Chantry v. Frame (Fred Zaspel)
In a recent blog over at “Chantry’s Notes” Tom Chantry takes surprisingly pointed aim at John Frame. It was shocking for me, as I imagine it was for most who read it, to hear from Chantry that Frame, one of today’s leading and most respected Reformed theologians, is in fact “one of the most dangerous characters in the broadly Reformed world today” and that his ideas are “disruptive of any system of doctrine and ultimately of any reasonable approach to holiness.”
What could warrant such harsh denunciation of this senior Reformed statesman? It is Frame’s famous tri-perspectivalism by which he, according to Chantry, elevates situational and existential considerations to the level of the normative. That is to say, according to Chantry, Frame is a relativist — for him, one’s context and personality are as normative as Scripture. Certainly this will be surprising to anyone who has read Frame. (For that matter, I suspect it will be surprising to Frame also!)
But there is more. According to Chantry, Frame’s treatment of the Regulative Principle of Worship is dangerous and “intentionally deceptive.” It seems, according to Chantry, that through “logic-bending rhetoric” Frame twists and warps the Regulative Principle to make it fit his own preferences and personal tastes.
From here Chantry goes on to extol the necessity of his application of the Regulative Principle and the virtues of his brand of confessionalism. The Confessions come to us with the wisdom of the church through the ages and thus should rule. Scripture is the rule, Chantry tells us. Yet it is the Confessions that must set the boundaries for our interpretation of Scripture.
I have to say that I do find that logic mind-bending — Scripture rules, yet it is the Confession that sets the boundaries for understanding it. So Scripture or the Confession — which is normative after all? And at this point one might wonder who is the situationalist. We might ask specifically, if the Confession is written to defend infant baptism and Presbyterian order, which is authoritative, Scripture or the Confession? As a Baptist of course Chantry would want to say that the boundaries of the Westminster Confession are incorrect. What about the boundaries of the Baptist Confession of 1644-1646? Were they binding? Or suppose others do not like the boundaries of the 1689 Baptist Confession? Who decides? Chantry says that his Confession has set the boundaries for how he reads the Bible. Is this allowing a normative role to Scripture?
In the judgment of charity, of course, it would be out of place to describe either Chantry or Frame as a subjective relativist. We all try faithfully to shed those influences that mistakenly color our reading of Scripture. We are never neutral, but we try to be objective. For Chantry that means the 1689 Confession. Fair enough. For Frame it means something else, and thankfully of those who read his tri-perspectivalism, whatever else they may think of it, not many will judge Frame himself to be a dangerous, deceptive, subjective, relativist.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.