Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: Michael Horton's "The Christian Faith"

Note:  Here's the book review of Horton's CF from the last issue of the RBT.
Michael Horton, The Christian Faith:  A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011):  1052 pp..
What is the best contemporary systematic theology from a Reformed and evangelical perspective on the market today?  In recent years Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Zondervan 1994) has risen in popularity, particularly among the YRR crowd (Young, Restless, Reformed) and especially for its highly readable and devotional style.  There are significant problems with Grudem, however, not the least of which is his advocacy for non-cessationism.  Many still stand by proven (relatively) “contemporary” works like that of Berkhof.  Into the mix of systematic theologies now comes The Christian Faith by Michael Horton.
Michael Horton is a Reformed minister, scholar, intellectual, and prolific author who is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.  He also serves as editor or Modern Reformation magazine and as a co-host of the influential The White Horse Inn broadcast.  He has been a persistent critic of broad evangelicalism in books like Christless Christianity:  The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker, 2008).  Recently, however, Horton has himself come under scrutiny by some in Reformed circles.  Lane Tipton of Westminster Seminary of Philadelphia, for example, has labeled Horton’s emphasis on the doctrine of Justification, to what he sees as the neglect of the doctrine of Union with Christ, as more “Lutheran” than Reformed.  Even more pointedly, theologian John Frame has offered outspoken criticism of Horton and others (like R. Scott Brown and D. J. Hart), especially for their advocacy of “two kingdom theology,” faulting their distinction between the role of the church and state in civil government and society.  Frame has labeled the views of Horton and others as the “The Escondido Theology” (see his book, The Escondido Theology:  A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology, Whitefield Media, 2011).  Those who read Horton’s work will be particularly keen to notice these areas of controversy.
General Impressions
We might begin with some general impressions of Horton’s work.  Those who expected The Christian Faith to provide a popular and devotional alternative to Grudem will be disappointed.  This is a much more intellectually challenging book to read and understand.  Horton’s work not only presents a systematic theology but a survey of Western and Christian theological and philosophical thought.  It is in many ways a historical as well as a systematic theology.  Horton also places much emphasis on the influence of Western philosophy (Plato, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, etc.) on theological method.  Those without a strong philosophy background will likely struggle with this book.  Horton’s work also reflects his own adaptation of modern philosophical thought, most notably “speech act theory.”
It is also a much more “catholic” work than a purely evangelical one. One might even say that Horton appears more keenly interested in interaction with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, liberal Protestant, and Neo-orthodox theologies and theologians than he is with conservative evangelicals.  The more ecumenical nature and goal of Horton’s work might be indicated by the fact that he introduces the work with The Nicene Creed (p. 11).
Survey of Content
In the introduction, Horton notes that “the goal of theology is to humble us before the triune God of majesty and grace” (p. 13).  He adds that to believe in the God of Scripture requires “an act of apostasy from the assumed creed of our age” (p. 15).  A systematic understanding of the faith is essential for all believers.  It is “like the box top of a jigsaw puzzle, and every believer is a theologian in the sense of putting all the pieces together” (p. 27).  Horton makes clear that this book is not an exercise in “dogmatics,” which provides “a deeper analysis of Christian doctrines” but “a systematic summary” (p. 29).  Finally, he notes that he is writing “from the perspective of a Reformed Christian living in North America” (p. 30).
The Christian Faith is then divided into six major parts and twenty-nine chapters:
Part 1 is “Knowing God:  The Presuppositions of Theology” (pp. 35-222).  This opening is dedicated to epistemology, the doctrine of revelation, and Scripture.
Part 2 is “God Who Lives” (pp. 223-308).  The emphasis here is on the attributes of God and the Trinity. 
Part 3 is “God Who Creates” (pp. 309-445).  In this part the subjects are the decrees of God, creation, providence, anthropology, and the fall.
Part 4 is “God Who Rescues” (pp. 446-550).  This section is devoted to Christology.
Part  5 is “God Who Reigns in Grace” (pp. 551-905).  This part focuses on the ordo salutis and ecclesiology.
And Part 6 is “God Who Reigns in Glory” (pp. 906-990).  This final part, appropriately enough, deals with the doctrine of last things.
