Book Review: Theology of My Life: A Theological and Apologetic Memoir by John Frame
John Frame (1939- ) has taught at some of the most prestigious seminaries in North America, including Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), Westminster Seminary (Southern California) and Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando). Perhaps best known for his 4-volume series A Theology of Lordship, he is the author of more than twenty books, and has recently retired from teaching full-time. This book is a work of deep reflection on his life and more than five decades of teaching theology, philosophy, and apologetics.
In the Reformed world, he is perhaps best known for his theory of tri-perspectivism, the pedagogical device suggesting that we can understand the world through three lenses. The third of these lenses is existential and that is where this book would fall: an existential consideration of how God has worked in the life of a theologian and philosopher.
From an early age, Frame was more bookish than anything. Despising most sports and never being able to shake the social awkwardness he always felt, his description of his early years might remind some of C. S. Lewis and other authors who had similar struggles growing up. Additionally, he acquired a love for music early in life as he learned to play the piano and organ. This would be a significant part of his life in ministry leading to several books concerning music and worship as well as a mostly constant involvement in the music ministries of the churches in which he has been involved over the course of his life. As one reads of his early life, it is encouraging to consider the many individuals who taught him the Word of God and invested in his life along the way. One can see their mark decades later in the projects he undertakes and the style of ministry he often employs. (Chapters 1-2)
John Frame’s years of theological education are perhaps most intriguing as a veritable Who’s Who of Theological and Philosophical heavy weights he had the opportunity to learn under. At this point, the reader would be helped by a background in theology and an understanding of Reformed Christianity in North America over the last 150 years. But if this background is lacking by the reader, don’t let that be a deterrent. As Adree Seu Peterson writes in the introduction: “read on anyway.” The benefits far outweigh the bits that may not be familiar to the reader. (Chapters 3-5)
In the final four chapters, Frame excels at capturing, among other things, the difficulties that seminaries experience in the 20th and 21st centuries. Having experienced significant personality clashes and doctrinal controversies, Frame does not come across as angry or bitter. Rather, his characterizations of all he mentions are charitable and gracious. There are also several very honest moments of admitting personal wrongs by the author. This transparency is encouraging. Perhaps one of the greatest takeaways from this book is the need to interpret and interact with others in a Christian way that is full of grace. Several instances are given of people, including the author, jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst about another individual before hearing the case. It is of great interest that John Frame has come to be known as one who seeks to interact with the writings of other authors in the most charitable way possible. This “benefit of the doubt” extended to others is a hallmark of his writings and the theological world could use a good deal more of it.
For someone who has taught at the seminary level for so long, the author has some strong words to say about the current training model for pastors and theologians. He makes the point that many seminaries are not really working to develop pastor-shepherds, but theological academics. Although he acknowledges that those who already have good people skills and developed character may be alright going into ministry after seminary, often training institutions only care about the theological content they are teaching and neglect the character development that I Timothy 3 requires for pastoral work. He also acknowledges that several seminaries are trying to address this situation but his call to re-think how seminary is done is helpful. Also, his critique of the overall purely academic nature of theology in the modern day will resonate with many.
But perhaps the greatest contribution of the memoir is the author’s distaste for unnecessary theological controversy. John Frame is constantly making a differentiation between being “reformed” (his own self-descriptor is “winsomely reformed”) and that of “truly reformed”. Because many reformed churches and institutions were birthed in controversy against liberalism, they have continued to fight but now against each other. Far too often various reformed pastors/teachers act and speak as if they are the final word on what is really reformed and what is fake reformed. But Frame calls for “creativity within the bounds of orthodoxy” and for these “truly reformed” individuals to stop squabbling among themselves. This is a breath of fresh air for anyone who has experienced the sort of isolationist mentality that some churches possess where anyone who does not use the exact same terminology or does not come from the same tradition is automatically suspect. This navel gazing leaves little time or energy for evangelism and the task of the Great Commission as Frame points out. This attempt at balance by John Frame, while still holding strongly to reformed doctrine, is commendable.
Coupled with this more balanced focus is a strong critique by Frame against tradition overriding Scripture. For anyone who has asked a theological question and been answered by someone quoting a catechism or a denominational party line, this critique is a breath of fresh air. Although Frame does not downplay the importance of proper tradition or theological formulations, he seeks to constantly go back to Scripture. Indeed, this characteristic appears in all of his writings and even when a reader might not understand the text of Scripture in the same way that Frame does, at least one can appreciate his principled application of the reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
John Frame’s writing style, like his reformed theology, is winsome and accessible and his content is filled with personal anecdotes of both his failures and successes. His pastoral passion comes through even though he admits his background and calling have been more academic in nature. Finally, his epilogue is a helpful addition. Although short, these ten themes or lessons from his life are thoughtful and reflective. More memoirs and autobiographies could be greatly improved by implementing something similar. Ultimately, seeing how God has worked in the life of John Frame causes the reader to consider his or her own life and trace the hand of God there too.
This is the sort of book that more trusted Christian thinkers should undertake: an evaluation of their life and the lessons they have learned along the way. If you enjoy other writings by John Frame, you will enjoy this book. If you have not read many of his works, you will still gain great benefit from this memoir and it will help to introduce you to his other writings. Even if you have never heard of John Frame before, there are significant lessons to be learned from God’s providence in his life, the state of reformed theology and evangelicalism in North America, and the importance of Scripture as a Christian’s primary guide in life and ministry.
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