Something I once heard about splinters and planks. . . .
Just some brief comments today on John Frame’s great new book The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology, and more importantly on the dismissive responses from Michael Horton and Westminster Seminary California (“Escondido”).
Like Bojidar yesterday, I have not read the full book. I have, however, read large sections and am thoroughly involved with most of the issues. My few thoughts here therefore are educated but preliminary. My various other projects—two books, a Ph.D. dissertation, two conferences, international travel plans, bi-monthly preaching, and preparation for a three-day debate event in July—have kept me from pursuing Horton & Co. publicly in a dedicated way for some time now. There will be more to come on this issue in general, however, I promise. We have a big surprise in store.
The reaction from Horton and Escondido so far is unfortunate, even pitiful, lame, but expected. I have realized for some time now they are playing a very pointed PR game that relates back to the Lee Irons church trial (and loss) involving the Ten Commandments. There is much more to this, and more on that in a moment. They are not really interested in an academic debate; they simply want the façade of academic support for their agenda. But that academic support is manufactured, which is evidenced by the fact that only one seminary in the world—their own—is advancing their distinctive views. Only, they are advancing it in the name of Reformed Theology in general—“classical,” “confessional,” “traditional” or any other appellative they can use to make people believe their narrow brand is indeed the mainline traditional view.
But it is not, and that is one of the main reasons Frame wrote these reviews (which became this book). It is highly important to note that the Escondido faction does not represent mainstream Reformed Christianity. Frame states this openly: the men he critiques have too often been treated as
representatives of the orthodox Reformed theological tradition. But they are not simply Reformed; they hold views that are quite distinctive.
If you though these writers simply taught good old Reformed theology, you might be very surprised to learn how unusual and controversial their teaching is. (p. xxxvii)
And if through this book more people come to know the Escondido Theology for what it is, I think that will be a net gain for the peace of the church. (p. xlii)
Most people I know are shocked to hear that “Westminster West” (WW) has no affiliation with the real Westminster Seminary in Glenside, PA. It did at one time, but became independent in 1982 while retaining the “Westminster” brand. There are historical connections, but mainly through some faculty and residual influence that formerly taught at the original Westminster. But there’s the catch: it’s mainly those faculty members who are most responsible for the faction and the narrow brand of radical two kingdoms theology: largely, Meredith G. Kline and to a lesser extent Robert Godfrey.
(How WW ever ended up with the foundation that controls the papers of Cornelius Van Til is a tragedy to me. I wonder if Van Til is even read or taught at WW these days.)
Frame exposes some of this in his Preface, and is very candid about his involvement in the seminary before these factitious partisans created division and eventually gained control of the Seminary. It is out of this bad experience that Horton and others now wish to condemn Frame’s book as the work of a bitter former professor. What they ignore, or suppress, is the fact that Frame was very candid about this, and that he wished to avoid being the one to have to write the critiques:
For the last ten years I have been hoping that some writer would arise to deal with the errors I see in the Escondido theology. I have felt that I should not be the one to do this. Readers, I thought, would largely dismiss my work as that of a disgruntled former professor with personal beefs against the people he criticizes. (p. xli)
Indeed, R. Scott Clark had already used this tactic when Frame first posted his review of Horton’s Christless Christianity (now a chapter in this book). Now we see Horton doing that very same thing.
But hey, no one else stepped up to the plate, Frame is uniquely positioned (and uniquely skilled) to do so, and Frame is getting old (his own argument, p. xli). Time and chance (Eccl. 9:11–12) forced his hand. So he continues:
As to whether I am settling old scores here, or criticizing this movement for personal reasons, readers will have to judge. I have taken great pains to avoid personal criticisms of any of these writers (though I do have a few) and to deal only with their assertions and arguments, identified by specific passages of their writings. I have tried very hard to be fair, to give these writers the benefit of the doubt and to commend them where I think they should be commended. (pp. xli–xlii)
Yet nearly the first response Horton can make is “Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment.”
Against this allegedly clouded judgment Horton makes perhaps the most disingenuous dismissal I have ever read:
The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. . . . It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset.
