The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology,
Whitefield Media Publishing, 2011.
“What’s that one about?” asked the stranger sitting next to me at the local coffee shop. I had no idea where to start, because it’s a very hard question to answer. The same question might just as well be posed by a Reformed layman as by a stranger. John Frame’s The Escondido Theology isn’t really a book about religion or theology in general. It’s not even a book about Reformed theology in general. It is one side of an ongoing spat within a subculture of a subculture of the Reformed world. Full of personal history, intellectual genealogies, and compartmentalized theological nomenclature, this is a book that will mean little to most of Christendom. But to those few to whom it will mean something, it means war.
A book made up of negative book reviews, The Escondido Theology attempts to identify a specific school of theology within contemporary Reformed theology, to explain its origins, and to critique it as neither representative of Reformed theology taken as a whole nor of the theology of the Bible. Frame explains that by “the Escondido theology” he means the distinctive set of beliefs articulated by Michael Horton, Meredith Kline, and Darryl Hart. From the subtitle we can also conclude that the heart and soul of “the Escondido theology” is “Two Kingdom Theology.” This is an understandable but unfortunate equation, of which we will have much more to say (since there is a historical two kingdoms theology which is quite different from Escondido’s). Prof. Frame includes book reviews of David Van Drunen, Marva Dawn, and Jason Stellman as well. Dr. Dawn, being something of a Lutheran, is not a proponent of the Escondido theology, though Prof. Frame sees her work as influential upon it. Dr. Van Drunen most certainly is such a proponent, and a professor in Escondido, and Mr. Stellman was a former proponent of the same theology, but now, ironically (or not) a defector to Roman Catholicism. In addition to the book reviews, Prof. Frame gives an introductory chapter seeking to identify and explain the Escondido theology. There are also two constructive essays, both taken from Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. We will not comment in detail on every essay in the collection, but will instead evaluate the book taken as a whole to see whether it is, as its subtitle proclaims, an accurate and effective “Reformed Response.”
Professor Frame’s book bears the name of the city which is home to Westminster Seminary in California. This is a strategic tactic, meant to create a label for the group of ideas and thinkers whom Prof. Frame is critiquing. He isn’t necessarily addressing the institution as such, though the institution naturally felt compelled to issue a statement defending itself in the wake of the book’s publication. Michael Horton, who ends up bearing the brunt of the critique, described the book as “a new low in intra-Reformed polemics.”
To be the nastiest and most unfair polemicist in the Reformed community would be quite the accomplishment. Prof. Frame would have to outpace several of the Escondido men themselves, along with any number of Clarkians and theonomists – and that would only take into account the American cranksters! As biting and even sometimes inflammatory as some of Prof. Frame’s writing may be, this book does not take the prize for nastiness. And it is certainly a long way off from the battles of those golden years of Reformed confession-writing. We should never forget that the debates carried out by our Reformed ancestors, even the men now idolized by the Reformed gatekeepers, at times involved literal hatchet jobs.
There is, however, one aspect of Prof. Frame’s polemics which is uniquely irritating. Rather than owning up to the obvious, that he is now taking up the glove, Prof. Frame attempts to play the part of the reluctant warrior. In the introductory review essay, P. Andrew Sandlin describes Prof. Frame as “a solitary prophet whose heart longs for unity among God’s blood-bought children … [who] wants a love-charged truth telling, a charitable defense of the Faith, a gracious polemic who listens sympathetically to his critics …” (xxxiii). Describing himself, Frame admits that he has a vested interest in, and a personal history with, the Escondido school (see the author’s preface, xl–xlii). Still he claims that he “was not a part of any of the factions at Westminster” (xl) and that he has “tried very hard to be fair, to give these writers the benefit of the doubt and to commend them where … they should be commended” (xlii). Unfortunately, Prof. Frame’s style, at least in this book, betrays his stated intentions. At one point he lists thirty-two generalizations of what the Escondido theology teaches, but with the caveat that “not all of them make all of these assertions, but all of them regard them with some sympathy” (xxxvii). Of course the assertions are quite blunt, and at least one of them engages in the same kind of punch-pulling that Frame later critiques: Frame accuses the Escondido theologians of making, or at least regarding with “some sympathy”, the claim that “Divine sovereignty typically eliminates the need for responsibility” (xxxviii). Calvinists of all stripes would wholly reject such a statement, and so Prof. Frame would need to provide some citation on this point in order to avoid the appearance of actually not being fair or of failing to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt. Predictably, the faculty of Westminster Seminary in California have said that they “reject all of these thirty-two points as a fair or accurate presentation of [their] views.”
