John Frame’s Doctrine of God

(The following is Chapter Three of my Master’s thesis, lightly edited for formatting.)

Chapter 3

John Frame’s Doctrine of God



This chapter seeks to provide a framework for understanding how John Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity is situated within the larger scope of his doctrine of God.  To that end, it briefly examines Frame’s theological method before considering his articulations of divine lordship, perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, eternity, and triunity.  Since the doctrine of divine simplicity was employed by the Reformed orthodox as a mutually-reinforcing doctrine among the other doctrines listed above, one would expect that Frame, to the extent that he is faithful to the Reformed tradition, would likewise conceive of the doctrine.  That is, to the extent that Frame follows the Reformed orthodox in his articulation of the doctrines of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity, one would expect that he would necessarily follow the Reformed orthodox in his articulation of divine simplicity.  Thus, it is important to consider how Frame develops his articulation of the doctrine of God in order to rightly understand his articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Frame’s Theological Method: Sola Scriptura and Protestant Scholasticism

Before an examination of Frame’s doctrine of God can begin, one note is in order.  Much of the historical and contemporary discourse concerning the doctrine of divine simplicity is conducted using philosophical categories generated by the theological method known as scholasticism.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the most noteworthy of all the scholastic theologians, though there were also a number of Protestant scholastics birthed by the sixteenth century Reformation, such as Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and Francis Turretin (1623-1687).

Though the doctrine of divine simplicity is by no means a product of the Protestant Reformation, nor even is it an exclusively Protestant notion, the Protestant scholastics did utilize the philosophical categories of scholasticism in various confessions of faith to express the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Of import for the current discussion is the reality that John Frame is not particularly enamored with the scholastic method.  Although Frame does not outright reject scholasticism or its results,[1] he offers the following caution: “Nevertheless, it is true that the Protestant scholastics were generally too uncritical of the Greek philosophers and of the Medieval systems.  Therefore, particularly on the subject of the doctrine of God, their thought was not always firmly grounded in Scripture.”[2]  Instead of a theological method which relies centrally on Greek philosophy, Frame highlights the fundamental place of sola Scriptura in his own theological method.  Indeed, he says, “my resolve in this book is first of all to maintain sola Scriptura.  I seek here above all to present what Scripture says about God, applying that teaching, of course, to the questions of our time.”[3]

What this means for the present study is that one should not expect to find Frame pontificating on the minutest points of detail in the same manner as the Protestant scholastics.  Moreover, one should not be surprised if Frame shies away from using scholastic categories and terms in his articulation of divine simplicity, or more broadly, in his articulation of the doctrine of God.  This allows for the possibility that what may appear to be substantive differences between Frame’s articulation of simplicity and the Reformed orthodox articulation may, in fact, be merely linguistic.  Frame may differ from the Reformed orthodox in his use of different words, concepts, or categories to articulate the doctrine of divine simplicity, but it is possible that there may be no substantive departure.  Yet the burden of this thesis is to demonstrate that Frame does indeed depart from the Reformed orthodox understanding of divine simplicity, not just linguistically but substantively.  Frame’s use of different words, concepts, and categories in his articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not signal mere linguistic difference; rather, it signals substantive departure.  In order to rightly understand why Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity is a departure from the Reformed orthodox articulation, one must consider the different words, concepts, and categories Frame employs, not only in his articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity but also in his articulation of the doctrine of God.  Thus, a consideration of Frame’s development of the doctrine of God follows.

The Lordship Attributes: Control, Authority, Presence

Frame begins his articulation of the doctrine of God by setting forth the centrality of lordship as a biblical and theological theme.[4]  He argues, “the first thing, and in one sense the only thing, we need to know about God is that he is Lord.”[5]  To know God as Lord is to know him as he has revealed himself.  Indeed, when God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’  This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Exodus 3:15).  The very name of God as revealed to Moses in the Old Testament is Yahweh, or LORD.  Frame even concludes one section of his writing by saying that “the central message of Scripture is that God is Lord.”[6]

For Frame, Lord is not only the divine name, but it also connotes several important points.  The Lord is the Holy One who controls all things by his power,[7] who is utterly authoritative in his pronouncements and government,[8] and who is covenantally and personally present to his creatures.[9]  Each of the three lordship attributes, control, authority, and presence, must be analyzed more fully to gain an adequate understanding of Frame’s doctrine of God.