First, as someone who has endured continual criticism from Horton & Co. against theonomy, Christian Reconstruction, or dominion theology (rarely even given the benefit of being named as these), and yet never once ever hearing Horton quote any theonomic or Reconstructionist author before criticizing the movement with his own straw caricatures, I find this complaint hypocritical to the point no hyperbole could overstate it.
Nevertheless, let us not risk a tu quoque fallacy here. Let’s look at the facts. Horton says Frame misrepresents his views, while Frame states that in this book he would “deal only with their assertions and arguments, identified by specific passages of their writings.” Let’s examine:
Perusing the two chapters Frame dedicates to Horton, I quickly tallied roughly sixty (60) substantial block quotations taken directly from the very writings Frame was criticizing. This does not count the dozens of partial in-text quotations and references. In other words, Frame lets Horton speak for himself on nearly every page that Frame interacts with Horton’s views. Frame puts up Horton’s words, then Frame interacts with those words as they are written.
This is hardly misrepresentation. It is scholarly representation at its finest, and an example from which Horton and others within the implicated faculty at WW should learn.
But Horton is intent:
[A]s I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair.
But this is exactly what Frame did, and he did it in a way that exceeds most scholarship I’ve seen, and I’ve seen the best and a bunch of it. So if Horton has a problem with Frame’s representation of Horton, then Horton has a problem with Horton’s own words.
Yet reading through Horton’s lengthy post against Frame’s book, you will not see the same courtesy extended to Frame in even a single instance.
It is apparent that this dismissal is therefore motivated by something other than honesty and facts. Its effect—for the unwitting among Horton’s readers and students, anyway—is to end all debate at that point. And this is really what Horton wants; it’s part of the PR game. So Horton says he was “reluctant” even to respond to this “new low” of a book written by Frame, for it so full of misrepresentations that “to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.”
So here we have a professor of Systematic Theology in an established Seminary, a writer for major publishers and even Christianity Today, a scholar with an international reputation (albeit narrowly)—actually saying that the proper way to address a systematic criticism of huge blocks of his own writing it not to respond point by point, but largely to ignore it.
And this is what all of the implicated authors do. Godfrey posted on the Seminary’s wall:
All of us on the faculty of Westminster Seminary California are shocked and saddened by John Frame’s book, The Escondido Theology. Several of us were colleagues with John and several had been his students. We have appreciated particularly over the years his teaching of the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, his critique of open theism, and his strong defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. . . . We are very troubled, then, to find John so utterly misrepresenting and misstating our views. We do not wish to engage in a protracted discussion of these things with John, but we do find it necessary to set the record straight.
Again, this is disingenuous. Most of the chapters in Frame’s book have been posted as review articles online for months, even years. The WW professors all knew about them the whole time. How they can be “shocked” is unimaginable. They’ve known Frame has been at odds with their theology for 20 years. He left their seminary because of it. They have been publishing their side of that disagreement for years now. But suddenly they are “saddened” when he does the same thing.
Again, it’s the same response. Something’s gone wrong with John, John has misrepresented us, but we refuse to respond to any details.
Two words: PR.
Don’t be surprised, this is what WW is all about these days. It is nearly the same tactic they applied the last time they were systematically criticized by other Reformed scholars. Their theology was refuted point-by-point after they collaborated on a book called The Law is Not of Faith back in 2009. That book attempted to establish the Klinean view that the Mosaic covenant was an intrusion into God’s plan and a republication of the covenant of works (from the garden), against some of the Westminster standards. And it contained a highly specious attack on John Murray’s theology and ethics. That book was immediately taken to task by the Reformed scholars at Northwest Theological Seminary. They dedicated a whole issue of their journal Kerux to refuting what they saw as dangerous errors of Escondido & Co.
That review was thorough, scholarly, rigorous, and devastating.
As far as I know, not a single author involved with the book has responded in kind, if at all.
(If I am wrong about this, please forward me the links to any book or scholarly article that contains such a response; I will post about it and retract to that degree.)
So why all this PR game? Why reserve to themselves the right to play victim, claim misrepresentation (which is clearly not the case), assume the high ground in the argument, and yet refuse to respond to a single substantial point?