Still, Prof. Frame is correct to note that being “irenic” does not mean avoiding all polemics. He rightly states that “any theologian worth his salt must take critical positions against error” and “the truth is more important than my reputation” (xlii). It is his conviction that criticizing a harmful theological aberration will result in a “net gain for the peace of the church” (xlii). This is true and must be said, provided that the criticism is correct and that this is accurately and effectively demonstrated. It is our view that Prof. Frame was correct to identify his target as an error and a threat to peace. We are forced to conclude, however, that he did not successfully rise above the perceived mudslinging, nor did he consistently avoid overgeneralizing his opponents. And this error keeps Prof. Frame’s critique from being definitive and, to a large extent, from being persuasive. He most certainly did not, as he claims, “lift the discussion to a higher plane” (xliii).
Publication and Production Quality
Another significant weakness of The Escondido Theology is its relatively unknown publisher. As of its release, The Escondido Theology was the only book published by Whitefield Media Publishing. Labels and publishing houses shouldn’t be overvalued, especially in today’s age of open-access digital communication, but for purposes of public reception, Whitefield Media is a handicap. A ministry of a small and non-accredited seminary, which is itself affiliated with an ultra-conservative micro-presbytery, this publisher chosen was a very strange way for Prof. Frame to seek to avoid partisan polemics. Still worse, the book is frontloaded with forewords, introductions, blurbs, and endorsements from theonomists and post-theonomists. While this is not necessarily wrong to do, it does not make the book appear to be a mainstream Reformed voice.
There is more to the problem than the appearance of marginality. The production quality of the book is quite poor, lacking an index and containing occasional errors in citation. One such instance is glaring. In Andrew Sandlin’s introductory review, we are given page numbers from a book but never its title or citation information! On pgs. xxxi-xxxiii, Dr. Sandlin is engaging with the work of Darryl Hart. Several page numbers are given in parenthesis, but at no point in the review is the reader pointed to the title of the book being cited. To make matters worse, among the list of liberal deviations that Prof. Frame is said to have “vocally opposed,” we find mention of “biblical inerrancy.” Doubtless, this is stating the opposite of the error, as Prof. Frame has promoted biblical inerrancy over and against forms of biblical errancy, but the mistake is embarrassing and seems to illustrate what skeptical readers were afraid of: this book was quickly and uncarefully put together. Add to this situation the fact that the majority of the chapters in the book have already appeared in print in previous books or at Frame’s website for free access, and the reader is forced to reconsider whether this is the kind of book for which he wants to pay actual money.
Claiming the Tradition
A major part of Prof. Frame’s critique of the Escondido men is that they lay exclusive claim to the Reformed tradition. In fact, he says this is his primary motivation for writing this book: “I would not be writing this book if it were not for another distinctive of the Escondido theology … : the view that those who disagree with them are not orthodox, not to be considered Reformed” (16). He adds, “I hope this book will remove forever the perception that the Escondido theology is a standard of orthodoxy, or more orthodox than other forms of Reformed theology” (16).
For his part, Prof. Frame grants that “the Escondido theology” fits within the boundaries of Reformed theology. “Though these theologians consider me unorthodox, I do not think the same of them. Their ideas, even though I disagree with them, are within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy” (18). This is an example of Prof. Frame’s “irenic polemics.” Of course, he also says that their theology is “not standard Reformed theology” (xxxix). They are instead a “faction” and a “sect” who hold to unbiblical ideas (xxxix). Frame concludes that “in the end their teaching is harmful to Evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity” (xl). The reader can sympathize with the Escondido men’s complaint that Prof. Frame is trying to have it both ways. What good is being “within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy” if you are also “harmful to Evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity”?
Prof. Frame tries to combat the Escondido claim to a Reformed monopoly in two ways. First, he attempts to explain their actual theological heritage, coming from, as Prof Frame sees it, a combination of Lutheranism and the peculiar innovations of Meredith Kline in the latter half of the 20th century. Secondly, Prof. Frame lays out his own understanding of the Reformed tradition, giving particular emphasis to its 20th-century development. Prof. Frame is correct to characterize the recent state of Reformed theology as a broad and even at times cacophonous collection of differing strands and emphases, and he is correct to point out that the Escondido men purposely ignore this, attempting rather to recreate a monolithic “Reformed tradition” based on their own project. He is not correct in much of his articulation of Reformation history, however, particularly his explanation of the role of the law-gospel distinction and the two kingdoms. Since these are seen as bedrock theological commitments for the Escondido theologians, Prof. Frame’s inaccuracies actually play into their hands, giving them support for their claim to the Reformed and confessional position.
