Reply to Richard Muller and David Wells

by John M. Frame

[Read Frame’s In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism: Reflections on Sola Scriptura and History in Theological Method, the original article in this discussion.]


I do thank Muller and Wells for participating in this discussion. I will examine their  replies in alphabetical order.

Muller’s response pleased me far more than did his previous interaction with me.1 His earlier reply was largely an exercise in theological name-calling, and in my view the names he called me were, in Wells’s phrase, “wildly amiss.” Here, however, he focuses on the central issue I raised, namely the question of whether sola Scriptura applies to such disciplines as history, sociology, and the analysis of culture.

His position is quite straightforward: “Whereas sola Scriptura must be the doctrinal watchword in all matters of faith and life, it does not stand as a principle that can be applied to historiography.” On this point, he and I simply hold opposite views.

I do think there is much truth in his analysis of the use of history to support heresy. He says that people who use history in this way are not in fact autonomous or neutral, but they are themselves operating on theological assumptions. I agree, although these writers typically do make claims to neutrality. But that fact raises the question of whether there is such a thing as historiography that is theologically neutral.2

Muller thinks such neutrality is not only possible, but normative: “Historiography ought not to be grounded in theological assumptions.” He does accept that “historiography does have assumptions and presuppositions,” but he tends to think that “they are minimal and belong to the realm of common sense rather than to the realm either of theological or philosophical system.” He encourages a historical method which elicits “the meaning of texts with as little tendenz as possible.”

But I keep asking, what does Muller do with the central biblical and Reformed claim that God’s Word is to rule all areas of human life? If “all things” are to be done to the glory of God, does that include historiography, or does it not? And if not, why not? Muller himself says that “sola Scriptura must be the doctrinal watchword in all matters of faith and life.” How can he then turn around in the very next clause and say that it does not apply to historiography? Surely historiography is part of life, something we do either to the glory of God or in the service of an idol.

Perhaps he is putting a special emphasis on the word “doctrinal,” as if Scripture is a doctrinal watchword, but not, perhaps, a methodological watchword. But if doctrine bears upon all of life, then surely it bears on methodology as part of life. We do today sometimes speak of “doctrine” as a discipline focused on the subject matter of church confessions, but Scripture itself does not limit the scope of its authority to any particular area of life. If we are to speak of doctrine in a biblical way, there is surely a sense in which it applies to everything.

This is not, of course, to say that Scripture gives us detailed instructions for repairing cars or drilling teeth. As in the passage I quoted from Van Til, “We do not mean that (Scripture) speaks of football games, or atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either direcn separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.3

Surely there is something primal, something utterly basic, about our confession that God is Lord of all areas of human life. Certainly Muller has heard that principle over and over again from the pulpit. Can he not see that there is at least a prima facie discrepancy between that confession and the distinctions he is trying to make? Knowing from his writings the depth of Muller’s Christian commitment, it is very hard for me to believe that he really wants to advocate autonomy over against God’s Lordship expressed in Scripture. Perhaps he can find some way to reconcile his position with that fundamental principle, but in his writing so far he does not even seem to have grasped the problem.

Now I know it sounds a little crazy, especially in the present theological climate, to say that Scripture is the sufficient and ultimate rule for historiography. To say that may seem to put us in the same boat with those who, say, advocate “biblical” recipes for bread, or who find in the Bible mysterious codes predicting events of modern history. But I thought that in my essay I had made the necessary qualifications. Scripture doesn’t tell us what texts of Calvin’s writings are most authentic, or in what year Luther was born. Yes, there is plenty of room for “reason.” But Scripture is the ultimate norm, the norm over which none other takes precedence. And as the ultimate norm, it is sufficient; we need no more ultimate norms.

