The Escondido Theology (Review)

Published: RTR 71, no. 2, 2012

The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology

John Frame, Lakeland, FL: Whitefield Media Productions, 2011. xliv+332pp.

Reformed Theology was forged in the furnace of both persecution and pastoral imperatives. Debates were scholarly, but not abstract. Today, however, the Reformed theological endeavour has been professionalized, and its academies are pressured to create the next new paradigm for distribution by the publishing houses. Frame does not quite express it like this, but he does say that Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California (Westminster West, WTS-W), has been far too partisan and determined to set up its own unique school of thought.

The Escondido Theology (the ‘hidden’ theology?) is a collection, with added commentary, of Frame’s reviews of several of the works of WTS-W authors. Drawing the reviews together in one place makes for alarming reading. Frame’s criticism of his ex-colleagues is sustained and exhausting. 

Frame has been disaffected by his experience at WTS-W, and the reader will instinctively pass over the more personal comments and compensate for the more pedantic ones. After sifting through that, what is left is a critique of varying quality (ranging from probing to outstanding) of the most controversial of WTS-W’s teachings. The reviews increase in quality over the course of the book. The most intellectually stinging review comes later, and is to do with the perspectives of Clark and Horton on archetypal and ectypal knowledge. Frame is well at home on such matters.

The critique of ‘two kingdoms’ doctrine is also trenchant. The doctrine follows Kline’s distinction between cult and culture in Genesis. Cult is ruled by special revelation; culture by general. The problem is self-evident. Does this mean that there is a realm in God’s creation to which Scripture does not speak? Frame argues that even in the Garden, general revelation was not made to function by itself. There should be no doctrine of the sufficiency of natural theology. If it is objected that the civil magistrate now has to be an expert exegete, Frame retorts that the situation will be far more muddled if the magistrate only has the whisper of general revelation. Culture needs the clarity of Scripture, voiced by the Church.

Frame is less sure footed but still competent on WTS-W’s most distinctive teaching, which is the view that the Mosaic covenant is a typological covenant of works. Following Kline, Horton teaches that while salvation was by grace in the Mosaic period, the Mosaic economy also offered continued possession of temporal rewards on the basis of Israel’s merit. Frame fails to find this in Scripture, and spots it as being more Lutheran than Reformed. He points to the gracious nature of the Mosaic administration, and deals with ‘the law is not of faith’ statement in Galatians (which is the title of WTS-W’s publication on the subject). On the Adamic covenant, Frame’s position is less than clear, and more extended interaction with Scripture would have helped. For a fuller reply to WTS-W’s view, see Dennison, Sanborn and Swinburnson, ‘ ‘Entitlement’ in Reformed Covenant Theology: A Review’, Kerux, Vol. 24, 2009.

The irony is that WTS-W is a champion of 16th and 17th Reformed doctrine and the Westminster Confession. The Confession does not treat the Mosaic covenant as a works covenant, which is very much a minority position in Reformed thought. The two kingdoms doctrine also looks more like Lutheranism, and is directly contrary to the theocratic (though not theonomistic) beliefs of the Westminster divines. Such confessional disconnect would ordinarily be ruled out of order by WTS-W, Frame repines, as he tackles Scott Clark’s high view of confessionalism and what it means to be ‘Reformed’. Either Frame is right, that WTS-W is being inconsistent, or otherwise Frame has misconstrued the manner in which WTS-W holds to the Confession and what might be called the Reformed deposit.

The acerbity surrounding this exposé of ‘the Escondido theology’ is disconcerting. Whilst Frame laments fracturing into Klinian/Hortonian and Framian schools, there is a sense conveyed that Frame is vindicated and WTS-W repudiated. Such polarisation belies the fact that all parties concerned are honoured apologists for Reformed theology.