Reviewed by Tony Kapolka
Five-decade seminary professor John Frame’s Theology of My Life (Cascade Books, 2017) is a self-proclaimed theological and apologetic memoir. It is the latest in a large stack of his books and the first about his own life. Among reformed scholars he’s known for tri-persectivalism, the idea that we can understand the world through three inseparable lenses. Of these, the existential view “discerns God’s personal presence in everything.” That provides the syllabus for his memoir.
From an early age, Frame was a theo-nerd. And he was funny. In high-school he engaged in a back and forth religious debate with a Roman Catholic friend. After eighty pages, neither heart seemed to have moved. But, upon reflection, his friend left Catholicism for a Presbyterian church. “He gave me some credit… but since we were both Calvinists, we agreed that God had done this.”
For the reader, theological acumen is helpful but not absolutely needed. Terms like dispensationalist and Arminian aren’t carefully defined, nor are (somewhat) famous theologians spoken of in doctrinal detail. But all have Wikipedia pages, and as Andrée Seu Peterson advises in the forward, “read on anyway.” Frame captures the pain of disunity in the modern seminary without ever making the individuals out to be villains.
Frame’s writing is winsome and artful. His approach is to speak little of himself and more of others, populating his environment from his rich memories of people. I wonder if he’s left out even one of his teachers. Many students, now mature in their careers, are mentioned. He captures the essence of each individual with the merest of detail and, remarkably, often lets us know the arc of their story in footnotes that point to a major publication or supply a link to an online tribute. Attending Princeton in the late 50s, Westminster Theological Seminary, and then Yale in the 60s, he’s a smart guy. He then taught at Westminster, in Pennsylvania and California, and finally at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). His memoir is taut with tension; his passion is pastoral but his abilities are academic.
Generally complementary, he can be critical of his teachers:
Knudsen was quite skilled at this: when he taught about Heidegger, he sounded like Heidegger. But, I thought, there is a lot of difference between imitating Heidegger and explaining Heidegger.
Yet he’ll always drop the other shoe:
But in the midst of all these debates, I hardly realized that I had become a smarty-pants kid theologian, the kind I later would criticize fervently. I did not show Knudsen proper respect, though he was a man of great erudition and Christian maturity.
His sharpest criticism is reserved for those who minister. He pronounced his own church ‘dead’ when it veered strongly toward imitating the worship service of the historic Dutch Reformers:
The church had decided, in effect, to become a Dutch museum piece rather than to carry out the Great Commission…
Yet he still ameliorates this (in footnote):
To be honest, I think a lot of us try, in adult life, to reproduce the churches in which we originally came to meet Jesus.
Frame, whose major contribution to theology involves looking from multiple perspectives, walks the walk here. But what of his apologetic mission, to reveal God’s personal presence in his life? Were curses turned into blessings?
I’m sure he would assent. In all things, Frame credits God. God provided his skills, made his way clear, and even returned a hastily mailed letter for additional postage. (After much prayer and more stamps, he mailed it again, beginning a courtship that resulted in his marriage.) Frame tries to pastor (or play choir director, a position more often offered him) without rousing success, yet his academic appointments come easily. Joining RTS in later years, he satisfied his harshest critic on a point of theology because he had written a paper thirty-plus years earlier, using that scholar’s first book. God does work in mysterious ways.
While it would be unfair to characterize his memoir as a study in the miraculous, he relates surprising coincidences that can be credited to God. The (non-Christian) father of a child in Frame’s home-schooling group flipped his car the day before Christmas. Hours later, safely attending Christmas Eve service with the Frames, their friend is moved by the sermon, on the paradox of incarnate humility: “An Upside Down Christmas.” At another church Frame attended, the preacher finished the sermon, commenting that he did not want to stay on earth one moment beyond his task. “And when I get to heaven…” were his last words, as he died in the pulpit.
In God’s providence, Frame even speaks directly to me:
I always have had an affection for book reviews as a genre. In a review, a writer is forced to interact with what the author specifically says, rather than with abstract stereotypes… To do this well, the reviewer must write at some length, making his case cogently from the author’s text.
Alas, he complains, modern word-length restrictions have led to a “tell generally what is in the book, commend or criticize briefly” approach. Convicted, Sir. Guilty as charged.
Thanks, Tony, for this intriguing review. You’ve roused my curiosity.