John Frame and the Definition of Theology

One of my most cherished moments in seminary was to be exposed to John Frame’s definition of theology. For Frame, theology was defined as “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life.” a This definition is helpful because “Theology is thus freed from any false intellectualism or academicism. It is able to use scientific methods and academic knowledge where they are helpful, but it can also speak in nonacademic ways, as Scripture itself does – exhorting, questioning, telling parables, fashioning allegories and poems and proverbs and songs, expressing love, joy, patience . . . the list is without limit.”

I have since used this definition again and again and have learned to appreciate it even more as a pastor. Contrary to pietism, the Spirit does not implant in us an application, rather theology is applicable and needs to be made applicable by pastors and parishioners. It is also freeing to consider this definition in light of the theological illiteracy in our day. Certainly we wish to see the church grow in biblical knowledge, but this definition means that a pastor can instruct even the newest convert in the way he ought to live.

Frame’s definition accentuates the pastoral task in that it calls pastors to ask consistently How Now Shall We Then Live? In this sense, as Frame has argued elsewhere, unless theology is practically applied it has not become true theology. On the other hand, the one doing theology must first understand it before applying it. We have seen our share of faulty applications in the realm of the home and the church. Therefore, to properly grasp this definition one needs to be familiar with theology. David’s battle with Goliath was more than a remarkable example for how we can overcome difficulties in our lives, but also how God can use the weak to defeat the strong, and how a nation needs to put their trust in God, rather than chariots. There are individual and corporate obligations involved in that simple narrative.

Theology prepares us to ascend with our Lord, and in that reign we can learn to apply this rulership in all areas of life.

Another dimension to this conversation is that in applying our theology we become ambassadors for our theology. When our lives are poorly lived out we do shame to our theology. When sins are left un-confessed we are asserting that our theology does not have an answer for sin, or that it is flexible toward certain sins.  Theology needs to be lived out consistently, and when it is not, we need to confess that is has not been consistent.

Theology is life and life is theological.

  1. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 81.  (back)
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