A major part of Prof. Frame’s critique of the Escondido men is that they lay exclusive claim to the Reformed tradition. In fact, he says that this is his primary motivation for writing this book: “I would not be writing this book if it were not for another distinctive of the Escondido theology…: the view that those who disagree with them are not orthodox, not to be considered Reformed.”
“What’s that one about?” asked the stranger sitting next to me at the local coffee shop. I had no idea where to start, because it’s a very hard question to answer. The same question might just as well be posed by a Reformed layman as by a stranger. John Frame’s The Escondido Theology isn’t really a book about religion or theology in general. It’s not even a book about Reformed theology in general. It is one side of an ongoing spat within a subculture of a subculture of the Reformed world. Full of personal history, intellectual genealogies, and compartmentalized theological nomenclature, this is a book that will mean little to most of Christendom. But to those few to whom it will mean something, it means war.
A book made up of negative book reviews, The Escondido Theology attempts to identify a specific school of theology within contemporary Reformed theology, to explain its origins, and to critique it as neither representative of Reformed theology taken as a whole nor of the theology of the Bible. Frame explains that by “the Escondido theology” he means the distinctive set of beliefs articulated by Michael Horton, Meredith Kline, and Darryl Hart. From the subtitle we can also conclude that the heart and soul of “the Escondido theology” is “Two Kingdom Theology.” This is an understandable but unfortunate equation, of which we will have much more to say (since there is a historical two kingdoms theology which is quite different from Escondido’s). Prof. Frame includes book reviews of David Van Drunen, Marva Dawn, and Jason Stellman as well. Dr. Dawn, being something of a Lutheran, is not a proponent of the Escondido theology, though Prof. Frame sees her work as influential upon it. Dr. Van Drunen most certainly is such a proponent, and a professor in Escondido, and Mr. Stellman was a former proponent of the same theology, but now, ironically (or not) a defector to Roman Catholicism. In addition to the book reviews, Prof. Frame gives an introductory chapter seeking to identify and explain the Escondido theology. There are also two constructive essays, both taken from Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. We will not comment in detail on every essay in the collection, but will instead evaluate the book taken as a whole to see whether it is, as its subtitle proclaims, an accurate and effective “Reformed Response.”
Professor Frame’s book bears the name of the city which is home to Westminster Seminary in California. This is a strategic tactic, meant to create a label for the group of ideas and thinkers whom Prof. Frame is critiquing. He isn’t necessarily addressing the institution as such, though the institution naturally felt compelled to issue a statement defending itself in the wake of the book’s publication. Michael Horton, who ends up bearing the brunt of the critique, described the book as “a new low in intra-Reformed polemics.”
To be the nastiest and most unfair polemicist in the Reformed community would be quite the accomplishment. Prof. Frame would have to outpace several of the Escondido men themselves, along with any number of Clarkians and theonomists – and that would only take into account the American cranksters! As biting and even sometimes inflammatory as some of Prof. Frame’s writing may be, this book does not take the prize for nastiness. And it is certainly a long way off from the battles of those golden years of Reformed confession-writing. We should never forget that the debates carried out by our Reformed ancestors, even the men now idolized by the Reformed gatekeepers, at times involved literal hatchet jobs.
There is, however, one aspect of Prof. Frame’s polemics which is uniquely irritating. Rather than owning up to the obvious, that he is now taking up the glove, Prof. Frame attempts to play the part of the reluctant warrior. In the introductory review essay, P. Andrew Sandlin describes Prof. Frame as “a solitary prophet whose heart longs for unity among God’s blood-bought children … [who] wants a love-charged truth telling, a charitable defense of the Faith, a gracious polemic who listens sympathetically to his critics …” (xxxiii). Describing himself, Frame admits that he has a vested interest in, and a personal history with, the Escondido school (see the author’s preface, xl–xlii). Still he claims that he “was not a part of any of the factions at Westminster” (xl) and that he has “tried very hard to be fair, to give these writers the benefit of the doubt and to commend them where… they should be commended” (xlii). Unfortunately, Prof. Frame’s style, at least in this book, betrays his stated intentions. At one point he lists thirty-two generalizations of what the Escondido theology teaches, but with the caveat that “not all of them make all of these assertions, but all of them regard them with some sympathy” (xxxvii). Of course the assertions are quite blunt, and at least one of them engages in the same kind of punch-pulling that Frame later critiques – Frame accuses the Escondido theologians of making, or at least regarding with “some sympathy”, the claim that “Divine sovereignty typically eliminates the need for responsibility” (xxxviii). Calvinists of all stripes would wholly reject such a statement, and so Prof. Frame would need to provide some citation on this point in order to avoid the appearance that he’s actually not being fair or that he’s failing to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt. Predictably, the faculty of Westminster Seminary in California have stated that they “reject all of these thirty-two points as a fair or accurate presentation of [their] views.”
