McGraw, Ryan M. “Shifting Paradigms in Reformed Systematic Theology: A Review Article of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way,” Puritan Reformed Journal 5, no. 2 (July 2013): 245-59.
McGraw praises Horton for writing an orthodox, well-organized, systematic theology that addresses contemporary challenges. However, McGraw critiques Horton for adopting new paradigms in three areas.
First, Horton weaves speech-act theory throughout his treatment of theology, connecting the Father with locution, the Son with illocution, and the Spirit with perlocution. McGraw observes, “The advantage to this theory is that it involves all three persons of the Godhead simultaneously and distinctly; the disadvantage is that it makes everything that God does a speech-act or declaration” (248). One infelicitous effect noted by McGraw is the tendency to subsume all of soteriology under the forensic declaration of justification. He is also concerned that it “adopts too many aspects of a post-modern metaphysic and epistemology” (249).
Second, Horton also makes use of the essence/energies distinction common in Eastern Orthodox Trinitarian theology. While Horton sees a convergence with Reformed theology and Eastern Orthodox theology at this point, McGraw does not. He argues that this distinction leads to viewing God as “unknowable” rather than “incomprehensible.” He also thinks that “this distinction threatens to shift soteriology from solving an ethical problem to addressing an ontological one.” Horton clearly does not want to embrace the latter and probably would not want to embrace the former, but McGraw thinks the essence/energies distinction pushes him in those directions.
Third, McGraw critiques Horton for viewing the entire ordo salutis through the lens of justification. By making justification, rather than union with Christ, the central reality of soteriology from which the other benefits flow, all of soteriology, even regeneration, become forensic. This approach also leads Horton to minimize the accomplished/application distinction and opens the door (though Horton does not proceed through it) to antinomianism.
I found McGraw’s review helpful to keep in mind as I use Horton’s The Christian Faith and as I work through his more detailed four book set theology.
McGraw, Ryan. “Toward a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformed Theology: An Assessment of John Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.” Puritan Reformed Journal 8, no. 2 (2016): 197-240.
McGraw’s assessment of Frame’s Systematic Theology can be summarized in a paragraph at the beginning of his review:
“His theology is simultaneously brilliant, innovative, and eccentric. Its primary strengths are the clarity of his arguments, his extensive use of Scripture, and his ability to interact critically with unbelief. The primary weakness of his theology lies in its lack of connection to historic Reformed theology. This is a problem because the absence of historical theology will almost always result in detachment from the confession of the church and an interpretation of the Bible that detracts from rather than promotes church unity. 
Despite general positive comments here and at the end of the review, McGraw’s treatment is otherwise entirely negative. He first faults Frame for focusing on the doctrines of God, the knowledge of God, and Scripture to the comparative neglect of Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. This is true enough, but as it reflects the emphasis in Frame’s teaching and writing ministry, it seems hard to fault him on this point. I don’t have the impression that Frame was attempting to write a standard classroom textbook.
McGraw also critiques Frame for building his theology around the concept of Lordship. He thinks that organizing theology around the attributes of Lordship, defined as authority, control, and presence, undermines the doctrine of simplicity by singling out some attributes at the expense of others. He also observes that in the Bible Yhwh refers to God in his totality rather than just to his lordship. Finally, Lordship is a relative attribute, one that has to do with God’s relationship to his people rather than to God himself. Regarding the first of these critiques, while I’ve not found the control, authority, presence triad as useful as some of Frame’s other triads, I don’t think Frame’s point is ontological. It is a heuristic device. The third point may have some merit, but as the Bible itself focuses on revealing God in relation to his people, I wouldn’t make too much of this point. The second point is valid. I have long thought that Frame’s move from Yhwh to the title of “Lord” was exegetically untenable and theologically thin.
Related to this critique is a critique of Frame’s multiperspectivalism. McGraw seems to think that Frame’s normative, situational, and existential perspectives remove Scripture from its place of ultimate authority, but this is clearly a misreading of Frame which he addresses in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (I don’t know if he addresses it in his ST as I’ve not read Frame’s ST).
McGraw also dings Frame for defining theology as “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.” McGraw says that historically the Reformed affirmed “that theology was both theoretical and practical.” He does not think Frame’s definition captures this. But Frame’s definition is not much different from Ames who, according to McGraw, “famously defined theology as the doctrine of living to God.” McGraw could also have mentioned William Perkins’s definition: “the science of living blessedly forever.” Frame is not substantially different from these historic definitions, and he does not deny the theoretical side of theology. So it is difficult to see the nit that is being picked here.
McGraw next faults Frame for holding to a covenant of creation district from the covenant of works and for over-reliance on studies of ANE covenants in framing his doctrine of the covenants. I’m with McGraw on these criticisms.
Finally, McGraw critiques Frame for a methodology that is “something close to biblicism.” The value of these critiques vary. The knock against triperspectivalism because “this construction does not arise from simple and straightforward exegesis” misses Frame’s own point about his methodology. It seeks to hold Frame to a standard he hasn’t set for himself. As the standard is neither Frame’s nor McGraw’s own, the critique seems unnecessary. The critique that Frame fails to engage with historical theology is valid. I’ve long thought that this is Frame’s greatest weakness. The objection that Frame does not hold strictly to creeds or confessions is more difficult. Creeds and confessions are important but they are not infallible. If I am disturbed by Frame’s lack of engagement with historical theology (and I am), I am also concerned about those who want to settle theological debates by appealing to creeds or historical theology without also making the exegetical case for their position.
In general this was a helpful review, but I think McGraw would have enhanced the force of his best critiques if he had replaced his weakest critiques with measured praise of specific aspects of Frame’s work.
Tom Parr says
Loved your analysis of McGraw on Frame. Great thoughts!