Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of Michael Horton The Christian Faith Pligrims on the Way

In Tolkien’s Two Towers Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas attack a while-clad old man, thinking him Saruman. Realizing their error, they apologize to Gandalf saying, “We thought you were Saruman.” Gandalf says, “I am Saruman, or rather Saruman as he should have been.” We may say with this work that Michael Horton is Karl Barth (or NT Wright; insert your favorite villain) as he should have been.

Horton has given us the first presentation of a systematic theology derived along dramatic categories. Other treatises capture the drama of Scripture or its historical unfolding, but Horton sees the historical unfolding of God’s plan as a drama. Narrative and systematics need each other. The narrative keeps theology from becoming abstract, and systematics shows “crucial implications of that plot and the inner connections between its various sequences” (Horton 21). 

The narrative structure also helps one’s epistemology. Horton skillfully interacts with recent postmodern challenges and notes that many of the challenges simply miss the Christian story. With Jean-Francois Lyotard, we agree that metanarratives are dangerous. Horton simply denies the Christian story is a metanarrative in the sense that modernity is.

Horton’s section on ontology is quite fine. He gives a summary of his “Overcoming Estrangement” essays and suggests that one’s epistemology follows one’s ontology. If one sees the body as simply a prison of the soul, then epistemology will be a kind of “seeing the Forms” or “getting beyond sense experience” (47). But if one holds to an ontology of covenantal embodiment or finitude as a divine gift, pace Plato, then the primary metaphors for knowledge will be “oral/aural” (49). This is the real strength of Horton’s project. He is able to show (with admirable skill) how non-Reformed and non-covenantal views simply default to a pagan metaphysics.

Horton is consistent in applying the speech-act theory. God’s speech-acts, understood in a Trinitarian manner, rooted in Triadology, ground our understanding of inspiration. The Father’s speaking is the locutionary act; the Son is the content or illocutionary act that is performed by the speaking, and the Spirit’s work is the perlocutionary effect (157). As Horton notes, this keeps the model from being too “”mechanical (simply the Father’s speaking) or a canon-within-a-canon (as some Christomonic models intimitate) or enthusiam per hyper-Spirit models. 

Horton gives us a brilliant review of Christology. He takes the key gains from Wright et al and reworks them around a Reformed covenantal approach--all the while maintaining the Chalcedonian and Nicene values. His review of historical Christology is good, though he didn’t address all of the tensions created by Chalcedon. He (and I) rightly affirm Chalcedon, but Chalcedon’s other commitments to deification-soteriology and substance-metaphysics would prove troublesome for later thinkers. I refer to Bruce McCormack’s fine essay on this point.

Criticisms and Concerns

To his credit, Horton is aware of Barth’s challenge to the term “person” in the modern world. If person means something like “center of reflective self-consciousness” (which is usually how people today, Christian or otherwise, use the term), then it is obvious we cannot apply it to God. In God, so reasons classical theism, there is one mind, will, and unity of operation. The modern usage of the word “person” would imply at least three minds. That is polytheism. 

Horton says we can save the term person by using it analogically of God (295ff). This is certainly true. The Father-Son relationship is the model from which we conceive of earthly father-son relationships. But still, it is not clear how far analogical predication helps on the definition of person. Even if we grant there is not a univocal relationship between the idea as it applies to God and man, it is still true that the definition as it applies to God (whatever it is, it cannot mean three centers of self-consciousness) and man (a center of self-consciousness) is, quite frankly, different.

On the other hand, despite Barth’s earlier usage of “huparchos tropos” in CD I/1 (which itself has a respectable Patristic pedigree and does not have the same problems as “person”), in later volumes he seems to have no problem using “Person” as it is used in traditional dogmatics (CD II/1: 284).

Horton’s most problematic area is where he thinks he is using the Eastern Essence/energies distinction. On surface level it sounds good: we can’t know God in his essence but only in his energies (operations towards us). Fair enough. He also says this is what the East believed. Well, it depends on which Eastern father at which time. As it metastaized in Gregory Palamas, the energies of God were the only way God could interact with the world. For the post-Palamas East, nature and persons were hyper-ousia. This means, among other things, that you can’t have a personal relationship with Jesus because he is beyond being; this is the precise critique that Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss made of John Romanides).

Horton is using “energies” as God’s covenantal speech-acts. I like that. It is really good. It is simply the opposite of what the East means by it. As Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw points out, the energies are the peri ton theon, things around God. And contrary to Horton’s earlier (and good) criticisms, you approach these peri ton theon by means of apophatic negation and the ascent of the mind (shades of Origen!). Eastern monks, as documented by John Meyendorrf, are very clear on this point.

I also disagree with Horton on the millennium, but I won’t go into it here.


Criticisms aside, this book is magnificent. While it cannot replace Berkhof, Horton admirably deals with current challenges to traditional protestantism. Few Reformed folk can really go toe-to-toe with neo-Hegelians like John Milbank. Horton meets him head on and wins. Horton also responds to recent Roman (Ratzinger), Eastern (Zizioulas), and Anabaptist (Volf) models with much skill. His true value, however, is using Vosian covenantal insights to structure systematic theology.

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