Muller describes his position loosely as Thomistic. But even Thomas Aquinas, for all his zeal to distinguish the realms of faith and natural reason, admitted that Scripture had, at least, a veto-power over the assertions of reason. Aristotle had argued that the world was eternal. Thomas felt the force of that argument, but he rejected it, primarily because its conclusion was contrary to Christian faith. Surely we must say at least that much about the relation of Scripture to historical method. David Hume’s view of how to evaluate historical evidence is subject to many kinds of objections; but surely a Christian cannot ignore the fact that his view is unscriptural. If Hume were right, we could never accept testimony for any supernatural event. Muller himself, in effect, employs a biblical veto against the historiography of Strauss, Ritschl, Harnack, and the modern advocates of “discontinuity,” for he considers them theologically biased, and he rejects their particular bias, presumably because of its unscripturality.4 (I assume he agrees at least that theological biases must be dealt with theologically.) But those theological biases are an integral part of the Ritschlian historical method. Therefore, Muller ought to agree with me that Scripture is relevant, at least in this respect, to the evaluation of historical methodology.

Does Scripture say anything positive about historiography, or does it merely claim veto-power? Well, it couldn’t very easily have veto-power without having some positive content to impose over against unscriptural alternatives. In the case of Aquinas mentioned above, the positive content was the biblical teaching that the world had a beginning. In the case of historiography, we should be able to agree that Scripture presents a narrative of historical events which the historian has no right to question. It also presents, in Van Til’s terms, “a philosophy of history as well as history.”5 It asserts that history is not a series of irrational, chance happenings, but a meaningful, teleological sequence governed by divine providence. It tells us that the human race is not getting better and better through the progress of civilization, refuting some of the more optimistic overviews of history.

And I believe that Scripture also provides us with a general epistemology, again in broad outline rather than detail. I have described this epistemology at great length in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.6 It is, of course, an epistemology centered on God’s Word (in nature and Scripture) and on the illuminating work of the Spirit. In Scripture, God tells us what knowledge is: thinking his thoughts after him. And Scripture distinguishes wisdom from foolishness, truth from falsity, right from wrong. It also aids our judgments of what is possible and probable, leading us to adopt standards very different from those of Hume, Strauss, Ritschl, Bultmann, and the Jesus Seminar. Historical claims must be judged, ultimately, by these principles. When we write history, we must ask in every case, is my assertion wisdom, or is it foolishness in God’s sight? Thus, whatever we believe, we believe by the permission of Scripture.

I have noted Muller’s exception at this point. He replies with the example that he doesn’t understand his computer software program by biblical principles and norms. I reply, (1) it is by biblical principles that you know that this is a rational world suitable for computing.  If the biblical worldview weren’t true, there would be no point to computing at all. (2) If Scripture told you to abandon your beliefs about the software, you would abandon them, for you are a Christian. And you would also abandon them if Scripture yielded epistemological principles that forced you to abandon those beliefs. But so far as you can tell, Scripture imposes no such obstacles to your belief. In that sense, you hold your beliefs about the software program by the permission of Scripture.

Note that I said “permission,” not “commandment,” though I do believe there are many beliefs Scripture commands us to hold. Much has been written in recent philosophical literature about the “ethics of knowledge:” what are we obligated to, permitted to, forbidden to believe. The implied correlation of ethics with epistemology shows even more clearly the importance of maintaining a Christian, that is a biblical view of knowledge, and to assess all of our beliefs by Christian criteria.

Scripture does not tell us everything we need to know about historiography, but it does tell us quite a lot, and what it does tell us is normative and important.7 And my point is that as the corpus of ultimate norms for historiography, Scripture is also sufficient. We don’t need, and God has not given us, any more ultimate norms. That point, so developed, does not seem at all crazy to me. In fact it seems like a necessary application of that primal Christian insight that God is Lord of all areas of life.

Autonomous historiography, then, understood as historiography which disavows the relevance of sola Scriptura for its work, is excluded. Understood as activity which disavows any religiously significant presupposition, it is impossible.8 For in all areas of life, we either glorify God or deny him. We serve Him or an idol. There is no middle ground. Understood as a claim to religious neutrality in historiography, it must be dismissed as arrogance.

Why, as Christians, should we ever want to do anything autonomously? Muller defends a certain kind of autonomy in the area of historiography by saying that “the alternative is a theologically controlled method that predetermines the result of an investigation and that, therefore, never offers the wandering systematic theologian a fixed documentary point from which to critique his own expertise.”

