The Nature and Fall of Man

March 22, 2011 — 2 Comments


[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

I skipped over chapters 10-11 of The Christian Faith. I might come back to them, but I don’t remember there being anything necessary to point out. Berkhof I think handles the material on providence and creation better than Horton, but Horton is at least a little more readable.

In the last couple of weeks though, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart toward Horton’s book. Mainly it was because I actually went back and starting reading Berkhof, and also because I noticed the creedal cross reference in the back of Horton (pg.1047-48). Basically, I think that if you read Horton’s work in a community along with someone else who is knowledgeable about theology and cross reference Horton’s work with the answers in the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms, I think it might still have its place. I do not however think that someone should be reading this book apart from that context and expect to be led into sound theological understanding of Christian doctrine. Unfortunately though, I bet many people will do that, and I think you could argue that a really good systematic theology could be read to some extent like that, or at least won’t on its own lead anyone into a serious misunderstanding, like say, not understanding grace or something like that (see below).

All that to say, Horton’s work still does not exhibit the precision you would expect from a systematic theology, but I am starting to suspect he is leaving precision to the creeds and is instead offering a musing commentary on the history of Christian doctrine right up to the present. This is where Horton does trump Berkhof, who is frankly a boring read. A well ordered, precise, and comprehensive yet boring book to read.

Horton is by contrast very readable. Which is why I think to some extent Horton is expecting you to be well versed in the creeds which are precise and succinct and he is offering in this systematic theology an extended commentary to go along with them, not unlike the relationship between Calvin’s Institutes and his biblical commentaries. We could argue over whether that is in fact what Horton is up to and whether or not he intends this as a complete stand alone systematic (like a Grudem or Berkhof) or whether he says his work as necessarily being read with the catechisms. I would think it’s the latter.

Keeping the theme running in chapter is still the mysterious organizing principle, as best evidenced by the page and a half on angels at the end of chapter 12 that has every appearance of an “oh crap! I forgot to talk about angels!” moment (see pg 406-7).  There were a couple spots where I would have liked a page number to evaluate the view attributed to a different author (Chafer on p.374n3 and Berkouwer p.377n10).  He quotes from Van Til on pg. 388-89 but there is a couple of paragraphs missing in the ellipsis (which I guess is the point of an ellipsis, but he cuts him off mid-sentence and then skips down to add a last sentence). Lastly, and perhaps poorly, he quotes Confucius based on hearsay from C. S. Lewis. It makes the case he is building look good, but seriously, you’re quoting an ancient philosopher based on an anecdote in a C. S. Lewis letter? (see pg. 418n22). Hopefully, this was an oversight.

On pg. 380 we see Horton lays bare his “covenant = relationship” idea when he says, “the meeting place between God and humanity is a covenant.” Or in other words, creatures and the Creator can only be related covenantally, which I think is an incorrect view. I think the larger category is relationship (such as the inherent relationship between a Creator and his image bearing creatures) and inside that larger conceptual category is the smaller category of covenant.

Horton seems to be building his case for a two kingdoms view of culture, which I do not find particularly compelling or cogent. The view seems to lend itself to too many radical disjunctions and false dichotomies. We see this thread start at the bottom of pg. 384 talking about the Seth/Cain split, and runs all the way up to pg. 396 (and further) when Horton talks of God wording us as law creatures and then re-wording us as evangelical (or gospel) creatures. Besides using the word “evangelical” in a way that is liable to create confusion for readers, this only holds if there is a radical disjunction between law and gospel, which exegetically or theologically, I don’t think there is (and neither do many other Reformed authors).

Highly problematic though is Horton’s recounting of the glory motif in the creation accounts (pg. 401). When he says, “In this narrative, God’s Glory is simultaneously his Son and his Spirit, whom their creature mirrors analogically by reflecting that glory,” he is not only trying to force a Trinitarian understanding on Genesis 1, he is misreading ANE myths. In other words, the whole last paragraph on pg 401 is problematic for at least these reasons:

  • he gives no specific myths he has in mind, and there is no one myth that fits the schematic Horton lists at the beginning of the paragraph
  • there is little exegetical evidence that can actually support the temple building motif’s presence in Genesis 1 (I know because I tried to make the case in a paper based on Walton’s popular book but had to concede it is exegetically untenable)
  • the Son and the Spirit cannot be equated with the Father’s glory without creating a sub-Trinitarian God
  • the conclusion does not really follow from the argument in the paragraph (I agree with his last sentence, but the paragraph does not make that case)

Moving on to chapter 13, I found more things to star (meaning I liked/thought it important) in this chapter, including his discussion of Adam’s priestly failure in Genesis 2 (pg. 410); the tendency to externalize sin and blame others (bottom pg 411); Westphal on the hermeneutics of suspicion; Horton’s conclusion on pg. 414 before heading II; his note about Noahic law binding on all people but specific laws for Israel not (top of pg. 417); his distinction between fundamentalism’s approach to sin and liberalism’s approach (pg. 427); his definition of total depravity on pg. 433; and his conclusion of section II on pg. 434.

However, much as I may like some of the things he says in this chapter, it was on the whole, not without difficulties. A short list might include:

  • (1) his confusion between the concept of the covenant and its exegetical presence in Genesis 1-2 (pg. 415 top);
  • (2) similarly his misreading of Genesis that sees a conflict motif within it (still top of pg. 415);
  • (3) the statement “Humanity was created for love, which means for law, since law simply stipulates loving actions,” which, whatever he is getting at, is a poor way to state the matter since there is no sense in which being created for love equals being created for law (but when you have a law/gospel dichotomy you need to see everywhere, it can make sense);
  • (4) His conclusion at the bottom of pg. 416 is incorrect (he needs to read Walton’s book on ANE conceptual thought structures)
  • (5) similarly, he builds a case on Hosea 6:7 even though it is exegetically dubious to see that as a concrete reference to Adam (bottom of pg. 419 and also pg. 441 middle, see Williamson’s book on the a biblical theology of the covenants); lastly and perhaps worst of all, he
  • (6) fumbles the handoff on grace starting on pg. 421: (a) He creates a false dichotomy between voluntary condescension (WCF 7.1) and grace; (b) he sees it premature to insert graciousness on the part of God into creation itself; (c) he tries to make exegetical argument that there is no explicit reference to God showing grace to creatures prior to the fall of man, but he ignores this problem when it relates to God making a covenant with Adam and Eve prior to the fall; (d) he makes grace and mercy synonymous and then defines grace in terms of saving grace but leaves out a definition of common grace.

These chapters in Horton were certainly more readable than Berkhof, but clearly less organized and more prone to exegetical fumblings. I still think it has its place as I said in the opening part of this paper, but only when being read critically, in light of the confessions it espouses, and in a community with several theological knowledgeable individuals. Theology should be learned that way from secondary texts, but in this case, the text has more than the comfortable amount of shortcomings to work through.


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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!

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