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John Frame: two modes of existence in God?


From SCRBPC ’17 lecture –

Two modes of existence in God:

atemporal and historical?


John Frame says, “My approach . . . recognizes two modes of existence in God.” [1] Previous to this statement he says, “The difference between God’s atemporal and historical existences begins not with the creation of man, but with creation itself.” [2] Let’s consider these words: “two modes of existence in God” and “The difference between God’s atemporal and historical existences begins . . . with creation itself.” I do not think this proposal works at all. It certainly does not comport with the claims of Ames, Turretin, and à Brakel above. Francis Cheynell’s assertion is correct where he says:


We must not conceive that God was first in a naked Power of Being, and afterwards reduced unto actual Being by his own effectual Power as if his existence were really different from his essence, as its proper cause. [3]


I will speak more to this issue below. For now, remember that Frame claims at least one of God’s modes of existence began and it is different from his other mode of existence. This entails that in some sense God’s existence is “really different from his essence.” Frame even says, “God’s . . . historical existence begins . . . with creation itself.” The historical mode of existence must be a derived existence, since it is not eternal, which entails something as derivatively divine in God due to creation. Is this not a contradiction? This must be the case since it began and is, therefore, part of creation prior to man’s existence. If God’s so-called historical existence began with creation, it cannot be God’s atemporal existence. God’s historical existence, therefore, came-to-be, and to come-to-be is a necessary and exclusive feature of a creature. According to Geerhardus Vos, “That cannot be.” [4] Someone might push-back at this claiming Vos is not speaking of God’s historical existence but his atemporal existence. But Vos, as far as I can tell, never speaks of God’s historical existence. Frame’s view seems to entail that God came to possess a second mode of divine existence which began-to-be with creation. Assuming this to be the case, Vos’ “That cannot be” applies to Frame’s proposal. We will consider Vos’ statement in context below. [5]



[1] Frame, Doctrine of God, 572.

[2] Frame, Doctrine of God, 571.

[3] Francis Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (London: Printed by T. R. and E. M. for Samuel Gellibrand at the Ball in Pauls Church yard, 1650), 8; emphasis original, spelling modernized.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Theology Proper (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2014), 5.

[5] Frame makes other assertions which are not reflective of the Reformed theological tradition. For example: “. . . relenting belongs to God’s very nature . . . Relenting is a divine attribute. . . . relenting is part of God’s unchangeable divine nature.” See John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 370. Just how relenting can be “part of God’s unchangeable nature” is not explained with any degree of cogency. Relenting implies changeableness not unchangeableness. In Frame’s Salvation belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 29, he says: “The Bible teaches that God has all the emotions we have, though in a more perfect way. . . . Some say that because of God’s self-sufficiency he cannot suffer. That is called impassibility. Certainly, God cannot suffer any loss of his attributes or divine nature, but the grief we spoke about earlier is certainly a kind of suffering” (emphasis original). Later Frame says: “God can’t suffer, man can suffer. . . . God, who cannot suffer, has taken to himself a human nature, in which he can suffer, in Christ” (130). Can God suffer or not? Is God impassible or not? The WCF, SD, and 2LCF assert that God is “without passions” (2.2). Granted, in the latter statement Frame locates suffering “in Christ” but the way he states himself is not precise enough to distinguish between the acts of the Mediator who works according to both natures “by each nature doing that which is proper to itself” (WCF, SD, 2LCF 8.7). Frame says: “[God] can suffer, in Christ.” It is much better to say the Son of God incarnate suffered according to his human nature. God cannot suffer. Putting it this way preserves divine impassibility and upholds the revealed mystery of the distinct acts of our two-natured Mediator. Maybe this is what Frame intends by his words. If so, there are better ways to state oneself. For a review article of Frame’s Systematic Theology see Ryan M. McGraw, “Toward a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformed Theology: An Assessment of John Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief,” in Puritan Reformed Journal, 8, 2, (2016): 197-211. McGraw points out several departures from more traditional discussions of various Christian doctrines. For example, McGraw says: “Much more could be said about Frame’s Systematic Theology that illustrates where he suffers from a paucity of historical theology, such as shifting from discussing God’s intent in the free offer of the gospel to something approximating English hypothetical universalism; misunderstanding the historical context of the lapsarian controversy; importing the two natures of Christ into pre-incarnate theophanies; careless language on the Trinity, such as referring to “three divine beings”; inadequate understanding of the relationship between eternal generation and aseity in Reformed theology; imputing to the Son “eternal obedience” and even “eternal subordination of role” in relation to the Father; importing Christ’s threefold office into the definition of the image of God, rather than describing man’s function in the world in terms of these offices; opening the door for those who say that Adam was the head of a pre-existing group of early hominids, rather than existing by the special creation of God; redefining the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and accusing the traditional doctrine as teaching that man is as bad as he can be; questioning the legitimacy of a logical order in the traditional ordo salutis; and urging the church to adopt elements of Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Episcopalianism simultaneously and at its own discretion” (McGraw, “Toward a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformed Theology,” 211; for each claim, McGraw cites page numbers for Frame’s book).

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