John Frame & “Temporal Omnipresence” (Pt. 3)

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––

We have traveled through I. – III. (beginning here), and now we are left to talk about the final point, which has to do with how Frame relates his model for “temporal omnipresence” to the doctrine of immutability or, as Frame calls it, “God’s Unchangeability.” First, something must be said about language. Second, we must discuss Frame’s use of the Scriptures. Thirdly, we must examine theological issues which arise in his model.

Analogical or Univocal?

In the first article I alluded to the way in which we should think and talk about God, that is, analogically. But first, we need to examine another way some philosophers and theologians have talked about God. Univocism, or univocal language, assumes a direct correspondence from our words to the ting we are talking about. For example, if the Scriptures speak as if God is in time, then He must be in time in some sense or another. Likewise, if the Scriptures speak as if God changes His mind (e.g. relenting), then it must be the case that, in some sense, God actually changes His mind. Otherwise, it is thought, the Scriptures would be telling us something that is not true about God.

Significant problems, however, have come from this rigid sort of exegesis and philosophizing. First, if the Scriptures say something about God, and we automatically understand that something in terms we are familiar with, we are bound to have a creaturely God. For example, the anthropomorphites––a fourth century heresy––arose because of this exact confusion. Fundamentally, it was a staunch biblicism driving their heresy. Scripture attributes body parts to God (i.e. nose, arms, hands, fingers, etc.) therefore, God must be composed of body parts.

Second, univocism fails to do justice to Scripture as a whole (Job 26:14; 37:5; Prov. 20:24). We need to understand Scripture in light of other Scripture (analogia scripturae). Rather than take some texts over others only to build a lop-sided doctrine, we ought to consider the data and, in our extrapolation of that data in systematic theology, work out ways to explain passages which appear to be in conflict with one another.

Therefore, what has been proposed, historically, is the use of analogical language in our God-talk. If the Bible attributes an arm to God, we need to understand that analogically. Scripture is accommodating our understanding by revealing God in ways we may grasp. Scripture tells us that God has knowledge, yet this knowledge is not the same as our knowledge. But, we must know, based on Scripture, that there is something in God like what we understand to be knowledge (i.e. the comprehension of self and the world). Frame does not speak of God in this way, but instead takes up a univocal line of reasoning through the Scriptures.

Frame’s Use of the Scriptures

In his section on God’s unchangeability beginning on p. 559 in the most recent edition of his The Doctrine of God, he moves through several biblical texts. Citing Psalm 102, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, Numbers 23:19, and 1 Samuel 15:29, among others, Frame demonstrates Scripture’s claim that God is immutable. Beginning on p. 561, he starts a discussion on God’s relenting in the Scriptures––citing, among others, 1 Samuel 15:29-35, Joel 2:13-14, and Amos 7:1-6. Following the discussion on the Scriptural data, he launches into his explanation for how immutability can be the case in light of the fact Scripture ascribes mutability to God.

He lists four ways God is unchanging according to the Scriptures:

  1. God is unchanging in His essential attributes
  2. God is unchanging in His decretive will
  3. God is unchanging in His covenant faithfulness
  4. God is unchanging in the truth of His revelation[1]

Interestingly, in the very next section, he writes:

History involves constant change, and so, as an agent in history, God himself changes. On Monday he wants a certain thing to happen, and on Tuesday he wants something else to happen. He is grieved one day and pleased the next. In my view, this is more than just anthropomorphic description. In these accounts, God is not merely like an agent in time; he really is in time, changing as others change. And we should not say that his atemporal, changeless existence is more real than his changing existence in time, as the term anthropomorphic might suggest. Both are real.[2]

After reading the above, one must ask, “Well, what are God’s essential attributes?” If one of God’s essential attributes is His knowledge, then Frame has just posited a contradiction. For Frame, God is in process beginning at creation. How would this not involve a change in essence? This is the question Frame and his followers are burdened to answer.

It is counterintuitive to biblical and systematic theology to posit a contradiction and then not do the work of explanation. Either God is unchanging in essence, or He proceeds through time with creatures. There is no rational tertium quid (third thing).

Theological Issues

In order to resolve his contradiction, Frame posits that God has two modes of existence, as alluded in the above quotation. But, in what sense is this meaningful or helpful? First, it suggests God’s essence and existence are not truly one in the same. This would mean that God is not self-existent, but relies on the relationship between essence and existence to be who He is. Second, it’s a complete violation of the law of excluded middle. God either exists as (a) or He exists as (b). He cannot simultaneously exists as two different things (i.e. an atemporal Creator and a temporal relative to humanity).