The Christian Faith also includes a number of helpful resources and appendices, including a “Glossary” of theological terms (pp. 991-1003), a “Confession Index” (pp. 1047-1048), and a brief “Annotated Bibliography” on various resources, labeling them by levels as “Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced” (pp. 1049-1052).
Dipping in at a few points of interest
Horton’s systematic theology might be generally described as covenantal in method, Calvinistic in soteriology, Presbyterian in ecclesiology, cessationist extraordinary offices and gifts, and amillennial in eschatology.   Such a massive work, tackling such a broad array of subjects, is difficult to analyze, however, in short space with precision.  Rather than offer a micro-analysis of the whole we will instead dip in at a few points of interest:
Scripture and Text
From the perspective of his covenant theology, Horton sees Scripture as the “covenant canon” or “ruling constitution” of Christianity.  On one hand, he affirms what he calls the “verbal-plenary inspiration” of Scripture (p. 160).  On the other hand, he is intent on criticizing what he calls “the docetic temptation” of some fundamentalists, concluding, “it is impossible to treat every word as normative, much less as the direct utterance of God.  Yet the Bible as a whole is God’s inspired script for the drama of redemption” (p. 162).  He notes that both fundamentalist and liberals share in what he holds to be a common error:
In this sense, fundamentalism shares with liberalism a univocal view of divine and human agency, leading the former to undervalue the Bible’s humanity, while the latter interprets the obvious signs of the Bible’s humanity as evidence of its merely natural process (p. 163).       
He is particularly hostile to the view of “mechanical inspiration” as opposed to “organic inspiration” (p. 63), though he does acknowledge that even the Reformers used “the unfortunate language of dictation” (p. 174).
Horton affirms the Hodge/Warfield/Princeton view of inspiration as “the best formulation of inerrancy and challenges caricatures” (p. 176).  He notes that this view of inerrancy is not “attributed to copies” but to “the original autographic text” (p. 177).  He also follows the typical evangelical line by noting that though textual discrepancies remain “they do not affect any point of the church’s faith and practice” (p. 180).  In fact, Horton expresses bold confidence in modern text criticism as “an ongoing enterprise yielding ongoing results” demonstrating that “reconstructing or approximating the content of the original autographs is a viable goal and that, for the most part, it has already achieved this goal” (p. 180).
Horton is particularly keen to defend this inerrancy view against Barthianism (see pp. 181-185), noting that “the inerrancy debate” is “largely a conversation between Old Princeton and Karl Barth (p. 181), while acknowledging that “both positions are quite different from Protestant orthodoxy” (p. 181).  Though admitting that the Hodge/Warfield/Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy “invites legitimate questions and critiques,” Horton  finds its alternatives “less satisfying” (p. 184).  One wishes that Horton might have spent less time analyzing, comparing, and contrasting the contemporary view of inerrancy with Barth and more with Protestant orthodoxy which affirmed the providential preservation of God’s Word in the copies (as in the Puritans, the Westminster Confession, John Owen, etc.).
As noted above, Horton’s work generally aims at a “catholic” appeal to the broad Christian tradition.  For example, he can approvingly cite and interact with the work of Roman Catholics like A. Dulles on revelation (see pp.  113 ff. ) or J. Ratzinger (i.e., Pope Benedict) on ecclesiology (pp. 720, 736; though note also his critique on pp. 830 ff. ), of Anglicans like C. S. Lewis (e.g., p. 18), Lutherans like D. Bonhoeffer (see pp. 756 ff.), and of the neo-orthodox Reformed lion Karl Barth (cited throughout; according the “Name Index” Barth is second only to John Calvin in the number of references).
There is one segment of the Christian tradition, however to which Horton shows little acceptance and that is to Protestant “fundamentalism.”  In his discussion of the perspicuity of Scripture, for example, Horton observes, “There is a fundamentalist version of Scripture’s perspicuity or clarity that undervalues its humanity, plurality, and richness, treating the Bible as a collection of obvious propositions that require no interpretation.  However, this is not the classic Protestant understanding of Scripture” (pp. 196-197).  He then proceeds to apply this thought to the fundamentalist view of creation:  “For instance, if we seek from Scripture infallible information concerning the age of the earth, we will miss the point of the passages we are citing” (p. 197). Indeed, in his later treatment of the doctrine of creation, Horton explicitly rejects a “fundamentalist” literal, six day view of creation.
