A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Book Review)

history-phil-theoUnderstanding the fundamentals of a particular topic is hard enough.  Add the history of that topic and the complexity increases substantially.  Now, what if that topic is (drum roll), PHILOSOPHY?  Most people’s eyes would glaze over if they didn’t first faint.  The rest might venture a nervous chuckle then quickly change the subject.  “How ‘bout them Knicks?”  Sure, there is a small subculture of nerds devoted to following philosophy, and a few sophomoric fanboys that pretend to tag along philosophizing about anything and everything under the sun.  “All we are is dust in the wind, dude…dust, wind, dude,” said Bill and Ted on their Excellent Adventure.

For those of us who are left hoping for a serious and introductory treatment of philosophy, one that is readable, comprehensive, and written from a Christian perspective, there is now a thick one-volume work that surveys and analyzes philosophy and theology.  John Frame, a professor of systematic theology and philosophy, has finally published the fruit of his research and seminary lectures in A History of Western Philosophy and Theology: Spiritual Warfare in the Life of the Mind.  For what it sets out to do, this is a 5 out of 5 stars book.  Frame proposes a biblical philosophy that seeks to do justice to the tenets of Reformed theology: (1) the Creator-creature distinction, (2) absolute tri-personality as the fountainhead of the triperspectival nature of all reality, (3) the lordship of God and its corresponding attributes of control, authority, and presence, and (4) the antithesis between God’s transcendence and imminence in metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

It’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.  Frame sets forth his Christian philosophy and theology in the first chapter (“Philosophy and the Bible”).  The rest of the book traces the historical discussion of the great philosophers and theologians as they have engaged in the Great Conversation of Western Civilization.  Frame’s method is two-fold.  First, he sets forth the basic contours of the major philosophers and theologians, era by era.  Second, after explaining what a person (or school of thought) believes, he subjects the ideas to critical analysis by comparison to his own ideas set forth in the first chapter.  With this format the book feels a little bit narrative (the history part) and a little bit reference (the explanation and analysis part).  So the reader may plow through from cover to cover, or dip into its pages here or there.  The only required reading for comprehension is the first chapter, which will prove a valuable refresher for the reader.

So who does Frame discuss?  Just about all the major philosophers and theologians that have worked their way into the secular or Christian “canon” of required reading.  In chapter 2, Frame looks at the early Greek philosophers.  Chapter 3 deals with early Christian Philosophy from the Apostolic Fathers through Augustine.  Medieval Philosophy, dominated by the Christians during the Christendom era, is the subject of chapter 4, which includes discussion of Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus among others.  Major changes occur in the history of thought beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation, outlined in chapter 5.  These concurrent movements opposed and influenced each other on various points.  Frame analyzes Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and others.  In chapter 6 the subject is theology during the Enlightenment period, with treatment given to the school of Deism, the skeptic Lessing, and Christians such as Pascal, Edwards, and Reid.  Chapter 9 takes an extended look at Kant’s thought, and then give briefer treatments to his successors Hegel, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, and Marx.  The rest of the book, from chapters 8 through 13, slows down to look closer at the major thinkers of the last 200+ years (beginning in the 19th century).  Famous names from this period include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kuyper, Van Til, and Plantinga.  These are just the more recognizable names.  Frame gives a fair amount of space to many more.

There are lots of added bonuses.

  1. Over 15 pages of endorsements at the front of the book.  Some people may be annoyed or be indifferent to these, but I like how they demonstrate that the book and its author are well-received by a large swathe of the church and the academy.
  2. The book is formatted as a textbook (but not in color).  Breakout quotes in printed in the margins on the same page the quote appears in the main text.  Every chapter subheading is listed in order in the margin with the current subheading highlighted to orient the reader through long chapters and as a reminder of context.  Every chapter ends with extensive lists of key terms, study questions, print and online bibliographies, recommendations where to begin primary source reading, links to Frame’s corresponding audio lectures on iTunes, and links to famous quotes by the philosophers and theologians discussed.
  3. Lots of explanatory footnotes.  Textbooks rarely include footnotes, opting either for endnotes or nothing at all.  Readers interested in the sources of the author cites, or in a more technical discussion of the topic appreciate the accessibility of footnotes.
  4. A glossary of terms keyed to the chapter number where the term appears.
  5. An annotated bibliography of philosophy texts.  This feature is invaluable for readers who desire to delve deeper into a particular topic, philosopher, or theologian.  Frame comments on each book’s distinctive content and approaches.
  6. A massive general bibliography that demonstrates this book was not a project researched on one or two sabbaticals.  It is the fruit of decades of study.
  7. Indices of names, subjects, and Scripture.  All of these are useful features in any Christian book that has them, but in a book like this they are indispensable.  I’m glad the publisher didn’t shortcut the process of going to press.
  8. Twenty appendices (more than 150 pages!) of Frame’s published and unpublished articles, including essays, book reviews, and seminar addresses.  Frame does not have a Ph.D in philosophy, and his consistent method of critical analysis may give the reader a sense the author is not a profound thinker himself (remember the book is an introductory graduate school textbook).  But the appendices should convince the reader that Frame is capable of dialoging with the highest tier thinkers, and should be regarded as a major contributor to philosophy and theology.