Still, Prof. Frame is correct to note that being “irenic” does not mean avoiding all polemics. He rightly states that “any theologian worth his salt must take critical positions against error” and “the truth is more important than my reputation” (xlii). It is his conviction that criticizing a harmful theological aberration will result in a “net gain for the peace of the church” (xlii). This is true and must be said, provided that the criticism is correct and that this is accurately and effectively demonstrated. It is our view that Prof. Frame was correct to identify his target as an error and a threat to peace. We are forced to conclude, however, that he did not successfully rise above the perceived mudslinging, nor did he consistently avoid overgeneralizing his opponents. And this error keeps Prof. Frame’s critique from being definitive and, to a large extent, from being persuasive. He most certainly did not “lift the discussion to a higher plane,” as he claims (xliii).
Publication and Production Quality
Another significant weakness of The Escondido Theology is its relatively unknown publisher. As of its release, The Escondido Theology was the only book published by Whitefield Media Publishing. Labels and publishing houses shouldn’t be overvalued, especially in today’s age of open-access digital communication, but for purposes of public reception, Whitefield Media is a handicap. A ministry of a small and non accredited seminary, which is itself affiliated with an ultra-conservative micro-presbytery, choosing this publisher was a very strange way for Prof. Frame to seek to avoid partisan polemics. Still worse, the book is frontloaded with forewords, introductions, blurbs, and endorsements from theonomists and post-theonomists. While this isn’t necessarily wrong to do, it does not make the book appear to be a mainstream Reformed voice.
There’s more to the problem than the appearance of marginality. The production quality of the book is quite poor, lacking an index and containing occasional errors in citation. One such instance is glaring. In Andrew Sandlin’s introductory review, we are given page numbers from a book but never its title or citation information! On pgs. xxxi-xxxiii, Dr. Sandlin is engaging with the work of Darryl Hart. Several page numbers are given in parenthesis, but at no point in the review is the reader pointed to the title of the book being cited. To make matters worse, among the list of liberal deviations that Prof. Frame is said to have “vocally opposed,” we find mention of “biblical inerrancy.” Doubtless, this is stating the opposite of the error, as Prof. Frame has promoted biblical inerrancy over and against forms of biblical errancy, but the mistake is embarrassing and seems to illustrate what skeptical readers were afraid of: this book was quickly and uncarefully put together. Add to this situation the fact that the majority of the chapters in the book have already appeared in print in previous books or at Frame’s website for free access, and the reader is forced to think twice about whether this is the kind of book he wants to pay actual money for.
Claiming the Tradition
A major part of Prof. Frame’s critique of the Escondido men is that they lay exclusive claim to the Reformed tradition. In fact, he says that this is his primary motivation for writing this book: “I would not be writing this book if it were not for another distinctive of the Escondido theology…: the view that those who disagree with them are not orthodox, not to be considered Reformed” (16). He adds, “I hope this book will remove forever the perception that the Escondido theology is a standard of orthodoxy, or more orthodox than other forms of Reformed theology” (16).
For his part, Prof. Frame grants that “the Escondido theology” fits within the boundaries of Reformed theology. “Though these theologians consider me unorthodox, I do not think the same of them. Their ideas, even though I disagree with them, are within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy” (18). This is an example of Prof. Frame’s “irenic polemics.” Of course, he also says that their theology is “not standard Reformed theology” (xxxix). They are instead a “faction” and a “sect” who hold to unbiblical ideas (xxxix). Frame concludes that, “in the end their teaching is harmful to Evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity” (xl). The reader can sympathize with the Escondido men’s complaint that Prof. Frame is trying to have it both ways. What good is being “within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy” if you are also “harmful to Evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity”?
