John Frame faced a choice. He could have reviewed Mike Hortonâ€™s book, Christless Christianity, or he could have abstained. He could have critiqued Hortonâ€™s indictment of Joel Osteen. He also could have offered his own critique of Osteen. Even if he disagreed vigorously with Horton, he could have let it go out of a sense of living with the eccentricities of a former colleague and a minister in a church with whom his own communion is in fellowship.
But Frame decided to write a lengthy review in which Hortonâ€™s assessment comes off as more theologically flawed than those whom Horton critiques.
On the one hand, according to Frame, Horton is wrong about contemporary evangelicalism:
Speaking, perhaps presumptuously, for â€œthe American church,â€ let me attempt a reply. For what it is worth, my own perception of American evangelicalism is very different from Hortonâ€™s. My observation is anecdotal (just like his, in the final analysis), but based on around 55 years of adult observation in many different kinds of churches including the much maligned mega-churches. In most every evangelical church I have visited or heard about, the â€œfocusâ€ is on God in Christ. There has been something of a shift over the years in what Horton would call a â€œsubjectiveâ€ direction. But that is best described not as unfaithfulness, but as a shift toward more application of Scripture to peopleâ€™s external situations and inner life. There is a greater interest in sanctification (not just justification), on Christianity as a world view, on believersâ€™ obligations to one another, on love within the body of Christ, and in the implications of Scripture for social justice.
I donâ€™t see this as wrong, or unbiblical. Indeed, I think this general trend is an improvement over the state of affairs fifty years ago. Scripture is certainly concerned about these matters, and we ought to teach and learn what it has to say.
(By the way, Frame thinks that Horton shares this outlook primarily with secular critics of American religion. But Frame does not acknowledge that conservative Protestants like David Wells and Carl Trueman, or moderate to liberal Protestants such as Douglas Webster, William Willimon, and Stanley Hauerwas agree with Horton more than Frame.)
On the other hand, Frame thinks that the basis for Hortonâ€™s critique is theologically defective:
Hortonâ€™s alarmism is persuasive to many people, and I have been moved to try to show them their persuasion is premature. The problem is that the yardstick Horton uses to measure the American churchâ€™s allegiance to Christ is not an accurate yardstick. Or, to drop the metaphor, Horton measures the American church with a defective theology.
He comes on to the reader as a generic Protestant Christian with a passion for the historic doctrines of the atonement and of justification by faith alone. He writes engagingly. Naturally, then, other Protestants tend to resonate to his arguments. But Horton is not just a generic Protestant or even a generic Reformed theologian. He holds certain positions that are not warranted by the Reformed Confessions and which in my mind are not even Scriptural.
Frame is fully within his duties as a theology professor to review critically the book of another theologian, even one who apparently shares his theological tradition. But he is on shaky ground when he has faulted folks like Horton at other times for being Machenâ€™s Warrior Children, that is, for needlessly criticizing those within the Reformed household. According to Frame:
The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a â€œtrue Presbyterian churchâ€ they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.
For some reason, John Frame thinks he is not a pugilist even after writing reviews like his of Horton (not to mention that the Warrior Children piece contained several punches, some below the belt). If he had a better understanding of â€œthe Machen movement, Frame might realize that every controversy has more than two sides. In the 1920s, the alternatives were not simply conservatives like Machen or liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. In between were evangelicals like Charles Erdman who needed to decide whether to agree with conservatives and oppose liberals, or find a way to avoid controversy and work for the unity of the church, even to the point of keeping people who were not Calvinistic in the fold. Erdman never thought that his case for unity was controversial or contested. He thought Machen was extreme and temperamentally defective, and Erdman, an acknowledged evangelical, threw Machen under the bus. In so doing, Erdman made room in the Presbyterian Church for Machenâ€™s enemies.
Blame it on the tri-perspectivalism, but Frame does not see that his notion of evangelical unity does not make room for Horton or other confessional Protestants who critique born-again Protestantism. Does Frame mean to embrace Osteen more than Horton? He may not. But if he doesnâ€™t, why not write his own review of Osteen, instead of waiting to rip Hortonâ€™s critique?
John Frame is in denial about being a warrior. But at least he is correct about his family ties to Machen.