Frame says of God’s control, the first of the lordship attributes to be considered, “the Lord is the One who controls all the forces of nature and history to deliver his people and thus to fulfill his covenant promise.”[10]  There is both a covenantal and teleological feature of God’s controlling lordship.  One instance of this is found in the Exodus.  Frame puts it this way:

On behalf of his enslaved people, Yahweh deals a crushing defeat to the most powerful totalitarian government of the day.  Not only does he defeat Pharaoh and his army, but he invokes all the forces of nature to bring plagues on the Egyptians and to deliver his own people.  He defeats Egypt and its gods, and so shows himself to be the Lord of heaven and earth.[11]

As the Lord of the covenant, God sovereignly rescues his people for the dual purpose of delivering them from oppression and demonstrating that he is Lord of all.  Indeed, “Yahweh controls the entire course of nature and history for his own glory and to accomplish his own purposes.”[12]  This is, in fact, one of the ways in which God is set apart from his creation.  Frame concludes, “Yahweh, then, is the sovereign, the Lord over all his creatures.  Because he is the Lord, the King, he controls all things.”[13]

God’s authority is the second of the lordship attributes.  Of this, Frame says, “the relation between control and authority is between might and right.  Control means that God has the power to direct the whole course of nature and history as he pleases.  Authority means that he has the right to do that.”[14]  God’s control is his ability to “work all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), and God’s authority is his rightness in so doing.  Control and authority, as noted, “are not synonyms, but they imply each other.”[15]  One of the reasons this is the case is surely because the God who controls all things simply is the all-authoritative One.  Put a slightly different way, since God controls all things and directs them toward their intended end, he is utterly authoritative over all things.  God stands supreme over all since he is both their sovereign King and authoritative Lord.

God’s covenant presence is the third of his lordship attributes.  Frame says that covenant presence is the idea that “God is committed to his people, that he will aid and deliver them, that he will be ‘with’ them.”[16]  The God who controls all things and is supremely authoritative over all things is not an aloof God who is far off from his people.  On the contrary, God is covenantally present to his people.  This indeed follows from God’s control and authority.  It would be incoherent to claim that God controls all things and stands as the ultimate authority of all things, and yet that he is absent from these things.  Thus, Frame argues that God must be present to his creation and to his people.  As Frame says, “covenant presence, then, means that God commits himself to us, to be our God and to make us his people.”[17]

Frame is careful to argue that the three lordship attributes each mutually reinforce and safeguard the others.  He says,

the three lordship attributes presuppose and imply one another.  If God controls all things, then his commands are authoritative, and his presence inescapable.  If his commands are supremely authoritative, then God can command all things, thereby exercising control, and since we cannot escape from his authority (Ps. 139:7-12), he is necessarily present to us.  Further, God’s presence is a presence of divine control and authority.  So it is not as if God could be divided between three parts,[18] each representing one attribute.  Rather, each of the lordship attributes describes God as a whole, from a different perspective.[19]

Of import for the thesis as a whole is Frame’s argument that the lordship attributes are not different parts in God, each functioning in seemingly autonomous ways.  Rather, these attributes denote nothing more than the fullness of God’s being, even though that being is viewed from different human perspectives.  What this means for Frame is, and he explicitly says this in a footnote, he conceives of God as a simple, non-composite being.  The reason the lordship attributes are not different parts in God, for Frame, is because there are no parts in God.  God’s control, authority, and presence do not denote parts of God’s being; they simply signify God in his actions in the world.

