Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Write-Up: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, by John M. Frame

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.

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