Prof. Frame says that the Escondido theology deviates from ordinary Reformed theology in its affinity with Lutheranism and in its extension of the theology of Meredith Kline. On the first point we read, “The Escondido theologians maintain a very sharp separation between law and gospel, derived from Martin Luther”; and again, “the Escondido theologians, though confessionally Reformed, have adopted an emphasis on the law/gospel distinction that is more characteristic of Lutheran, than of Reformed theologians” (2). This second sentence sounds very close to an “emphasis” critique, of which Frame is also suspicious elsewhere, but it is also not easily provable in history. It is true, as Frame says, that “Lutherans regularly criticized Calvinists for confusing law and gospel” (2), but it is also true that moderate and irenic Calvinists often accused High Calvinists of the same error; of this confusion High Calvinists also accused Arminians, and the Marrow Men accused the Neonomians. A sharp distinction between law and gospel is fairly common in Reformed theology, and Michael Horton, while he may well be in error at other places, has actually given a responsible reading of John Calvin on this point.
Prof. Frame also accuses the “Lutheran” use of the law-gospel distinction of advancing an absolute dichotomy between the two. Luther’s view is said to be “not biblical” (2). Prof. Frame says that the Lutherans “neglect the third use [of the law]” (19). This again must be an emphasis critique, since the Lutherans are confessionally bound to affirm the third use of the law. The sixth chapter of the Formula of Concord is dedicated to the third use. In it we read:
For the explanation and final settlement of this dissent we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that although the truly believing and truly converted to God and justified Christians are liberated and made free from the curse of the Law, yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, Ps. 1:2; 119:1: Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law doth he meditate day and night. For the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should [therefore] be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing.
It goes so far as to say, in fact, “Accordingly, we reject and condemn as an error pernicious and detrimental to Christian discipline, as also to true godliness, the teaching that the Law, in the above-mentioned way and degree, should not be urged upon Christians and the true believers, but only upon the unbelieving, unchristians, and impenitent.” With this clear historical evidence, we must ask whether Prof. Frame’s statements can be said to be anything other than hyperbole or a critique of emphasis. Objectively speaking, Prof. Frame’s historical analysis is simply wrong on this point.
Prof. Frame is likewise mistaken when it comes to the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and this is the doctrine which appears in the subtitle of the book. Again, Prof. Frame attributes this doctrine to Luther, and he identifies the two kingdoms with “church” and “state.” With this identification he is following the Escondido men themselves, but they are all quite mistaken. Rather than “church” and “state,” the two kingdoms for Luther were the spiritual and the temporal, or the internal realm of faith and the external realm. “The Church” in this sense would be the company of true believers, and the visible church would stand in relation to it as it does to the invisible church, symbolically and sacramentally. If Luther’s two kingdoms theology is what the Escondido Theology claims to follow, then its use of terms should be challenged, since it does not follow Luther closely at all. Other critics have taken to calling it “radical” two kingdoms theology, in order to distinguish it from the original Reformation doctrine. Prof. Frame would have been better served to employ this terminology as well, rather than appearing to grant the historical high ground to his opponents.
On the other hand, Prof. Frame’s broader history of the socio-political realities of both Lutheran and Reformed communities is quite good. It is much better than the various historical revisions by the Escondido men. Prof. Frame rightly points out that “Luther accepted the protection of Protestant princes in a society in which it was assumed that the religion of the prince was the religion of the country” (3). He also mentions Calvin’s belief that the civil magistrate should enforce both tables of the law (3–4). Frame also rightly points out that when certain subgroups of Reformed theology, such as the Covenanters, did choose to emphasize a strict political distinction between the two kingdoms, they did so in an “aggressive” manner, claiming “the right to depose rulers” (4). Prof. Frame also scores a decisive point when he states that the Escondido version of the two kingdoms is distinctively “American, not European” (5). The endnote at this point is very good and representative of Frame’s best diagnostic abilities. He states:
I find this amusing, because the Escondido theologians often write with ill-disguised contempt for “the American church,” reminiscent of the way Europeans often look down on American culture. They regularly contrast the enlightened positions of the continental (but almost never the British!) Reformers with the ignorance of American Evangelicals. In my view, however, the Escondido theology is a distinctively American phenomenon” (19).
Prof. Frame is right that the Escondido theology often comes across as a sort of arriviste intellectualism. Striving so very hard to prove that it isn’t as backwards and unsophisticated as its closest ecclesiastical neighbors (and brothers!), it attempts to lay claim to a much older and, at times, impossible-to-retrieve cultural and intellectual heritage. But the Escondido men are not Covenanters, Huguenots, or Puritans. They are conservative American Presbyterians who happened to read Richard Muller and Meredith Kline in graduate school.