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Perfection and Absoluteness

The next point to consider in Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of God is actually two-fold: the doctrine of divine perfection and absoluteness.  The first of these, divine perfection, does not feature prominently in Frame’s overall corpus, but it is important for rightly understanding Frame’s articulation of God as absolute, which does feature prominently.  Of God’s perfection, Frame says, “it is plain that in Scripture every attribute ascribed to God is supremely excellent.  As we shall see, this is true of all his goodness, knowledge, and power.  So it is right to ascribe to God the highest perfections in all his attributes.”[20]  The reason that this is important for Frame’s articulation of divine absoluteness is because, “to say that God is absolute is to say that . . . his attributes possess the highest possible degree of perfection.”[21]  Thus, for Frame, to say that God is perfect is identical to saying that God is absolute.  The two doctrines entail one another.  To be perfect is to be absolute, for that which is perfect lacks nothing.  And to be absolute is to lack nothing.

Moreover, divine lordship also implies God’s absoluteness.  That God controls all things according to the counsel of his will signals his supremacy and absoluteness over all things.  That God reigns as ultimately authoritative over his creation denotes his absoluteness as well.  And even in God’s covenant presence, God is present as the Absolute One, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (Romans 11:36).  As Frame says, “his presence is absolute, in that he acts as a whole person at all times and places.”[22]  Elsewhere, Frame notes, “the God of the Bible is not a nameless, unknowable absolute removed from the course of human history.  Nor is he one who gives his power and authority over to the world he has made.  He dwells everywhere with us as the covenant Lord.”[23]

Frame also draws on the thought of Cornelius Van Til in order to argue for an understanding of God as absolute personality, in contrast to all non-Christian theologies or philosophies.  Frame says, “the phrase ‘absolute personality’ [is] useful in defining the biblical God over against the gods of pagan religions and secular philosophies.”[24]  Here Frame is drawing from Van Til, who says that one of the ways in which the Christian God may be best summed up is “by saying that God is absolute personality.”[25]  For Van Til, “the attributes [of God] themselves speak of self-conscious moral activity on the part of God.  Recognizing that for this intellectual and moral activity God is dependent upon nothing beyond his own being,[26] we see that we have the Reformed doctrine of the personality of God.”[27]  Since God depends upon nothing beyond his own being in order to be who he is, he is therefore independent and absolute.

Furthermore, God is independent in terms of both his knowledge and his action as well.  As Van Til says, “there were no principles of truth, goodness, or beauty that were next to or above God according to which he patterned the world.  The principles of truth, goodness, and beauty are to be thought of as identical with God’s being; they are the attributes of God.”[28]  That the attributes of God are identical with God’s being is a strong move toward the doctrine of divine simplicity, especially when Van Til elsewhere claims that “the attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being [of God]; the whole is identical with the parts.”[29]  Frame takes Van Til’s basic formulation and applies it the doctrine of divine lordship.  What sets the Christian God apart from all non-Christian gods and idols of various kinds is the fact that God is Lord, that he is absolute personality.  Indeed, “to regard God as Lord is to see him as utterly unique.”[30]  And what it means to be Lord is that God is absolute personality.[31]

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity

Frame also connects divine absoluteness with the doctrine of divine aseity.  For him, to say that God is absolute is to say that “God is self-existent and self-sufficient (a se).”[32]  Elsewhere, Frame says, “absolute is another term I shall sometimes use as a synonym for a se . . .  When I [speak] of God as ‘absolute personality,’ . . . ‘absolute’ had the sense of ‘a se.’”[33]  With this in mind, Frame then provides a seven-step argument for the fact that God is absolutely self-existent.  First, “as Lord, God owns all things.”[34]  God is both creator of and sovereign over his creation.  Therefore, the second step of the argument is that “everything possessed by creatures comes from God.”[35]  Since God created all things, it follows that creatures only own things in a derivative sense.  In the ultimate sense, since God owns all things, what creatures own has been given to them directly from God.

This means that “when [creatures] give something back to God, [they] give him only what he has first given [them]” and therefore “he is not obligated to recompense [them] . . .  God owes nothing to any creature.”[36]  Frame cites God’s words from Job 41:11 for this argument: “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?  Everything under heaven belongs to me.”  Indeed, since God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), there can be no meaningful way in which a creature gives something to God which God previously lacked.  This also lends itself to the idea that “God has no needs,”[37] or as Paul puts it: “nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25).

