II. I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
–– Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1––
Dr. John Frame, on his website co-operated with Dr. Vern Poythress, has written numerous articles in critique of the resurfacing classical theism. Frame’s concern against classical theism seemed to peak its head at the release of Dr. James Dolezal’s recent volume, All That Is In God. But, Frame’s opposition to classical doctrines such as simplicity is more deep-seated than one may actually think. It results from a doctrine of God originally construed in Frame’s The Doctrine of God. Deeper than a few blog posts, Frame’s opposition is couched within a doctrine he has held for years. Unfortunately, the Reformed world, I myself included, turned a blind eye until more able men cast wandering eyes toward concern for how the church should talk about God.
It is my contention that the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox, following them, would be utterly shocked at the language Frame uses to talk about God. From a confessional standpoint, his language is utterly non-standard and would receive a scolding hot evaluation from men like John Arrowsmith and Francis Cheynell. Francis Turretin would, no doubt, respond in kind, as we shall see. First, I want to outline Frame’s position using chapter twenty-four of his book, The Doctrine of God. Second, I want to evaluate his position from a theological-philosophical point of view throughout a discussion of what Frame proposes. And third, I want to cast light from Francis Turretin and two of the Reformed confessions in a historical critique of Frame’s position. I will try to keep this at or under a three part series.
What Does Frame Believe?
Frame’s position, based on the aforementioned volume, may be briefly outlined as follows:
I. God’s Infinity (pp. 543-544)
A. No creature can place limits on God
B. God’s attributes are supremely perfect
II. God’s Eternity (pp. 545-557)
A. Immanently temporal
B. Transcendently atemporal
III. God’s Temporal Omnipresence (pp. 557-559)
A. God is present in time
B. God really exists in time
C. God really exists outside of time
IV. God’s Unchangeableness (pp. 559-572)
A. God changes in some ways
1) In His relation to creatures
2) In His mind
Frame has an outrightly ahistorical formulation of divine infinity. He writes, “I shall say little about God’s infinity, for the word is almost never used in Scripture, and what can be said about it is best said under other headings (p. 543).” But both the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox following them had much to say about divine infinity. It, as Turretin notes, “follows his simplicity,” and is, “diffused through the other attributes.”
Moreover, it’s meaning, historically is much more robust than the one Frame observes. For Frame, infinity only means that creatures cannot place limits on God and that God is perfect in all His attributes. All of this is true, but the core meaning of the term, theologically, is what he rejects, that is, it being a word describing what God is not. Infinity meant, simply, that God is without limit. In order to get away from the god of Plato and Aristotle, Frame writes, “As Lord, [God] has distinct characteristics. He even has limits in one sense, as we saw in our discussion of omnipotence… God cannot simply do anything in the way the nominalists imagined.”
What Frame fails to realize here is that imperfection is a limitation, which is what the doctrine of infinity is centrally concerned with. There are things that God cannot be or do because He is perfect. But these “inabilities” would not be seen as limits since a limit is an imperfection. The fact that God cannot do or be certain things is not indicative of a limit, but is indicative, rather, of perfection or infinity. Here is an example of the folly of Frame’s language: By Frame’s own standard, something that is limitless would essentially have a limit, that is, the inability not to be limitless. But, to not be limitless is to be limited. To say that something that is limitless is not limitless since it cannot be limited is absurd. Something that is limitless is limitless by virtue of the fact that it cannot be limited. Something is perfect by virtue of the fact that it is not imperfect. Now, for Frame, it seems he could just as well say, “God is not perfect since he cannot not be perfect.” But, as is obvious, this is absurd. God is perfect, and therefore infinite, because He cannot be otherwise.
Frame goes on to ascribe two kinds of existences to God. There is a temporal and an atemporal existence in God. Here is the breakdown of the univocal language Frame is assuming. For classical theists, human predication about God must be thought of as analogical rather than univocal, yet not equivocal.
When we say “God has knowledge,” we do not mean that God “has” the kind of knowledge we as creatures are immanently familiar with. We mean to say that God has something like our knowledge, but not something identical to our knowledge. This is language of similitude––similar, but not the same. Frame’s language assumes, not a similitude, but a sameness between the creature and God. This is expressly seen in his struggle to see God as eternal yet, at the same time, temporally related to his creation. He writes:
Over time, our memories of the past grow dim, and our anticipation of the future is always highly fallible. But, as I argued in chapter 22, God knows perfectly what to us are the past, the present, and the future––seeing them, in effect, with equal vividness. This does not mean that all times are indistinguishable for him. He knows that one event happened on Monday and another on Tuesday, and he understands the process by which one event flows into the next. Thus, it is misleading to say that there is no succession of moments in God’s consciousness. But he does see all events laid out before him, as one can see an entire procession from a high vantage point.
Now, if God really saw the world as a man witnesses a parade atop a building, there would certainly be a process or succession of events in God’s knowing. But, the fact is, is God does not see the world as a man on a skyscraper sees a caravan or a parade. Seconding Thomas Aquinas, Francis Turretin writes:
Concerning the intellect of God and the disquisition of his knowledge, two things above all others must be attended to: the mode and object. The mode consists in his knowing all things perfectly, undividedly, distinctly, and immutably. It is thus distinguished from human and angelic knowledge: perfectly because he knows all things by himself or by his essence (not by forms abstracted from things––as is the case with creatures––both because these are only in time with the things themselves, but the knowledge of God is eternal, and because he can have no cause out of himself).
Contra Frame, Turretin understood God’s knowledge to be undivided, that is, simple. One other distinctive of classical theism, in contradistinction to Frame’s innovative theology, is the idea of God knowing things by His own essence. This is a foreign concept to us because it assumes something called the principle of proportionate causality (PPC). The PPC states that any given cause has, in some sense (virtual, essential, etc.), the effect in itself prior to actualization. For an architect has the potentiality of a blue print in themselves prior to actually creating a blue print on paper. The blue print exists in the architect’s mind (i.e. virtually) prior to being actualized. If the architect did not have the potency to produce a blue print, they could not bring about the effect of a blue print. Thus, God, in knowing Himself exhaustively, knows all His effects––since all effects must, in some way, be in the divine essence prior to their actualization. God knows all things by virtue of knowing Himself.
Therefore, Frame’s idea of temporal immanence and atemporal transcendence is misinformed from a classical (and even logical) standpoint, and this will become more apparent as we look at his temporal omnipresence in the next installment. I will also bring to bear the language of the confessions throughout, and continue to lean on men like Turretin and, perhaps, some others.