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

Michael Horton Zondervan, Grand Rapids February 1, 2011
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Acclaimed author, syndicated radio host, distinguished theologian, and fellow pilgrim, Michael Horton offers the Christian community a systematic theology in one volume. Specifically targeting the layman or armchair theologian, Horton discusses the major doctrines of the Christian faith from exegetical, historical, philosophical, and practical viewpoints. He attempts to reinstate the relevance of systematic theology in “the modern dichotomy between doctrine and life, theology and discipleship, knowing and doing, theory and practice” (p. 14). Inviting the reader to become an active participant in the greatest story ever told, his goal is “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).

In order for the pilgrim to join in this “community theater,” Horton structures his work according to the six essential parts of the metanarrative. First, he devotes five chapters to “Knowing God” as he addresses presuppositions of theology, explores the differing opinions on the origin of theology, and assesses revelation in the canon of Scripture and its role in the metanarrative. Second, examining the “God Who Lives,” Horton defines the attributes of God, both communicable and incommunicable, and discusses the role of the Trinity. Horton’s third section explores the “God Who Creates,” studying predestination, creation, providence, humanity, and the fall. Moving from creation to redemption, part 4 explains the “God Who Rescues” in Horton’s apologetic for the person and work of Christ. Part 5, “God Who Reigns in Grace,” looks specifically at the church, its characteristics, role, and responsibility in the metanarrative. Horton concludes part 6 with a focus on “God Who Reigns in Glory” and the eschatological hope found in the return of Christ.

In the beginning of his treatise Horton lays the foundation and framework for and shows the necessity of a Christian worldview. He presents good summaries of other world religions and provides an apologetic for the gospel. Nevertheless several inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies detract from this presentation. At the forefront is Horton’s erroneous presentation of verbal, plenary inspiration. Horton claims, “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” (p. 160). Historically the church has not claimed the meaning of the text to be inspired; rather, verbal, plenary inspiration means that “God superintended the human authors of the Bible so that they composed and recorded without error His message to mankind in the words of their original writings” (Charles R. Ryrie, Basic Theology [Chicago: Moody, 1999], 81). In short, verbal, plenary inspiration is a claim that all the words of Scripture are from God.

In his discussion of original sin Horton defends a highly unusual position. His glossary defines original sin as “the guilt and corruption brought on the human race as a result of Adam’s sin” (p. 998). Then in the text Horton identifies this sin: “Adam’s first sin was not in eating the forbidden fruit but in allowing the false witness to become a resident of the garden in the first place” (p. 410). Later Horton asserts that “Adam failed to drive the serpent out of God’s holy garden and instead succumbed to the seduction of God’s archenemy” (p. 447). Lacking biblical and historical support or any type of clarification, Horton leaves the reader unsure of the rationale for such statements.

Horton’s discussion of questions about God who is one and yet is distinctly three persons begins well. While the term “Trinity” is not found in the pages of Scripture, Horton helpfully observes, “Long before the dogma of the Trinity reached its formal refinement, believers were placing their faith in, worshiping, praying to, and being baptized into the reality of which it speaks” (p. 275). But as Horton presents a historical argument for the Trinity, the nonspecialist reader might get lost in unclear philosophical terms and some idiosyncratic assertions. For example in his explanation of how three can be one and vice versa, Horton focuses on the division of nature and essence. Defining substance as “something about which something can be said” (p. 280), he opens the door for an inappropriate division of the Godhead. “Since self-existence is a divine attribute, the Son’s deity must be as underived as the Father’s and the Spirit’s. His person, not his divine essence, is begotten of the Father” (p. 289). Horton continues, “Essences do not enter into relationship, but the divine persons who share that essence do” (p. 293). Asserting his argument for a division between essence and nature, Horton quotes Gregory of Nyssa, who believed that the persons, not the natures, were caused and the Father as cause is God. The danger in his confusing presentation is that his intended armchair-theologian audience might not have the background to sort through the arguments and understand the nuances of this position. This section does not seem appropriate for the intended audience of the book.

In his concluding section Horton discusses the doctrines of eschatology. Since Horton writes from a Reformed theology perspective, the reader should not be surprised to find him rejecting other viewpoints, including dispensationalism. However, rather than finding moderate, fair, and accurate representations of other perspectives, the reader finds some overstated and “straw-men” presentations. In his discussion of the dispensationalist view of the millennium, Horton claims that the work of Blaising and Bock in “Progressive Dispensationalism moves away from the sharp distinction between Israel and the church and affirms that the kingdom of Christ is in some sense present although it will be fully realized in the millennium” (p. 929). Without explaining or defending this claim, Horton then concludes, “This position is therefore much closer to historic premillennialism” (p. 929). However, this misrepresents this dispensational perspective. In Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock defend a distinction between Israel and the church (pp. 49–54). Further, most dispensationalists are pretribulational, whereas historic premillennialists hold to a posttribulational rapture. Blaising and Bock explicitly defend a pretribulational position and assert that “most dispensationalists have advocated the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture” (ibid., p. 19).

Horton’s work also contains numerous editorial errors. Examples include inaccurate citing of page numbers in footnotes (e.g., p. 285, n 40 cites incorrect page numbers), wrong book title (the title of Douglas Kelley’s Systematic Theology, p. 273), and references in the text to “see pp. 000,000” (p. 103) and “p. 000” (p. 225). The treatment of angels appears misplaced in a chapter titled “Being Human” and is unusually brief (pp. 406–7). On a broader scale the book lacks continuity in the outline and structure of the chapters. While some chapters have section titles and key definitions, others are bare of visual aids that move the reader from one section to another. The definitions of key terms, both within the text and the glossary, are inconsistent. Hopefully a second edition will correct these errors.

In spite of these problems The Christian Faith could be useful for the preacher or theology student when read alongside other such works. It offers the opportunity to think critically through philosophical, exegetical, and practical questions. However, the book does not seem appropriate for armchair theologians. Horton shines in the areas that one would expect from a Reformed theologian, namely, his presentation of divine providence (chap. 11), the characteristics of the church (chaps. 24–25), and his overall apologetic for Reformed theology. However, while some readers will find nuggets of truth and instruction in the book, the academic language and the sheer size of the work puts it beyond reach of much of its intended audience.

—Marnie L. Blackstone with Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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