The Christian Faith: A Concise Critical Review

July 20, 2011 — 9 Comments

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I know I said no more talk about The Christian Faith, but since I had to do this for my last seminary class, I thought I would share it here. If you want more extensive discussion, click here. If not, read on for the most salient points.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, and host of the nationally syndicated radio broadcast, The White Horse Inn. Horton’s goal in this book is to change the reader’s mind about the relevance of systematic theology (p. 14). To do so, Horton recasts dogmatics in dramatic form. Theology is the grammar of the Christian faith (p. 22), the box top of the jigsaw puzzle (p. 27), and the street map that shows how everything is connected (p. 29), he says. Horton writes about the one faith from his North American Reformed perspective (p. 30) with the overall purpose of delivering “doctrine that can be not only understood, clarified, and articulated but also preached, experienced, and lived as ‘community theater’ in the world today” (p. 32).

Overview

The book is divided into six parts, each with God as the principle actor in the drama. Overall, Horton follows traditional Reformed systematic categories for presenting doctrine, yet offers his own distinctive take on the contents. There is little out of the ordinary in his overall structuring of the material, especially in comparison to Berkhof and Bavinck.  (The publisher invites such comparison, proclaiming, “Michael Horton’s highly anticipated The Christian Faith represents his magnum opus and will be viewed as one of—if not the—most important systematic theologies since Louis Berkhof wrote his in 1932” [from the book description].) The general layout of each chapter is to include brief exegetical synopses of the passages informing a particular doctrine before moving to historical and then contemporary surveys to develop the doctrine. The emphasis is most often on the latter, and when attention is given to exegetical development, biblical commentaries on specific passages are rarely consulted. The focus, then, is on the historical development and contemporary discussions of a particular doctrine rather than rigorous exegetical defense of it from Scripture.

Strengths/Weaknesses

The strength of Horton’s writing in this book is that it does present material in a way that is more readable to the lay person than the standard Reformed systematic theology. The style of this book is accessible to the “armchair theologian,” the target audience according to the back cover of the book. Horton’s writing is infused with metaphors and dramatic flourishes, but these often come at the expense of precision and clarity. What this volume gains in readability it loses in providing a clear discussion of some issues. Definitions are sometimes difficult to find, which is especially frustrating when terms are used in idiosyncratic ways. Often, the glossary is of little help because it is inconsistent in what terms it includes or omits. For example, the chapter on the person of Christ (chapter 14) lists several heresies that are bolded in the text and roughly defined, but do not appear in the glossary. “Substance” is defined in a way so vague it is almost useless (p. 280, “something about which something can be said”) and is not anchored in a proper source (nor does it show up in the glossary). Common grace is defined in the glossary, but grace itself is given no clear definition in the text nor does it appear in the glossary.

The chapters that build on and pull material from Horton’s previously published four volume dogmatic series are the strongest. This would include Christology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and elements of soteriology. Areas of weakness include discussions where Horton takes what appear to be idiosyncratic views. In the introduction, Horton’s discussion of metanarratives puts forward a view that is perhaps only shared by Merold Westphal, claiming that the biblical story is not a metanarrative, although he does call it a meganarrative (p. 16). Horton divides God’s essence from the persons to the degree that the essence can have an attribute the persons do not. He says, for example, that “impassibility refers to God’s essence rather than to the particular persons who share it. It is the persons of the Trinity who are affected by creatures not the divine essence itself” (p. 249). Exegetically problematic is Horton’s motif running throughout the last half of the book that claims Adam’s failure in the garden was not driving out the serpent rather than eating the forbidden fruit (pp. 410, 447, 491, 501, 712). While a possible extension of Adam’s disobedience, nothing in the biblical text supports this claim, yet Horton repeatedly asserts that particular sin (failing to drive out the serpent) was Adam’s ultimate failure in the garden.

A benchmark that Horton sets for this volume is to “focus on specific topics in contemporary theology” (p. 29). To a large extent this sets the agenda for the specific discussions that take place within each chapter. Yet, several lacunae are glaring. In the chapter covering justification and adoption (pp. 632-42), Horton predictably interacts with N. T. Wright’s work on Paul. Unfortunately, he only interacts with a dated source (What St. Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997]) and has no citations from Wright’s most recent work(s) on Paul, especially Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).This is an issue in his discussion of the doctrine of Scripture, which contains no interaction with Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005]), for example, yet one could hardly think of a more contemporary issue within Reformed biblical studies. It is also hard to excuse Horton’s lack of engagement with contemporary figures when he criticizes dispensationalism in his eschatology section (pp. 944-54).

