Fitting the pieces of the Bible together

Religion | An excerpt from John Frame’s <em>Systematic Theology</em>
by John Frame
Posted 5/03/14, 03:05 pm

In 1976 I publicly professed faith in Christ, was baptized, and joined a church, believing what I read in the Bible but not understanding much about how things fit together. A year later a trustworthy minister walked me through a seminary bookstore and told me I needed to buy Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, John Calvin’s two-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Charles Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology—so I did, 1-2-3, spending more than I should have in terms of my budget at that time. 

They were excellent investments. Berkhof was so hugely useful that many moves later I’ve held onto it, although it’s now available for free online. Calvin was terrific and Hodge was helpful, and both now are available online for free at several places, including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Calvin and Hodge).

How then should you spend the money you have undoubtedly set aside for deep theological study? Wayne Grudem’s 20-year-old Systematic Theology (Zondervan) is excellent, and with 400,000 copies in print, many people already know of it. I haven’t seen it online for free, but if you like to listen rather than read, 117 podcasts of Grudem’s systematic theology lectures are available for free at Apple iTunes or Monergism.

The systematic that you may not be aware of is John Frame’s new Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2013). So far I’ve just dipped into it, and have learned something each time. It comes highly recommended by John Piper and many others who are much more discerning than I am. As Piper put it, ”Few in our day champion a vision of God as massive, magnificent, and biblical as John Frame’s. For decades, he has given himself to the church, to his students, and to meticulous thinking and the rigorous study of the Bible.” And now, he gives himself to you. We’re glad to post Frame’s first chapter here. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 1: What Is Theology?

Theology is full of definitions of things. One of the useful features of a systematic theology is that you can turn there and get quick definitions of terms such as justification, glorification, or hypostatic union. Definitions are useful, but we should be warned that they are rarely, if ever, found in Scripture itself.[1] Such definitions are themselves theology in that they are the work of human beings trying to understand Scripture. This work is fallible, and theological definitions are almost never adequate in themselves to describe the complex ways in which language is used in the Bible. For example, when John speaks of those who “believed” in Jesus in John 8:31, he is not using the term in any of the classical theological definitions of belief or faith. You can tell, because in verse 44 Jesus tells them, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

This reminder is especially appropriate when we are defining terms that are not explicitly found in Scripture itself. Theology itself is one of these. Theologians have developed a number of terms and concepts that are absent from Scripture itself, such as Trinity, substance, person, nature, aseity, inerrancy, effectual calling. There is nothing wrong with inventing new terms in order to better communicate biblical teaching. Indeed, this happens on a grand scale whenever the Bible is translated into a new language. When people first translated the Bible into French, German, English, and other languages, each time they had to come up with a whole set of new terms for everything in the Bible. From this fact, we can see that the line between translation and theology is not sharp.

Theologians came up with the term effectual calling to distinguish one biblical use of the term calling from others. Effectual calling is God’s sovereign summons that actually draws a person into union with Christ. But this is not the only kind of calling mentioned in Scripture. Calling can also refer to a name-giving, or an invitation, or a request for someone’s attention. So the term effectual calling isolates a particular biblical concept, distinguishing it from others. We see again, then, how making a definition is itself a theological task. It can help us to understand something of the teaching of Scripture.

Definitions, then, can be helpful teaching tools. But we should not look at them to find what something “really is,” as though a definition gave us unique insight into the nature of something beyond what we could find in the Bible itself. A theological definition of omniscience doesn’t tell you what omniscience really is, as if the biblical descriptions of God’s knowledge were somehow inadequate, even misleading or untrue. Even though there are none to few definitions in the Bible, Scripture, not any theological definition, is our ultimate authority. Theological definitions must measure up to Scripture, not the other way around.

Nor should we assume that there is only one possible definition of something. Sin can be defined as (1) transgression of God’s law or as (2) rebellion against God’s lordship. Other definitions, too, may be possible, but let’s just consider these. Of course, if you define sin as transgression of God’s law, you may well need to make it clear that such transgression constitutes rebellion. And if you define it as rebellion, eventually you will probably need to say that the rebellion in question is a rejection of a divine law. You may use either definition as long as you understand that each implies the other. You may choose either one as your definition, as long as you recognize the other as a description.

So of course, definitions are not something to live or die for. We should seek to understand the definitions of various writers, recognizing that someone who uses a different definition from ours might not differ with us at all on the substantive doctrine.

