Book Review - The Doctrine of the Christian Life

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For those who are familiar with and have enjoyed John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series this third volume, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, will be a welcome addition. This book deals with the Ten Commandments and their relationship with ethics. While one might not naturally think that the doctrine of the Christian life is summed up or founded in the Ten Commandments, Frame connects the two when he describes the core of the Christian life “as living under God’s law, in God’s world, in the presence of God himself” (p. 3). Thus, if the Christian life is lived “under God’s law” and the Ten Commandments are God’s law, then the latter provides the foundation for the former. Therefore, this book provides the foundation of the Christian life as seen through ethics and should not be seen as an exhaustive treatment of the biblical doctrine of the Christian life.

Part One: Introductory Considerations

At the outset Frame seeks to define ethics and explain what he sees as its interchangeable relationship to doctrine and theology. Avoiding, though not dismissing, theoretical or propositional definitions, Frame defines these terms in relation to their practical nature. In this light both doctrine and theology are defined as “the application of the Word of God to all areas of life” (p. 9). For Frame “ethics is theology as a means of determining which persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessing and which do not” (p. 10). In the second chapter Frame turns to defining and briefly discussing numerous related terms such as immoral, value, norm, virtue and duty, just to name a few.

Frame finishes out section one with the foundation from which he sees ethics in the Christian life—his famed Triperspectivalism. This uniquely honed hermeneutical grid provides the basis for all of Frame’s books in his Theology of Lordship series. Since this work follows Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, he only briefly describes the triad of lordship attributes which forms his Triperspectivalism. (For those who are not familiar with Frame’s Triperspectivalism I suggest reading his DKG). First, control (situational perspective) focuses on the “situation or problems” the believer finds themselves in” (p. 33). Second, authority (normative perspective) deals with what Scripture has to say about the ethical issue at hand. Third, presence (existential perspective) examines the person himself who must make the decision. Frame ties all three perspectives together nicely as he states,

You can’t understand the situation fully until you know what Scripture says about it and until you understand your role in the situation. You can’t understand yourself fully, apart from Scripture or apart from the situation that is your environment. And you don’t understand Scripture unless you can apply it situations and to yourself” (p. 34).

Part Two: Non-Christian Ethics

In part two Frame addresses non-Christian ethics in order to show two things: (1) that they are dependent upon the Bible for their morality (thus they can only operate on borrowed capital) and (2) that despite their attempt to do so, non-Christian ethics efforts at developing ethical/morality structures cannot make good on their promises or account for themselves apart from God and Scripture.

There are three major ethical principles from which non-Christian ethicists have attempted to build their ethical theories. First, is the existential principle which states that “good actions come from good inner character” (p. 50). This principle focuses on the person who must make the ethical decision. Set within Frame’s Triperspectivalism, this correlates with God’s lordship attribute of presence—we are personally responsible to make moral decisions. Second, is the teleological principle which states that “a good action maximizes the happiness of living creatures” (p. 49). This is to say that good actions bring about good results. This correlates with God’s lordship attribute of control—God has set nature and arranged history in such a way as to bring good results from good actions. Third, is the deontological principle which states that “good actions are a response to duty even if they require self-sacrifice” (p. 50). Our duties are what should and ought to determine our actions despite the personal loss we might incur. This principle correlates with God’s lordship attribute of authority—it is God who determines what one’s duties are which He has revealed through His Word.

Frame is clear that Christians can and must accept these three principles collectively and not separately. Together they form the very fabric of all ethical considerations because they each speak to one of the three aspects within the triperspectival model. Frame asserts, “The God of Scripture is the author of the situation, the Word, and the moral self, so that all three are fully consistent with one another” (p. 51). What Frame critiques about these models are their attempts to build an entire ethical system on just one or two of these principles. In chapters 6-8 Frame deals with each model separately, tracing their history of development through their major proponents, laying out their basic arguments, pointing out their positive contributions and then finally showing how they each fail by themselves to provide a coherent and comprehensive ethical model.

Part Three: Christian Ethical Methodology

Turning from non-Christian attempts to shape an ethical model, Frame takes the three ethical principles and shows “how a Christian ethic provides the basis for ethical decisions that was lacking in non-Christian approaches” (p. 131). Part three Deals with the Triperspectival model as applied to ethics.