Most readers will want to know which party represents the Reformed tradition. If the Escondido men are not the traditionalists they claim to be, then is it Prof. Frame? To his credit, Prof. Frame does not maintain this, though he comes close. While admitting diversity, he still wants to say that the majority of modern Reformed thought, in America and the Netherlands, as well as the best developments of it, run through Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and particularly through the theology of Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til. The Escondido Theology, on the other hand, rejects “the social views of Kuyper, Old Princeton, and Van Til” (17). Prof. Frame attributes this to the Escondido men’s following of Meredith Kline instead, who “rejected not only the positions of Rushdoony and Bahnsen, but also, in effect, those of Kuyper, Bavinck, Van Til, and the Princeton postmillennialists” (10). Thus while not claiming a monolithic Reformed tradition, Prof. Frame does want to show the reader a sort of normative 20th-century landscape from which the Escondido men have departed.
The best aspect about Prof. Frame’s historiography at this point is his honesty about diversity and disagreement. He points out the progressive nature of most of the Westminster faculty:
At Westminster in Philadelphia, theology was considered to be an ongoing search for more and more biblical truth. Cornelius Van Til, though loyal to the Scriptures and Reformed theology, was an extremely creative thinker and took exception to most all of the church’s past thinking on epistemology and apologetics. John Murray, with others such as Richard B. Gaffin Jr., contributed fresh thinking to our understanding of union with Christ. C. John Miller developed in a new way the relation between the believer’s adoption and his sanctification (13).
Notice the use of “creative,” “fresh,” and “new”: Prof. Frame is pointing out that Westminster Theology Seminary was not a traditionalist school, and this evidence works against the Escondido theologians’ claims to a monolithic tradition. In fact, Prof. Frame points out, even Meredith Kline was an innovator and not a confessionalist of the Escondido variety (21). While it can be debated how consistent this progression is with the early forms of Reformation thought, as well as which form is superior, the merit of Prof. Frame’s writing on this topic is in its honesty.
Prof. Frame’s description of the 20th century variety of Reformed theology is mostly accurate. There was, of course, always the more conservative and reactionary bunch existing alongside these other groups, as Frame has himself written about elsewhere. The Escondido men, it seems, want to firmly embrace the Machenist strand of this tradition, as well as, I’m sure, much of Old Princeton. They would, however, like to swap out many of the progressive elements Prof. Frame mentions for a Protestant Scholasticism of the Richard Muller variety. This second desire, while laudable in part, cannot be achieved by rewriting more recent history and simply rallying around a particular interpretation of the confessions, and acting all the while as if everyone else should take the move as obvious. The major difference, and critical flaw, of the Escondido version of confessionalism is that, while Dr. Muller succeeds in identifying “Reformed Orthodoxy” by broadening the boundaries, the Escondido men always want to narrow the boundaries. In so doing, they, unlike Dr. Muller, fail to paint an accurate picture of Reformed theology.
A Systematic Critique?
So far our discussion of Prof. Frame’s book has been about history and ecclesiastical sociology. As interesting as these things are – and they are very important with regard to the rhetoric of being a “Reformed response” – they are still not the main task of argument and critique. Prof. Frame attempts to lay out his more thorough point-by-point critique throughout his various book reviews. This method, however, might leave some readers confused. Do the various books under review lay out the Escondido Theology in specific and exhaustive detail? And do Prof. Frame’s reviews disprove the Escondido Theology and prove an alternative, or do they simply rebut certain points of each book under discussion? We will here attempt to give a sketch of the topics represented by each book and then a quick summary of Prof. Frame’s points in his reviews.
Of the eight reviews, Prof. Frame covers
- Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity;
- R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession;
- David Van Drunen’s A Biblical Defense of Natural Law;
- Meredith G. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue;
- Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology;
- Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith;
- Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Michael Horton’s A Better Way, and Darryl Hart and John Muether’s With Reverence and Awe; and
- Jason Stellman’s Dual Citizens.
These books are all of different qualities, some academic, some pastoral, and some popular. Some of these books seek to engage in cultural critique, others attempt a biblical theology, and others interact with systematic and philosophical concerns. It is not immediately obvious whether each book addresses a distinct loci of the Escondido theology, as some seem to significantly overlap. We will attempt to explain the relevance of each book for Prof. Frame’s purposes.
Dr. Horton’s Christless Christianity is a book about the overall landscape of the American churches, but particularly Protestant Evangelical churches. Dr. Horton takes on the celebrity pastors like Robert Schuller, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen, but he cleary wants to use them as a foil for presenting his understanding of “the gospel” in an effort to attract more ordinary Protestant churches to his position. While he may have had some intention of scoring points against the televangelists, the more strategic move seems to be to call average congregations away from what Christian Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deism” and towards a sort of redemptive-historical hermeneutics and homiletics.