In his discussion of the doctrine of creation proper, Horton states:
It will not surprise those who have read thus far that I take the days of creation to be analogical.  That is, they are not literal, twenty-four hour periods, but God’s accommodation to the ordinary pattern of six days of labor and a seventh day of rest, which he created for mankind (p. 381).
The Biblical creation account is neither “a science report” nor “mythological” but “part of a polemic of ‘Yahweh’ versus the idols” (p. 382).  Horton acknowledge his dependence on Meredith Kline and his “framework hypothesis” for his interpretation of the creation narrative (pp. 382 ff.).
Oddly enough, however, when he later discusses the doctrine of the fall, Horton insists on the historicity of Adam:  “Whatever one’s conclusions concerning the process of human origins, Christian theology stands or falls with a historical Adam and a historical fall” (p. 424).  Horton fails to address the contradiction between his rejection of the historicity of the creation narrative and his affirmation of the historicity of Adam.  This is a glaring problem not only with his doctrine of creation but also with his doctrine of sin and the fall.
As noted above, Horton has come under fire from some corners for his “Lutheran” view of justification.  Horton clearly gives great and appropriate emphasis to the doctrine of justification, calling it “the chief insight of the Reformation” (p. 622) and “the engine that pulls adoption, new birth, sanctification, and glorification in tow” (p. 708).  In his extended discussion of the ordo salutis, however, Horton also clearly emphasizes the doctrine of union with Christ, disputing a trend in Reformation Pauline scholarship to presuppose “that mystical participation in Christ stands over against a forensic emphasis on Christ’s alien righteousness imputed to believers” (p. 588). 
In his discussion of the doctrine of the church, Horton places what has become typical emphasis in his thought on the Word and Sacrament (i.e., preaching and the ordinances) as the primary focus of the church’s ministry.  What some might find noteworthy in the discussion here is the fact that thought Horton makes clear his preference for the Presbyterian model of church polity, he does not believe that Scripture clearly reveals a particular normative form of church government.  Thus polity is a secondary matter for Horton, as evidenced by this approving reference to L. Newbigin:  “Although a valid ministry of Word and sacrament is essential, Newbigin rightly argues that this does not entail a particular form of church government as essential to the very being of the church” (p. 875).  One wonders, however, if such matters are so murky in Scripture, and if they stand a lower level of importance in defining a true church.
Horton does indeed advance the “two kingdom” view of the church in the present age:  “Christ is already a king with his kingdom, but for now this realm is visible chiefly in the public ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline, and also in the fellowship of the saints as they share their spiritual and material gifts in the body of Christ” (p. 525).  He later adds that the Reformers insisted that “believers must live as citizens of two kingdoms, each with its own distinct sources, ends, and means” (p. 926).  This kind of perspective will not please some in Reformed circles, particularly those with theonomistic leanings.  Baptists, however, who have rarely, if ever, known the experiences of holding sway in the civil and cultural arena may wonder why the fuss.  
With regard to baptism, Horton predictably affirms infant baptism.  On the subject of baptismal mode, though conceding that “immersion does seem more suggestive of begin buried and raised with Christ and of being drawn out of God’s waters of judgment alive,” Horton eventually concludes that immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are all “valid modes” (pp. 792-793).
Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith is a massive and sweeping survey of Christian doctrine.  It is not merely a systematic theology but also a historical and philosophical theology.  The prose is literary and engaging, but the density of the material will likely not make it a “popular” work, like Grudem’s.  Many conservative, Reformed readers will take exception to various positions adopted by Horton (e.g., his rejection of a literal six day account of creation, his conviction that Scripture does not clearly teach a definitive church polity, his “two-kingdom” theology, etc.).  For them, it is not likely to replace Berkhof as a suitable “contemporary” systematic.  Some might wonder at Horton’s persistent efforts to engage with liberal scholarship and non-evangelical and non-Reformed theologies and theologians.  Perhaps the biggest question, then, may be that of audience.  Some will find it too conservative and traditional, while others will find it too liberal and innovative.  The pastor-theologian, however, will, at the least, be stimulated by Horton’s labors, even if he does not always find himself in agreement with his method or conclusions.
Jeffrey T. Riddle, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia    

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