Frame was one of my professors in seminary.  I remember him once commenting offhand that he did not consider himself as particularly profound or creative thinker (I disagree, but in my judgment he is more humble than many brilliant people).  He considers his gifts more in line with the systematizer and analyst.  Frame did not found a school of thought.  Over and over again in this book he credits his teacher and mentor Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as the source of his own thought.  Although Frame is not a slavish devotee to everything Van Til taught about biblical philosophy and apologetics, clearly he consider himself one who stands on the broad shoulders of his teacher.

The one glaring weakness of the book is the lack of space given to recent Christian Philosophy.  Only a few pages address the renaissance of Christian analytic philosophy in the 20th and 21st centuries, testified to the swelling ranks and influence of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.  Two paragraphs on pages 546-547 list some important names but not much else:

Others associated with this North American flowing of Christian analytic philosophy are Robert and Marilyn Adams, Kelly James Clark, William Lane Craig, Stephen T. Davis, C. Stephen Evans, John Feinberg, Gary Habermas, William Hasker, Peter Van Inwagen, J.P. Moreland, Nancy Murphy, and Linda Zagzebski.  Somewhat removed from the analytic tradition have been Ronald Nash, who was close to Gordon Clark, historian and educator Arthur Holmes, and Norman Geisler, an evangelical Thomist.

Younger philosophers and apologists include: James Anderson, John Barber, Bruce Baugus, William Edgar, William Davis, Paul Manata, K. Scott Oliphant, James K.A. Smith, and Greg Welty.

One more quibble with the book.  Frame and the publisher chose to wed his material on philosophy and liberal theology.  I believe they did the best job that could be done in combining these two interrelated fields.  But I can’t help feeling like this is fundamentally a book about the history of western philosophy, but with the theology portion grafted into the narrative.  Two books would be a lot more accessible.  But I suspect a separate book containing Frame’s take on the history of theology, including modern liberal theology would probably not sell many copies.  This is probably the driving reason for combining the subjects in one larger volume.  I can imagine the decision makers in the publisher’s office saying, “Give the teachers both, and let them assign which chapters to read for class.”  I really don’t mind the larger combined format.  It just makes the book quite heavy to lug around or rest on my stomach in bed.

I appreciate how Frame ends the book.  A section on Vern Poythress, Frame’s theological and philosophical “soulmate” points the reader to a truly profound thinker who has a mastery of subjects across quite a variety of fields—from logic, to math, to science, to sociology, to hermeneutics, to language, to philosophy.  Reading Poythress is the path to take if the reader wants to explore deeper wells of Frame’s philosophy and theology.  Then the book’s epilogue makes an evangelistic appeal to the reader.  Frame never loses sight of the goal of studying philosophy and theology.  Knowledge is never for the armchair critic or the Monday morning quarterback. Knowledge and study is for waging spiritual warfare in the life of the mind, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ the Lord.  Frame imagines Jesus Christ making such an invitation in the book’s closing words:

And here is his invitation: if you find yourself sympathetic to the arguments of this book, you should take this action: Recognize that you have sinned against God and deserve his wrath.  Turn from that sin, and trust Jesus, believing that his self-sacrifice on the cross bore the punishment you deserve, and believing that he is Lord of all.  Trust him, then, not only as your sin-bearer, but as the One who will turn your life around, as you obey his Word.  And as he turns your life around, he will turn your mind around as well. [561]


By Faith We Understand


Books at a Glance

The Gospel Coalition



History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: class lecture outlines

History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: audio lectures on iTunes

Modern Views of God: class lecture outlines

Turning Points in the History of Philosophy and Theology

Articles on philosophy at Frame-Poythress

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