John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

Full disclosure, I am not a philosopher. Far from it. However, the history of philosophy has always been an interest of mine. Whether it was working my way through Frederick Copleston’s history or the intricacies of the Hamann-Kant dialogues, the history of philosophy has been a topic I regularly return to.

John M. Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P & R Publishing , 2015; source: publisher) is a reminder both of my love for the history of philosophy and my inadequacy as a philosopher. Frame provides a wide sweep of the discipline, yet detailed attention to key philosophers and philosophies.

This is all standard fare for a history of philosophy. What distinguishes this history is the author. Frame, known more for his work in theology, offers a uniquely Christian and theological perspective on the history of philosophy.

Frame unabashedly discusses the history of philosophy from a Christian foundation. Frame is not concerned with providing an unbiased assessment of philosophy. Rather, Frame’s history of philosophy attempts an interpretation from a Christian standpoint.

Second, Frame talks as a theologian. This is not meant as an insult or a swipe at his knowledge of philosophy. I greatly appreciate his insight as a theologian.

The first chapter may be one of the hardest to get through. There is just no way around a complex discussion of metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory. I urge readers to work through this chapter without discouragement, as these topics are repeatedly addressed throughout the work. Also, do not despair at the seemingly casual references to this philosopher or that philosopher, as if the readers were well-versed in these philosophies. Frame addresses all these momentary mentions in the individual chapters.

In this chapter, Frames defines philosophy as, “the disciplined attempt to articulate and defend a worldview” (Philosophy and Theology, 1). He also defines theology as, “the application of the Word of God, by persons, to every aspect of human life” (Philosophy and Theology, 4). These two set the foundation to his discussion of metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

Central to the work is Frame’s discussion of liberal theology. He writes,

If anyone wonders why I discuss liberal theology in a philosophy text, I hope it will be plain to readers from this discussion that liberal theology is a philosophical movement. It is a product of the rebirth of secular philosophy in the seventeenth century and an extension of the claim of autonomy from philosophers to theologians. It is the imposition of a radically non-Christian philosophy on the theology of the Christian church. And it is a surrender of professing Christian thinkers to the demands of intellectual autonomy (Philosophy and Theology, 220).

Here, Frames relies on J. Gresham Machen’s divide between liberalism and orthodox Christianity found in Christianity and Liberalism.

For example, Frame draws our attention to the inconsistent position many in the church took on Deism. He writes,

What amazes me most is this: Deism in particular and liberalism in general are the most serious doctrinal deviations that the church has ever experienced. Deism is certainly worse than Arianism, or Sabellianism, or any of the other heresies. But the churches fought pitched battles over those heresies. They denounced, they excommunicated. At the extreme they held church councils and formulated creeds and confessions to repudiate (“anathematize”) these false doctrines. But when deism and other forms of liberalism appeared, the churches did nothing comparable. There were no church councils, no new confessions, no anathemas (Philosophy and Theology, 220).

Frame frequently speaks of two components to liberalism. The first is what he calls the “conservative drift.” Frame notes that often in liberal theology there is a movement toward more conservative language, but not so in doctrine. In fact, the historical progression shows that as more liberal the philosopher became, the more conservative the philosopher appeared in language. Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason was the first in this conservative drift.

Second, within liberal theology there is a denial that revelation is propositional or doctrinal. Frame writes,

But all liberal theologians agree that revelation cannot be propositional or doctrinal. Why? Because that would mean that in revelation God tells us what to believe and what to do, and that would contradict the most fundamental principle of liberal epistemology, that human autonomous thought has the final word (Philosophy and Theology, 295).

Frame goes on to write, “In liberal theology, beginning with Schleiermacher, revelation is an inward illumination, rather than an external or objective display of God’s Word” (Philosophy and Theology, 296). Hence, revelation, or the Bible, is given a subjective dimension.

I appreciate Frame’s honest examination. Frame does not pull his punches. He is not timid or shy away from calling out philosophers who break from his interpretation of the Bible. This is in his address of secular philosophers, but also with Christian philosophers and theologians.

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology is a long book, understandably though, as it covers such a large time span. Each chapter is manageable, but perhaps not a book to be read cover to cover without pause. Frame ‘ s assessment is not lost when taking time between chapters. The work is catered towards students and classroom use. The chapters end with a helpful list of primary and secondary resources. The work also ends with an extensive set of appendices. Having said this, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology is still beneficial to all who desire to hear from a theological perspective.

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