Prof. Frame tries to combat the Escondido claim to a Reformed monopoly in two ways. First, he attempts to explain their actual theological heritage, coming from, as Prof Frame sees it, a combination of Lutheranism and the peculiar innovations of Meredith Kline in the latter half of the 20th century. Secondly, Prof. Frame lays out his own understanding of the Reformed tradition, giving particular emphasis to its 20th-century development. Prof. Frame is correct to characterize the recent state of Reformed theology as a broad and even at times cacophonous collection of differing strands and emphases, and he is correct to point out that the Escondido men purposely ignore this, attempting rather to recreate a monolithic “Reformed tradition” based on their own project. He is not correct in much of his articulation of Reformation history, however, particularly his explanation of the role of the law-gospel distinction and the two kingdoms. Since these are seen as bedrock theological commitments for the Escondido theologians, Prof. Frame’s inaccuracies actually play into their hands, giving them support for their claim to the Reformed and confessional position.
Prof. Frame says that the Escondido theology deviates from ordinary Reformed theology in its affinity with Lutheranism and its extension of the theology of Meredith Kline. With regard to the first point we read, “The Escondido theologians maintain a very sharp separation between law and gospel, derived from Martin Luther” (2). “But the Escondido theologians, though confessionally Reformed, have adopted an emphasis on the law/gospel distinction that is more characteristic of Lutheran, than of Reformed theologians” (2). This second sentence sounds very close to an “emphasis” critique, of which Frame is also suspicious elsewhere, but it is also not easily provable in regards to history. It is true, as Frame says, that “Lutherans regularly criticized Calvinists for confusing law and gospel” (2), but it is also true that moderate and irenic Calvinists often accused High Calvinists of the same error. High Calvinists accused Arminians of this confusion, and the Marrow Men accused the Neonomians of this error. A sharp distinction between law and gospel is fairly common in Reformed theology, and Michael Horton, while he may well be in error at other places, has actually given a responsible reading of John Calvin on this point.
Prof. Frame also accuses the “Lutheran” use of the law-gospel distinction of advancing an absolute dichotomy between the two. Luther’s view is said to be “not biblical” (2). Prof. Frame says that the Lutherans “neglect the third use [of the law]” (19). This again must be an emphasis critique, since the Lutherans are confessionally bound to affirm the third use of the law. The sixth chapter of the Formula of Concord is dedicated to the third use. In it we read:
For the explanation and final settlement of this dissent we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that although the truly believing and truly converted to God and justified Christians are liberated and made free from the curse of the Law, yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, Ps. 1:2; 119:1: Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law doth he meditate day and night. For the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should [therefore] be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing.
In fact, it goes so far as to state, “Accordingly, we reject and condemn as an error pernicious and detrimental to Christian discipline, as also to true godliness, the teaching that the Law, in the above-mentioned way and degree, should not be urged upon Christians and the true believers, but only upon the unbelieving, unchristians, and impenitent.” With this clear historical evidence, we must ask whether Prof. Frame’s statements can be said to be anything other than hyperbole or a critique of emphasis. Objectively speaking, Prof. Frame’s historical analysis is simply wrong on this point.
Prof. Frame is likewise mistaken when it comes to the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and this is the doctrine which appears in the subtitle of the book. Again, Prof. Frame attributes this doctrine to Luther, and he identifies the two kingdoms with “church” and “state.” He is following the Escondido men themselves with this identification, but they are all quite mistaken. Rather than “church” and “state,” the two kingdoms for Luther were the spiritual and the temporal, or the internal realm of faith and the external realm. “The Church” in this sense would be the company of true believers, and the visible church would stand in relation to it as it does to the invisible church, symbolically and sacramentally. If Luther’s two kingdoms theology is what the Escondido Theology claims to follow, then its use of terms should be challenged, since it does not follow Luther closely at all. Other critics have taken to calling it “radical” two kingdoms theology, in order to distinguish it from the original Reformation doctrine. Prof. Frame would have been better served to employ this terminology as well, rather than appearing to grant the historical high ground to his opponents.
