A Hipster’s Systematic Theology

June 20, 2011 — 5 Comments


A couple of months ago, I finished reading The Christian Faith. A few weeks later, the class I had to read the book for ended as well. As my time at seminary dwindled, so did my interest in analyzing Horton chapter by chapter. For a recap of what I did accomplish, see here. For an interesting spin on the book itself, keep reading.

When it comes down to it, I can’t see why there needed to be another systematic theology from a Reformed perspective. Unless the length is comparable to Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, the discussion somewhere will be truncated. Even Berkhof did not outdo Bavinck’s clarity and depth, so producing a newer single volume to replace Berkhof still falls short. Horton is more readable than Berkhof, but if I need a quick synopsis of a theological issue and want an answer, I most likely won’t consult Horton. I’ll go Calvin, Bavinck, Berkhof, or Frame. The only reason to consult Horton is to add another voice.

The upside of checking a discussion in Horton is that it might be more contemporary, although even there, he picks conversation partners that most people might not care about. He misses key contemporary conversations (like with Peter Enns) or pursues dated conversations with others (like with N. T. Wright). Horton’s relevance at the moment is what is going to hurt his long term staying power. I wouldn’t be surprised if Horton’s overall reliance on pursuing contemporary conversations leads to a systematic theology that is seldom referenced 50 years from now. This in a way is like a hipster. Hipsters are so culturally relevant that most people don’t recognize how hip they actually are, and by the time they do, it is no longer relevant. The problem with being relevant is that you can only be so for a moment.

I think Christian hipsters, particularly of the Reformed flavor, are the target market for this book. This isn’t to say that Horton targeted them, he probably had no intention of pursuing a demographic like that. Zondervan has already released a quality systematic theology (Grudem), so the question in my mind is, “what prompted the desire to publish another one?” Grudem’s is very mainstream, and highly accessible to everyone. Horton’s work is particularly for the Reformed and is more dramatic and musing in its writing style. Zondervan must be targeting someone they felt wasn’t interested in Grudem.

Enter the new Calvinist hipster.

Let’s do a little thought experiment (i.e. here’s some satire). Let’s say you fancy yourself a Christian hipster. Technically, you would never admit this, but secretly, you know you are because you listen to obscure bands no one has heard of (like Tourniquet Man, The Haunt of Roulette Dares, and Cygnus Vismund Cygnus), and look forward to films like Metatron and the Wax Simulacra and The Drunkship of Lanterns (or possibly Day of the Baphomets if you’re into that) coming out later this summer.

If something gets too mainstream, you confine yourself to only that artist’s “old stuff.” That’s part of why you shop at Salvation Army and Goodwill (and secretly Urban Outfitters and American Apparel). Your attraction to “old stuff” goes hand in hand with your “old school” theological leanings and so naturally, Calvin (or Jonathan Edwards) is your homeboy.

If you happen to be a reader, you’ll have some vintage theology on your self to match the vintage clothes in your closet. But when it comes to actually reading, you’d rather have something that speaks your language and is written for people here and now. You want something as cutting edge as you think you are.

Grudem’s theology looks dorky, and it’s so rigid in its organization that it’s probably like reading the dictionary. You need a theology to match your cultural sensibilities and one that gets your intuitive grasp of the dramatic arts. You need a theology that just flows and tells a story. You need a theology that is contemporary and relevant and will add aesthetically to your bookshelf. You need The Christian Faith.

(This ends the satirical section of the post).

Now, in a way, I am indicting myself here. I have my own hipster tendencies when it comes to film and music (and I did shop at Goodwill for a while). It takes one to know one. If you were really a hipster, you’d know I made up all those band names and movies. You would know they are all song titles from The Mars Volta, and you would know whether that’s an album or a band. Since you’re probably not, we needed the thought experiment.

With respect to Horton’s book, I myself was initially excited/drawn to it. I had high hopes that it would be the newest/coolest Reformed systematic theology. Having now read it, I am wondering out loud if the perception of the young, restless, Reformed is that they are enthusiastic about theology and Calvin, but are not particularly discerning enough to recognize this book is not particularly well written and is inferior in many aspects to previously published Reformed systematic theologies. It is not well organized at the chapter level, has misrepresentations of other theologians (like Frame and Van Til, and perhaps Barth in places), and lacks clarity on important topics (like grace and the aspects of the doctrine of God). In short, it looks like Zondervan thinks whoever this book was marketed to doesn’t care about precision and clarity but just wants something that looks and sounds good. This is perhaps not coincidentally the perception many people have of the new Calvinists (and also to some extent hipsters, for whom aesthetics matter more than substance, satirical case in point).

Maybe this book is marketed to a group of people (the so called “new Calvinists”) that are all about Reformed theology and the iconography of Calvin and Edwards, but don’t have the patience or interest to actually sit down and read their books. To me, it seems like if you’ve read Calvin, Bavinck, and Berkhof, and dabbled in Edwards and Owen, there is nothing for Horton to offer you. If you’re looking for contemporary theologians writing from a Reformed perspective, Frame outshines Horton on every topic that overlaps in their respective writings. If however, you’re all about the “new Calvinism” but haven’t gotten around to reading anything of depth yet, Horton’s book seems like the cutting edge option to go with. Did Zondervan determine (perhaps very accurately) that the “new Calvinists” were naive enough to spring for a “new” systematic theology over better written older ones?

I am sure Horton worked from the purest of motives and sincerity of heart. I don’t doubt that for a second. This book testifies to his ability as writer in terms of sheer volume, but it perhaps demonstrates the downside of being a prolific writer, seminary professor, magazine editor, radio host, pastor, and most importantly husband and father. This book looks likes something written by someone busy wearing many hats. It doesn’t look like a book that has been polished over decades of careful refinement and presentation as lectures before students. It could become that way, but as it stands, it just looks like something rushed to press written by someone who’s been rushed and pressed to write this and a thousand other things too.

I can’t help but wonder if the publication of this book makes a statement about the current landscape of theology.  It might not. There may be no sociological import from Horton’s book. It may just a systematic theology that doesn’t say anything terribly profound or profoundly terrible.

But isn’t that still saying something?

And just to clarify


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

5 responses to A Hipster’s Systematic Theology

  1. William Baker June 21, 2011 at 8:29 am

    If your satire is accurate, a true Christian hipster will be relieved that he did not impulsively buy Horton’s theology and will look with pride at the copy of Berkhof’s systematic theology on his bookshelf, the not-mainstream classic of reformed theology. Not even the reprint, but the original mid-20th century printing with good typography that he scoured the internet for and paid four dollars for, like the one sitting on my own bookshelf.

    • Perhaps you’re right about that, although a true hipster in the vein you’ve mentioned here would actually have Bavinck on his shelf in the original Dutch. Berkhof though is still pretty mainstream for Reformed, but bonus points for having an original, although minus a couple for not having the introduction to systematic theology (unless you’ve got it separately).

      It’s possible as well that a true Calvinist hipster would purchase Horton’s theology (and maybe Grudem’s) ironically. Kind of like drinking PBR’s but for reading material.

  2. Nate, thank you for this column. My husband and I in recent years were introduced to systematic theology and reformed faith. We were delighted with Grudem’s book and whole approach. When Horton came out with his, we were excited to read it from a reformed

  3. view. When we read it though, we sent it back. We couldn’t understand who his audience was and found it unreadable. I was relieved to hear someone else

  4. [Nate, I’m sorry, my iPad is posting my comments if my hand hits anywhere near the tab. Please just take my thanks for posting, and don’t bother putting my comments up on your blog.] Finishing my thought…someone else did not find it as great as the hype around it. Blessings! Carole Makowski

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