John Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books. His recent, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, frames this interview. https://www.amazon.com/History-Western-Philosophy-Theology/dp/162995084X
Moore: You have covered some of this terrain in other books. What was the impetus that made you want to cover the entire sweep of Western philosophy and theology?
Frame: Dave, thanks for inviting me to your interview. I wrote the book, because I had for many years lectured on the history of philosophy and theology, and by 2012 or so I thought the material was ready for publication. My main purpose was to have a good textbook for my students: one that was both comprehensive and unambiguously Christian.
Moore: Sadly, too many Christians place little premium on the study of theology. An even greater number find no real value in the study of philosophy. How would you seek to persuade these folks to consider the importance of studying both theology and philosophy?
Frame: I don’t think there is much difference, conceptually, between philosophy and theology. Both may be defined as the exposition and defense of a world view. We use the word “theology” when there is some kind of god involved. “Philosophy” often pretends to be operating by reason alone, without reference to religious revelation; but of course reason can never operate alone. It always operates with premises derived from outside reason itself. There is, of course, a difference in emphasis. Theologies, typically (though not always) focus on their revelation, Philosophies focus on what can be learned from reason. But those are differences in emphasis, not principle.
As history has developed, “philosophy” and “theology” have developed different traditions: What we call philosophy is usually, but not necessarily, non-Christian. What we call theology usually emphasizes the study of the Bible and Christian tradition. It is often authentically Christian, but not necessarily so.
I think we need to study both, because they cannot be sharply separated, and because they have determined different intellectual and cultural traditions. Christians need to study philosophy because they need to be more aware of the primary principles underlying recent culture and thought. Our Lord calls us to spread the gospel, and we need to be ready to answer questions from the unbelieving world (1 Pet. 3:15). Then, everyone needs to study theology, for in theology, rightly understood, can be found God’s provision for our eternal salvation, including the salvation of human thought.
Moore: Does believing in the Christian God give any kind of advantage in better understanding philosophy?
Frame: Yes, because God in Scripture tells us what is going on in philosophy (Col. 2:8, Rom. 1:18-21). Believing in God also helps us to see why all thought requires a foundation, a sure presupposition. Philosophers presuppose such foundations, or seek to find one.
Moore: Who are the living philosophers working out of the Christian tradition that you respect the most?
Frame: Vern Poythress (Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia), James Anderson (Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte), Doug Groothuis (Denver Seminary). Bill Davis (Covenant College) and Esther Meek (Geneva College).
Moore: Though you cover pretty much everyone, I was curious why the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, was not mentioned.
Frame: Well, I was not persuaded that Taylor had an importance equal to the thinkers that I did cover. That was to some extent a subjective decision. To be honest, I did not know Taylor’s work as thoroughly as I knew the work of some other thinkers. Maybe my nationality has something to do with that. Perhaps if I were rewriting the book I would make a different decision.
Moore: Søren Kierkegaard has made somewhat of a comeback in evangelical circles. Do you think this is a positive change?
Frame: Kierkegaard does not fit well into any classification. He himself emphasized his individuality to the point of uniqueness. There are many things in K that can benefit evangelicals. For one thing he had a positive view of subjectivity, which is an antidote to the adulation of academic intellectualism common in our circles. But he was fairly confused about the importance of having a clear object of faith. That confusion emboldened neo-orthodox theology (Barth, Brunner) and secular existentialism. So whether Kierkegaard can benefit modern evangelicalism depends on which strain of K’s thought evangelicals choose to emphasize.
Moore: What are a few things that you hope readers will gain from your book?
Frame: (1) All thinking, both Christian and non-Christian, is based on presuppositions that can be defended only by something like faith, not by “reason alone.” (2) Human thought, just like human worship and ethics, is under God’s standards (1 Cor. 10:31), and it fails when it refuses to accept those standards. (3) Rom. 1 shows the futility of thought that is not submitted to God’s revelation. It is not seeking after truth, but repressing the truth (verse 18). (4) So the history of thought, whether philosophical or theological, is not in itself a reliable guide. Everything in history must be judged by the word of God in Scripture. (5) Christian thought fails when it compromises its commitments in order to gain acceptance by non-Christians, to become intellectually respectable. (6) Christian philosophy and theology, when consistently Scriptural, can resolve many (not all) of the questions that trouble the history of thought, and can stand legitimate rational scrutiny by fair-minded observers.