John M. Frame. A History of Western Philosophy and Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
In A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame
summarizes and critiques Western theological and philosophical views
from the time of the Greeks through the twentieth century. Frame refers
readers to primary and secondary sources, offering advice on how to
navigate the sources fruitfully (since some sources are easier to
understand than others). The book’s appendices include articles and
book reviews that Frame has written. My favorite of these was Frame’s
attempt to answer the question of whether unbelievers know God, since
the New Testament offers affirmative and negative answers. The book
also has a helpful glossary of key terms.
The book is over nine-hundred pages, and it covers a lot of ground.
Frame’s description and analysis of theological and philosophical views
is lucid, down-to-earth, friendly, approachable to laypeople, and
informative. Anyone wishing to navigate his or her way through the
complex world of Western theology and philosophy would profit from
Frame’s book. One who is curious about a particular Western theologian
or philosopher would do well to consult Frame’s section about that
thinker, for that would provide a foundation of understanding for
further study. Depending on one’s level of familiarity with Western
theology and philosophy, one may even learn about unfamiliar thinkers
from Frame’s book, sparking new interest.
Frame’s perspective is Reformed and presuppositionalist, even though
Frame does not hesitate to disagree with and to critique other Reformed
and presuppositionalist thinkers (i.e., Cornelius van Til, Gordon Haddon
Clark). Essentially, Frame believes that God’s revelation in the Bible
provides a foundation for philosophy and theology and should be what
guides it. As far as Frame is concerned, philosophy and theology apart
from consideration of God’s revelation in the Bible lead to
irrationalism and contradiction. In many cases, Frame contends, they
reflect a sinful desire to find ultimacy and to ground reality in
something other than the biblical God, allowing people to feed their
desire for autonomy. For Frame, the biblical revelation solves many of
the paradoxes with which Western philosophers have struggled (i.e., can
humans trust the ability of their mind and their senses to understand
the world? Is the cosmos unified or composed of many diverse pieces?).
Biblical revelation also avoids the unhelpful extremes to which many
Western theologians and philosophers have gone—-for example, in making
God overly transcendent, or overly imminent, or in highlighting one
theme in biblical revelation to the exclusion of other themes, or in
making issues a matter of either/or rather than both/and. While Frame
is critical of autonomous human reason, he does allow secular philosophy
to edify and to inform him, in areas. For example, Frame states that
Wittgenstein has helped him to understand or better appreciate certain
points of Christian theology.
I give this book five stars because it is informative, lucid, and a
pleasure to read. Still, I have some questions and critiques.
First of all, could Frame’s presuppositionalism stand in the way of
understanding some of the philosophers and theologians he discusses, on
their own terms? Frame says that the ancient Greeks were rebelling
against knowledge that they had of the true God (a la Romans 1:28). For
Frame, some of them were seeking a unity or common element of the
cosmos in an attempt to find ultimacy without having to submit to God.
But was that really their motivation? By embracing such a religious
interpretation of their motivation, does Frame ignore a historical
understanding of it, one that seeks to understand the ancient Greeks on
their own terms?
Second, Frame makes some thinkers sound pretty absurd. Kant talks
about how his philosophy explains how humans have knowledge, before
saying that humans do not actually know what is in the outside world.
Barth and Tillich reject the idea that God reveals propositions to
people, yet theological propositions are present in their theology.
Frame is interacting with what these thinkers say, but I wonder whether
their thoughts were as absurd as what Frame’s presentation implies.
Perhaps they held these apparent tensions together, in some manner.
Third, in what sense should the Bible be the foundation for
philosophy and theology? Frame does say that the truth in the Bible
provides a foundation for reason: because the biblical God made a
coherent world and gave us the ability to know it accurately, on some
level, we can trust our reason. At the same time, Frame is critical of
theologians who added autonomous human reasoning to their theological
thoughts, such as Thomas Aquinas. Where exactly did Aquinas err?
Aquinas believed in the biblical God. In Frame’s eyes, was Aquinas’
error seeking truth outside of the Bible? But what is wrong with that?
Must everything we believe be supported by a biblical prooftext? Frame
himself is critical of Clark’s view that one cannot know anything
outside of the Bible.
Fourth, is Frame’s presuppositionalism wishful thinking? Sure, one
can respond to epistemological skepticism by saying that the Bible
presumes something different. That does not necessarily eliminate the
problems that epistemological skeptics have raised. Nor does it
eliminate the ambiguity in reality and in language that justifies some
level of epistemological skepticism. Essentially, it responds to
epistemological skepticism with a mere assertion: you say that we cannot
understand the world for such-and-such reasons, but my response is that
we can, so there! That does not sound too different from the thinkers
Frame critiques, the ones who say that we should trust our senses
because that works practically. There is something to that, but I
question whether assertion, and even assertion that comes from the
Bible, solves every problem that philosophers have raised.
This book does make me want to read more, particularly more of Frame and some of the Reformed thinkers whom he profiles.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.