Review: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015

Summary: This is a survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

Yes, this really is what you think it is, a one volume survey of Western philosophy and theology! It is a massive volume, coming in at over 800 pages, and yet to distill the material Frame covers even to this length is a not insignificant undertaking.

Here’s what you will find in this book if you decide to dig in. Frame begins with a discussion of philosophy and the Bible and reveals his own approach at the outset. Frame was deeply influenced by his association with Cornelius Van Til, his teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary, and writes as a presuppositionalist. In brief, he begins with the belief in a God who reveals God’s self, as basic to all else and a commitment to the authority of that revelation as found in the Bible. He contrasts this with philosophy, which he understands as a human endeavor of autonomous reason. This is not without worth but in his view exists in a rational-irrational tension that can only be resolved by divine revelation and he traces this idea throughout his survey. In the following twelve chapters he surveys the major philosophers and theologians beginning with Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, medieval philosophy, early modern thought, theology in the Enlightenment, Kant and his successors, nineteenth century theology, Nietzsche, pragmatism, phenomenology and existentialism, twentieth century liberal theology and language philosophy, and recent Christian philosophy.

His format is to outline the thought of the theologian or philosopher in question, situating them in the context of ideas of their time. Then, more briefly he gives a critique. Fundamentally, he will evaluate on the basis of the degree to which the philosopher or theologian in question roots his ideas in revelation versus autonomous reason. Yet I did not find this repetitive but nuanced to the specific thought of the person in question. In most chapters, he will cover the thought of several major thinkers, and then more briefly touch on others. Each chapter concludes with a glossary of terms, a bibliography for further study that includes print, online, and audio materials (the latter consisting of lectures by Frame available at iTunes).

In addition to this survey, the volume includes twenty appendices, consisting of a number scholarly articles and reviews Frame has written on subjects related to the book. I found a number of these quite illuminating and good resources for apologetic (Christian defense of the faith) discussions including essays on the ontological argument, self-refuting statements, and on God and biblical language. Of personal interest to me was his essay on certainty and his discussion of the work of Esther Lightcap Meek, an epistemologist teaching at Geneva College. She asserts that while we cannot hope for certainty, we can attain to a proper confidence in knowing. Frame would argue that if one presupposes revelation, then there are some things pertaining to God’s nature, our condition and salvation that we may know with certainty. This challenged my own thinking (I have tended toward Meek’s ideas) and actually is something I want to pursue further. One also glimpses some of the scholarly “battles” he has engaged in such as his dialogue with Gordon Clark.

This touches on what I thought was the value of Frame’s work. In addition to surveying the sweep of Western philosophical and theological thought, his discussions served to whet the appetite for pursuing some of these in further depth. I would not have know, for example, of Meek’s books (Longing to Know, Loving to Know are two of these). Along the way, I also found myself longing to read Anselm, to re-read Pascal, to dig into the common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. Frame even made me curious to explore some Van Til, who I’ve never read. Frame has a teacher’s ability to unravel complex ideas in a highly readable form.

I fully suspect that a number who do not share Frame’s perspective will take issue with his judgments on philosophers and theologians. He is less charitable, for example, to Barth, than many contemporary writers, although not uncharitable in his judgments of any. One has to understand the deep passion for truth as he understands it that under girds Frame’s writing.  And certainly, any specialist would probably take issue with his treatment of this or that figure. Yet that is always the challenge of undertaking a work like this.

For those sympathetic with a reformed, presuppositionalist perspective, this will provide a thoroughly engaging course on Western thought that will deeply inform one’s own intellectual life. For pastors, this is useful for understanding various currents of thought through history. For those working in university ministries or engaged in discussions at the philosophical level, this is an especially useful reference.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”