The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way

Written by Michael Horton Reviewed By Heber Carlos de Campos Jr.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. He has authored over twenty books, among which is a four-volume dogmatic series (published by Westminster John Knox) that presents theology academically, in dialogue with several contemporary voices from a wide range of confessional stances. Horton's more popular theological discussion is widely known through Modern Reformation magazine, a radio broadcast entitled White Horse Inn, and several of his books that have made him a significant spokesman of Reformed theology engaging contemporary North American culture. The Christian Faith is a systematic theology that finds a balance between these two trends in Horton, the dialogue with contemporary academic voices and a concern to teach theology to lay people. That via media is an important attribute of this tome.

The six-part structure of the work has a God-centered approach: “Knowing God” includes prolegomena and Holy Scripture; “God Who Lives” covers God's being; “God Who Creates” encompasses God's works and anthropology; “God Who Rescues” covers Christology; “God Who Reigns in Grace” covers soteriology and ecclesiology; and “God Who Reigns in Glory” covers eschatology. These six parts are preceded by an introduction that freshly presents the theological endeavor, one that doesn't fit the common accusation towards propositional theology as disregarding the drama. Horton presents a mnemonic four-part path for Christians that starts with the drama (creation, fall, redemption, and consummation) showing that Christianity is about historical events, moves on to doctrine that defines our understanding of the drama, proceeds to doxology (focused praise), and ends with discipleship, which is the lifestyle of the Christian in procession to the City of God. This is not a rigid four-stage path in the life of faith, but the pattern illuminates both the periods of reformation as well as decline in the Church (p. 25).

This survey of the Christian theological path comes back elsewhere in the work (pp. 205-18, 309-13, 646), thus exemplifying Horton's ability for interconnectedness throughout a 1,000-page book. Horton applies Paul Tillich's paradigms of overcoming estrangement and meeting a stranger to worldviews (pp. 36-47), understandings of revelation (p. 115), epistemology and doctrine (p. 219), and human identity (p. 387). The law and gospel distinction appears in prolegomena (pp. 91, 136-39), anthropology (pp. 385-86, 395-96, 429), soteriology (pp. 629, 633-34, 649, 679), ecclesiology (pp. 712, 717, 755), all the way to eschatology (p. 982). This continuity of language allows for an uncommon but healthy connection between the theological loci. The chapters are linked in such a way that this systematic theology reads as one book, not a compilation of separate doctrines.

Doctrinal correlation throughout the work is even more striking with covenant as a theological framework of the system (more so in his four-volume dogmatics). Covenant is the governing ontological model introduced in the beginning of the work (pp. 41-47); Horton unfolds it not as a separate locus with its own chapter but as an interwoven motif (not a central dogma, p. 29) that reappears throughout the whole book. Scripture is the covenant canon (ch. 4); doctrine is developed covenantally (pp. 210-18); the Trinity's planning and acting is exhibited in the covenant of redemption (p. 303); common grace is a promise of the Noahic covenant (p. 367); sin is the violation of the covenant of creation (pp. 415-31); Christ's kingdom is tied to various covenants in the history of redemption (pp. 537-42); justification and adoption highlight both the legal as well as the relational aspect of the covenant (pp. 632, 645); and even a specific form of church government is tied to covenant (p. 854-61).

Horton's emphasis on covenant is both unique and intriguing. Its uniqueness is in the fact that The Christian Faith is arguably the only modern systematic theology that takes covenant as the most emphasized structural framework of theology. Based on the exegetical work of Meredith Kline, Horton is always connecting the various historical covenants with different doctrines. The intriguing aspect is how the connections shed light on new patterns of thought. For example, when he asserts that the covenant relationship is essential to human nature (pp. 380-81, 384, 397, 425), one could react by saying that the Westminster Confession of Faith (VII.1) posits covenant as a “voluntary condescension on God's part” added to our natural obedience towards the Creator. However, Horton wants to underscore the relational aspect of the imago Dei rather than a particular substance or faculty, and how sin is the marring of the relationship and redemption restores it.

Every dogmatic project of this breadth has to choose what to emphasize and what to synthesize or leave behind. This work has whole chapters on doctrines such as union with Christ (ch. 18) and glorification (ch. 21), long sections on alternative philosophical epistemologies (p. 57-77), the order of God's decree (pp. 315-23), and the history of millennial debates (p. 920-33). On the other hand, there is very little on the person of the Holy Spirit; his section on church polity (p. 854-61) omits any discussion of various models of ecclesiastical government; there is only one paragraph on the male-female distinction (p. 391); it does not treat the nature of the imputation of sin; and his eschatology does not develop some significant signs of Christ's second coming (preaching to all the nations, apostasy, and tribulation). This is not a criticism on Horton's choices, but a reminder to readers that no summary of doctrines could be called definitive because it involves leaving out a few things. Nevertheless, the emphases are usually a book's most noteworthy contributions to our studies.

Besides the Reformed motifs we already mentioned (covenant, law, and gospel), other emphases become helpful tools for the student of theology. First, Horton is careful in always presenting exegetical and historical sections to virtually every major doctrine. The exegesis provides the topography of a doctrine before one can trace a street map, a reference to the logical connections of systematic theology (p. 29). The historical concern covers not only different periods of church history, but the authoritative creeds and confessions on which the Christian church has grown. Second, Horton critically engages modern theologies such as Avery Dulles's models of revelation (pp. 113-15, 123-26), Stanley Grenz's sources of theology (pp. 169-73), George Lindbeck's models of doctrine (pp. 206-10), Karl Barth's supralapsarianism (pp. 317-23), Robert Gundry's view of imputation (pp. 637-40), and Jürgen Moltmann's eschatology (pp. 930-33), thus supplying the contemporary dialogue that is missing in older dogmatics. On top of that, Horton is always careful in choosing the best literature to reference in footnotes for further research.

These qualities are enough to make this volume a very useful guide for students of theology not only to understand doctrine better, but to renew one's wonder with the story (drama), to praise the writer of such a plot (doxology), and to follow his calling in this world (discipleship).

Heber Carlos de Campos Jr.

Heber Carlos de Campos Jr.
Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie
São Paulo, Brazil

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