Prof. Frame caught many in the conservative Reformed community off-guard when he first published his very negative review of Dr. Horton’s book. Surely Prof. Frame would be much closer to Dr. Horton on this question than to the various pastors critiqued by Dr. Horton’s book. Indeed, this first review is one of Prof. Frame’s longest and most heated book reviews, which is doubly surprising given the popular nature of Horton’s work. Still, the significance isn’t hard to discover. Prof. Frame sees Reformed chauvinism and a sectarian spirit in Christless Christianity, with Dr. Horton using unnecessarily strong rhetoric to make what Prof. Frame believes should be an intramural point among brothers.
We should keep in mind that such language makes the most serious indictments. To be Christless is to be doomed to Hell (John 3:36). And if someone preaches an “alternative gospel,” contrary to the gospel preached by the apostle Paul, he is to be accursed (Gal. 1:8–9). People who preach “another gospel” are not Christian friends who happen to disagree with us on this or that matter. Rather, they have betrayed Christ himself. The whole church ought to rise up against such persons and declare that they are not part of the body of Christ and that they have no part of the body of Christ and that they have no part in the blessings of salvation. Indeed if they do not repent, they have no future except eternal punishment. (23)
Prof. Frame believes that conservative Reformed people use this kind of language far too often and without enough sobriety. And to make matters worse, Prof. Frame believes that Dr. Horton is using this language only for effect, not meaning to actually claim all that it would literally signify. Dr. Horton engages in a “bait and switch” by “scaring us to death with the brash title, telling us that we are headed for Hell. But then he backtracks” (24). In Prof. Frame’s view, Dr. Horton ends up reducing his critique to that of emphasis and theological subtleties. In short, Prof. Frame is not willing to grant Dr. Horton the liberty of rhetorical excess, and this is surprising to many readers. But their surprise should itself be surprising. Why is it that we expect a license to exaggerate and overgeneralize, so long as the target is acceptably “other”? Surely Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer deserve a rhetorical bruising? And perhaps they do. But Prof. Frame is right to say that not all of American Evangelicalism can fairly be lumped in with these celebrity pastors, and he is right to say that our criticisms, however ferocious, need to be fair and precise. In matters of divine things, the standard ought to be extra high.
Frame also takes the opportunity to go after some of Dr. Horton’s theological distinctives, namely Dr. Horton’s understanding of how the gospel ought to be presented. This is where the review is most relevant to the Escondido theology. For Dr. Horton, as Frame reads him, Christ is made “central,” by always making other humans and life-situations peripheral. God’s glory is magnified only at the expense of anyone else’s glory. In short, Dr. Horton’s “gospel” exists as a series of polarities (these points are made repeatedly, but can be summed up in the ten-point conclusion on pgs. 58–59). Frame says in response, “the key here is not to think in terms of ‘Christ and other things,’ as Horton does, but of ‘Christ and the applications of his work” (57).
When one asks the question whether Dr. Horton adequately backs up his fierce rhetoric with careful theological positions, as opposed to emphases and buzzwords, it seems that Prof. Frame’s critique is warranted. Dr. Horton highlights a real problem, but he does little more than beat up the easy targets. When he does give alternative theological explanations, they are often imbalanced. To the question of absolute polarity and opposition between God and creation, a much better and more biblical perspective is given by C. S Lewis. In the words of Uncle Screwtape, Lewis explains the correct relationship between God and man, “He really does want to fill the universe with … little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.” He also adds that God would like to “eat the cake and have it: the creatures are to be one with Him, yet themselves.” Most famously, Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.” It is not a question of polarity between Christ and things, but rather of order and priority: seek ye first the kingdom of God.
It is also true, of course, that Prof. Frame probably could be a little harder on the various subjects of Dr. Horton’s critique. Moralistic therapeutic deism is a real and pressing problem, and the prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. Dr. Horton is not just imagining this. Frame says that Horton should “pick on somebody your own size” (67), in respect to his targeting non-Reformed and non-academic pastors and writers. Someone still needs to pick on them, though. And whatever might be the case with regard to intellectual “size,” Osteen et alii have a much bigger evangelical constituency than Dr. Horton does, so Dr. Horton might plausibly claim to be the David going up against the televangelist Goliath.
The only review longer than that of Christless Christianity is Professor Frame’s take on R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession. This is Dr. Clark’s attempt to tell his own version of Reformation history and to make a case for “confessionalism” as the best means of Reformed self-identity. Prof. Frame says that Dr. Clark’s book should have been titled Why John Frame is Wrong about Absolutely Everything (69), and this shows just how the two men feel about each other. While this review is certainly personal and negative, it is actually not quite as scathing as Prof. Frame’s earlier critique of Dr. Horton. Still, this chapter is consistently negative, and Prof. Frame probably had a bit of fun when he got to comment on Dr. Clark’s “ventures into philosophical epistemology” (69).