Elsewhere, it is sometimes hard to discern the logic of Horton’s discussion choices, and the material within the chapters does not always follow a predictable logical order. Perhaps the most glaring example is the brief (barely a page) discussion of angels which appears as almost an afterthought, as a dangling appendage in the chapter on “Being Human” (pp. 406-7) and with a noticeable style shift from the rest of the chapter (more parenthetical verses per page than anywhere else in the book). In a similar vein, at the beginning of chapter 15, Horton states that the intended focus is on Christ’s threefold office as prophet, priest, and king, but then only has headings for prophet and priest. Christ as king is covered in chapter 16, but Horton had claimed at the beginning of 15 that it was going to do this, as well as how this threefold office affects our understanding of his humiliation (subject of chapter 15) and exaltation (subject of chapter 16).

Additionally, almost every chapter contains some kind of error in a footnote, whether a misquoted source (p. 273 n. 1 lists a book that is mistitled), a reference that is not properly documented in original source material (p. 418 n. 22 grounds what Confucius is reported to have said in a C. S. Lewis book), a quotation that lacks a page number in the source (p. 573 n. 43; p. 634 n. 48), or an opening footnote of a chapter with the source listed as “Ibid.” (p. 874). Perhaps the most glaring of these errors occurs on page 285 (n. 40) where a controversial view held by Cornelius Van Til is mentioned in passing without proper documentation. John Frame is said to support this view, but the reference given for him makes no mention of the topic (Frame does discuss it extensively, but in another work entirely). Elsewhere, there are several outright mistakes. In the discussion of inspiration, Horton affirms that the consensus throughout the history of the Christian tradition is that verbal plenary inspiration means that Scripture is inspired in the words and the meaning (p. 160); rather, verbal plenary inspiration means “that all the words of Scripture are God’s words (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 75). Horton claims that God named Adam and Eve, but the text of Genesis has Adam naming Eve (p. 403).

Conclusion

Overall, the book appears to have been put together hastily and could have used another proofreader or two. This work just does not show the polish and clear analytical thinking that is usually associated with Reformed systematic theologies. It follows Berkhof and Bavinck structurally, but pales in comparison to their clarity of thought and presentation of material. Horton’s work may be much more enjoyable to read than Berkhof or perhaps Bavinck, but when one needs a clear, concise discussion of a theological issue, it will be those theologians that one consults, rather than Horton.

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This review will be published in an upcoming issue of The Criswell Theological Review. The analysis is mostly mine, as you might have observed in other posts, but I had some editorial help from my professor Dr. Glenn Kreider.

Nate

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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!

9 responses to The Christian Faith: A Concise Critical Review

  1. Superb review. I wish ever so badly that Horton and his publisher would read this review. I haven’t seen anything else that would be of greater help to them in understanding the weakness of this work and how they should proceed in editing future editions. This book seems to have some momentum in Reformed circles, so that fact that it has such series flaws bodes ill for the influence it may have on theologians (especially younger ones) in those circles. And the book has enough redeemable qualities that it could be, with serious revision, made a truly great theology of great help to the church. Your review would help Horton take it there. I just hope he reads it!

    • I’m actually planning on mailing it to the publisher through the guy that runs the Twitter feed. I’m compiling more of the errata though before I do (like those infamous 000). I share your same worries, and actually posted on that a few weeks back (Questioning why Zondervan even published this book when they already had Grudem’s to market). You might find that interesting if you haven’t already perused it.

      Good to hear from you, hope you are doing well post seminary. I am two book reviews away from being post- myself. Are you still in TX or have you moved on?

      Nate

  2. There is one phrase in your review that I didn’t understand and you might want to revisit. It is, “Horton had claimed at the beginning of 15 that it was going to do this.” What’s “this”?

  3. You misspelled mistitled.

  4. Great review. One minor note: you say at the end that it may be better to consult Berkhof and/or Bavinck for a “concise” discussion. That may be true for Berkhof, but Bavinck’s RD is definitely not concise compared to Horton! Lastly, I agree that it’s odd that Zondervan published Horton’s ST alongside Grudem’s. But also note: Michael Bird’s ST is also with Zondervan and will be published some time soon

    • Perhaps I should have made the distinction between Berkhof and Bavinck, the former being concise and the latter being thorough, two things that elude Horton for the most part. I like his narrative approach I just didnt think he executed well.

      I’m excited to hear Bird has one coming out, I really enjoyed his book on NPP. My fear though is that like Horton, an HT scholar trying to write a ST, Bird will have his work cut out for him writing a ST as a NT scholar

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