Long and Short Definitions

Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:

Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word ofGod.[2]

Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and soon.

I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language,[3] James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more.

The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant.

Theology as Application

Let us then attempt to develop a concept or definition of theology.[4] The basic idea of theology is evident in the etymology of the term: a study of God. But we should seek a more precise definition.

As I will argue in chapters 23–28, in Christianity the study of God is a study of God’s revelation of himself. Natural revelation and word revelation illumine one another. Scripture (our currently available form of word revelation) is crucial to the task of theology because as a source of divine words it is sufficient for human life (2 Tim. 3:16–17), and it has a kind of clarity not found in natural revelation. But natural revelation is a necessary means of interpreting Scripture. To properly understand Scripture, we need to know something about ancient languages and culture, and that information is not always available in Scripture alone. Nevertheless, once we have reached a settled interpretation as to what Scripture says, that knowledge takes precedence over any ideas supposedly derived from natural revelation.

So theology must be essentially a study of Scripture. It should not be defined as an analysis of human religious consciousness or feelings, as in the view of Friedrich Schleiermacher.[5] But we need to ask how theology is to study Scripture. Theology is not interested in finding the middle word in the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes, for example.

Charles Hodge saw theology as a science that dealt with the facts of Scripture, as an astronomer deals with facts about the heavenly bodies or a geologist deals with facts about rocks. He said that theology “is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.”[6] If Schleiermacher’s concept of theology is subjectivist, Hodge’s might be called objectivist. Schleiermacher looked inward, Hodge outward. Schleiermacher looked primarily at subjective feelings, Hodge at objective facts. To Hodge, theology seeks the objective truth about God through Scripture. He wants the “facts” and the “truths.”

Certainly Hodge’s definition of theology is better than Schleiermacher’s, because Hodge’s is Bible-centered. But Hodge, like many orthodox evangelical theologians, leaves us confused about an important question: why do we need theology when we have Scripture?

Scripture itself, given Hodge’s own view of Scripture, tells us objective truth about God. We don’t need a theological science to give us that truth. So what is the role of theology?

In the statement quoted above, Hodge says that theology is an “exhibition of the facts of Scripture.” But aren’t the facts of Scripture already exhibited in the biblical text itself?

He further says that theology exhibits these facts “in their proper order and relation.” This sounds a bit as though the order and relation of the facts in Scripture itself are somehow improper, and that theology has to put them back where they belong. People sometimes talk about the theological “system” of biblical doctrine as if that system stated the truth in a better way than Scripture itself, or even as if that system were the real meaning of Scripture hidden beneath all the stories, psalms, wisdom sayings, and so on. I don’t think Hodge had anything like this in mind; such ideas are inconsistent with Hodge’s high view of Scripture. But his phrase “proper order and relation” doesn’t guard well against such notions. And in any case, it leaves unclear the relation between theology and Scripture.

He continues by saying that theology, together with its work of putting the facts of Scripture into proper order and relation, seeks to state “the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.” Certainly this is one of the things that theologians do, and ought to do. But again we ask: hasn’t Scripture done this already? And if it has, then what is left for theology todo?

In seeking a definition of theology, we need to emphasize not only its continuity with Scripture, but its discontinuity, too. The former is not difficult for orthodox Protestants: theology must be in accord with Scripture. But the latter is more difficult to formulate. Obviously, theology is something different from Scripture. It doesn’t just repeat the words of Scripture. So the main question about theology is this: what is the difference between theology and Scripture, and how can that difference be justified?

Evidently the theologian restates the facts and general truths of Scripture, for some purpose. But for what purpose? Hodge does not tell us.

In my view, the only possible answer is this: the theologian states the facts and truths of Scripture for the purpose of edification. Those truths are stated not for their own sake, but to build up people in Christian faith.

In this way, we align the concept of theology with the concepts of teaching and preaching in the NT. The terms for teachingdidasko, didache, and didaskalia[7]—refer not to the stating of objective truth for its own sake, but to the exposition of God’s truth in order to build up God’s people. Consider Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 14:6; 1 Tim. 1:10; 2:7; 4:6, 16; 6:3–4; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:9; 2 John 9. These passages contain words of the didasko group, translated “teacher,” “teaching,” “doctrine.” Notice the frequent emphasis in these passages that teaching has the purpose of building people up in faith and obedience to God. Notice also the phrase sound doctrine, in which sound is hygiainos, “health-giving.” The purpose of teaching is not merely to state the objective truth, but to bring the people to a state of spiritual health.

