What little I knew about Michael Horton before reading this book led me to think that here was one of those voices in the Reformed camp that might have been working to heal the divide in Protestantism between Wittenberg and Geneva. And he may be. In this book he is not afraid to talk about and cite Luther, the Lutheran Confessions, and other Lutheran theologians (although, his go-to guy is Edmund Schlink). Yet, a reading of this book finds Horton squarely in the camp of Reformed theology.
And he would not deny that. Nor does he hide it. Horton’s main goal is to walk the line between Arminianism (in which he grew up) and hyper-Calvinism, which he defines as ranking “God’s sovereignty and justice over his love” while, in his view, Arminianism tends to “reverse the order” (75). This goal places him squarely in the mainstream of Reformed theology.
This is somewhat unique in America. Of the two – Arminianism and Calvinism – Arminianism seems to have clearly won the day. Decision theology and revivalism rule the theological roost thanks to Charles Finney, Billy Graham, and American independence and free will. Though, as even Time magazine pointed out, Calvinism has become “cool” again. In 2009, the “new Calvinism” was rated as one of the ten ideas changing the world right now. Mostly because it has a theological system to offer, something of substance, while so much of Evangelicalism and the contemporary worship scene it ushered in does not.
So, Michael Horton, then, is worth reading to get a handle on one of the main proponents of John Calvin’s theology today, even if he represents a minority view in American religious life. Of course, Lutheran theology is a minority opinion in America, so we can have some sympathy for Horton and those of his theological mindset.
This particular volume is an abridgement of a large systematic work, The Christian Faith, and is intended, as the title says, for people ‘on the way,’ those “seeking theological understanding for life in this world and the world to come” (14). It is arranged in a logical order, starting with knowing God and running through the resurrection of the body.
As a Calvinist, Horton is a strict monergist. “God determines the world’s course; the world does not determine God’s course” (80). This is the defense of sola gratia we expect from Reformation theologians: the action is arrow down, from God to mankind (cf. 71). As with other Calvinists, Arminians are really the worst enemies and the main target of much of the polemical argument of this book (246-247). This is good and wholesome, until it is not.
It is not, because it turns out that Horton is a five-point Calvinist following the famous Calvinist TULIP. Even though he seeks to put a fresh face and new names on these points (e.g., particular redemption instead of limited atonement; or effectual calling instead of irresistible grace 257), he is the same old Calvinist. This means that while we happily agree with and applaud his assertion of total depravity, we must reject the decree to damnation he supports, the limited atonement he defends, the effectual calling that neuters the means of grace, and the perseverance of the saints that means that there is no such thing as someone who comes to true faith and falls from the faith, all things that reintroduce the monstrous uncertainty that Luther attacked in the Roman Church.
That is the worst conclusion (error) of this book. Putting together the Calvinist TULIP with limited atonement at the center leads to this terrible decree:
With the New Testament, advocates of particular redemption can cheerfully proclaim, ‘Christ died for sinners,’ ‘Christ died for the world,’ and ‘Christ’s death is sufficient for you,’ acknowledging also with the Scriptures that the assurance, ‘Christ died for you,’ is to be given only to believers (212).
The sad truth of the TULIP Horton defends is that you lose the Gospel, or at least the ability to declare it to anyone with any certainty. What if God passed you by? What if Jesus didn’t die for you? What if the Holy Spirit was not in the Word when you heard it? What if your faith that looks, smells, and sounds like faith, is not actually faith because you were “never [a] living member thru faith” (322), your faith was only apparent?
This is the worst, but not only, weakness of the book. Horton, like most Reformed and Evangelicals, rejects the power of the Sacraments. He says more about them than most, saying that they are “creaturely media through which the Spirit delivers Christ and all his benefits” (344), but then takes it away by saying Baptism only ratifies, or that the Sacraments are “signs and seals” of God’s covenant (344). Plus, Christ is bodily in heaven, so the real presence is not a possibility anyways (237-238, 381, 383).
This is the great error of the Reformed system. God’s Word is powerful and effective, it can and does speak things into existence, except when it doesn’t, for the Holy Spirit doesn’t always accompany the Word (259-261). It leads to the great uncertainty, when all our eggs are put into the basket of Deus vult instead of God’s promises. In Horton’s own words: “When he tells us that he is good, speaks of himself as a loving parent or king, and responds to our prayers, we can be confident that he is telling us the truth as far as we can know it…” (33). As far as we can know it. We can never be sure; there might be more than meets the eye.