On my view, clearly some results are predetermined. I cannot, while remaining a Christian, seriously entertain the historical hypothesis that Jesus’s body is still in the ground. Cornelius Van Til used to offer his students tickets on an airline to go to Palestine to look for the body of Jesus. He got no takers. But I don’t see that my view requires all results to be predetermined. Nothing in Scripture tells me how many years Calvin spent in Strasbourg; nor does it supply premises from which I could deduce that conclusion by good and necessary consequence.9 The question is a genuinely open one, requiring rational examination of extra-scriptural data, according to the norms of a Christian epistemology. And questions remain open in systematic theology, too, until we gain assurance of what Scripture actually says.10

On the subject of worship, I welcome Muller’s agreement that marketing is not always bad. I do not, however, believe that marketing is adiaphora in the sense that Scripture says nothing normative about it.11 I rather cringe when Muller cites the maxim that Scripture is a “nose of wax” which “can be bent in all directions unless there is a confessional context within which the work of interpretation takes place.” If he is referring to the arbitrary way in which some people read Scripture, fine; but if he is saying that Scripture itself is so amorphous as to justify such arbitrariness, I take sharp exception. I shall assume that he means the former rather than the latter. I do, like him, advocate confessional contexts of interpretation. But in that confessional context, Scripture is not a rubbery object of communal molding. It is the mighty, sovereign, clear Word of the living God, given to rule the interpretative activity of God’s people. And when individuals, working outside the confessional context, err in their interpretations, it is still the perfect Word of God that they are mistaken about.

As to whether Scripture is a help in resolving questions about worship, music, and church planting: I sure hope it is, else we are really at sea.  On these questions, I suggest that readers look at my Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense, forthcoming from P&R Publishing. I see this book as a serious theological work, even though it deals with a popular subject. I try there to provide an example of how sola Scriptura can provide us with guidance in such areas.12

Perhaps all this sounds to Muller like “muddle-headed Dooyeweerdianism.” I assure him that the Dooyeweerdians gave up on me many years ago as an incurable scholastic. I too have been a critic of Dooyeweerd and his followers. But God has used them, and especially their patron saint Abraham Kuyper, to remind me of God’s claims on all of life. We all need to hear that message over and over again.

Now Wells. He says my “shots” at him were “wildly amiss,” a criticism I am willing to consider seriously. But I don’t see in his reply evidence that would justify such a strong retort. His description of his work in comparison with Augustine’s City of God was illuminating, but it was not at all inconsistent with my own conception of what he was trying to accomplish.

He disavows my description of him as a “follower” of Francis Schaeffer. I apologize. I should have known that scholars do not generally like to be called followers of other people. I shall not use that expression again. The Schaeffer-Wells connection in my mind occurred during  some oral remarks Wells made on a visit to the west coast a few years ago. I re-read his books after that and concluded that the emphasis of his recent work was very much like that of Schaeffer, and the strengths and weaknesses of his approach were quite similar to those of Schaeffer and Guinness. Of course, I realize that every writer is an individual, and certainly Wells has added much that is important, and dropped much that is inadequate, in the work of his predecessors.

In the context of the paper we are discussing, it should be obvious to the reader (and I hope it will be obvious to Wells upon reconsideration) that I meant the Schaeffer reference more as a compliment than as a criticism. I characterize Wells’s work (with that of others in this general tradition) as “a breath of fresh air” and “a theology with real backbone.” I described his work as “wonderfully erudite and eloquently written,” and I said that “there is much truth, certainly, in his indictment of evangelicals as individuals and as churches.” I would add that Wells mirrors Schaeffer in his important work of analyzing the culture to help us understand how to respond to it as Christians. In his City of God labors, I mean only to encourage him, and I’m disappointed that he failed to detect that encouragement in my writing.