All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that “God is by nature a se.”[38]  Thus, Frame conceives of the doctrine of aseity in the strongest possible terms.  In summary, Frame considers briefly the nature of worship in order to demonstrate the stark contrast between the biblical depiction of the absolute God who exists a se and false gods: “A god who depends on his worshipers to remedy his weaknesses and poverty does not deserve worship.  So the true God is one who is not weak in any respect, nor is he poor.  He is God by nature: self-existent and self-sufficient, a se.”[39]

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Immutability

To this point, Frame’s articulation of divine perfection, absoluteness, and aseity fall within standard Reformed theology.  There is very little, if any, difference between Frame’s articulations of these points and the Reformed orthodox articulations.  The thesis moves now to consider how Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine immutability relates to the Reformed orthodox articulation.  This doctrine should be seen as the first departure Frame makes from the Reformed tradition.  Pictet defined God’s immutability as that teaching “which denotes nothing else than such a state of the divine essence and attributes, as is not subject to any variability.”[40]  The reason, for Pictet and the Reformed orthodox, that God’s essence and attributes are not subject to any variability is because “whatever possesses all perfection, such is incapable of mutation.”[41]  By arguing for divine immutability from divine perfection, the Reformed sought to safeguard God’s absoluteness and perfection.  If God were subject to any change whatsoever, his absoluteness and perfection would be diminished to the degree of mutation or change.

Notably absent from Frame’s Doctrine of God and Systematic Theology is a section which considers God’s immutability, though he does discuss God’s “unchangeability.”  He considers divine unchangeability under the category of God’s lordship over time, thus demonstrating the paradigmatic importance of the lordship attributes in Frame’s doctrine of God.  Since God is Lord, he must necessarily be Lord of time.  And since time and change are closely related, it makes sense for Frame to consider God’s unchangeability alongside a discussion of time.

Frame begins his discussion of God’s unchangeability by saying, “it does seem necessary for human thought, if it is to have real knowledge, to have access to something unchanging, a vantage point by which we gain a rational understanding of the changing world.  In Christian thought, the ultimate vantage point has always been God.”[42]  Thus Frame argues for some manner of unchangeability in God.  He specifically argues four ways in which God is unchanging.  First, “God is unchanging in his essential attributes.”[43]  What sets the Creator apart from the creature is that the Creator does not change in his wisdom, knowledge, power, goodness, or truth.  Second, “God is unchanging in his decretive will.”[44]  Following from God’s lordship over time and history, seen specifically in the lordship attributes of control and authority, one finds that what God has decreed from eternity must necessarily come to pass (cf. Isaiah 46:9-11).

Third, “God is unchanging in his covenant faithfulness.”[45]  Of this, Frame says, “the unhanging character of God’s covenant is vitally important to the biblical doctrine of salvation.  it is this covenantal immutability that comforts us, that reassures us that as God was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so he will be with us in Christ.”[46]  For Frame, God’s covenantal faithfulness is an outworking of the lordship attributes, and that faithfulness also carries tremendous pastoral implications.  Fourth, “God is unchanging in the truth of his revelation.”[47]  Since God cannot lie (cf. Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2), it follows that his speech is always true.

Yet Frame concedes that God is genuinely subject to mutation and change in some important ways.  The clearest example of this is when Frame argues that “relenting is part of [God’s] very nature as the Lord.  He is the Lord who relents.”[48]  Following Scripture’s apparently straightforward language about God’s relenting and changing his mind (cf. Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Samuel 15:35; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:1-6), Frame argues that “relenting is a divine attribute.”[49]  It is not the case that these references to God’s relenting in Scripture are merely anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, but rather the changes genuinely occur in God.

Yet this should be seen as an important point of departure between Frame and the Reformed orthodox.  As Richard Muller has pointed out, the Reformed orthodox argued that “attributes that indicate the accomplishment of effects ad extra and which, therefore, seem to have a ‘beginning in time’ do not imply any change or ‘accident’ in God, but only in the thing effected.”[50]  The fact that God can work to bring about genuine changes in his creation does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God himself changes in the midst of his bringing about change.  Yet Frame rejects this understanding of the biblical texts which speak of God’s relenting in favor of an understanding in which God himself genuinely relents.  This understanding posits a real change in God.

