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.

The latest episode of the White Horse Inn, “The Origin of Scripture,” should be of interest to those who, like me, have been thinking through the issue of canon and ecclesiology. In the opening monologue, Michael Horton has some great things to say about the canon (of Scripture) as the constitution of God’s covenant, through which the Church recognizes both her salvation and the rule of God. As such, the priority is given to the broader paradigm of God’s freedom to make a people unto himself. Here are Horton’s final comments from the monologue:

A covenant is like a constitution, and the kingdom of God is never a democracy or a hierarchy of earthly rulers. It’s a monarchy of the Triune God who saves and rules by his Word. This Word is both the means of grace that creates this people out of nothing and is also the rule for faith and practice of this same kingdom. The Word that saves also rules. The same Word by which Christ brings his Church into existence is the Word by which the Good Shepherd keeps it under his protection.

Frame on Horton

October 21, 2009

I’ve been reading through Dr. John Frame’s rather long review of Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity, the latest in his popular-level critiques of contemporary American evangelicalism. As I’ve said before on this blog and other blogs, Horton is the best of the lot, especially his Covenant series, but his broad generalizations and forced historical narratives are annoying, especially when he gets with his White Horse Inn friends. So, you can imagine how happy I am to read Frame’s thoughtful repudiation of Horton’s interpretation of evangelicalism. There are so many good points, such as:

“To accept conclusions as radical as Horton’s, I need to see at least one careful study by a mature evangelical believer, who is also a careful statistician, and who shows me his/her work. For statistical science is not religiously neutral. When Newsweek, for example, says that Christians are seeking “peace of mind” (35) why should we assume that the reporter is able to distinguish between a mere psychological comfort and the peace that Scripture promises to God’s people (John 14:27, 16:33, Rom. 1:7, Phil. 4:7)? When the reporter notes that Christians seek “personal transformation” (35), why should we assume that he understands the difference between psychological healing on the one hand and biblical regeneration and sanctification on the other? And why should we assume that he understands the relationship between sanctification and psychological healing? A mature evangelical Christian sociologist would at least have these distinctions in mind, and he might understand the ambiguities of the language he cites.”

Also, it seems that Michael Spencer (iMonk) has come around to seeing the same problems with this “White Horse Inn” vision of American evangelicalism. You should read both Frame and Spencer’s reflections.

I think the root problem with Horton and friends is that they have been schooled, theologically and philosophically, with a strict dichotomy between the subjective and the objective. The subjective register is invariably the bad register, and a distinct group of terms (“experience,” “feeling,” “affective,” etc.) have been thus branded. This is why they are incapable of reading neo-orthodoxy without accusing it of subordinating revelation to experience (when this is precisely the opposite of what they were doing!). This is taken for granted by most, and a whole host of Reformed students are currently trained to look at the entire world through this unbalanced dichotomy. Pick a register and move on. This is how they score easy points in discourse and fancy themselves as intelligent.

The God Outside Us

July 28, 2009

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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:

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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.