Dr. Clark’s version of history, as Prof. Frame points out, is obviously revisionist and motivated by his own ecclesiastical vision. For Dr. Clark, Jonathan Edwards should not be considered Reformed (71); he also wants to exclude pietism, Biblicism, theonomy/theocracy, and fundamentalism from the officially received records of the Reformed rolls. While Dr. Clark is certainly free to criticize those various movements for being incorrect or for even compromising or departing from the original Reformation consensus, it seems quite strange to simply say that they are not “confessional.” There were, after all, plenty of pietistic, Biblicist, and theocratic Puritans, even at Dort and Westminster. Amazingly, Dr. Clark even says that the confessional Reformed position does not seek “immediacy” in our relationship with God, that it does not seek to experience God “apart from the mediation of word and Sacrament” (89). B. B. Warfield would be surprised to hear that, no doubt.
Prof. Frame shows himself far beyond Dr. Clark in philosophical ability. This does not come as much of surprise, since that is of course Prof. Frame’s area of expertise. He takes Dr. Clark to task for the theory of “The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty,” by which Dr. Clark means any “pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable” (82). If by this Dr. Clark means to attack those (usually Reformed) Christians who demand absolute theological precision before they can be confident in their faith, then he is on to something genuine; but, more often than not, Dr. Clark seems to want to use this nomenclature to chide those who are unsatisfied with his reading of the confessions. He even extends it to those who hold to literal six-day creationism, a very strange move, considering that the original Westminster Confession of Faith also held the same!
Prof. Frame rightly cries foul at Dr. Clark’s adding all kinds of doctrinal questions to this “illegitimate quest,” when Dr. Clark actually has opinions about these very same questions. “What are these topics doing in a discussion of matters Scripture supposedly does not address?” (84). What Dr. Clark is attempting to do, and what unfortunately Prof. Frame does not call out as clearly as possible, is to silence individual questions by an appeal to clerical authority. The Confessions will tell you what you need to know. Don’t worry yourself over the rest. Prof. Frame does say that “For him [Dr. Clark], confessionalism tells us what certainty we can expect” (85).
The great irony here, and one which Prof. Frame was prevented from pointing out on account of its later timing, is that Jason Stellman, another proponent of Confessionalism, was himself unable to find sufficient certainty and did in fact defect to Roman Catholicism. Dr. Clark’s proposed solution, it would seem, now has at least one notable counterinstance. And Mr. Stellman’s move makes a great deal of sense within Dr. Clark’s epistemological context; it just proves too much. If sufficient epistemic certainty is achievable only through official church dogma, why not go to a church that actually claims to possess it infallibly? Prof. Frame rightly takes Dr. Clark to task for this authoritarian, even irrational authoritarianism. We only wish he would have called it what it is: clericalism, a threat to the freedom of the Christian man.
The next several book reviews are more complicated and dive into more precise systematic theology. Even though Kingdom Prologue claims to be an experiment in biblical theology, it does not take long to realize that the categories of late federalism are being superimposed onto the book of Genesis. Essentially all of these next books deal with the role of law and the Christian’s relationship to world. Kingdom Prologue attempts to do much more, of course, as does Covenant and Eschatology, but both use “covenant theology” as a way of getting at the relationship between faith and works, reason and revelation, and the church and the world. A Biblical Defense of Natural Law is the most limited of these books, but it is clearly related to the same topics. We might even say that Hart’s A Secular Faith and Stellman’s Dual Citizens cover much of this same ground, answering the “culture wars” by an appeal to Escondido views of law, ecclesiology, and eschatology. To have five books, and thus five book reviews, that largely overlap in theme is a conceptual flaw in Prof. Frame’s book. Each taken in isolation is fine, as each book is distinct enough to warrant an individual review, but in the context of The Escondido Theology there is more than a little redundancy.
I would suggest that Prof. Frame could have covered the same ground more directly and concisely by reviewing Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way and David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. Those two books would be the most safely “academic” and thus precise, as well as the most directly on-topic. Prof. Frame seeks also to answer the ethical points in his final two constructive essays on Christian activism and the sufficiency of natural revelation. Here he advances a moderate form of neo-Calvinism over and against the Escondido positions, obviously influenced by the work of Cornelius Van Til. In taking this approach, Prof. Frame again runs the risk of giving the historical high ground to his opponents, as Van Til’s approach to revelation is decidedly not the traditional Reformed position. Prof. Frame also too often grants that the Escondido men hold to the traditional position on natural law and the two kingdoms, when they almost always, under close investigation, do not.