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Impassibility

Since Frame’s articulation of divine immutability departs from the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine immutability, it follows that his articulation of divine impassibility is also a departure, since impassibility is a subcategory of immutability.  It is interesting to note that Frame says the doctrine of divine impassibility “has been used to deny that God has emotions or feelings,”[51] when Richard Muller argues that “the Reformed orthodox conception of divine impassibility does not argue a God who lacks love, mercy, anger, hate, or (indeed!) pleasure, but who has all of these relations to the world order.”[52]  What divine impassibility is meant to safeguard is the fact that God is not subject to affectional changes or suffering.  As Richard Muller notes, “impassibility, when attributed to God in the Christian tradition and, specifically, in medieval and Protestant scholastic thought, indicates, not a Stoic notion of apatheia, but an absence of mutation, distress, or any other sort of negative passiones.”[53]  God is not subject to variations in his being which are forced upon him from either within or without.

And the doctrine of divine impassibility, as employed by the Reformed orthodox, also denies the notion that God can suffer.  Yet Frame argues in a different way when he says, “God experiences grief and other negative emotions, not only in the incarnate Christ, but in his non-incarnate being as well.”[54]  And even more clearly, Frame says, “Christ’s sufferings are the sufferings of God.”[55]  For Frame, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross signals the real suffering and death of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  Frame argues that since Jesus suffered and died, and since the person of Jesus is composed of a human nature and a divine nature, it follows that the sufferings and death of Jesus’ person necessarily apply to both natures of that person.  Thus, Jesus suffered and died according to both his human and divine natures.

This then leads to a consideration of how to understand the sufferings of the Son in relation to the Father.  Though he avoids an extensive discussion of the precise relation between the persons of the Trinity, Frame argues that “the Father empathized, agonized, and grieved over the death of his Son, but he did not experience death in the same way that the Son did.”[56]  Frame is careful to say that the Father does not die or experience death in the same manner as the Son, yet there is a real sense in which the Father also suffers in a unique manner when the Son dies.  In summary fashion, Frame says, “God the Son did die, and of course he rose again.  So in his incarnate existence, God suffered and even died—yet his death did not leave us with a godless universe.”[57]

With this in mind, it might be surprising to find that Frame does, in fact, affirm the doctrine of divine impassibility in some sense.  Nevertheless, he says, “the doctrine of divine impassibility should not be used to deny that God has emotions, or to deny that God the Son suffered real injury and death on the cross.  But God in his transcendent nature cannot be harmed in any way, nor can he suffer loss to his being.”[58]  At first this statement seems puzzling given the fact that Frame has elsewhere argued that the Son of God did, in fact, suffer and die.  It appears as if Frame is affirming that God is in one sense passible and in another sense impassible.  How, then, does Frame hold these two competing notions in tension?

One of the keys for understanding how Frame conceives of God as being passible in one sense and impassible in another is that Frame conceives of God as having two existences, one transcendent and one immanent.  The reason Frame understands God in this way comes directly from his understanding of divine eternity, which is treated below, but for now it is important to note that Frame considers God to be passible in his immanent existence and impassible in his transcendent existence.

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Eternity

A consideration of Frame’s doctrine of divine eternity logically follows from the preceding discussion of his doctrines of divine unchangeability and divine impassibility, especially since Frame considers God’s unchangeability to be a doctrine which has to do with God’s relationship to time.  One finds again that Frame thinks it most helpful to consider the issue of God’s relationship to time primarily in terms of lordship rather than in terms of temporality.[59]  That is, for Frame, one should not think first of whether God is inside or outside of time, but rather one should think of God as Lord of time.  And since God is Lord of time, he transcends four limitations associated with time: the limitation of beginning and end, the limitation of change, the limitation of ignorance, and the limitation of temporal frustration.[60]  As Lord of time, God does not have a beginning or end, he is not subject to change in a certain sense (though recall the previous discussion in which Frame considers relenting to be a divine attribute), he is not subject to limitation in his knowledge or wisdom, and his purposes are not frustrated within or by the procession of time.

