The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way

Article by   April 2011
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Michael Horton is a talented theologian and communicator, able to write for those with delicate digestive systems, as well as for the more robustly constituted.  This one-volume, one thousand-odd paged systematic theology is somewhere in the middle of the field. Effort had been made to make it accessible - tables, snappy headlines, a buoyant, cheerful style, the inclusion of questions for discussion - but the treatment of some of the issues will on occasion provoke puzzlement, and appreciation of nearly all of them requires a good bit of prior knowledge and understanding. This is hardly avoidable.

Horton emphasises, as many do at present, the importance of not neglecting narrative, salvation history and theodrama. Reading this, I rather feared for the worst. But I needn't have. There is a five-chapter introduction, having to do with method and approach. Here Horton makes it clear that he is wedded to the biblical category of the covenant as the fundamental theological theme, together with the Calvinian theme of the knowledge of God. Scripture is 'covenant canon'. This, at least, serves to anchor his material in an overarching biblical idea.

In Reformed theology there has been and still is some tension between covenant theology and a more logical and metaphysical approach, between Cocceius and Voetius, say. I reckon that Horton does a fair job in mediating between these approaches, or at least masking where each leads to if left untethered to the other. It's hard to tell whether his heart is with Cocceius and his head with Voetius, or the other way around. The general outlook of the book, in which the proposal is that the several loci of systematic theology be treated covenantally, suggests Cocceius, but the way the loci come together, a fairly conventional way it has to be said, one in which we soon find ourselves discussing divine simplicity and the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God, suggests Voetius. Maybe the voice is Cocceius's voice, but the hands are of Voetius.

Nevertheless, this emphasis on covenant, and its consequences for systematic theology, requires a more thorough treatment than Horton gives it. The link section, 'The Nature of Doctrine: from Scripture to System' is disappointing, because the author considers not that but 'From Scripture to Doctrine', and the question of what makes a set of doctrines systematic is left dangling in the air. Obviously the idea of the covenant does not do the trick here. For systematic theology differs from redemptive history, but Horton does not allow himself to tell us how.  Is what makes systematic theology systematic simply the intelligibility and coherence of that history? Or is it some deeper coherence, something stronger than logical consistency but weaker than logical deducibility or mutual entailment, an organic connectedness?  I do not think that Horton gives us an answer. Odd that, writing a book with 'systematic theology' in the title and not telling the reader what the title means. 

The covenantal impetus that the treatment of the doctrinal topics receive obviously works better in some cases than others. In the case of the doctrine of God it hardly works at all, nor ought we to expect it to, given Horton's emphatic endorsement of the divine freedom.  The same may be said of the treatment of the lineaments of the God-man, or the ordering of the divine decrees. But of course it works well with the incarnation, the ordo salutis, and the church and sacraments. 

So after the first five chapters, the other twenty-four of the work are so many doctrinal essays, arranged in a fairly conventional way, frequently employing the covenant motif, but with no underlying rationale for the whole. Horton's style is to work from the exegetical foundations of a doctrine, keeping his eye on the history of theology, weighted in favour of Calvin and the Reformed Orthodox, and more of Hodge than of Shedd, and on contemporary theologians from Kline and Vos through Gunton to such as Jenson, Moltmann and Pinnock. He weaves together numerous quotes from these and a wider variety of other present-day sources in both illustrative and authority-conferring ways, in the familiar North American manner. One cannot but admire the industry and determination evident in all of this.

I'd say that the result is a pretty reliable and an appealing treatment of Reformed theology. There are things that occasionally cause the eyebrow to rise, but I'm certainly not going to bare the teeth of any toothcomb in order to nit pick over what is here, or to pontificate about and lament over what might have been but isn't.  Instead I thought it might be worth reflecting on two or three general questions which considering Horton's work have prompted.

Horton's habit of citing from a wide range of contemporary theological authors has been mentioned. Many other conservative writers do the same. The practice has strengths and weaknesses. Horton makes clear, in some cases, points of disagreement as well as of agreement. I suspect that the practice is not reciprocated, though I've done no research on this.  His procedure shows generosity and catholicity of spirit, and echoes the important Reformed theme that truth is God's truth wherever it may be found. But the dangers for the unwary or untutored are obvious. And there's a connected consequence.  I suspect that the number of Horton's very contemporary citations will date the book sooner than if he had concentrated more exclusively on the classic, primary theological texts, catholic and reformed, those that are formative and have stood the test of time. 

There is a further linked point that is also of interest. I think that it is fair to say that Horton writes in the same voice, in the same key and register, no matter what he is discussing. There is never a suggestion that he might be surer of the grounding and intelligibility of some doctrines rather than others, that some are clearer than others, more difficult than others, more puzzling, more speculative, harder to swallow, more inherently mysterious than others. But to adopt this uniform approach seems to depart from the normal patterns of human belief, in which some beliefs are more confidently held than others, some more central in the web of belief, some more peripheral.  On this matter, Horton's mentor John Calvin seems to have a rather different, somewhat mixed approach, though I am not suggesting that it was intentional. In the Institutes and many of his doctrinal and polemical works he seems utterly confident, a kind of one man Reformed magisterium, (frankly, a know-all), while in his exegetical remarks in the commentaries he frequently offers alternative readings, expresses doubts about what a passage may mean, marginally preferring one interpretation over another, and so on. If systematic theologians like Calvin and Horton are human too, ought not their products to be contoured in a more human way? If some doctrines are hard to be understood, and some hard to take, why not say this and say why?

A final general comment. Horton's systematic theology, like many another's, is very much an intramural product, consisting of lots of conversations among exclusively Christian theologians. The general features or movements of current culture only merit discussion insofar as they have been taken up by or unconsciously reflected in the published work of members of the guild. As far as I can see the numerous works in systematic theology recently produced among conservative theologians (Grudem, Frame, Reymond, Kelly and now Horton) all seem to play on the same field and in more or less the same way, so that while we all may have our favourite, there is, frankly, little to choose between them, except depth of pocket or size of shelf.  Is this, a kind of Theological Correctness, what contributes to the feeling of many that systematic theology is inherently dull?  I hazard the hope that when the present cycle of systematic theology writing has run its course, the next cycle, while thoroughly conservative in orientation,  will be wider, broader, more expansive, allowing some genuine, substantive  differences of opinion and so, if nothing else, widening consumer choice. 

Perhaps such a change will be forced on new authors whether they like it or not. Ought not a modern systematic theology to engage with Islam? (The word is not in the index of Horton's book) 'Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? 'Christian providence or Muslim fate?'  I wonder how Michael Horton's overarching theme, the theme of covenant, would work when considered in the company of the other 'Abrahamic religions'?

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way.  (Zondervan, 2011)


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