Review: Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life

If you have read Frame before, then you know what you are getting:  carefully argued positions, fair treatment to opponents, and a staggering amount of biblical reflection. His tri-perspectivalism is on display here, as in earlier books.  I will address it as the review moves forward.

He defines ethics as “living under God’s law, in God’s world, in the presence of God himself” (Frame 3). Further, these are Lordship ethics, and Lordship has three attributes: 1) Control: 2) Authority  3) Covenant presence. 

He begins with a description of ethics and a brief (too brief, perhaps) survey of autonomous ethics.  He notes that autonomous ethics are hamstrung by rationalist/irrationalist dialectic:  man proclaims his own reason as the standard yet denies it is able to reach knowledge of God. 

Following this he gives a commentary on the Decalogue, noting key particular applications.  I am not going to give a summary of each commandment.  Rather, I will note some of his more controversial claims, his more helpful sections, and other notae bene he makes.

Per the Second Commandment, and the Regulative Principle:

RPW advocates see three categories for what is biblically permissible: 1) express commands, 2) approved examples, and 3) theological inferences.  Well and good, but adding these extra categories mitigates the simplicity of the RPW.  Even worse, it “gives considerable scope for human reflection, in even determining ‘elements’” (471). 

What about the specific words of our prayers? They don’t fit in the above categories.  Are they circumstances? They can’t be that, since they aren’t “common to human actions and societies.” 

What about temple worship?  Not everything in the temple was typological of Christ’s sacrifice. It had prayer, teaching, and praise, yet these weren’t abrogated.

On the sixth commandment he gives an eloquent, and quite frankly emotionally-moving, defense of the unborn, with some interesting history on Operation Rescue. On sexual ethics he points out the naturalistic fallacy in the Roman Catholic arguments against *some* birth control methods. 

In his discussion of the Decalogue he hints at a rebuttal of Kline’s “Intrusion Ethics.” Kline argued that some of God’s more extreme measures (Canaanite genocide) are actually intrusions of God’s final justice.  Well, yes and no.  True, that was a positive command and not to be repeated by the church today. Frame notes that we “do not see biblical evidence of an ‘order’ or ‘sphere’ of common grace” (535). Is this a time or sphere of common grace?  But even if it is, God’s blessings fell upon elect and non-elect within theocratic Israel. 

Is Kline talking about government?  Perhaps, and a holy government is one that bears “the divine name” and “the promise of being crowned with consummation glory” (Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 96). But does Scripture ever describe a government as such? Israel is a “chosen people,” to be sure, but is the nation itself promised with consummation glory?

In any case, as Frame notes, nothing in Genesis 4-9 suggests a distinction between holy and nonholy governments (536).  And even if it did, that wouldn’t help explain how the modern magistrate, who might happen to be a Christian, is to rule.  What does it mean to rule according to common grace?  How could we even determine which application of “common grace” is more “gracey” or right than the other one?  General Franco of Spain probably had more common grace than either Hitler or Stalin, yet one suspects that the modern advocate of intrusion ethics wouldn’t praise Franco’s regime.


Worship in Spirit and Truth (Frame)

Frame does a decent job defining the RPW, and he is aware of the element/circumstance distinction, but he asks a number of tough questions:

What are these “circumstances” (WCF 21.1)?  The Confession doesn’t say, except to note “light of nature.”  I’m open to general revelation, and I would agree with the WCF on this point, but general revelation by its very definition resists specificity.

  • Saying “circumstances” are secular elements (also common to ordinary life–time, place) isn’t quite accurate.  Frame notes, “There seem to be some matters in worship which are ‘not common to human actions and societies,” concerning which we must use our judgment (Frame 41; e.g., what precise words to use in our prayers).  Prayer is not “common to society,” yet aside from repeating the psalms as prayers (and one could do far worse), it appears that we will have to use our own judgment.  Frame scores points here.
  • Frame suggests we use “application” instead of “circumstance” (41).  This avoids the Aristotelianism of earlier language.  Can one use the language without adopting the concepts?  Probably, but it’s hard and eventually something must change.
  • Regarding Nadab and Abihu, Frame is correct to point out that this verse does not teach “What is not commanded is forbidden,” but “what is explicitly forbidden is forbidden.”  It is not simply that Nadab and Abihu did not use the right kind of fire.  They were doing a forbidden act.  