There were other troubling items in Horton’s presentation.
- He chooses to not really answer the big Christological issue that led to FC VII-VIII, saying neither side (Luther/Zwingli) was really guilty of what the other charged (180, 189). Though, at one point he does say, “Every attribute of God belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, so that his action is God’s action” (182).
- While talking creation and affirming ex nihilo creation, he doesn’t talk at all about the length of days or close the door on evolution, even saying the age of the earth is not a dogmatic issue (60, 65, 110).
- For a guy who bent over backwards to defend the inspiration and authority of Scripture in his opening chapter, he is willing to admit “finitude, weakness, and limitations” in the human authors (57), for example, assuming a cosmology foreign to us (58). In other words, he’s not as solid as he seems on inerrancy and inspiration.
- He, like other Calvinists, falls into enthusiasm (schwaermerei) when asserting that babies of believing parents get to go straight to heaven, for there is no doubt that they are “elect in the Lord” (370).
- He exceeds others in enthusiasm by saying, “I do not believe we can conclude that no one can be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ. First, it is precisely because God is sovereign and free in his grace that he can have mercy on whomever he chooses” (450). At the end he seems to affirm Christ as the only way to heaven, but he’s already undermined it (451).
- He is weak, poor, and wrong on the Antichrist, rejecting the view of Scripture that the pope is the antichrist and sees a series of them culminating in some great “Christless religion prior to Christ’s return” (436-437). Yet he’s for amillennialism (430) and rejects the craziest speculations about Israel (440).
- His discussion of the image of God also needs clarification (123-128, 154).
- This isn’t doctrinal, but he artificially imposes a theme on his book, seeking to put all things into a four-part matrix of drama, doctrine, doxology and discipleship. He overly leans on it in some places and ignores it in others. The book would have been improved without it.
There were some high points. He writes well. Throughout the book he offered numerous “key distinction” boxes to help summarize opposing or contrasting views that were almost uniformly helpful. He does well when laying out the various views on an area in thumbnail form (e.g., the history of Christological thought, 177ff).
We also agree on his starting point: “God is the object of this discipline [theology]” (21). He must be the sun, not just our “personal or collective happiness” (15). This God and Christ-centered ness is a part of Reformed theology we can get behind for sure. Nicely put was this: “No religion is more convinced simultaneously of God’s radical difference from creatures and God’s radical identification with them” (30).
His view of Scripture, while weakened (see above), remains higher than most: “God wrapped his gospel in the swaddling clothes of human speech” (55); and his hermeneutic is ours: Scripture interprets Scripture, not literalistically, but literally (61): “To take symbols literally is not to take them in their natural sense” (430). This means while he speculates about salvation outside the Church, he mostly falls on the side of one path to God, for the many paths position is “disrespectful, not only toward Christianity but toward other religions” (89), and yet “to the extent that our experience is not Trinitarian, it is not properly Christian” (104).
Perhaps his greatest strength is his support for the Biblical view of justification. In the battles being waged over the New Perspective on Paul (which is mostly Semi-Pelagianism repackaged), Horton defends the vicarious atonement, a penal substitution, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us by faith.
God has in his Son that righteous life and justice-satisfying sacrifice that his holiness requires of us. Forgiveness is not enough, since it merely clears the slate and cancels the debts; God requires a living sacrifice of positive obedience. It is precisely this full and joyful obedience that he has in Jesus Christ, and this righteousness is imputed to us in justification. On this basis, justification is not merely forgiveness (“just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned”), but God’s crediting us with Christ’s fulfillment of the law (195).
And: “As strange as it sounds to say that God pronounces the wicked just, it is even stranger to image that what we need most for sanctification is more proclamation of God’s free grace in Christ” (304).
Sadly, however, as mentioned above, the good of this is vitiated by a limited atonement and neutering of the means of grace that make it hard for me to proclaim this good news to anyone for sure and for certain.
Michael Horton is not the bridge reuniting the Lutherans and Reformed. He is a thoughtful theologian whom we can read as a representative of the Reformed school of thought. He says much we can affirm, but, taken to his logical conclusions, can leave a Christian with grave doubt. As Ewald Plass wrote, we pray he is better than the creed he confesses.
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Co-host of the White Horse Inn and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, Horton is also a minister in the United Reformed Churches.
Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, by Horton, Michael Scott. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 506 pages.