A Clarification of Frame’s Doctrine of Carefulness

In chapter 35, I argued from the manslaughter legislation of the Mosaic law the principle that we should not only avoid murder, but should also be very careful to guard against the possible destruction of human life….But where it is evident that carelessness can lead and has led to tragedy, we must take precautions (The Doctrine of the Christian Life (DCL), 724, emphasis original).

John M. Frame

Anyone who knows me in an academic setting, will confirm that I like to call myself a “Frame fan.” His book, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (DCL), has greatly influenced my thinking as I continue to grow as a scholar, budding scholar perhaps is a better phrase, in the discipline of Christian Ethics. In fact, I requested him to be my major figure for comprehensive exams because of how much his writings have influenced me. I was disheartened when he retired from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida the semester before I was going to ask him to take me on as a student for an independent study. By the way, I still asked, and he graciously and respectfully declined because after all, he had retired.

Even though I am a self-proclaimed “Frame fan,” I still have moments where I might disagree with his ethical framework or thought. What can I say? Scholarship is about refining ideas through rigorous study, thought, and critique. While I think his triperspectival methodology is helpful for handling moral dilemmas, scholars could argue that his method could have some faults. Again, this is part of scholarship, and scholarship is not for the faint of heart. With that, I would like to critique Frame’s “Doctrine of Carefulness” wording with the intention to propose a better phrase for my future posts.

Frame’s Doctrine of Carefulness Explained

John Frame once wrote that we should “be very careful to guard against the possible destruction of human life” (DCL, 724, emphasis original). In DCL he called this moral idea “The Doctrine of Carefulness.” Frame’s emphasis for this doctrine is that Christians who believe in the sanctity of human life should not only refrain from disobeying the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” but also, that followers of Christ ought to avoid any situation that puts life in danger of being taken. In fact, Frame rightly points out that the sixth commandment does forbid the idea of unlawfully taking a life–what we might refer to as murder, but the Hebrew word also conveys that humanity is to “take precautions against the loss of life” (DCL, 688). In other words, to practice the art of carefulness so as to not accidently cause a life to be prematurely terminated.

For example, Deuteronomy 22:8-10 reads, “If you build a house, make sure to put a low wall around the edge of the flat roof. Then if someone falls off the roof and is killed, it won’t be your fault.” In this time period, the roof was used as a place where friends and family would congregate to enjoy each other’s company. Perhaps you could think of it as the premier patio that oversees the city. Without a wall around the roof, someone could unintentionally fall to their death. Notice, however, that if a person died from falling when no fence was present, the homeowners were held responsible. “It won’t be your fault” if one obeyed this civil law implies that if no wall is present then it is “your” fault.

Why is the homeowner at fault for their guest falling off the roof and dying? Don’t we have insurance companies for situations such as this? Even the accidental loss of life, exists as something worth grieving over when the idea of carefulness is neglected. The person who owned the home failed to protect life by inadequately creating a safe environment for his guests. To put it in terms of Frame’s doctrine of carefulness, the homeowner was careless with human life because they did not respect the lives of their guests enough to build a wall and protect those at the “dinner party.” Therefore, to use Frame’s wording for the doctrine of carefulness, “We must guard against the possibility that someone might be killed, being alert to correct life-threatening elements in situations” (DCL, 688).

Frame’s Doctrine of Carefulness Critiqued

From the outset, I think Frame’s understanding of biblical carefulness exists as a valid position that can be defended by Scripture. Those who hold that Scripture teaches an inviolability of life ethic–i.e. all human life is sacred–would do well to practice the notion of carefulness. In fact, my point in critiquing and developing this concept is to argue some best practices Christians should think through in applying this principle in various areas of life.

The issue I have with Frame’s thought is the phrase he utilizes to convey this ethic. I hesitate to call this a “doctrine” of carefulness. Doctrine seems to imply a definitive position or objective truth. When evangelicals speak of doctrine, we are typically using that term to argue for some type of non-negotiables of the Christian faith (i.e. the Trinity, the inerrancy of Scripture, the incarnation, the Imago Dei, the gospel, etc.). The Holloman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines Doctrine as “Christian truth and teaching passed on from generation to generation as ‘the faith that was delivered to the saints'” (Jude 3 HCSB). In other words, Christian teaching derived from the Bible to explain and affirm essential truths of the faith to believers.

I am not saying that carefulness is not taught in Scripture nor is it something that isn’t being passed down from generation to generation, but rather I think that this moral responsibility is an application of a doctrine rather than a doctrine in and of itself. Therefore, Frame is expounding the notion of carefulness from the moral law summarized by the sixth commandment, which expresses the inherent worth and value of human beings made in God’s image. For this reason, I am arguing to modify Frame’s thought from the “doctrine of carefulness” to the “principle of carefulness.”

Carefulness could be considered a subjective term for each individual’s conscience, which is why, in my opinion, it is difficult to defend this concept as a “doctrine” (Frame acknowledges this difficulty on pp. 724-25 in footnote 7). For example, the speed limit in the United States is designed to keep drivers and passengers in all vehicles safe–thus, protecting life. If you and I were debating about how fast to drive on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles, California based on the concept of a doctrine of carefulness, you would think that both of us should say that we should drive at 70 miles per hour–the speed limit. If you have ever driven on certain parts of “The 5” you would know that this could be a dangerous course of action.

Drivers have to make continuous moral judgments on how fast they should drive depending on where they are and what is happening on Interstate 5. You might say that I need to drive 70 miles per hour to keep up with the traffic flow of other drivers so that I am not hit by other cars when driving too slow–“The 5” can be a fast-paced road during non-rush hour times. I might, in return, argue that going 5 miles under the speed limit is safer because coming over a hill or around a curve and seeing traffic backed up will allow you to react in a timely manner, thus preventing any accidents. Do you see how carefulness could be considered a subjective term? Therefore, I think that carefulness must be attached to an objective truth–i.e. the Imago Dei.

With this in mind, I prefer to designate the term “principle of carefulness” as the more appropriate phrase for believers. The applications of carefulness will vary (principle), but the respect for human life does not (doctrine). Go back to my example of our argument about driving on “The 5.” You and I are arguing different applications of the principle of carefulness, but we are making our cases with the same doctrine in view, all life is sacred because all people are made in God’s image. To put it another way, the principles that we arguing for are dependent upon the same doctrine we both believe in– i.e. the Imago Dei.

The Principle of Carefulness Concluded

To conclude, I agree with Frame that the Bible teaches Christians should uphold to such a high view of human beings made in God’s image so that we are constantly encouraged to “be very careful to guard against the possible destruction of human life” (DCL, 724, emphasis original). I think the phrase “principle of carefulness” exists as a better alternative to Frame’s use of “doctrine of carefulness” by recognizing the various applications that could be practiced by believers holding to an inviolability of life ethic. While the biblical warrant for Christians to favor life in all situations remains biblically justified, the principle can be applied differently depending upon the conditions. I am not arguing a situational ethic, I am holding to the biblical truth of the Imago Dei as the foundational doctrine for the principle of carefulness.