The final chapter to address is the review of the “three books on worship” (275–82). Many readers might find this an odd chapter to include, as worship has not necessarily been seen as an Escondido distinctive. They are high-church, of course, and hold to a certain sort of “traditional worship” and even a formal liturgical one. Prof. Frame once again sees here their aversion to “immediacy” and their clerical overreach, using the “regulative principle of worship” as a means to restrict what can and cannot be done in worship. This chapter is unlikely to highlight a dividing line between the Escondido theology and other strands of Reformed theology, since many other strands of Reformed theology tend to agree with Escondido over and against Frame. The one point that can be made is that Prof. Frame, while holding a positive attitude towards “contemporary” and even “informal” worship, still has clearly articulated principles. He is right to protest against the use of the regulative principle as positive law. It is not law. It is exactly what is claims to be: a principle. One of the more interesting admissions in the older exchange between Prof. Frame and Darryl Hart is when Dr. Hart says that if worship really is “all of life” then we should all be theonomists:
I apologize for going over my suggested limit of 750 words, but I want to make one more point before ending. It concerns Prof. Frame’s effort to extend the biblical RPW to all of life since the whole of the believer’s life, and not just worship, is rendered as service and praise to God. This extension, though sounding devout, is a ready-made argument for theonomy.
By limiting the RPW to corporate worship, the Westminster Divines were putting limits upon church power and the power it has over individual consciences. In public worship the session may bind the consciences of believers as long as they have scriptural warrant for all that is done (or have a good and necessary deduction from the Bible). But by extending the RPW to all of life Prof. Frame appears to want to give the session power to bind the consciences of believers in all areas of their vocation and Christian walk.
Essentially, in the hands of Escondido theologians, the RPW is micro-theonomy. The visible church really can issue divine positive law: it is just extremely limited in what it can say and when. This is, of course, the legacy of Thomas Cartwright. Cartwright wanted an all-of-life RPW, and Richard Hooker’s answer in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was not to say that we should limit this divine right to corporate worship, but rather to say that reason was capable of issuing lesser authoritative statements, so long as it did not claim divine right, and that Christians should submit freely, not because it is law, but because they are concerned with keeping peace and good order in mutual love. Prof. Frame could score more points against Escondido if he took this tactic rather than adhering to a sort of praise-band Kuyperianism.
To see just how difficult The Escondido Theology is to keep straight topically, we can attempt to match the various books in question under the traditional heads of systematic theology. Prolegomena would certainly include Dr. Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession and perhaps even Dr. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue. Theology proper is not really addressed in the books reviewed. Anthropology and creation would be addressed by Dr. Van Drunen’s A Biblical Defense of Natural Law. Christology would be mostly untouched, though perhaps in part by Dr. Horton’s Christless Christianity. Soteriology would also be taken up by Christless Christianity and Dr. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue. And then ecclesiology, ethics, and eschatology would be crowded with Dr. Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology, Dr. Hart’s A Secular Faith, the three books on worship, and Mr. Stellman’s Dual Citizens.In fact, an argument could be made that all of the Escondido books end up turning the focus towards ecclesiology and eschatology, making their brand of Klinean amillennialism the prescription for nearly every theological ill.
While Prof. Frame does attempt to get at the theological constructs behind the Escondido theology, he does not give a fully systematic critique and corrective. His own systematic is unique as well, and so the reader will not really find “traditional Reformed theology” in either Prof. Frame or Escondido. It would have also been worthwhile to question some of the Escondido men’s controlling assumptions about the relationship of reason and revelation, theology proper, Christology, and political theory. It is certainly true that they are far less traditional than they claim, at times even standing in contradiction to the Reformed tradition. Prof. Frame is himself not historically informed enough to engage in this task, and he will likely have a difficult time persuading those readers who do want to retain a strong commitment to tradition by simply appealing to the fact of historical progression and 20th-century messiness. His exegetical work is also at times far too contestable and unargued, particularly his claim that Psalm 119:29 identifies the law with God’s grace. That is not the most obvious reading of that text. Further, the use of “law” in exegetical conversations is notoriously complicated, and Prof. Frame routinely assumes that every appearance of the term is equally meaningful and relevant to the Escondido theologians’ concerns.
A book review in closing is expected to say whether or not the book is good, and in what ways. This is not easy to do when it comes to polemical books, and The Escondido Theology is just as tricky. Prof. Frame makes a number of good pastorally-minded critiques. He also sets the recent historical record straight. He is not as successful when it comes to the older history, however, nor does he satisfactorily explain how Reformed churches today should relate to their traditions. And the fact that Prof. Frame chose to use the method of compiling various book reviews makes his critique much less clear, and I believe much less effective, than it would have been had he engaged in a more direct and systematic critique, going through each unique point of the Escondido theology and rebutting it from the classical loci of Reformed tradition and clear Biblical exegesis.