Yet Frame is hesitant to affirm divine eternity as equivalent to divine atemporality: “it may not be possible to derive from Scripture an explicit answer to the question of whether God is merely temporal or indeed supratemporal.”[61]  Frame prefers the terms transcendence and lordship to atemporality, partially because these terms fit well within the lordship attributes of control and authority, both of which Frame considers to be God’s attributes in his transcendence.  What these attributes uphold is God’s absolute control and authority over time, even if he is not atemporal.  It should be noted here that the Reformed orthodox, in conceiving of divine eternity, did not necessarily conceive of God as timeless, but rather sought to safeguard the idea that God possesses “a successionless existence immediately related to all moments of time.”[62]  This understanding of divine eternity employs divine immutability as a safeguard against temporal succession, since any kind of temporal succession would signal a change in God.

But Frame conceives of God as having an immanent existence, an existence which is fundamentally and essentially different than God’s transcendent existence, which undergoes temporal succession.  The fact that the works of God in redemptive history are produced in temporal succession leads to Frame’s understanding that God himself must be really in time in an important sense.  Again, it is no surprise here that Frame employs the lordship attributes once again in this discussion.  He says, “covenant presence is an important element of God’s lordship.  And that means both that God is here and that he is here now . . .  God not only works in time, but is also present in time, at all times.”[63]  Frame says that there is much to be gained from an understanding of God’s covenantal temporality.  For example, he argues,

a covenantally present God, like a temporalist God, can know (and assert) temporally indexed expressions like ‘the sun is rising now.’  He can feel with human beings the flow of time from one moment to the next.  He can react to events in a significant sense (events which, to be sure, he has foreordained).  He can mourn one moment and rejoice the next.  He can hear and respond to prayer in time.  Since God dwells in time, therefore, there is give-and-take between him and human beings.[64]

Even so, Frame is careful to qualify this by saying, “God’s temporal immanence does not contradict his lordship over time or the exhaustiveness of his decree.  These temporal categories are merely aspects of God’s general transcendence and immanence as the Lord.”[65]  God can be both in control of time even as he exists in time since he is the Lord, the one who controls, is authoritative over, and present to all things.

By way of conclusion, Frame says, “God is temporal after all, but not merely temporal.  He really exists in time, but he also transcends time in such a way as to exist outside of it.  He is both inside and outside of the temporal box.”[66]  Thus God is temporal in the sense that he undergoes temporal succession, yet he is also transcendent over time such that he controls every aspect of temporal succession, either in himself or in his creation.  How, then, does Frame hold these two ideas together without contradiction?  The answer lies in the fact that Frame conceives of God as having two existences, one transcendent and atemporal, and one immanent and temporal.  God is Lord over time in his transcendent, atemporal existence.

But in his immanent, temporal existence, God is present in time, and he undergoes temporal succession.  Frame says, “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.”[67]  At this point one should note the intimate relationship between divine immutability and divine eternity.  If God is not eternal in some sense, if he is subject to temporal succession, then it follows that to the extent he undergoes temporal succession, he also undergoes real change and mutation in himself.  Or if God were mutable in some sense, if he did undergo change in himself, he must also be subject to temporal succession since any change in God signals that God would take on new actualities of being which he did not previously possess in time.

Frame is careful to guard against an understanding in which one form of God’s existence contravenes the other.  He says, “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 . . .  Both are real.”[68]  He then goes on to say, “the difference between God’s atemporal and historical existences begins, not with the creation of man, but with creation itself.”[69]  In this way, Frame considers the act of creation as having added to God new determinations of being, namely his covenantally present, immanent existence.  This new existence of God, brought about by the act of creation, is both mutable and subject to temporal succession.  Thus, in conceiving of God as having two existences, one immanent and one transcendent, Frame is able to hold together the seemingly contradictory ideas of God as being changing and unchanging, passible and impassible, temporal and eternal.  What this means for Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity will be examined in the next chapter.

Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Triunity

Finally, it is important to consider briefly how Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity bears on the rest of his doctrine of God, giving particular attention to how he understands the relative relations between the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit.  Frame begins his discussion of the relations by saying, “we should be cautions in discussing such questions, to avoid speculation that goes beyond Scripture.”[70]  He is careful to guard against unwarranted philosophical speculation, especially in light of the fact that Scripture does not speak directly or clearly on this issue.  Nevertheless, he argues with this basic position in mind: “There is real distinction, real complexity, in God.”[71]  To say that there is no complexity whatsoever in God, as Frame suggests Aquinas does, is to espouse an essentially Sabellian view of God.  That is, Frame believes that if “Father, Son, and Spirit” simply are the “names of relations (paternity, filiation, spiration)” and therefore do not indicate genuine complexity in God, then “that position is . . . indistinguishable from Sabellianism.”[72]

Thus Frame argues

Each [person of the Trinity] exhausts the divine being; each bears all the divine attributes; indeed, each is in the other two (circumincessio).  So when we encounter one person, we are encountering the triune God.  But when we learn that the divine being contains everything described by the divine attributes, and everything in the three persons as well, we are impressed with the wonderfully rich complexity that is God.  There is a real difference between the Son, praying in the garden to his Father, and the Father, hearing him in heaven.  But both Son and Father belong to the rich complexity that is the divine essence, and both exhaust that essence.[73]

The real difference between the Father and the Son, for Frame, is not merely one of relative distinction regarding their subsistences; rather, there is a genuine complexity in the divine essence to which both Father and Son belong.

Frame then goes on to say, “that God is a Father, a Son, and a Spirit indicates real complexity in God’s nature, a nature that encompasses real distinctions.  Father, Son, and Spirit are not synonyms.  Each says something different, something distinct, about God.  And each refers to something different about God.”[74]  Thus Frame conceives of the real distinctions between the persons in the Godhead as genuine differences, genuine complexities, in God.  There is a distinction between the persons and the divine essence, even though “each [person] is coterminous with the whole divine being.”[75]  The way Frame holds this together is by employing a unique understanding of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  He says, “the identity of everything divine with the divine being indicates (rather than negates) the complexity of this being.”[76]  Thus, the persons of the Trinity are distinct from each other yet coterminous with the whole divine being precisely because there are genuine complexities in the divine essence.  These complexities point back to the real differences between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.


This chapter examined John Frame’s doctrine of God.  It considered briefly his theological method and view of the scholastic theological method before examining the most fundamental piece of Frame’s overall doctrine of God: the lordship attributes of control, authority, and covenant presence.  It then moved to explore Frame’s articulations of divine perfection and absoluteness, divine aseity, divine immutability and impassibility, divine eternity, and the Trinity.  By doing this, the chapter has provided the necessary foundation for considering Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity, which is the subject of the next chapter.

[1] On this point, Frame says, “Attempting to understand biblical doctrines thoroughly and systematically is a worthy project, and I don’t object at all to the post-Reformation effort to make fine distinctions and explore minutiae.” John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 21.  Indeed, Frame’s four-volume set on the doctrine of God, the knowledge of God, the Word of God, and the Christian life is called A Theology of Lordship.

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 21.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Ibid., 36-79.

[8] Ibid., 80-93.

[9] Ibid., 94-102.

[10] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2013), 21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 30.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Here Frame notes: “As we will see in chapter 20 [of Systematic Theology], God is not made of parts, but is ‘simple.’” Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 404.

[21] Frame, Systematic Theology, 37.

[22] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 603.

[23] Frame, Systematic Theology, 46.

[24] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 601-602.

[25] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 33.

[26] This is the claim of the doctrine of divine aseity, which will be explored below.

[27] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 31.

[30] Frame, Systematic Theology, 36.

[31] Ibid., 37.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 601.

[34] Ibid., 603.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 604.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 606.

[39] Frame, Systematic Theology, 607.

[40] Pictet, Theologia Christiana., II.xii.3.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 560.

[43] Ibid., 568.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 569.

[46] Ibid., 570.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 562.

[49] Ibid., 563.

[50] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:313.

[51] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 608.

[52] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:33.

[53] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:310.

[54] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 612.

[55] Ibid., 613.

[56] Ibid., 614.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 557.

[60] Ibid., 555-556.

[61] Ibid., 554.

[62] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:348.

[63] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 558.

[64] Ibid., 558-559.

[65] Ibid., 559.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., 571.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., 696.

[71] Ibid., 702.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., 705.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

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