[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]
On the one hand, this section (and the next) of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith presents some of the strongest parts of the book. Most likely this is because there is the most overlap here with his previously published dogmatics, but also because this seems to finally be Horton’s areas of expertise. On the other hand though, several chapters, including this one, succumb to a kind of aesthetic fallacy. They appear to be engaging relevant contemporary discussions, but in fact fail to do so.
I hate to say it, but in general, the more lavish and uncritical the praise I see for this book, the less trustworthy I find the source. This book definitely shouldn’t be a shibboleth for theological competence, but what you find to criticize in it says a lot about how closely you read a book, how much you know the Reformed theological landscape, and how well you can evaluate what you read critically.
There are some important sociological questions raised when you consider who this book is marketed to, but those will have to wait for another post. In this one, we’re back to chapter 19, which within the doctrine of union with Christ, covers the forensic aspects: justification and adoption. I am going to focus on Horton’s treatment of justification, specifically his interaction with N. T. Wright, or as we’ll see below, his failure to properly interact with Wright.
This chapter could have been excellent. Horton, writing as a confessional Reformed author, theologian, and professor, could have interacted with Wright’s recent revisions to Pauline theology and justification in a way that maintained commitment to WCF but also appropriated some of Wright’s insights.
I was very interested to see how Horton would handle this chapter. He does interact with N. T. Wright, but in a dated manner. He never cites Wright’s recent book Justification and only really interacts with What Saint Paul Really Said (rather than the more recent and more clear Paul in Fresh Perspective). Given his goals that this book would interact with the recent fruits of historical and biblical studies, this chapter is a failure in that regard for not engaging with more recent discussions in Wright and others (e.g. Michael Bird’s Saving Righteousness of God). What I think is going on here is an over-reliance on his previous dogmatic work in Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (which was released in 2007 and so is already 4 years behind) rather than a fresh engagement.
While he may have failed to meet his own criteria of being cutting edge, I didn’t think this chapter was as a whole that bad when considered a standard Reformed presentation of the doctrine of justifcation. He relies pretty heavily on the creeds which inspires confidence to some degree. Calvin comes up numerous times, although the “logic” of Calvin’s position in 3.11-19 of the Institutes needs help from someone who can construct a proper syllogism (see pg. 624). I did find it helpful that he more or less spelled out that imputation is receiving Christ’s active obedience credited to your account rather than being given his divine attribute of righteousness (its infinite quality prevents it from being possessed by a finite individual anyway). If the latter concept were the intended affirmation, it makes sense why Wright finds certain accounts of imputation incoherent.
That being said, I still think that Horton does not completely understand where N. T. Wright is coming from. Since he relies exclusively on a book Wright wrote almost 15 years ago instead of one of more recent vintage (e. g. Justification) that was a clarification, it appears that Horton is just not up-to-date. In that light, Horton may not be completely to blame for not understanding what N. T. Wright really said (if he only based conclusions on the one book), but since he attributes the views to the person of N. T. Wright, he needs to be thoroughly acquainted with the work of N. T. Wright (specifically his more recent writings). You can’t say “Wright holds position X” and ignore the overall development of his thought.
Having read all three of Wright’s Paul books in the last couple of months, some of what Horton said struck me as understandable misunderstandings, like for instance his accusation of Wright holding a form of works righteousness on pg. 635, his quote from Wright on pg. 634 that has no page number. But for someone writing a systematic theology, you can’t be behind the times on the discussion for a whole chapter. A recent seminary graduate shouldn’t have a better handle on some of these issues that the seminary professor writing the book.
Additionally, his claim in the first sentence of the second paragraph on pg. 636 is misleading. Horton says, “As we have seen, N. T. Wright holds that God’s final justification is a declaration that believers are righteous based on their whole life lived.” This is half true. Wright does hold that final justification is this, but he bases that on the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer (brought out more clearly in his Paul in Fresh Perspective rather than What Saint Paul Really Said). In a sense, Wright’s view of justification is more Trinitarian than people like Horton realize, as it is defined as a declaration of the Father that a person is in union with Christ and will produce good works by the power of the Spirit. The two verdicts (at the moment of regeneration and at the end of the whole life lived) are in harmony with one another and in both cases are based solely on the work of the Triune God. Horton’s understanding, while finding factual basis in a single book, just lacks the nuance of someone who has really interacted in depth with Wright.
This is what I mean by succumbing to an aesthetic fallacy. On the surface, Horton appears to be interacting with the key writer who is challenging the traditional Reformed understanding of justification. But because his interaction is both dated and limited to a single book, he isn’t actually engaging the issues. Wright uses Calvin extensively in his most recent book on the topic. Horton does the same in this chapter of his book. Yet Wright is painted as a foil for the correct position, when in reality, much of what Horton ends up affirming could be found in Wright’s writings.