Among all of the confessional Protestant critics of the contemporary evangelical (and mainline) scene, Michael Horton is the best. In fact, he’s one of the few that I even care to read. It is rare to find commentary with any great depth about the inner dynamics of what drove, historically, the oscillations between stoic-like, objective-oriented realism and idealist, subjective-oriented romanticism. Each age can find representatives on both ends, typically working as correctives to the other’s inability to provide a satisfying worldview and ethic. The lesson should probably be that it is impossible. Nonetheless, the theologian is tasked to proclaim the priority of God, with his prerogative to define himself and his means for communion with himself. Michael Horton has been such a theologian for our age — an age where the idealist wing has dominated — and he understands the history (the events and the persons) that have led us to where we are. Likely, others will need to come along and correct his over-corrections, but I am very grateful for the work he has done. And I say this with a firm belief that a pietistic and revivalistic element is fundamental to the vitality of Protestantism, just as confessionalism is equally necessary and more fundamental. (Thus, by the way, we should look at Jonathan Edwards not as a compromiser and a fount of ills; rather, he was one of the few to brilliantly understand the essential yet subordinate role of experience in the manner of renewed aesthetic desires and joy. He struck the balance — a balance rarely struck.)
Here is a fine example of Horton’s analysis, from the final volume of his four-volume covenant theology:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, that quintessentially American thinker, captured this fear of meeting a stranger well when he said, “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer any reason for my being.” Already in his Harvard address in 1838, Emerson could announce that “whatever hold the public worship had on men is gone or going,” calling us to turn inward. Yet this inner spark, inner light, inner experience, and inner reason that guides mysticism, rationalism, idealism, and pragmatism in all ages — this is precisely that autonomous self which, according to the New Testament, must be crucified and buried with Christ in baptism, so that one can be raised with Christ as a denizen of the new age.
To whatever extent Romanticism, idealism, and existentialism — and now, postmodernism — represent reactions against certain features of the Enlightenment, they all belong to a family quarrel. Curved in on ourselves we trust what we see rather than what we hear, what we control, manipulate, and assimilate rather than what remains mysterious and different, what we can find within ourselves rather than outside of ourselves. By contrast, the word creates extroverted, evangelically constituted,and ecclesially shaped community.
The root of all “enthusiasm” is hostility to a God outside of us, in whose hands the judgment and redemption of our lives are placed. To barricade ourselves from this assault, we try to make the “divine” an echo of ourselves and our communities: the very sort of motive that the prophets ridiculed in their polemics against the idols –and so did Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in their description of religion generally. The idea of being founded by someone else has been treated in modernity as a legacy of a primitive era. In line with Emerson’s comment above, we have come to think that what we experience directly within ourselves is more reliable than what we are told by someone else. Thus, we are always ready for new awareness or new advice, but not for new news that can only come to us as a report that is not only told by someone else but that is entirely concerned with the achievement of someone else for us.
People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (WJK Press, 2008), p. 76.