Pilgrim Theology

May 13, 2013 — 5 Comments

9780310330646It’s no secret I was rather critical of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith. Some of that was expectation driven, but I think there were legitimate drawbacks to Horton’s work. If nothing else, Horton just wasn’t ready to write a full-scale academic systematic theology. Had he waited and developed the book later into his career, it might not have had the uneven quality that it had.

All that being said, I was nothing short of curious to see how the semi abridgment, Pilgrim Theology would turn out. Long story short, I was pleasantly surprised. So much so I decided to make it the textbook for my junior Bible class this next year.

So why the change of heart?

Well, because the goals of this book are more modest, I think it is an overall success. Here is how Horton explains the relationship of Pilgrim Theology to The Christian Faith:

This book is more than simply an abridgment of The Christian Faith. Instead, I have sought to write for an entirely new and wider audience. I’ve intentionally tried to make it useful for both group and individual study, and have included key terms, distinctions, and questions at the end of each chapter that are linked to words in bold font within the text. Though this book is less detailed than my longer systematic theology, it is written to serve as something of a travel guide to help you on your own journey of theological understanding, showing you the proper coordinates and important landmarks you’ll need to recognize along the way. (14)

As you can see, Horton has a penchant for metaphors, and in this book that works to his advantage. Because his goals here are more modest (a travel guide vs. a meticulous map), I think he hits his sweet spot. His writing style works better for this kind of work rather than an academic work.

Beyond that, this book is essentially a re-write. Though many of the chapter headings are the same, the chapters themselves are not, and the material within the chapters is not just condensed bits from his full systematic. (Though oddly the copyright inside is 2011 rather than 2013).

In terms of content, Horton covers all the majors contours of a systematic. The lone exception, interestingly enough, are angels, Satan, and demons. They were given a more or less single page treatment in his full systematic, so perhaps it is not surprising that they are not treated at all in this book (I guess that’s just not a necessary topic for a theological travel guide!) More surprising is that there is no treatment of the covenants, which would probably make Bavinck and Berkhof sad if they were still alive and knew Horton was carrying their mantle of Reformed systematic theology writing (although to be fair, there is much more that would concern them than that Horton didn’t talk about covenants in his popular systematic theology).

Footnotes are sparse and biblical expositions are more numerous than in the fuller treatment, which is one reason I liked this book better (since errors plagued his footnotes and his exposition was lighter). In general, I think this book is much more useful as a textbook and is geared more toward classroom and group discussion. The distinctions that Horton makes within each chapter are a definite plus, and if you haven’t seen the infographics, then click on thru to this site.

So, overall, if we are to evaluate this book as a popular level systematic theology, I think it’s one of the best available. It’s probably on par with Wayne Grudem’s abridged version, and is definitely better than Driscoll’s Doctrine. Gerald Bray’s God is Love is perhaps a better overall work, but it is also a bigger volume and perhaps less accessible to the average person. I toyed with using it as a textbook, but ultimately decided that Horton’s work is the best bet. Had Horton’s book been available at the beginning of the year, I probably would have used it for my Doctrine class at church instead of Driscoll’s book.

For readers looking for an accessible systematic theology from a Reformed perspective (or to use Horton’s metaphor, “in a Reformed key”), then this is for you. It is not without flaws (like leaving angels and covenants out completely) but is strongly Reformed/Calvinistic in his theology without being abrasive (not that Calvinists are ever abrasive, right?). It is readable and engaging in a way appropriate to its target audience. It would be nice to see a 2nd edition of The Christian Faith at some point that fixes some of its errors and weakpoints. Horton doesn’t do much to mitigate those here, but by writing for a different audience, he definitely bypasses many of them, and in doing so, writes a book I actually didn’t get super frustrated reading.

And that’s gotta count for something right?

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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 Pilgrim Theology

  1. In what ways would you say it’s better than Driscoll’s Doctrine?

    • It’s more systematic and comprehensive. Also, Driscoll was out of his depth writing a popular level systematic in the same way Horton was out of his depth trying to write a full scale academic systematic. I’ve got a semi-chapter by chapter review of Doctrine you can find on here.

  2. Nate,

    I am curious about your statement, “If nothing else, Horton just wasn’t ready to write a full-scale academic systematic theology.”

    He actually has already written a four-volume work with the following titles:

    – Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama
    – Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology
    – Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ
    – People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology

    I also did not find “The Christian Faith” as compelling as promised and quite, as you say, “unbalanced.” Yet, I am not convinced that the unbalanced nature of that work calls into question his academic ability.

    • Jordan,

      I’m aware of Horton’s published works, including that four volume dogmatic series. I believe that is why his sections on Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology are strong in The Christian Faith. If you read my chapter by chapter review, I am generally positive in those chapters.

      I am calling into question whether he was ready to write a full-scale systematic in terms of the breadth of his scholarship, not the quality of it. That is not questioning his academic ability, rather it is saying he should have waited further into his career to do more work in the areas his systematic was weak (which is prolegomena, theology proper, angelology, and to a certain extent anthropology). The parts of The Christian Faith that shine show he has the academic ability to write a systematic theology in part. I just think the project itself was premature. If it had had a few more years to marinate and be developed, the end result would have been much better.

  3. So would this be your number one recommendation for an intro to systematics then?

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