Of the writing of systematic theologies there is no end. Each person who writes one does so from the conviction that they have something to contribute to the discipline and in the hopes that their work will serve not only their generation but many generations to come. While there are a great many systematic theologies that have and will continue to serve the church, the contentious reader will observe that systematic theologies have their limits. To a greater or lesser degree, systematic theologies, because of their goal, can become systematics for the sake of systematics. That is, in an effort to systematize Scripture(s) in order to show the biblical support for a particular doctrine, systematic theologies can become too much like reference books on theology that pay little to no attention to the unfolding story in which these doctrines have been developed. There needs to be more systematic theologies that work in concert with biblical theology.
To this end Michael Horton has recently written his systematic theology called The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrim’s on the Way by Zondervan. Horton has previously written several works on systematic theology relating the concept of covenant to different areas: Covenant & Eschatology, Lord & Servant, Covenant & Salvation and People & Place. Horton has also written God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenant Theology which deals specifically with the idea of the covenant as the basis for God’s dealing with man especially within the redemptive framework. The Christian Faith seeks to condense these previous works and make them more accessible to the layperson, pastor and student.
First, as mentioned earlier, The Christian Faith is an intentional work of biblical systematic theology. It is a systematic theology that has a respective eye on the unfolding of the major doctrines of Scripture. With Vanhoozer and Sayers in mind Horton writes, “The drama determines the big questions as well as the answers. The doctrines are convictions that arise in light of the drama” (p. 15). Horton’s goal, which he achieves, is to present the reader with the doctrines of Scripture that systematics deal with by allowing the unfolding drama of Scripture to determine their shape and structure. Horton is reluctant to use the oft repeated word “metanarrative” to describe the storyline of Scripture. His fear is that this has been hijacked by postmodern’s postmoderns and enveloped into making Scripture just another story. “For the Greek philosophers, the myths of the gods were ‘just a story’ – the dispensable husk that hides the kernel of timeless truth” (p. 17). Rather, says Horton:
The prophets and apostles did not believe God’s mighty acts in history (meganarratives) were dispensable myths that represented universal truths (metanarratives). For them, the big story did not point to something else beyond it but was itself the point. (p. 17)
Some may quibble with Horton on this but he may be onto something here.
Second, as a systematic theologian Horton does the reader, both new and seasoned, a service when he defines exactly what the task of systematic theology is. It is the drawing together of three stages: (1) “teaching the vocabulary and rules of speech of Christianity (grammar),” (2) “investigating its inner consistency and coherence as well as comparing and contrasting it with rival interpretations (logic),” and (3) this is all done “so that we can defend our faith in an informed, compelling, and gentle manner (rhetoric)” (p. 22). The goal of number three influences the subtitle of the book, A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Here again we see Horton trying to steer clear from systematics for the sake of systematics. This is doctrine for life and not just for the sake of the compilation of doctrinal facts.
The third notable feature of this work is the pervasive use of the theme of covenant. This is certainly to be expected from Horton given his theological bent and previous works (see above). Much in the tradition of Meredith Kline, Horton sees Scripture as one big covenant between God and man. “There can be no covenant without a canon or canon without a covenant. In fact, the covenant is the canon and vice versa” (p. 155). Thus, in chapter four on Scripture the title is refers to Scripture as “covenant canon” (p. 151). As a canon Scripture is a “rule,” and as the relationship with God’s people develops, God reveals more “rule” with each new covenant he establishes with man (p. 152-53). Through covenant, God creates the life and shape of his people.
Another feature of the book is chapter three where Horton deals with the doctrine of Scripture as revelation. While “God is the object of theology” he is also “its self-revealing subject” (p. 113). There is a symbiotic relationship between God and his covenant word/canon – Scripture. To Horton, revelation is more than just words to man from God about himself. It is not God up there and his word down here. The words of Scripture, especially the OT, were first spoken to man. Revelation is personally given to man: “In revelation God is present in personal address” (p. 117). But more than a means for God to reveal himself to his covenant people, revelation “creates the reality of which it speaks” (p. 122). Contra to the reflective aim of truth in the Greeks mythical nature of metanarrative, revelation is a means where “the truth literally incarnates itself in history. God’s speech does not merely interpret history; it creates it” (p. 123). As the Word of God, revelation (Scripture) exists in the form of Christ, proclamation and the canon of Scripture as the final 66 books of the Old and New Testaments” (p. 135-36).
A final noticeable feature of the book is the section and chapter structure. There are six parts and all refer directly to God himself. A careful read of the part titles indicates seemingly intentional following of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation (CFRC) structure of Scripture (with some additions) as commonly held today by many theologians. Part One deals with knowing God and how God reveals himself to us and we can know him. Part Two addresses the nature of God himself and what he reveals to man about himself through nature and Scripture. Part Three begins the CFRC grid and deals with the God Who Creates. Part Four continues with the God Who Rescues. Part Five interjects with the God Who Reigns in Grace and deals with the believer, the Kingdom, the church and its sacraments. Part Six is the final part and concludes the CFRC structure with the God Who Reigns in Glory and discusses the unifying eschatology of Scripture.
The Christian Faith has so much going for it that I only have one critique. While the book is a biblical systematic theology I would have liked to see more biblical development within each chapter and not just from section to section. Begin the chapter on Christ by briefly returning to the chapter on the trinity and walk through the doctrine of Christ from before Genesis to Revelation. I hope that what Horton has done here will be picked up by the next generation of systematicians and improved upon.
Nevertheless, this is a work to be highly commended for paving the way into a new era of systematic theologies. The work is readable, philosophically and historically interactive, devotional at times and narrative in its structure. The Christian Faith will service generations of Christians to come.
Michael S. Horton (PhD, University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and associate minister at Christ United Reformed Church (Santee, California). The author of more than twenty books, he also cohosts the White Horse Inn (an international radio broadcast) and is editor of Modern Reformation magazine.
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