Books that Shaped My Faith: “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” by John Frame

dokgI don’t know if any other single academic theologian has influenced me as significantly as has John Frame. His work on epistemology, theological methodology, and ecumenism has been formative for me. I must consult this particular volume The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God on a near monthly basis. I could speak of countless benefits I have accrued from studying Frame, but with this volume I found something that was particularly important to my development as both a theologian and a pastor. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (DOKG) bridged the worlds of academics and pastoral ministry for me at a time when I was feeling most frustrated in ministry.

I recall the first time I read a book by John Frame. I was a first year seminary student and had showed up to campus in between semester. So, I took a one-week course on the doctrine of God in order to whet my appetite. Of the three textbooks students were required to read for the course Frame’s The Doctrine of God was easily the largest, sitting at 896 pages. I scheduled out how many pages I would need to read a night in order to complete the book in a week and dove in. It was amazing! I was blown away by its insight, creativity, and orthodoxy. Frame’s whole approach to theology, his tri-perspectivalism, was captivating. It set me on a course to learn more and more from Frame.

I left seminary early. There was a real recognition in my own heart that I was becoming increasingly enamored with academia and God exposed some deep pride and arrogance in my own heart. I was fearful at that time that I was going to become an academic egghead who would not be immediately useful to the church. I needed to get plugged into church ministry, and into a church that was not full of seminary students quick. So we left and began to serve in ministry in a small town in Southern Ohio. It was good…at first, but while there things took a dramatic turn and both the congregation’s attitude and my response to their attitude became frustrating and sinful. After one year I left the church feeling deflated, angry, and resentful. I began to question whether I was really cut out for pastoral ministry, whether I really wanted even to be in pastoral ministry. I began to consider academia as my real goal, and then I decided to read Frame.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God had been sitting on my shelf for years, by this point. On a whim I decided to pick it up and read through the book. It was just what I needed, a perfect blend of philosophy, theology, and counsel on the Christian life. Frame has an impeccable skill of combining deep thought with practical theology. In fact his very definition of theology prohibits an abstract concept. He writes that theology is best defined as “the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life” (76). This idea that true theology is about application was significant to me. I might have readily attested to this notion, surely I would have, yet I was experiencing a real struggle to live out that belief. I could talk theology, but when it came to pastoral ministry I was frustrated. I was angry. I was disenchanted. Frame was offering me a bridge, a connection point between what I had carved out as two separate, if slightly related, worlds. Frame writes:

Teaching in the New Testament (and I think also in the Old) is the use of God’s revelation to meet the spiritual needs of people, to promote godliness and spiritual health. Often teaching in the New Testament is coupled with an adjective like [healthy] or [good or beautiful], or with some other indication that teaching is conducive to spiritual health. Naturally, then, teaching is not mere description of human religious feelings (Schleiermacher), nor is it an attempt to formulate the truth in some merely “objective” sense (which was the tendency of Hodge’s position, though surely he would have rejected the bad implications of it). And though there are “specialists” of a sort (the “teachers” of the New Testament), there are also important senses in which all Christians teach (Heb. 5:12) by word and deed, and even in their singing (Col. 3;16). (81)

Here was what I needed to see: theology that does not serve the church is not true theology. The goal of theological education is to help people know and love God, and “a person doe snot understand Scripture, Scripture tells us, unless he can apply it to new situations, to situations, not even envisaged in the original text” (84). The distinction I was pursuing in my own mind between theology and pastoral ministry was false. Frame helped me grasp that like no one had before.

In particular I think what made this volume so significant was that Frame is himself an academic theologian. He has a brilliant mind, and can interact with Kant and Hegel and various forms of philosophical theology. He can write in DOKG about epistemic justification and the tools of logic. Yet he evidences a burden first and foremost to be a churchman. He writes about these deep things in a way that often makes them accessible to the less technically trained. He models in his prose what he calls us to as theologians.

The book is fascinating. It has helped me in more ways that a single blog post can reveal, and yet at the moment that I first read it this definition of theology was powerful. It motivated me to work through my own frustrations, to rethink the way I saw my ministry and my role as a pastor. I wasn’t allowed to just lecture, I had to be a real “minister.” Ministering God’s Word to real people in real life. Frame, for all his academic skill, gave me this simple nugget of truth in such a profound way and a very needed moment. I love The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and highly recommend it to all pastors, theologians, and academicians.

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