[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]
One of the benefits I can hopefully pass along to you the reader in going through Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith is the additional insights that are coming from an ongoing discussion of the book in a graduate level systematic theology seminar. In many cases I will try to pass along insights and tidbits that others may have noticed in their reading, but for the most part you are getting my assessment of the book.
In regards to these two chapters, the first (4) on the doctrine of Scripture and the second (5) on moving from Scripture to theology, I just didn’t really like them. In going through the initial reading, I just couldn’t put my finger on the problem. Part of my disappointment I think stems from just having different expectations for how a systematic theology would be put together. I think I was expecting from Horton a slightly different Reformed perspective on theology that would be complementary to John Frame’s Theology of Lordship series.
Consider for example, this quote from Horton:
No more than other disciplines can theology advance by starting from scratch with each new are or profound thinker. We are always standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, taking for granted many conclusions that we have learned from a larger consensus. We are heirs of truth and error, clarity and confusion, faithfulness and folly. Only by engaging the past can we acquire the resources for interpreting Scripture in our own time and place. (pg. 28)
To this one from Frame’s Doctrine of the Word of God:
I will argue that Scripture, together with all of God’s other communications to us, should be treated as nothing less than God’s personal word. To make that case, I don’t think it’s necessary to follow the usual theological practice today, setting forth the history of doctrine and the contemporary alternatives and then, in a small amount of space that remains, choosing among the viable options…although we can learn from the history of doctrine and from contemporary theologians, the final answers to our questions must come from the Word of God itself. (pg. 7)
The process described by Frame is almost to the letter the process Horton is using in his systematic theology. While what Horton says is true, there seems to be much more value in what Frame is advocating. In the later chapters, he does more constructing of doctrine from the text of Scripture, but in these opening chapters (1-5), Horton spends so much time interacting with other views there is very little space available to actual doctrinal affirmations. Once he shifts to doctrine of God, Horton does a much better job. But the weakness of his chapters on the doctrine of Scripture is that they are not built the way Frame suggests we must, or the way as evangelicals we should go about it.
Proceeding the way Horton does can lead to some complications, one of which is that a conversation partner that he picks is actually misrepresented. From pgs 170-172, Horton is interacting with a Stanley Grenz and John Franke, primarily from Beyond Foundationalism. The problem, as was pointed out in our class discussion, is that Horton mistakenly represents Grenz and Franke as affirming a view in opposition to where he ultimately lands; when if you examine the pages he is quoting from, they seem to be saying much the same thing Horton does. It may be a minor oversight, but in a book that predominately interacts with other theologians, it is at least problematic that in a major instance, the view is misrepresented.
Another issue that was pointed out is in this summary:
The common teaching of the East and West, Roman Catholics and classical Protestants, is that Scripture is not only in its content but also in its form the Word of God written. This consensus that Scripture is inspired in its words as well as its meaning is aptly summarized by the phrase verbal-plenary inspiration (pg. 160).
The underlined portion is not actually part of the consensus, and other Reformed theologians (Frame and Van Til) make no mention of the meaning being inspired. Whether or not the consensus affirmed this is one thing, but even if it is, that is not what is meant by “verbal-plenary,” which is just a way to affirm all the words in the Bible are inspired. To my knowledge, it is not connected to, or making a claim about, the meaning. Through illumination the Spirit guides us to understand the meaning, but that is again different than saying the meaning is part of the inspiration.
Beyond that though, I thought Horton’s discussion of inspiration was acceptable and he didn’t say anything that I would particularly take offense to. I had actually missed the point above until it was discussed in class. For the most part Horton is just relying on the Princeton formulation of inerrancy, however what is surprising is that nowhere in this chapter did he interact with Peter Enns Inspiration and Incarnation, or with A.T.B. McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture. One or the other would have been nice, considering both were written by Reformed authors and both challenge traditional views on the subject.
As far as chapter 5 goes, I can see where it fits into Horton’s overall project as it finally gets us to the nature of doctrine. Having worked from being in general, to knowledge in general, to theological knowledge, to revelation, to special revelation, to the Word of God, by chapter 5 we now arrive at a discussion of the nature of doctrine that will be derived from the Word.
I guess I just didn’t find the trajectory all that helpful. Mainly because things like inspiration, inerrancy, and even further back, revelation and epistemology are also doctrines that are derived from Scripture. This might not really be that big of an issue, but I think we all might have liked a bit more self conscious reliance on Scripture from the start. Not that Horton didn’t rely on Scripture in the first few chapters; but building a doctrine from Scripture definitely wasn’t the focus of his discussion.
Overall, I thought these chapters just weren’t as clear and precise as they could be, especially in comparison to a recent work within the same tradition (e.g. John Frame’s Doctrine of the Word of God). The strength of Horton’s treatment is that it is highly interactive. On the other hand, this is also the weakness as his eventual conclusions would only take up a few pages save the interactions with other views. There is of course value in interacting with rival views, but I think for the most part, these interactions can make it harder to follow his overall argument at times. The interactions definitely give this book a complexity it wouldn’t otherwise have. For those more academically minded, I’m sure this is a plus. But I’m having a hard time imagining the average lay person picking this up and trying to work through it. I’ve known people being able to do that with Frame’s Theology of Lordship series, and certainly with Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but I can’t really see that happening here.
All in all though, I am glad to be putting these chapters behind us and moving forward. I’ve already read the next section and it moved in the direction of Frame’s approach and is much more readable and edifying. We’ll see you there next week.