In defining theology, it is not strictly necessary to align it with a single biblical term, but it is certainly an advantage when we can do this. I propose that we define theology as synonymous with the biblical concept of teaching, with all its emphasis on edification.

So theology is not subjective in Schleiermacher’s sense, but it has a subjective thrust. We need theology in addition to Scripture because God has authorized teaching in the church, and because we need that teaching to mature in the faith. Why did Hodge not state this as the reason we need theology? Perhaps he wanted to encourage respect for academic theological work, so he stressed its objective scientific character. Perhaps he was worried that reference to our subjective edification would encourage the disciples of Schleiermacher. But such considerations are inadequate to justify a definition of theology. Scripture must be decisive even here, and Scripture commends to us a kind of teaching that has people’s needs in mind.

Theology, on this basis, responds to the needs of people. It helps those who have questions about, doubts about, or problems with the Bible. Normally we associate theology with questions of a fairly abstract or academic sort: How can God be one in three? How can Christ be both divine and human? Does regeneration precede faith? But of course, there are other kinds of questions as well. One might be confronted with a Hebrew word, say dabar, and ask what it means. Or he might ask the meaning of a Bible verse, say Genesis 1:1. A child might ask whether God can see what we are doing when Mom isn’t watching. I see no reason to doubt that all these sorts of questions are proper subject matter for theology.

Nor would it be wrong to say that theology occurs in the lives of people, in their behavior, as well as in their speech. Behavior consists of a series of human decisions, and in those decisions believers seek to follow Scripture. Behavior, too, as well as speech, can be edifying or unedifying. Example is an important form of teaching. Imitating godly people is an important form of Christian learning, and the behavior of these people is often a revelation to us of God’s intentions for us (1 Cor. 11:1). Their application of the Word in their behavior may be called theology. So theology is not merely a means of teaching people how to live; it is life itself.[8]

There really is no justification for restricting theology only to academic or technical questions. (How academic? How technical?) If theology is edifying teaching, theologians need to listen to everybody’s questions. My point, however, is not to divert theology from theoretical to practical questions, or to disparage in any way the theoretical work of academic theologians. But I do think that academic and technical theology should not be valued over other kinds. The professor of theology at a university or seminary is no more or less a theologian than the youth minister who seeks to deal with the doubts of college students, or the Sunday school teacher who tells OT stories to children, or the father who leads family devotions, or the person who does not teach in any obvious way but simply tries to obey Scripture. Theoretical and practical questions are equally grist for the theologian’s mill.

The only term I know that is broad enough to cover all forms of biblical teaching and all the decisions that people make in their lives is the term application. To apply Scripture is to use Scripture to meet a human need, to answer a human question, to make a human decision. Questions about the text of Scripture, translations, interpretation, ethics, Christian growth—all these are fair game for theology. To show (by word or deed) how Scripture resolves all these kinds of questions is to apply it. So I offer my definition of theology: theology is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.[9]

Why, then, do we need theology in addition to Scripture? The only answer, I believe, is “because we need to apply Scripture to life.”

Kinds of Theology

Traditionally, theology has been divided into different types. Exegetical[10] theology is interpreting the Bible verse by verse. That is application, because it aims to help people understand particular passages in Scripture. Biblical theology expounds Scripture as a history of God’s dealings with us. It therefore focuses on Scripture as historical narrative. But if it is theology, it cannot be pure narrative. It must be application, dealing with the meaning[11] that narrative has for its hearers and readers.

Systematic theology seeks to apply Scripture by asking what the whole Bible teaches about any subject. For example, it examines what David said about the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, and Paul, and John, and tries to understand what it all adds up to. Another way of putting it is to say that systematic theology seeks to determine what we today should believe about forgiveness (or any other scriptural teaching). Seen that way, systematic theology is a highly practical discipline, not abstract and arcane as it is often presented.

Sometimes systematic theologians have produced systems of theology—comprehensive attempts to summarize, analyze, and defend biblical teaching as a whole. When a writer calls his book a systematic theology, a dogmatics, a body of divinity, or a summa, we can expect to find in that book such a system. The present volume is that sort of book. But: (1) We should not imagine that any such system is the true meaning of Scripture, lurking, as it were, beneath the text. At best, the system is a summary of Scripture, but Scripture itself (in all its narratives, wisdom deliverances, songs, parables, letters, visions) is our true authority, the true Word of God. (2) This kind of comprehensive system-making is not the only legitimate form of systematic theology. Systematics is equally interested in studies of individual doctrines and answers to individual questions.