Section one deals with the Normative Perspective. As mentioned before this perspective deals with what God has said concerning how a person is to act in a certain situation. Naturally we are to begin with God’s means of revealing Himself and His will to us. While “nature and history” (p. 135) have their revelatory value, Frame rightly contends that believers are to look to Scripture (which contains and interprets His revelation in nature and history) for our ethical guidance. As special revelation it “has a unique role within the organism of revelation” (p. 141). Frame lists a number of attributes that describe Scripture’s unique ability to aid the believer in making ethical decisions: it has power and is thus authoritative, it is clear though at times hard to understand, it is comprehensive in that it speaks to all of life, it is necessary in order to make ethical decisions that will please God and it is our sufficient source for finding the written form of God’s spoken revelation” (p. 131-75). The final two chapters of this section deal with the Law’s relationship to grace and the gospel and how we are to apply the law to our ethical decisions.

Section two deals with the Situational Perspective. Here we deal with the ethical situation itself. The situational perspective requires a person to acquire as much information as possible in order to know where and how to apply what is gleaned from the normative perspective. “The situational perspective focuses on the use of that extra-biblical data, without forgetting that Scripture provides necessary directions for interpreting and using that data” (p. 240). So what is our ethical situation? Frame suggests that it is comprised of the presence of God, angels, human society, individual existence and nature. Beyond our own situation is the grand meta-narrative we find ourselves in—God’s redemptive history. As the Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This sentence summarizes the situational perspective for Frame.

The final section deals with the Existential Perspective. This answers the question of how must I be changed in order to please God. For Frame the central concept here is to understand how man was originally created, what happened to man once he fell and how does redemption fix what was broken. To answer, man was created perfect in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28). At the Fall man fell and the God-bearing image he was created with became marred but was not completely destroyed (Gen. 9:6). Redemption is the process of renewing our broken God-bearing image as we are transformed into the image of Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). “Our ethical struggle, then, is not a struggle to put to death our unregenerate self, but rather to grow as regenerate people” (p. 321). Once a person has been regenerated they now have a clear path to ethical knowledge that they did not have before. This is accomplished through the personal relationship a believer has with God” (p. 350). This new ethical knowledge is rooted in one’s relationship with God who in turn channels it through our renewed heart, conscience, experiences, reason, will, imagination and emotions. All of these are included because “the whole person is the one who makes ethical decisions, and that the ethical faculties are ways of describing the person as he makes those decisions” (p. 361).

Part Four: The Ten Commandments

Part Four deals with the Ten Commandments themselves. All but three of the commandments (3rd, 9th & 10th) are covered in two or more chapters. This shows the comprehensive nature of Frame’s work and the wealth of issues the Ten Commandments speak to (though there are more to be addressed than Frame deals with).

Before diving into the commandments, Frame briefly discusses some introductory issues. First, as Jesus states in Matt. 22:37-40 love is the virtue which summarizes the Law “which is the center of Biblical ethics” (p. 386). Second, by the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20) God establishes His covenantal relationship with Israel. The Law outlines for Israel how they are to live pleasing lives before God’s presence in the land He has promised them. Their success and presence in the land is determined by how they obey it (Josh. 1:8). Third, Frame lays out what he calls “Decalogical Hermeneutics” (pg. 390). In this Frame follows the eight rules of interpretation as set out by the Larger Catechism with a brief explanation of each. Fourth, Frame demonstrates the unity of the Law. With James 2:10-11 as his base, Frame posits that since breaking one commandment makes one guilty of the whole Law then all of the commandments are interconnected. This is more than just the idea that whether one commits one sin or many sins, he is a sinner. For Frame this means that in breaking the first commandment you are in some way actually breaking all of the others in a real way. Essentially, each commandment can work its way into all of the others.

Each chapter follows the same pattern. First, the relevant questions from the Larger Catechism are stated with their corresponding answer. The questions ask what the duties are for each command (positive) and what sins are forbidden by each command (negative). Second, each command is discussed in its narrow meaning. The narrow meaning deals with the immediate context and foundational idea behind each command. The broad meaning reaches out from narrow meaning into every ethical issue that is related. Admittedly, there are some commands that overlap, but this further supports their interconnectedness. Third, woven throughout the discussion of each broad application, Frame discusses relevant ANE practices or writings. Fourth, passages from testaments are brought in to support the biblical understanding of each command. This speaks to canonical unity of the Ten Commandments. Fifth, most commands are covered in two or more chapters. For those that are covered in two or more chapters, the first chapter deals with what Scripture specifically says about that commandment. The succeeding chapters deal with contemporary applications of each command. This comprises the bulk of part four.