Of course, one way we can encourage one another is by constructive criticism, “iron sharpening iron,” and certainly there is a lot of that in my essay. But we need to be clear, first of all, as to what those criticisms are. I certainly never made what Wells calls “the remarkable assertion that for me sociology and history are authoritative, rather than Scripture.” Rather, I commended the Schaeffer-Guinness-Wells (sorry again, but that was the context of the commendation) stand for biblical authority and inerrancy. What I said specifically was that sociology and history, rather than theology, were Wells’s “primary tools” in the books under consideration. I also said that in this literature I could not find “any clear affirmation that Scripture contains its own distinctive epistemological norms, different from those of secular thought.” Now Wells evidently failed to understand what I meant by this criticism. It does not mean that Wells is not committed to biblical authority. Rather, and I hope my remarks to Muller will have clarified this, it means that Wells does not in these books (except in very general terms) present distinctively biblical standards for evaluating the cultural movements he discusses.

It is with some pleasant surprise that I find him endorsing a principle of mine that Muller specifically negated, namely that all our knowledge is by the permission of Scripture. That is the kind of confession I wish had been prominently displayed in his books. And to be consistent with that confession, it seems to me that Wells should seek to apply biblical principles to the cultural data with more detail and precision than he has so far.

Which leads me to the point about traditionalism. I’ll pass by his untrue and gratuitous remarks about my “pragmatism” and my “ignorance” about marketing.13 I don’t believe that I said anywhere in my essay that Wells opposes everything modern, as he claims I did. I thought I was clear in saying that the object of Wells’s critique is “a new way of thinking” fostered by “modernity.”14

He also thinks I misunderstood his evaluation of the past: “Nowhere have I said, or even hinted, that the old is better; taken as a whole, it is simply different.” Well, now: when he describes eighteenth century Wenham as “A Delicious Paradise Lost” in the title of the first chapter of No Place For Truth, are we not even permitted to take that as a hint? And I think it should be plain to most all readers that Wells thinks the present-day evangelical church is in much worse shape than the church of two hundred years ago. Wells, of course, is the best one to describe his intentions; but his readers and reviewers must be allowed to make judgments about what he has actually communicated.

Then he says that I have been unfair to criticize in his books the balance between truth and love. He replies that with classical theology he sees “love as an expression of holiness.” I applaud this point theologically and logically. But I’ve seen too many churches divided by theological battles in which one or more parties use theological “truth” or principles of “holiness” as clubs with which to beat others over the head. When one remarks that the offending party is not showing love, we get the reply that real love is implicit in a concern for truth. And so, presumably, it’s O. K. to use truth as a weapon, without any sensitivity or concern for people. Truth itself is love, and so we don’t need to worry about love as long as we’re sure of the truth. But if that is the case, doesn’t Paul’s statement about “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) become redundant?

I’m certainly not accusing Wells of holding such an attitude. But to make the logical point that holiness and truth imply love is not to solve the practical problem of the balance between truth and love in the church, or in theological writings. And I still agree with Dawn that Wells, like many of us,  needs to make some progress in achieving such balance. Our present exchange has only confirmed that evaluation in my mind.

As to my complaint that he has “not actually formulated the biblical principles that should guide evangelism, church planting, and worship,” Wells cites some writings of his that deal with these topics. I apologize for neglecting these. But the City of God series should have, I think, summarized these principles at some length, so that readers could see how they relate to his

He does tell us that “I operate from the assumption that we already have the answers to these things and we can find them within the stream of classical Reformational thinking to which we are heirs. Modernity poses no question to which the answer, in principle, has not already been conceived.” Would I be wrong to take this as another hint that for Wells  “the old is better?” In any case, I would be interested to get his response to my forthcoming arguments for contemporaneity in worship.15 I believe these arguments are principled, not pragmatic in any pejorative sense. And they are even based, in one sense, on the Reformation tradition, particularly its insistence upon worship in the vernacular.

Wells also says that my essay bypasses the important questions about the relation of history to systematic theology. I certainly agree that there is far more to be said on the subject. My reply to Muller above (along with my earlier review article about his The Study of Theology)16 should give some indication of how I would answer at least some of those questions. More important,  it should show why I think my concept of “something close to biblicism” sets forth the most important principles, for Christians, in dealing with those issues. Clearly, as Wells says, more needs to be said about the place of redemptive history in the understanding and use of the biblical canon, but I could not presume to develop anything like a complete hermeneutic in my essay.17 Evidently Wells and I disagree, both with regard to his books and to my essay, as to what subjects most urgently need to be addressed for an adequate treatment of the issues. The question of when an author must discuss A in order to give an adequate account of B is itself an interesting issue, but I must for the present leave that to be resolved by the reader’s intuition.