Agreed that the Bible regulates our worship.  We have the premise:

(1) We may only perform what Scripture commands.

We must add another premise:

(2) In the end God only reveals broad generalities (52).

Frame develops (2):  Where does Scripture bifurcate worship into elements and circumstances?   Scripture (a) nowhere divides worship into independent elements and (b) then brings them together.  Which activity is elemental in character and which is simply an application of carrying out certain elements (53).  

(3) For example, per the above view, the Scripture prescribes singing psalms, whose content is identified.  Scripture also prescribes public prayer and preaching, whose content is not really identified.

(4) The things we do in worship are not always easily separated into elements and circumstances.  Singing and teaching are not always distinct.  When we sing a hymn, we teach other people (Col. 3:16).

In pp. 56-60 Frame gives his own list of a worship service, which is basically what you will find in any sane Reformed, non-covenanter service.

Celebrating Holidays

What do we mean by the word “celebrate?”

Exclusive Psalmody

Frame gives a number of powerful arguments against exclusive psalmody.

  • EP works if one can prove that “song” is an element of worship, and not a circumstance.  Frame, however, has shown that this distinction breaks down.  Further, we teach by songs (Colossians 3:16), yet few would deny the so-called elemental nature of singing.
  • Scripture never says the Psalter is the “divine hymnbook.”  In fact, such a view would militate against Scripture.  There were worship songs before the Psalter (Ex. 15; Num. 27; Dt. 32; Judgs 5).  After the Psalter, did God then forbid the use of these songs?
  • God often calls for “a new song,” even in the Psalms themselves! (Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 144:9; 149).  In fact, his people are supposed to respond to his mighty works with new songs and praise.
  • The last criticism is practical:  how seriously can we take the EP claim when the only way it works is to severely “work over” the psalms into metrical and versified form?  


The no-instruments Presbyterians say that instruments were tied to the temple worship and were abolished in the death of Christ.   Frame responds:

  • Instruments were not always tied to Temple worship (see Miriam and David in the Tabernacle).  Later, they were, and one could argue for progressive revelation, but the point is that they did not always have a Temple-only function (nor did God say that).
  • Further, we do actions today that were part of Temple worship:  we pray in worship; we take oaths in worship; and we teach God’s word.
  • We don’t really see Music in the OT as being set forth to typify the work of Christ.
  • True, we don’t see music in the synagogues, but we don’t know why so we can’t give a firm reason why not.
  • How can one claim to be no-instruments yet still rely on a pitch pipe?

What about the body?

I can go with frame that dancing, clapping, etc is biblical.  But there are also other biblical premises:  don’t distract others.  Let it be done decently and in good order (the OPC theme verse).  Charismatics routinely fail on these two points.


Frame doesn’t seem give weight to a particular sequential format of worship.  To be fair, Scripture is not explicit on this point, but if there are biblical patterns of God’s redemption, should not our worship incorporate that?  

On another point, I understand his concerns about needing to express God’s truth in contemporary language, but it’s really hard to separate the medium from the message on this point.  Frame acknowledges the point concerning “thrash metal” music in the service (141).  Some forms of entertainment are so thoroughly identified with the most degenerate elements of culture that it is not wise to import them.  

And Frame is very aware that worship is “not to cater to unbelievers” (146).  Being a Christian has a grammar and a way of living.  Yes, it should be intelligible to others–and this is my main criticism of Greek Orthodox in America–but the Christian life is also one of growth and maturity