s controversy between Clark and Van Til. Supporting Clark, who was perceived to be the loser in that controversy, Smith left the OPC and eventually found himself at Mt. Lebanon U.P.

Whether Westminster Theology Seminary, the OPC, and confessionalists in general are too quick to enter into controversy, I think depends on what side of a controversy one is on! Since I think Van Til’s position (in The Complaint) in the Clark – Van Til Controversy was beyond the confession, and that The Complaint was rife with errors, I think they should have spent more time thinking through their position before issuing the complaint. But, in the later Shepherd controversy —since I think a number of his positions to be non-confessional — I think the denomination and seminary should have acted faster!

2. Notes on Frame’s relationship with Van Til

Since Frame was a student of Van Til and often considered one of his best interpreters, one might have assumed that they saw eye-to-eye; having solid communication between the two. But Frame notes at least twice the difficulties he had in communication with Van Til.

Van Til and I did not always communicate well. The philosophical language I learned at Princeton was that of Anglo-American language analysis, which was not easily translatable into Van Til’s language derived from philosophical idealism

Often comments I made in class, intended as analytical questions, came across to Van Til as criticisms of his position. So he was always somewhat reluctant to accept me as an ally.

Later however, when Frame came back to teach, Van Til accepted him. Frame writes,

Although I did not begin as a member of the apologetics department, Van Til greeted me warmly. If he was suspicious of me because of past disagreements, he didn’t express those suspicions when I returned to WTS.

3. “The Dissertation That Never Was.”

Frame speaks of the dissertation he wasn’t able to finish. The topic —propositional revelation— is of great interest to me. Frame notes,

My mind increasingly turned to the concept of ‘propositional revelation.’ Both Gordon Clark and his student Carl Henry had regarded that as a matter of some importance in the theological dialogue about Scripture. And as I read modern theologians like Barth, Brunner, and Tillich, it seemed to me that many of their innovations in the doctrine of Scripture were developed as alternatives to, or arguments against, propositional revelation.

Frame also notes, “So I thought I would, in my dissertation, examine all the arguments used by liberal theologians to oppose propositional revelation, and refute them.” I think this would be of considerable value.

4. The Dooyeweerdians

The philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd swept through Reformed churches in the 1960s and 1970s. In The Presbyterian Philosopher I note the pushback Johannes Vos and Gordon Clark made against Dooyeweerdianism at Geneva College in 1974. In Theology of My Life, Frame gives his recollections of the movement.

When I returned to WTS in 1968, someone told me that there was a “cult” of Dooyeweerdians on campus. Herman Dooyeweerd was a Dutch Calvinist philosopher, a very substantial thinker.
 In years past, Cornelius Van Til had been closely associated with Dooyeweerd’s school of thought, but after Dooyeweerd’s visit to the US in the late 1950s, Van Til had become critical of him. Robert Knudsen, however, though disagreeing with Dooyeweerd’s doctrine of Scripture, was a staunch supporter of Dooyeweerdian philosophy.

About this time, followers of Dooyeweerd founded the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada, and their very young faculty scoured North America, seeking to radicalize young Reformed people to embrace their cause. In the Reformed movement (especially in Dutch denominations, but also in the OPC), many churches and organizations (especially Christian schools) came under this influence, and as I saw it they were not open to calm discussion. I was not willing to accept passively the assimilation of the Reformed movement to a group of young militants. Eventually I became myself a somewhat militant opponent of Dooyeweerdianism.

The Dooyeweerdian group in Toronto, the Institute for Christian Studies, still exists, but one rarely hears of them today. I’d be interested in reading a history of this movement.

5. Comments on The Shepherd Controversy

I’ve dreamed from time to time of writing a history of Westminster Theological Seminary. I believe it needs to be done, but that I’m probably not the right one to do it. Any history of WTS would need to explain well the Shepherd Controversy. Dr. Frames recollections will be of value to whoever writes the history some day. One particular section I found of great interest. Frame writes,


So far, then, I supported Shepherd’s position. But Norman did not stop there. He also drew an inference: since works are a necessary element of saving faith, and since saving faith is necessary to justification, works are therefore necessary to justification. Now this seemed to me to be a straightforward logical argument: A is necessary to B, B is necessary to C, therefore A is necessary to C. So I could, and still can, defend Norman’s inference.

But others could not. They did not like the term necessary. In that term they heard the idea of “cause,” perhaps, so that if works are “necessary to” justification, then works are “the cause of” justification, even the merit by which we deserve justification. But in fact the term “necessary” does not have that meaning. To say that A is the necessary condition of C is not to say that A is the efficient cause of C, certainly not that A is the merit by which we earn C. This fact seemed simple enough to me. At a later meeting, I tried to explain it to my colleagues, however, and it had no impact at all on the discussion. I was young and did not want to try to dominate the debate. So that was the end of that.

Shephered’s inference, of course, is valid. The logic is correct. The problem is the horrendous premise – “works are a necessary element of saving faith.”

Frame continues,

If I had been Norman, I would have simply apologized for using the term “necessity,” with which many people wrongly or rightly took offense. But as the discussion progressed, it became evident why Norman couldn’t take that course. He had an agenda. He believed that many evangelicals, and those who opposed him in the Reformed community, held views of “cheap grace” or “easy believism,” the view that one can have genuinely saving faith, but without practical holiness. The word necessity, in Norman’s mind, guarded against that degradation of Reformed theology, and no other word really could. Indeed, Norman thought, if one opposed the use of necessity, he could have no motive other than to maintain easy believism.

Maybe Shepherd had ran into “easy-believism” but I know of no Reformed pastors (then or now) who advocate it. 

Frame agrees,

Although self-righteousness and easy believism are twin errors that show up too often in Christian circles, I don’t think either characterizes American evangelicalism generally, and I don’t believe that either characterizes any segment of Reformed Christianity that I know.

But defends Shepherd as being misrepresented,

The problem as I see it is that we tend too often to misrepresent one another. We need to work much harder to understand one another’s words in the best sense, rather than the worst sense. And we should not in any case formulate our doctrines with the intention of saying the opposite of whatever we think American evangelicals say. Shorn of such agendas, we can work together to analyze problematic terms like necessity, and agree on a vocabulary that doesn’t mislead or irritate.

I think Shepherds view, though maybe misrepresented by a few people, was largely understood. And it was understood to be false; a false Gospel.

Therefore, when Frame says,

One of my major regrets about the controversy was that Shepherd was prevented from making further contributions to Reformed theology in areas other than justification.

I’m glad that Shepherd wasn’t able to make any more contributions, because his views are not Reformed.

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