Observations from the commandments section

Frame’s book is thick and very detailed, so a chapter by chapter/command by command summary would require a separate review by itself. However, there are some interesting and noteworthy things that can be mentioned here in short and introductory form.

First, given the obvious aim of the first four commandments (loving God), Frame unifies them around the concept of worship towards God. “The first commandment deals with the object of worship, the second with the manner of worship, the third with the language of worship, and the fourth with the time of worship” (p. 411). Whether this is Frame’s unique perspective or not, he makes a convincing case for it.

Second, in relation to the second commandment Frame deals a lot with the ethics of idols and images in worship. Clearly idols are prohibited as a means of representing God and as objects we bow down to. What has not always been so clear for some is how we can (if at all) use images, through the use of the arts (i.e. Catholics) that portray biblical concepts or persons within the life of worship of the church and believer.

Third, in relation to the fourth commandment, Frame discusses the differing Sabbath views of D.A. Carson (as espoused in his edited book, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day), John Calvin, the Synod of Dort (1618-19), Meredith Kline’s Later view, Meredith Kline’s Earlier view and the Westminster Standards. Frame discusses the creational nature of the Sabbath rest as a basis for its continuance. Frame spends an entire chapter on the relationship of the Sabbath in the New Covenant (chap. 30). Here he deals with Hebrews 3:7-4:13 and Jesus fulfilling the Sabbath rest. He also deals with the transfer from Saturday to Sunday observance.

Fourth, it is my personal opinion that Frame’s best contribution in this book is found in his discussion of the fifth commandment. Under the guidance of the Larger Catechism Frame addresses “one’s relationship to inferiors, superiors and equals” (p. 576). Though the fifth commandment deals explicitly with one’s relationship to his parents, this relationship no doubt provides the model for how we are to deal with others in all of our relationships. Chapter 33 deals with men and women. First, men and women are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). As such they both have the same human nature—they have the same humanness. They are both given the task of filling, forming/subduing and having dominion/authority over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Second, though they both image God and thus share the same basic nature, they also image God in their own way. “I do believe that our sexual qualities, like all other human qualities, image God” (p. 627). There is a communal nature to man’s imaging God. In order to have a community there must be more than one. The community of people that God created in His image consists foundationally of one man and one woman. Thus, each person images God individually and communally as they work together in the relationship that God made them for (p. 627). Frame goes on to discuss men’s and women’s roles in the home (p. 630-35) and the church (p. 635-44).

Fifth, in addressing the practical implications of the sixth commandment, Frame discusses how it relates to war and punishment. In reference to punishment Frame offers three alternative suggestions to prison for certain crimes. First, crimes like theft should not be punishable by prison but rather, “The primary penalty for theft should be that the thief work to repay the victim, if necessary in a kind of forced apprenticeship labor. Double restitution is strict justice: the thief loses what he sought to gain” (p. 699). Second, he does not believe the possession of small amounts of drugs should result in imprisonment” (p. 700). Third, Frame goes so far as to support public beatings as they “are of great deterrent value, and they are preferable to prison sentences in that they deal with the issue quickly and do not expose the offender to prison culture” (p. 700).

Part Five: Christ and Culture

Part five deals with the nature of culture as a biblical concept and how redemption through Christ affects culture. Frame defines culture as “anything that human beings work to achieve” (p. 854). The cultural mandate is God’s charge to man to fill and rule the earth (Gen. 1:27). Frame briefly discusses Niebuhr’s famed five cultural categories, sides with the “Christ the Transformer of Culture” position (p. 874) which no doubt reflects his postmillennial eschatology. The rest of the chapter summarizes various influential cultural thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, David Wells and Van Til.

I highly recommend this book as a standard reference book for ethics due to its comprehensive nature and clear biblical foundation. Frame is characteristically clear and practically minded even in his heady discussions of non-Christian ethical methods.

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