Moreover, if someone were to say, “The laws of logic do not apply to an infinite Being!” then nothing we say about that Being is intelligible. Thus, Frame must explain how he avoids violating the foundational principles of thought in something so sacred as the doctrine of God.

Another issue would be the fact that, for Frame, at creation God takes on another existence in which he is really, truly, dare I say––essentially––in creation. But, if this is the case then God is contingent on that second existence to be who He is. In other words, Frame would have to affirm (in order to be consistent), that God ceased to be self-existent at the point He entered into creation. Nothing can be in process, in any sense, without being contingent or dependent on its surroundings and that which sends it into process in the first place (in this case, creation).

What Frame has done here, as with other theistic personalists (cf. K. Scott Oliphint), is introduce contingency in God. This creates an unsustainable way of talking about the Creator, and renders impossible the effort to maintain a coherent doctrine of God. If God changes, then He is dependent on that which brings about the change. If God changes Himself, then He is dependent upon the part that changed the other parts of Himself, and is thus not only contingent on the change itself, but the parts which make Him who He is. If God is changed by creation, then God depends on not-God to be who He is.

If Frame were consistent, he would posit a contingent, not necessary, God. But, in that case, his god would not be God and would need to be explained by a greater Being.

On p. 572, Frame moves to talk about other contemporary views and begins by (shockingly) saying, “My approach bears a superficial resemblance to process theology, which also recognizes two modes of existence in God, transcendent and immanent, sometimes called the “primordial” and “consequent” natures of God.” He then mentions five reasons his view is not to be identified with process theism. They are as follows:

  1. For Charles Hartshorne, the process theist Frame chose to interact with, God’s “primordial” or “atemporal” existence is abstract. In Frame’s view, according to His atemporal existence, God is a concrete person.
  2. For Hartshorne, God’s atemporal existence is actually temporal since God knows in process. For Frame, God is transcendent of time.
  3. Hartshorne and greater process theism, holds that in God’s temporal existence, He is dependent upon the world He entered. Frame holds that this is not the case, even in God’s existence in time.
  4. Process theism holds that God does not have exhaustive future knowledge. Frame holds that God knows the future infallibly.
  5. In process thought, God changes essentially, and so there is no background in front of which to examine true change. Frame does not believe God changes essentially, and thus does not have this problem, or so it is thought.[3]

There are a few problems with this distinguishing factors. As it relates to the first factor, it’s unclear what Frame means here. On p. 25 of the same volume, he discusses what he means by “concrete person.” And, rather than take the name Yahweh as referring to the divine essence which fully subsists in three Persons––the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit––he takes it to indicate that God is a person since God relates to the world. If we understand the essence to be identified with the divine Persons, then Frame is not so off base. But, I can’t help but think Frame wants to begin, here, with the relational aspects of God which flow from the doctrine of the Trinity rather than begin with divine unity. This is an inversion of how theology proper has been done in the past.

The second point is odd in light of what we’ve already covered. Frame must explain how God is not in process essentially since he wants to say God really temporally exists with creation. What does that mean, if anything? If God does not change essentially, then in what sense does He change? The third point is strange as well. For if God exists in time, then He must have time in order to exist in time. Thus, no matter what Frame wants to say about this existence, it necessarily leads to contingency in God. Four and five are forthrightly rejected by Frame, and rightly so. But, point five, in light of what’s just been said, is inescapable on Frame’s view. If God changes at all, He must change essentially. And thus, the problem in point five continues to haunt Frame’s position. He must give an explanation for how he gets away from the threat of point five.

In conclusion, it’s truly difficult to see how Frame’s position (logically) separates itself from a form of process theism. After all, for Frame, God is in process––just a different kind of process than what traditional process theism suggests. Frame wants to hold on to orthodox principles while, at the same time, introducing process in God so that He appears more relatable to creatures. This has led to a very confusing situation. God is not in process, but God is in process. God exists outside of time, but God exists in time (really and truly). Frame holds to a form of process theism and it is irreconcilable with Scripture and the historical theology of the church. It must be said, however, that I am grateful for Frame’s inconsistencies and I do hope to see reform of his doctrine among him and his followers.

I have, throughout all three installments, kept the II.I of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) in the header. This is to remind readers that the theology proper articulated by Frame is mutually exclusive to the WCF standards and its historical-theological context (as was seen in Turretin). It is my hope the (especially Western) church will get away from this kind of novel theology in favor of something more coherently biblical and historical.

Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 568-570.
[2] Ibid., 571.
[3] Ibid., 573.

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