The Escondido Theology will generate some negative press for Michael Horton and Westminster Seminary in California, which they will likely attempt to correct by a season of moderated rhetoric and reassurances that they are in fact confessional and traditional. As for the long term vision of Reformed theology, I doubt undecided readers will be swayed by Prof. Frame’s book. One reason is because there really are serious errors in modern American Christianity and even modern Reformed theology. There really are places where Reformed theology has departed from the tradition for the worse, and the Escondido men, while not offering the solution, have often quite accurately identified some of the problems. And the Escondido men have at least the appearance of serious history and academic rigor on their side. They have a positive and pointed project, on behalf of which they make confident and exclusive claims. To combat this, opponents of Escondido will need their own clearly-defined positive project and will need to support it with thorough academics.
Here at TCI we have consistently critiqued the Escondido theology’s mistaken use of the two kingdoms theme and their particular take on ecclesiastical constitution and ministerial power. This is not because we think they are always absolutely on the wrong track. Often they are right to want to draw on certain Reformed doctrinal themes, and they are definitely right to be confident in the Reformed tradition. Insofar as Prof. Frame wants to simply “move forward” from all of that – like theological liberals, certain wings of the Federal Vision school, or some Neo-Calvinists – he is in the wrong. As we’ve said, Richard Muller’s work is excellent and profoundly important. It’s just that the Escondido theology is not actually achieving what they claim, but rather are offering up a uniquely modern spin-off of certain variants, some of them rather marginal, of the older Reformed project. And they don’t take the broad view that Muller takes, but rather seize upon the most extreme and exclusive elements of High Calvinism and Puritanism, but turn those inward, privatizing them, after the fashion of modern denominationalism. Their Christendom is just sections of the OPC and URC, and only during official business hours. And this causes them to be quite sectarian and, ultimately, stagnant and non-creative.
Instead, we do need a Reformed resourcement. It needs to move forward by building upon the tradition. It should be a Reformed irenicism that is really Reformed, having clearly-stated and definitively Reformational principles. It should be an irenic catholicity that achieves peace through courageous and rational dialogue and debate, charitable but assertive. And it must always be truth-telling, with regards to itself and its opponents. Prof. Frame possesses the latter qualities of peace and honest integrity. The Escondido men aspire towards the former qualities of consistency with the great Reformed tradition, though in our view they fail, sometimes very badly. As it stands, these two sides, each heir to but a part of the Reformed tradition, are at an impasse, and that impasse locks up our seminaries, our academies, and our churches. The Escondido Theology is a salvo from one side, but does not change the situation.
We think we have begun to point to a way beyond the dead ends and impasses of ultra-confessionalism on the one hand, and on the other hand a Neo-Calvinism so “neo” that it is no longer really Calvinist. And we are finding that many young pastors and churchmen, seeing the problems of the two opposing camps which have so far dominated the American Reformed world, are quite ready to step out onto that road.
 On pg. 24, Prof. Frame criticizes Michael Horton for a rhetorical “bait and switch,” using initially strong language that he later retreats from. Similarly, on pg. 119, Prof. Frame illustrates how R. Scott Clark “pulls his punches” by using softening verbs like “threatens” and “seems.” Prof. Frame writes, “It is irresponsible for a writer to criticize someone in such vague terms that they can be withdrawn when the target of the criticism tries to hold the writer accountable.” In this, Prof. Frame is correct, but unfortunately he fails to see that it applies equally to his own statement that, rather than espousing or affirming certain tenets, the Escondido theologians “regard them with some sympathy.”
 The Escondido theologians are right to rely on the work of Richard Muller and others involved in the retrieval of Reformation and post-Reformation history. There was no clear-cut separation between early “Lutheranism” and early “Calvinism,” and those traditions’ confessional documents do not show any disagreement on the topic of the law and the gospel. The Escondido men may apply this truth incorrectly within their larger system, but they are not wrong to point back to the actual historical record.
 We have made this point repeatedly at TCI. See here, here, here, and here.
 Prof. Frame’s account is consistent with the memoir of D. Clair Davis, “The Significance of Westminster Seminary Today.” Jeong Koo Jeon also presents a picture of divided Westminster tradition in his book Covenant Theology: John Murray’s and Meredith G. Kline’s Response to the Historical Development of Federal Theology in Reformed Thought (University Press of America, 2004).
 See Smith’s Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).
 The Screwtape Letters (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) 38–39.
 Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 1996) 134.
2 replies on “The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology”
[…] and at least one of them engages in the same kind of punch-pulling that Frame later critiques – Frame accuses the Escondido theologians of making, or at least regarding with “some […]
[…] Steven Wedgeworth has a long but worthwhile review of John Frame’s travesty of a book, The Escondido Theology. This is strictly intramural […]