But on the other hand, Prof. Frame’s broader history of the socio-political realities of both Lutheran and Reformed communities is quite good. It is much better than the various historical revisions by the Escondido men. Prof. Frame rightly points out that “Luther accepted the protection of Protestant princes in a society in which it was assumed that the religion of the prince was the religion of the country” (3). He also mentions Calvin’s belief that the civil magistrate should enforce both tables of the law (3–4). Frame also rightly points out that when certain subgroups of Reformed theology, like the Covenanters, did choose to emphasize a strict political distinction between the two kingdoms, they did so in an “aggressive” manner, claiming “the right to depose rulers” (4). Prof. Frame also scores a decisive point when he states that the Escondido version of the two kingdoms is distinctively “American, not European” (5). The endnote at this point is very good and representative of Frame’s best diagnostic abilities. He states:
I find this amusing, because the Escondido theologians often write with ill-disguised contempt for “the American church,” reminiscent of the way Europeans often look down on American culture. They regularly contrast the enlightened positions of the continental (but almost never the British!) Reformers with the ignorance of American Evangelicals. In my view, however, the Escondido theology is a distinctively American phenomenon” (19).
Prof. Frame is right that the Escondido theology often comes across as a sort of arrivisteintellectualism. Striving so very hard to prove that it isn’t as backwards and unsophisticated as its closest ecclesiastical neighbors (and brothers!), it attempts to lay claim to a much older and, at times, impossible-to-retrieve cultural and intellectual heritage. But the Escondido men are not Covenanters, Huguenots, or Puritans. They are conservative American Presbyterians who happened to read Richard Muller and Meredith Kline in graduate school.
Most readers will want to know which party represents the Reformed tradition. If the Escondido men are not the traditionalists they claim to be, then is it Prof. Frame? To his credit, Prof. Frame doesn’t maintain this, though he comes close. While admitting diversity, he still wants to say that the majority of modern Reformed thought, in America and the Netherlands, as well as the best developments of it, run through Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and particularly through the theology of Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til. The Escondido Theology, on the other hand, rejects “the social views of Kuyper, Old Princeton, and Van Til” (17). Prof. Frame attributes this to the Escondido men’s following of Meredith Kline instead, who “rejected not only the positions of Rushdoony and Bahnsen, but also, in effect, those of Kuyper, Bavinck, Van til, and the Princeton postmillennialists” (10). Thus while not claiming a monolithic Reformed tradition, Prof. Frame does want to show the reader a sort of normative 20th-century landscape from which the Escondido men have departed.
The best aspect about Prof. Frame’s historiography at this point is his honesty in regards to diversity and disagreement. He points out the progressive nature of most of the Westminster faculty:
At Westminster in Philadelphia, theology was considered to be an ongoing search for more and more biblical truth. Cornelius Van Til, though loyal to the Scriptures and Reformed theology, was an extremely creative thinker and took exception to most all of the church’s past thinking on epistemology and apologetics. John Murray, with others such as Richard B. Gaffin Jr., contributed fresh thinking to our understanding of union with Christ. C. John Miller developed in a new way the relation between the believer’s adoption and his sanctification (13).
Notice the use of “creative,” “fresh,” and “new.” Prof. Frame is pointing out that Westminster Theology Seminary was not a traditionalist school, and this evidence works against the Escondido theologians’ claims to a monolithic tradition. In fact, Prof. Frame points out that even Meredith Kline was an innovator and not a confessionalist of the Escondido variety (21). While it can be debated how consistent this progression is with the early forms of Reformation thought, as well as which form is superior, the merit of Prof. Frame’s writing on this topic is in its honesty.
Prof. Frame’s description of the 20th century variety of Reformed theology is mostly accurate. There was, of course, always the more conservative and reactionary bunch existing alongside these other groups, as Frame has himself written about elsewhere. The Escondido men, it seems, want to firmly embrace the Machenist (Grumpies) strand of this tradition, as well as, I’m sure, much of Old Princeton. They would, however, like to swap out many of the progressive elements that Prof. Frame mentions for a Protestant Scholasticism of the Richard Muller variety. This second desire, while laudable in part, cannot be achieved by rewriting more recent history and simply rallying around a particular interpretation of the confessions, all the while acting as if everyone else should take the move as obvious. And the major difference, and critical flaw, of the Escondido version of confessionalism is that, while Dr. Muller succeeds in identifying “Reformed Orthodoxy” by broadening the boundaries, the Escondido men always want to narrow the boundaries. In so doing, they, unlike Dr. Muller, fail to paint an accurate picture of Reformed theology.