[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]
Finally, we have reached something of a midway point in Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith. I plan to stretch out the posts on here a bit longer, and give shorter posts rather than the longer clusters we are having to do for class. Partially because I’m slammed with all my coursework being do in less than 3 weeks, and also because because next week we are supposed to discuss chapters 17-22, which is to say we might not make it too in depth in those chapters. I’ll try to plum a bit deeper here though.
That being said, I’m still grouping 15 and 16 together, mainly because it seems Horton intended to that, but it got split in the editorial process into two chapters (or there is a sloppy introductory sentence at the beginning of chapter 15).
This whole section represents a shift in style. Scriptural references are in the parentheses on page after page, the flow of thought follows more closely other systematic theologies (like Berkhof) and contemporary interactions are a bit less prevalent, and in their place we find reliance on creeds, catechisms and Calvin. I did figure out what was still bothering me about Horton’s language though. I find him much more readable than Berkhof, but a bothersome feeling still lingered. Then thanks to an Amazon review I was able to put my finger on it. The reviewer accused Horton of abusing the Reformed faith by blathering on about it in effeminate language (the review is titled “A Pile of Mud” and has been voted the most helpful negative review, which is to say 6 of 47 people found it helpful, and that there are not many negative reviews…yet).
Now, while most of what this reviewer said was misguided and well, as commentators pointed out, rather hateful and incongruent with the Reformed doctrine he claimed to represent, the reviewer did hit on what was bothering me: Horton’s flowery language. I think effeminate isn’t the word, but many times Horton’s prose has a flowery feel to it, that to me is off-putting. I think, along with John Frame, that it would be wrong to criticize something merely for the way it sounds (“effeminate”) if it is still conveying truth reasonably, but that “if” is what we’ve run into in the past as presenting problems.
As an example, Horton’s imaginative rendering of the failure in the garden as Adam not driving out the serpent comes up several times (so far, in chapter 13, pg. 410; chapter 14, pg. 447; chapter 15, pg. 491, and 501, probably more) is not found in the text of Scripture. It is his dramatic presentation of the events, but he is building doctrine on that idea as if it were exegesis of the passage. I think the main problem then is that many times Horton offers a flowery description of a text rather than sound exegetical work. The former is in many cases more readable and attractive, but the latter is more faithful to the text and more appropriate for a systematic theology. This is not so much a criticism of these two chapters, but a particular criticism of the book so far.
These chapters though did contain much that I like and resonate with. I like his insistence that Jesus took the place of the temple (pg. 495). Additionally, I like that he points out the need to resist the temptation to identify a single attribute as definitive of God (pg. 499, he specifically mentions love), as well as his later point in discussing the moral influence theory of the atonement that in holding it people mistakenly think that the image of Christ’s death on the cross will melt away all but the coldest hearts in opposition to God (pg. 504). He notes as well that while Christ’s death on the cross does disclose God’s love for us, its intention is to save us, not just to display love to woo us (pg. 508).
I think as well Horton makes a great point that “if therapeutic categories dominate, however, every article of the Christian faith is tested by whether it will help us to feel better about ourselves, have a more fulfilling life, and contribute to human flourishing” (pg. 510). He previously made this point well in his book Christless Christianity, which though at times overstated, does show how this tendency has infiltrated the American church. I also liked his insistence that we cannot “live the gospel,” rather it is an announcement of what God has already done (pg. 529). We can certainly live in light of the gospel and orient our lives around it, but in a certain sense, we cannot as Francis of Assissi is reported to have said (but probably didn’t) “Preach the gospel. If necessary use words.” In reality, this is like saying, “Feed the hungry. If necessary use food.” You can demonstrate your understanding of the gospel by the way you live, but you need words to actually proclaim it (or I would be willing to grant, visuals in a movie, that you then use words to explain).
I found it interesting that Horton claims in chapter 16 that there are not two realms of creation and redemption but rather the realms of creation and new creation (pg. 522). I am wondering is this more than a semantic difference? Also of interest is his claim that “Israel’s sacrifices may be grouped into two main types: thank offerings and guilt (or sin) offerings” (pg. 489). To me, this seems incongruent with what we find in Leviticus, since guilt and sin offerings are not strictly synonymous (and how does this scheme account for burnt, grain, and peace offerings?). It seems more “organic” to use the structure from Leviticus. This distinction also leads him to say that “it would have been consistent with the covenantal economy” if Adam and Eve had offered thank offerings before the fall (pg. 494). Then further down the page he claims that “The guilt offering was simply a type of the Lamb of God to come, and the thank offering was merely a tribute that demonstrated publicly the servant’s whole life of gratitude to the Great King” (emphasis mine). Both of these formulations seem to be an oversimplification.
Moving to overall structure, I do like that Horton seems to be getting more organized and more systematic-like in his presentation. There are still some of the particular errors that have plagued Horton throughout. Particularly, there is the second to last paragraph on pg. 488 which seems very out of place as a single sentence with numerous parenthetical references (this happens again with a single sentence in the second to last paragraph on pg. 502). It just seems like poor style to be bracketed off by itself like that. Also, on pg. 490, Horton’s translation of Hebrews 10:7 is identical to the NIV, which is not necessarily bad (mine looks suspiciously like the NET from time to time) but it seems pointless to present it as your own translation when it is word for word the same as a well known translation (I looked this up in the NIV 2011, which left open the option that it might have changed, but it was the same in the NIV 1984). I wonder too whether Chafer’s quote on pg. 517 is found elsewhere than just a BibSac article. I could run it to ground, but I would venture Dr. Kreider may know off the top of his head. Either way, it seems awfully convenient to have a quote from Chafer that he can use to attribute to what (in his view) is a deficient view of the atonement. On the whole though, there seemed to be less egregious errors in these two chapters.
I think this whole section may qualify as the strongest so far, although that is not the highest compliment it could be. However it is not free from organization and documentation fails. An overall organization failure though is that chapter 15 claims to focus on Christ’s threefold office as prophet, priest, and king (good!) but then only has headings for prophet and priest (oops!). Chapter 16 covers Christ as king (phew!) but chapter 15 claimed that it was going to do this as well as how this threefold office affects our understanding of his humiliation (subject of 15) and exaltation (subject of 16, oops!). All of this I think is not misleading, just the result, I think, of sloppy editing and writing (although again to be fair, Horton may have intended both of these chapters to originally be one, but still).
Several places throughout needed to be footnoted but alas were not. The claim that Jesus proclaims the same subversive themes as the prophets must have been in Horton’s estimation too self evident to deserve verses in parenthesis (pg. 485). Also the claim that Israel did not have the same division of labor we do (in the American justice system) and prophets were responsible for both prosecution and defense could have used a footnote (pg. 495). His claims about dispensationalism needed a bit more nuance and documentation (pg. 543). Also, he makes a few overstatements throughout including: “Old Testament saints trusted in Christ through types and shadows of the sacrificial system” (pg. 487, which is a bit of a stretch to claim); and “This, as we have seen, is the covenantal way of thinking, drawing on organic analogies (pg. 523, part of his larger case that “covenant” is organic to Scripture and everything else is an imposition on the text).
All in all, these chapters are better than their predecessors, but they still leave a little bit to be desired. If the rest of the book continues in this kind of flow though, my overall estimation of it will rise.