Historical theology is the analysis of past theological work. It is truly theology when it does this study in order to better apply biblical teaching to the church of the present day. Without this goal, it is something less than theology, a mere academic discipline among others. I define historical theology as a study of the church’s past theology, for the sake of its present and future.

Practical theology is, in my understanding, a department of systematic theology. It asks a particular question of Scripture, among the other questions of systematics. That question is: how should we communicate the Word of God? Thus, it deals with preaching, teaching, evangelism, church-planting, missions, media communications, and soon.

Theological Method

In DKG I discussed many aspects of theological method. Here I want to make only a single point, that theology should be Bible-centered. That is obvious, given the definition of theology that I have presented. If we are to apply the Bible, we must be in constant conversation with the Bible. If we are to argue adequately for a theological view, we must be able to show the biblical basis of that view.

There are, of course, many auxiliary disciplines that aid the work of theology. God’s revelation in creation illumines Scripture, as well as the reverse. So to do theology well, we need to have some knowledge from extrabiblical sources: knowledge of ancient languages and culture, knowledge of how past theologians have dealt with issues. The creeds and confessions of the church are especially important theological sources because they reflect important official agreements on doctrinal issues. It is also useful for a theologian to know the various alternatives available in the theological literature of the present and for us to have some knowledge of secular disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, politics, economics, philosophy, literary criticism, and the natural sciences. Some of these aid us directly in the interpretation of Scripture. Others help us to understand the contemporary situations to which we intend to apply Scripture.

I think, however, that theology today has become preoccupied with these auxiliary disciplines to the extent of neglecting its primary responsibility: to apply Scripture itself. Theological literature today is focused, especially, on history of doctrine and contemporary thought. Often this literature deals with theological questions by comparing various thinkers from the past and from the present, with a very minimal interaction with Scripture itself.

I cannot help but mention my conviction that this problem is partly the result of our present system for training theologians. To qualify for college or seminary positions, a theologian must earn a Ph.D., ideally from a prestigious liberal university.[12] But at such schools, there is no training in the kind of systematic theology that I describe here. Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, the application of God’s infallible Word. For them, one cannot be a respectable scholar unless he thinks autonomously, that is, rejecting the supreme authority of Scripture.

When I studied at Yale in the mid-1960s, systematic theology was defined as a historical study of theology since Schleiermacher. (Theology before Schleiermacher was called history of doctrine.) In such a school, systematics was a descriptive, not a normative, discipline. It set forth what people have thought about God, not what we ought to think about God. Of course, some normative content seeped through: not the normative content of Scripture, but normative content that emerged from the modern mind, from an autonomous rejection of the supreme authority of Scripture.

Students are welcome at such schools to study historical and contemporary theology, and to relate these to auxiliary disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism. But they are not taught to seek ways of applying Scripture for the edification of God’s people. Rather, professors encourage each student to be “up to date” with the current academic discussion and to make “original contributions” to that discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning. So when the theologian finishes his graduate work and moves to a teaching position, even if he is personally evangelical in his convictions, he often writes and teaches as he was encouraged to do in graduate school: academic comparisons and contrasts between this thinker and that, minimal interaction with Scripture itself. In my judgment, this is entirely inadequate for the needs of the church. It is one source of the doctrinal declension of evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries in our day. Evangelical denominations and schools need to seek new methods of training people to teach theology, educational models that will force theologian candidates to mine Scripture for edifying content. To do this, they may need to cut themselves off, in some degree, from the present-day academic establishment. And to do that, they may have to cut themselves off from the present-day accreditation system, which seeks to make theological seminaries conform more and more to the standards of the secular academic establishment.

It is good for readers of theology to know what Augustine thought about a particular issue, or Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, or someone else. And it is often interesting to see how a theologian “triangulates” among these, going beyond Barth here, avoiding the extreme of Pannenberg there.

But no theological proposal fully makes its case until it shows itself to be biblical. This means that any theologian worth his salt must interact in depth with the Bible. Such interaction is not only the work of biblical scholars or of exegetical theologians. It is the work of systematic theologians as well. In fact, the systematic theologian, since he aspires to synthesize the teaching of the whole Bible, must spend more time with Scripture than anybody else.[13]

The application of Scripture is a very distinctive discipline. Although it depends to some extent on the auxiliary disciplines that I have listed, none of them has the distinct purpose of applying Scripture to the edification of people. To carry out that purpose requires not only academic excellence, but a heart-knowledge of Jesus, a prayerful spirit, and an understanding of the needs of people.

