Frame, John. Theology of My Life: A Theological and Apologetic Memoir. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017. 230 pp.
In 1969, Leonard Cohen released his Songs from a Room album. Bird on the Wire is the album’s opening track, and Cohen bookends the song with this stanza: Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. In his Theology of My Life, John Frame, in many ways, reveals himself as one who has tried in his own way to be free.
John Frame is a Reformed theologian widely known for his work in epistemology, apologetics, and systematic theology, perhaps most notably for his triperspectivalism. Frame was a professor for nearly 50 years between Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) and Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), and, over that time, produced a prolific quantity of theological books and writings. In Theology of My Life, Frame has written an autobiographical memoir to show how “one’s theological convictions are products, not only of logic and reasoning, but also of the events of one’s life and the people one interacts with” (back cover). Beginning with his childhood, progressing through decades in theological academia, and ending with his retirement, Frame tells the story of the people, events, and influences that shaped the theology of his life.
Don’t underestimate the value of the mundane. As a child in Sunday School, Frame admits to being “the worst-behaved kid in the class,” playing a role in bringing some teachers to tears and others to resignation (4). Yet through the persistence of those teachers and his Beverly Heights church in the mundane work of Sunday School, this rebellious kid became a Christian and a leading theologian whose work has influenced myriads of people with the gospel.
Recognize the influence of people in the Christian life. There is no doubt that Frame’s theology was shaped as much or more by people he interacted with as it was by his logic and reasoning. It was the repeated gospel teaching of Sunday School teachers that lead to his conversion. It was D.G. Barnhouse and John Gerstner who helped form his early theology. The influence of Donald Fullerton during his undergraduate days at Princeton solidified him as evangelical. As a student at WTS, Frame became Reformed and was influenced toward apologetics under Cornelius Van Til, who Frame says was “the chief intellectual influence on me” (58). For Christians, it should not surprise us that people play an important role in our theological development. After all, it is to Christian people that the Lord Jesus gives the command to go make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them all that he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).
Trust in God’s providence. John Frame wanted to be an evangelist, yet, following graduation from WTS, he realized “my passions are pastoral, but my abilities are academic,” bored as he often is with academic theological study (72). Rather than spend a life grumbling and complaining that God did not become a sub-contractor to his own kingdom building plan, Frame submitted to the lordship of Christ by trusting in God’s providence as he stayed in the world of academia for the next five decades. To somewhat resolve the tension between his ambitions and abilities, he sought to develop “academic theology in a way that would encourage the ministry of the church” (72). Frame’s life is a reminder that even if your dreams never come to fruition, a life surrendered to Jesus and the providence of God will bear much fruit.
Don’t romanticize academia. As a person who enjoys theological academics, it’s sometimes easy to think that the scholarly life is all roses as you get to spend your days reading, writing, researching, and teaching about gospel subjects you love. Among a group of theologically conservative, gospel-centered, evangelical faculty oriented toward Christian academic progress, what issues could there be? Well, Frame, after fifty years in the academy, articulates that there’s bad with the good. There can be stressful workloads, faculty disputes, and theological jockeying that can range from necessary to petty to sinful. Even in the academy, sanctification is needed.
Be free in Christ. John Frame is very much a man who throughout his life has tried in his own way to be free in Christ, pursuing his own convictions even when they weren’t always well-received. As a young man, he chose Princeton for college over his family’s desire for him to go to Yale (25). His parents wanted him to choose a prestigious seminary, but he chose WTS because of its conservatism (53). Frame favored creativity within the bounds of orthodoxy as his academic mantra—which he believed was formed from the founding fathers of WTS, but his view was overruled by a WTS faculty that desired traditional confessional conformity, which led to his transfer to RTS (92, 150-163). Even in the local church, Frame desired an outreach emphasis that would focus on reaching non-Christians with the gospel when, often, the church favored an inward confessional focus (119-122). Frame pursued his convictions but seems charitable toward others, even when his own convictions were rejected.
CONCLUSIONTheology of My Life is indeed a book about the people and ideas who, through the providence of God, shaped John Frame, his theology, and his life. An open book full of stories of failures, successes, and honest reflection over a lifetime of academic ministry, the reader gets insight into the formation of this bird on the wire in a way that makes this transcendent figure relatable as a man (perhaps even in more ways than one might expect). And among many lessons learned, reading this existential book should cause Christian readers to reflect thankfully and charitably about the people who, by the kind providence of God, have shaped our lives with the gospel.