As to Wells’s last three paragraphs, dealing with the task of theology, he may be surprised to learn that I agree wholeheartedly. Reading between the lines, however, I gather he is saying that my “Biblicism” essay was too insular, a “retreat” into a “safe haven” or “protected enclave,” with people like John Murray who do theology apart from history. I would like to assure him here that if my essay represented a retreat, it was a strategic retreat, a retreat to draw provisions for the spiritual warfare of our time. Strange as it may seem to him, I still think that the approach of Murray and Van Til gives us very powerful weapons in our struggle with “modernity.” These weapons are those of God himself, the whole armor of God. And, much as we exchange verbal fisticuffs on the pages of theological journals, let us never forget that in that larger struggle we are on the same side.


1 Muller, “The Study of Theology Revisited: A Response to John Frame,” WTJ 56:2 (Fall, 1994), 409-417.

2 For present purposes, I will use “autonomy” and “neutrality” as synonyms, and I will define this pair of terms as “acting without being subject to ultimate norms.” Ultimate norms are norms which make an unconditional demand upon one’s beliefs and/or actions, norms which cannot be negated by any higher principle. For Christians, the teachings of Scripture have such normative character, but of course there are competing claims to normativity. In my view, there is no neutrality or autonomy so defined; there are only claims to it. Those claims are false because in fact everybody always serves either God or an idol.

3 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 8. This point is very important in the current theological climate. Some evangelicals have taken the position that biblical inerrancy pertains only to its teaching about salvation, not to its teaching about anything else. Scripture itself, in my view, does not limit its authority in any such way, and the distinction itself breaks down upon analysis. But if biblical authority and inerrancy have unlimited scope, surely Scripture’s sufficiency also applies to all areas of life.

4 This point is, of course, not the heart of his critique of such New Testament scholarship. His main point is to argue that their tendenz has led them into defective arguments and conclusions. But if their tendenz were correct, then we would have to regard their arguments much more positively. Muller’s critique, certainly, assumes that Ritschl’s tendenz is wrong. If that assumption is correct, it is a biblical assumption, and it is essential to Muller’s case.

5 Same reference as note 2.

6 Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 1987.

7 History is one of the chief concerns of Scripture, unlike recipes for bread and the like.

8 Hence the usefulness of Muller’s demonstration that Ritschl and others operated on theological presuppositions. My problem with Ritschl, of course, was not that he was actually able to do autonomous historical research, but that he exempted himself from the principles of Scripture, only to enslave himself to a nonscriptural assumption.

9 It does, I think, supply epistemological, especially ethics-of-knowledge, principles that will lead me into the truth if the data is there and I have the ability to find it.

10 There are, of course, different levels of assurance here, and other complicating factors that I can’t discuss in the limits of this reply. See Doctrine of  the Knowledge of God.

11 I do have some problems with the notion of adiaphora as such, because it can be used to circumvent the universal scope of Scripture’s concern, which I have defended earlier. But certainly there are some human choices that are between two goods rather than between right and wrong, and I don’t object to the term adiaphora being used to describe these.

12 On a few specific matters: I do agree with Muller that a cappella Psalms can be great aesthetically, but in my experience they usually have been otherwise. As for great composers in the Reformation tradition, I love Schütz and the others Muller cites, but it is interesting that there are no Reformed composers on this list. I still believe that the Reformed churches have yet to come to terms with their intellectualism.

13 I will have more to say on these topics in Contemporary Worship Music, cited above.

14 See the first paragraph of the section of my paper called “Evangelical Critique of Culture.”

15 In Contemporary Worship Music.

16 “Muller on Theology,” WTJ 56 (Spring, 1994), 133-151.

17 For some thoughts on these issues, see Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.


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