Two systematic theologies


I’m currently reading two rather different systematic theologies: Douglas Kelly’s Systematic Theology, vol. 1, and Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith. Both men are well-respected theologians in the American evangelical-Reformed community. Kelly teaches at RTS in Charlotte and Horton at WSC.

I was already familiar with Horton and knew what to expect from his ST. If you’ve read his brilliant Covenant theology series, you know where Horton is coming from. Like Kevin Vanhoozer, Horton has read widely in the post-existentialist 20th century philosophy of narrative, community, and linguistic studies. Thus, references to Derrida, Ricoeur, Gadamer, and Lindbeck abound in his Covenant volumes. This scholarly interaction is still present in The Christian Faith though with less detail and less obtuse reflection, since it is intended for a larger audience. The critical appropriation of narrative remains. Yet, per his covenant theology, Horton critiques such narrative approaches as failing to preserve the Creator-creature distinction, particularly an interventionist model of divine agency. The category of covenant (and “redemptive history”) provides the drama and human participation, which Horton appreciates in postmodern thinking, without sacrificing God’s initiative/sovereignty in creation and salvation.

With Kelly, we are in a whole other world, but a world which I appreciate even more. There’s no narrative theology here. No Ricoeur or Lindbeck. I don’t know what Kelly thinks about post-structuralism or critical theory. Instead, he is basically picking-up where Barth and Torrance left off. There are several large quotations from Thomas Torrance in Kelly’s ST, as buttresses for his revelation-centered prolegomena. The first chapter is called, “God Reveals Himself,” and the proofs for the existence of God are relegated to an appendix at the end of the chapter. Kelly treats the arguments of Anselm, Scotus, and Aquinas with great appreciation — especially Aquinas — yet he believes (rightly) that such demonstrations are not necessary for the task of theology. I was pleasantly surprised with Kelly’s treatment of prolegomena (chapter 1) and epistemology (chapter 2). As a conservative and confessional Reformed theologian, I wasn’t expecting such a positive and well-balance appropriation of Barth and Torrance. Though, this shouldn’t be too surprising since he got his doctorate at Edinburgh, and I believe he even studied under Torrance.

Moreover, I greatly appreciate Kelly’s catholic sensibilities. He begins the book with some reflections on the catholic nature of the Reformed movement, as an extension and part of the larger catholic church. He quotes from The Manual of Church Doctrine according to the Church of Scotland where the ordination and baptism of the church of Rome is affirmed as valid (e.g., “the Reformed presbyter emerged from the Roman priesthood”). The catholic creeds are likewise affirmed. Kelly subtitled his systematic theology, “Grounded in Holy Scripture and understood in the light of the Church.” As such, Kelly liberally quotes early church fathers, and his treatment of the Trinity (most of the rest of the book) is especially strong.



  1. Does Kelly deal with creation in his volume. I’ve always just ignored him because he wrote “Creation And Change” where he came out as a creationist.

    • I haven’t seen anything about Creationism in this volume, and I doubt it will come-up. The entire volume is devoted to the doctrine of God. It is likely that in the next volume, which will presumably deal with anthropology and soteriology, we will see something about the historicity of Adam and Eve. I don’t have any problem with the historicity of Adam and Eve (there are good dogmatic reasons for it), but hopefully he will avoid the particulars of Creationism.

      I was aware of Creation and Change, which is more reason why I was surprised that he is so open to both the larger Reformed tradition (Barth, Torrance) and the larger catholic tradition (East and West, past and present). Moreover, in an appendix on salvation outside the church, Kelly affirms the possibility of salvation apart from an explicit faith in Christ. That’s a fairly controversial subject in evangelical churches and seminaries, so I was very happy to see Kelly reject strict exclusivism. With all of this in mind, I would be surprised if Kelly launches a polemic against evolution in the second volume. So far, he is demonstrating a broad and generous mind.

  2. Last week I found Kelly’s volume on the sale table at the local evangelical bookshop for $20 (marked down from AUS$50) so I picked it up, having read ‘Creation and Change’ some years ago. I’m also enjoying it much more than Horton’s volume, Kevin; which in fact I was somewhat disappointed by after all the hype (I gave up reading it; I’ll get back to it eventually).

    Later on in the volume when Kelly gets into the Enlightenment he highlgihts the loss of belief in creation as crucial to secularisation, but I haven’t encountered any ‘creationism’ as such yet. Not that I would mind, as I’ve always been interested in the subject, although not a ‘card-carrying’ subscriber. If I remember rightly, Kelly referenced Torrance in ‘C & C’ also, and as their interests overlap (although admittedly Kelly is much more conservative) I wasn’t surpised to find a lot of Torrance here too. It’s all very stimulating, and he writes well, so this has really whetted my appetite for the following volumes. More power to Dr Kelly’s pen!

    • Glad you found a copy. I’m really enjoying it as well. Kelly mirrors my own desire to see Barth and Torrance constructively appropriated into confessional Reformed theology, with an eye toward the pre-Reformation church. His writing reflects a lot of wisdom: no polemics, just straight constructive theology.

  3. If Kelly can bring more Torrance and Barth to the American Reformed crowd who still read them through the lens of Van Till et al. than I’m excited. (See this really dumb comment on Kelly and Torrance here:

    But I still can’t understand how someone who studied under Torrance (or at least at the same institution) can suck so much at the natural sciences, seeing as how Torrance was so brilliant in the theology/science field.

    • Yes, I’ve been frustrated on multiple occasions with the Van Tillian prejudice that is still enthusiastically propagated at WTS. Poor souls. Really. There’s an increasing ghettoized mentality at WTS. Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s my impression.

  4. I honestly never ceased to be amazed at how deeply and seriously you take dogmatic theology. It’s good to see that there are still Christians who carry the torch of dogmatics.

  5. Kevin,

    I once heard a lengthy interview with Kelly (done by one of those on-line Reformed radio shows/pod-casts). I was impressed by what I heard from him, in fact it reflects exactly the way you describe him; I think I’ll have to pick his theology up at some point. Thanks for the reminder!

    • You’re probably thinking of the interview he did with the Reformed Forum:

      They’re Van Tillians at the Reformed Forum, which shows. Interestingly, Kelly completely ignores Van Til in his ST, even in the sections on prolegomena and epistemology.

      • Yep, that’s it, and I knew they were Van Tilians; they used to have a blog Semper Reformanda or some such. That’s funny that he ignored Van Til.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s