The God Outside Us


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.



  1. This is indeed a great quote!

    I’ve listened to Michael Horton on “The White Horse Inn” now and then (I’ve met one of the co-hosts, Kim Riddelbarger); but I am usually quite critical of his/their approach. That is, I am critical of the scholasticism and Federal Theology that he is a proponent and popularizer of.

    There is no doubt that Horton and crew have some important and interesting things to say; but along with the Magesterial Reformers (some of them), I would want to criticize the “conceptual scholasticism” (Thomism) that informs their theological approach.

  2. Bobby,

    I have the same concerns about (as I call it) “absolutizing the form” when it comes to confessionalist theology, and it is this that drives the mentality of so many who clearly have absolutized the 17th century. But I think Horton is better than this, if you read his works, where he is at his best (not on the White Horse Inn, which is repetitive and tiresome). Also, while this scholasticism has its problems, we have to likewise take note of the problems with Barth-Torrance’s project of relativizing, contra “fundamentalism,” — the problem is how we can be ecclesial and credal when everything is moved into an I-Thou sort of action-event. I don’t have a ready answer. We have to learn from both streams (the confessional and the dialectic) of the Reformed tradition. You may be interested in checking-out John Webster’s work, since he’s the only Reformed theologian, that I know of, who is deeply pulling from both of these streams.


    I’ve been considering such a post, but I’ve put it off. I’ll get to it soon.

  3. Kevin,

    I like that, “absolutizing the form,” nice!

    I’ve listened to the lectures from Webster in your sidebar; and I have attempted to check out some of his works from my theo library, but unfortunately they don’t have much of his stuff! And I just don’t have the funds to purchase it myself . . . maybe someday.

    I do agree with you here, Kevin:

    . . . Also, while this scholasticism has its problems, we have to likewise take note of the problems with Barth-Torrance’s project of relativizing, contra “fundamentalism,” — the problem is how we can be ecclesial and credal when everything is moved into an I-Thou sort of action-event. I don’t have a ready answer.

    This is a tension, and one that I constantly struggle with. Glad to have made contact, Kevin . . . look forward to further interactions in the future!

  4. Some of my tension is alleviated, a bit, because I’ve never been a “confessional” Christian, per se. That is, my entrance into the “Reformed” faith has been through folks like Torrance and Barth; even though my background (both educationally and origin of family)is both Confessional Reformed and Fundamentalist.

  5. Absolutise the 17th C? Obviously not an option. But neither is ignoring it either. It seems to me any contemporary confesional theology worth its salt can’t step around the 17th C. as though orthodoxy didn’t exist or was a complete mistake. Even Barth had to go back to the orthodox for a structure for his dogmatics, not to mention that they provided quite a bit of grist for his mill. Looking forward to your reflections on the subject. Meanwhile I too will check out Webster.

  6. Bobby,

    At least the tension keeps theology exciting.

    You can get Webster’s Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003) for $13.50 at Amazon. It’s a great introduction to his thought. Also, his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is on Google Books with a lot of free preview pages.


    I completely agree about the 17th century scholastics. A lot of contemporary theology (all the postmodern, neo-Hegelian stuff) will have no “sticking power” (=unimportant) because it neglects the achievements of this theological heritage.

  7. Thanks Kevin,

    I’ll have to pick up that work by Webster, and check out his book on Holy Scripture.

    And I agree with the notion that we must work through the “orthodox” body of theology — which is what both Barth and Torrance do, I also appreciate the Paleo emphasis of TFT (which makes sense given his PhD).

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