This present volume of systematic theology will be focused on Scripture, not on history of doctrine or contemporary theology. Of course, nobody should suppose that the ideas in this book appeared out of nowhere, with no historical context. My own confession is Reformed, and this book will certainly reflect that orientation, though I hope herein to reach out to members of other doctrinal traditions. And from time to time I will refer to secular and liberal thinkers of the past and present. But my chief interest is to state what the Bible says, that is, what it says to us.

I have no objection to theologians who want to include in their work a larger component of historical and contemporary discussion. As I said before, that is historical theology, and that discipline is often a great help to systematics. I do object to theologies in which the historical emphasis detracts from an adequate biblical focus. I question whether it is possible to do an excellent job of combining a systematic theology with a history of doctrine, though many have tried to do it. Certainly I am not competent to do it. So although I will rely on past and contemporary thinkers at many points, I will not devote much time here to expounding their views.

To say that this book is exegetical is not to say that it focuses on new exegetical ideas. For the most part, I am sticking to interpretations of Scripture that are fairly obvious and commonplace. Reformed doctrine has traditionally been based on the main principles of Scripture, not individual verses alone. Although new interpretations of verses appear from time to time, this process of change in exegetical theology generally does not lead to change in the church’s doctrines. Further, I think the church’s problems today are not usually problems that can be solved by novel interpretations of this or that passage. Our theological problems usually arise from our failure to note what is obvious.

Taken from Systematic Theology by John M. Frame, ISBN 978-1-59638-217-6, Chapter 1. Used with permission of P&R Publishing Co., P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865;


1. A few Bible passages come close to defining something, such as 1 John 3:4 (sin); 1 John 4:10 (God’s love). But are these definitions, or only contextually significant descriptions? Of course, the precise distinction between definition and description is not always clear.

2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 49–50. He uses a somewhat shorter definition in CD for the related concept dogmatics: “As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” CD,1.1:4.

3. James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 129–40, 246–96.

4. In all the discussion below, it should be evident that the term theology refers both to the activity of seeking knowledge and to the texts in which that knowledge is recorded.

5. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (New York: Harper, 1963).

6. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 1:19.

7. Didaskalia is translated “doctrine” in 1 Timothy 1:10; 4:6; Titus 1:9; 2:1. Of course, we today often use doctrine as a synonym for theology.

8. Another way of bringing out the practicality of theology is to note that the term has often been used (by Abraham Kuyper, for example) to denote the knowledge of God that believers receive by saving grace, as in John 17:3. The early pages of John Calvin’s Institutes discuss this saving knowledge of God in Christ. On the first page Calvin says that we cannot rightly know ourselves without knowing God, and vice versa. On this concept of theology, see SBL, 73–78.

9. Later, I will indicate three perspectives that we can bring to bear on many theological questions. In my definition of theology, those three perspectives are Scripture (normative), persons (existential), areas of life (situational). So my definition of theology contains these three elements.

10. Exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology are all misnomers. Exegetical theology is not more exegetical than the others, nor is biblical theology more biblical, nor is systematic theology necessarily more systematic.

11. Meaning is not something different from application. See my discussion in DKG, 83–84, 97–98. When someone asks, “What is the meaning of this passage?” he may be asking for a number of things, including (1) a translation into his language, (2) an explanation of its function in its immediate context or in the whole Bible, and (3) help in the personal appropriation of its teaching (what does it mean to me?). These forms of meaning are also forms of application, so the two terms cover the same ground. It is therefore misleading for someone to claim that items1 and2 represent meaning, but3is merely application. All of these are questions about meaning and also about application. All questions about meaning are questions about application, and vice versa.

12. Full disclosure: I do not have an earned doctorate. I completed all requirements for the Ph.D. at Yale University except for the dissertation. In 2003 I received an honorary D.D. degree from Belhaven College. So critics are welcome to dismiss my comments here as sour grapes if they prefer. I trust that other readers will respond in a less ad hominem fashion.

13. John Murray’s lectures in systematic theology consist almost entirely of the exegesis of biblical passages that establish Reformed doctrines. He explains his method in his important article “Systematic Theology,” in MCW, 4:1–21.

John Frame

John holds the J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla.

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