Monday, May 25, 2009

Why Europe Needs John Frame

The nature of European theology has undergone radical change in the last centuries. A primary presupposition of the theology of the medieval period was the presence of an archetypal structure in the universe that provides cohesion for the whole of human life. It is this structure which supplied the underlying premise of “Christendom.” Despite the magisterial Reformers quarrel with High Scholasticism, they too believed that Christian theology articulates holistic implications for the whole of life. Luther and Calvin’s doctrines of vocation, in particular, did much to facilitate this message.

However, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Virtuosi and men of letters were seeking to replace what they perceived as the darkness, ignorance, and grip of Christianity that had ruled men’s minds from the Middle Ages to the Thirty Years War with the “light” of human reason, autonomy, and tolerance. The “Age of Reason” revealed a prevailing trust in the twin pillars of science and human reason that together could harness nature to achieve nothing less than a new world.

Since the Enlightenment, European theology has worked hard to find a voice which again heralds Christianity as a complete way of life, but with a modern twist. The concern turned to striking a chord with Europeans that balances the insular concerns of faith with the objective claims of science, reason, and culture. In the eighteenth century, Kant’s critical limitation of reason did more to regain this ascendant voice and also to provide the basis for the modern articulation of “worldview”: the idea that life and all things in it can be seen holistically and interconnected. Friedrich Schleirmacher expresses this concept in Reden uber die Religion where the Divine is expressed in the most encompassing of terms. But the Romantic attempt to regain an overarching context for theology was somewhat hampered by the fact that religious scholars, following Kant, sought to identify and to justify a continuing role for the Christian faith in an intellectual context that had become inhospitable. In that sense their efforts were mainly apologetic rather than transforming.

Many years later, Europe witnessed a brilliant, though unbiblical, response to the Enlightenment’s displacing of theology in the form of the Neo-Reformation theologians. Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann offered a much more moderate response to the Enlightenment’s delimiting of faith by remaining committed to the transcendent acts of God while acknowledging the use of modern historiographical methods and modern culture. Nevertheless, the Neo-Reformation theologians claimed theology as one academic discipline among others and thus failed to make theology the queen of the sciences once more. Of further disappointment is the fact that in reacting harshly to the decentralization of God in European thought before Kant, the Neo-Reformation theology swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme, whereby it replaced the radical anthropocentric syllabus with an equally unbalanced stress on the transcendent nature of God – the “wholly other,” making the transition to how Europeans could think culturally very difficult.

Years later, Pannenberg and Moltmann, hoping to imbue theology with a quickening reaction among Europeans, turned the emphasis in theology from a transcendental view of God toward its eschatological future; from a theocentric, otherworldly starting point to the concrete processes of culture. While the “theology of hope” – a rubric which itself was pregnant with meaning among Europeans on the heels of two world wars – was well intentioned, in the end it influenced more thinkers in America than it did among continental European theologians and philosophers where its impact was limited.

During the early twentieth century, Hegel saw a renaissance among some theological guilds; and despite its continuing struggle to adequately bridge individualism and multiculturalism, many academics today view postmodern thought as holding out hope for Europe’s civilizing paradigm. But overall, the jury is still out on postmodernism, whereby the European scene still awaits a central character and thought-system to rally around.

Enter John M. Frame. An introduction of Frame’s lordship theology could very well provide a fresh assessment of theology, one in which even competing interests in European theology can find renewed inspiration. On the one hand, Frame reaffirms the archetypal structure of theology which enabled medieval thought to create a basis for Christendom and the Reformers to speak of Christianity as embracing the whole of life. Yet, like Kant, his lordship criterion limits reason, reminding us that all knowledge of God is “creaturely.” But contra Kant, Frame presents us a unified worldview that is able to dialogue with science, and culture, without leaving the realm of faith to enter the “phenomenal” — thus demonstrating the applicability of faith to the concrete processes of our living environment.

Like the Neo-Reformers, he affirms the high role of Scripture, but unlike them is not burdened by a philosophical view of God’s transcendence that is sometimes at odds with scripture and with God’s immanence. So Frame’s theology shows us the linkage between God’s transcendence and our need to live culturally.

Further still, Frame’s historical position is like Pannenberg and Moltmann on one level only: it is proleptical. But whereas these men sacrificed God’s transcendence and his acts in history for the vindication of faith at the end of history, Frame maintains both emphases, creating much needed balance between the two. Frame’s consistent obsequiousness to God’s lordship in the processes of history provides us a proleptical view of history in which history is not seen merely as hopeful events, but as descriptive events which anticipate a coming reality.

In all, I believe that to the extent European’s are exposed to Frame’s theology they will find in it a treatment of Christianity that is rigorous in theory yet consistent and practical. It may be an important step toward furthering the return of Christian theology in Europe from the edges of marginalization to a central and high place among other academic disciplines.

John Frame is one of the best Reformed theologians writing today. I have always found his work to be stimulating and thought provoking.”
A.T.B. McGowan, principal and professor of theology, Highland Theological College; honorary professor of Reformed doctrine, University of Aberdeen

Clarity, warmth, thoroughness, and the charm of unassuming mastery are the marks of all John Frame’s published work. As a systematic theologian, he is in fact one of the giants of our time.”
—J.I. Packer, Regent College

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