The Kerux journal article tells you why. I told you there was an important church trial of one of their colleagues I’d get back to. Kerux let the cat out. I will simply represent their views at length. After reading this (and I encourage you to download the full critique and read the whole context as well), you can decide for yourself who exactly is 1) misrepresenting others, and 2) motivated by old grudges.
This book [The Law is Not of Faith] is clearly an attempt to respond to criticism. The fact that it begins with a six-page fictional account of an ordination exam in which a candidate articulates views similar to those described in this book makes this fairly clear. The editors’ defensive posture is also evident in the following quote.
Recent evidence of this agitation in the church and elsewhere can be seen in the fact that the notion that Sinai republished a works principle has received much hostility in books, peer-reviewed journals, and trials in the courts of the church. Some are even calling for formal judicial discipline of ministers who hold to any view of the Sinaitic covenant that smacks of works being in place for pedagogical and typological purposes (17).
No specific examples of such hostility and criticism are cited by the authors. What exactly are they talking about? Where does such a view come from, and when did it first start receiving this kind of criticism?
Various answers can be given to this question, but in terms of the present debate, such criticism first arose in the early 2000s, especially in Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The most important example, in our opinion, was the 2003 trial of the Rev. Lee Irons, who was convicted of doctrinal error in the OPC for his views regarding the moral law, which were related to his views of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works. At that General Assembly trial, as well as the trial in the Presbytery of Southern California that preceded it, a number of the authors of this volume either defended Irons from the floor, voted against his conviction, and/or signed a protest against the General Assembly’s decision: J. V. Fesko, T. David Gordon, Bryan Estelle, S. M. Baugh, and Brenton Ferry. The names should be familiar to readers of this volume: they constitute nearly half of the authors in the volume under review. This (in itself) does not mean that they agreed with everything that Irons taught, but it does mean that they viewed him as being orthodox and within the bounds of the Reformed faith as summarized in the Westminster Standards (the doctrinal standards of the OPC). Clearly the Irons trial and its aftermath has put some of them on the defensive. Since the highest judicatory in the OPC found the views that they defended outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, there is a danger that their own views may receive a similar evaluation as well.
It is also important to point out that the thesis of this book is essentially the same as that of Lee Irons defending himself in his 2003 OPC trial. The record of his defense shows that he argued (with reference to the WCF and the Reformed tradition in general) that “the Mosaic Law was thus understood to be in some sense a covenant of works.” Notice how the language that Irons uses is identical to that of this book: the Mosaic covenant is “in some sense” a covenant of works. There are other parallels between Irons defense and arguments in this book, which we cannot detail here. The important thing to note at this point is that the catalyst for the present hostility to the views expressed in this book is the 2003 trial of Lee Irons. Though the authors of the book don’t tell you this, this is likely one of the chief reasons (though perhaps not the only reason) it is being written.
The connection between this book and the Irons trial should be clear. Not only did many of these authors defend Irons, they also articulate historical and exegetical points that are essentially identical with his.
The journal goes on to explain this background much more in depth and show its relevance to the debate at hand—not the least of which is the fact that if Irons was sacked for the same views as these guys defend, then guess who may be next. . . .
John Frame’s The Escondido Theology is continuing this type of surgical exposure, and that’s one big reason Horton & Co. refuses to respond point-by-point. It would expose to the whole world the errors they’ve been trying to hide under the robes of “classical” “historic” “traditional” “confessional” Reformed teaching.
I do have two minor criticisms of Frame’s new book: 1) it should have been given an index. Every scholarly book needs one. And 2), the subtitle “A Reformed Response to Two Kingdoms Theology.” A proper view of the two kingdoms is in fact Reformed and has been expounded by many Reformed theologians. Thus while the Escondido variety is certainly a radical and extreme version of the Two Kingdoms doctrine—thus the oft-heard “radical two kingdoms” or R2K—it is not entirely fair to juxtapose “Reformed” and “Two Kingdoms Theology” in general.
But if you, like me, are more concerned about the pages in between the cover and the index, you absolutely owe it to your reformed awareness to read The Escondido Theology.