A Reformed Ecclesiology

The last volume of Horton’s four-volume series is a Reformed, covenantal look at the doctrine of the church. It is quite possibly the best treatment of the doctrine of the church that I’ve ever seen. It is not for the faint of heart, as he interacts with postmodernity, culture, philosophy, and theology in one rich feast.

The book is divided into three main parts with an additional introduction. The introduction is quite important, as it sets the context for all that follows, placing the church in its redemptive-historical context between the age of Christ’s presence- now absence, and the Holy Spirit’s absence- now presence. He argues here that this already-not yet structure provides deep resources for addressing the paradigm first posed by Paul Tillich of “overcoming estrangement, meeting a stranger” and the additional “the stranger we never meet.” He argues that a covenantal ontology belongs with “meeting a stranger.” He has challenged many dichotomies as being false in this series (such as legal/relational, atonement/Victor, forensic/participational). Here in ecclesiology we can see that the church is placed in such a way as to address unity/plurality, justified/sinful, already/not yet, eschatological/historical, new world/old world. The church is, in other words a battleground of ideologies.

The first main part deals with the church as a creation of the Word, not the creator of the Word. As such, he rightly and closely connects sacramental theology precisely here, as Word and Sacrament may never be separated.

The second main part deals with the attributes of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The third main part deals with the eschatology of the church, the direction in which it is headed.

This really covers just about everything of importance, and his interaction with other proposals is deep, appreciative and fair. This is certainly the most important book published on the church in a very long time.

Here are just a few quotations I found helpful:

The nihilistic eros of the consumer society, which seems to have drawn much of American Christianity into its wake, creates a desire that can never be satisfied. Ads and shop windows offer us a perpetual stream of icons promising to fulfill our ambitions to have the life that they represent: a fully realized eschatology. Handing our credit card to the salesperson can be a sacrament of this transaction between sign and signified. Yet this anonymous space of endless consumption is the parady of the palce of promise: true shalom (pg. 59).

All there is to know is “worded” by God in creation, providence, redemption, and consummation. This linguisticality has its deepest ontological source in the Trinity itself, with the Son as the archetypal Word eternally begotten of the Father. Thus, to get behind or above language, one would have to get behind or above God (pg. 41, footnote 17).

Holding on to a few scraps of “sayings” (always ethical), we might focus all of our energies on answering the question, “What would Jesus do?” but then we would have no connection to what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for the ungodly. The church would then be our work, inspired by Jesus, but our work nonetheless (pg. 30).

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14 Comments

  1. December 15, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    [...] Michael Horton in his recent People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (as quoted here): The nihilistic eros of the consumer society, which seems to have drawn much of American [...]

  2. December 15, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Interesting comment, “The first main part deals with the church as a creation of the Word, not the creator of the Word.”

    In the past I found Horton more nuanced than most Reformed Systematic Theologians, along with Bavinck, Gaffin, Ferguson, etc. So I would be interested in someday, perhaps, reading whatever pages he has about the relation between the Church and the Word in terms of the “creation” of each.

    On the one hand, theologically I sort-of appreciate what Gaffin, Ridderbos, other Reformed folk who take this approach, etc., are doing in their discussions of the creation of the canon and its relation to the church. This functions as part of our Protestant attempt to allow the Word (in theory!) authority over the church. With this I agree, though most Protestant-Reformed attempts at articulating this lack much nuance and substantive engagement with the issues of taking this approach (this discussion for another day).

    On the other hand, such an approach (“…the church as a creation of the Word, not the creator of the Word”) remains extremely misguided and distorting from a historical point of view…with respect to the writings and how they functioned in early Christianity(ies) and with respect to the creation of various “canon lists” and collections of Scripture from a historical point of view, etc.

    If we really want to “submit to” Scripture, and thus care about what it “is” and how it relates to the church, should we not be able to engage better how God brought about our Bible from a historical point of view? I have found EVERY Reformed approach wanting in these areas.

    So, what do we do when we find out that, historically speaking, “the church” (early Christian cultural producers after the apostles) created our Bible? Various and diverse of such people (and perhaps “groups”) transmitted, edited, re-worked, collected, and most-importantly defined how to use such writings in church life. WE KNOW they decided upon which writings to use based upon if said writings were (were interpreted to be) in line with their doctrines and could be co-opted by them through various authority-establishing claims they could make (attributing writings to figures they could claim as part of their constructed chains of succession, etc.). They handled what are, in retrospect, canonical writings in these ways, just as what are (now known as) non-canonical writings. Such scriptural writings functioned authoritatively and were considered as such only in-so-far as they were interpreted in-line with what various cultural-producers (church leaders) said was correct….only in-so-far as the writings were interpreted as legitimating the versions of Christianity propounded by the various people collecting and deciding upon what would eventually be our Bible. So far it seems that the Scriptures functioned, during the canon-formation period!, not in the “sola-scriptura” way we Protestants like.

    For more fun, numerous writings now not considered “scripture” were considered “scripture” by many early Christians long before some of the writings now in our Bible were considered, by the same people, to be Scripture. Oh…and I am talking about the Christians we go to for attestation of our canon. As an aside, what we know of as “the apocrypha” certainly functioned as Scripture (or at least many of the writings of it) for most early Christians, especially the ones we look to as orthodox.

    So, what do we do with such “messiness” in our canon-formation process, especially in its relationship to early churches? Historically speaking early Christians (especially post-apostolic ones) created the canon. Historically speaking the writings of our Bible did not function in sola-Scriptura ways among earliest Christians. This matters especially because the forms of the writings we have in our canon now, not to mention the canon itself, are the products of (transmitted, edited, re-worked, edited, collected, re-interpreted with such interpretations inscribed in the diverse “canonizing” processes, etc.) such early Christians who handled and used Scripture in such non-Protestant ways.

    Theologically this need not undermine the authority dynamic we Protestants treasure (in theory) between the Bible and the church. However, such historical data that we have should certainly nuance our understandings of what the Bible “is.” Perhaps it also could help us have a bit more humility in our certainty and, especially, in our vicious polemics against other Christians? Most interestingly, for me, is that studying how early Christians handled the Bible (and created it) and how the writings of our Bible functioned among them…this should aid our becoming more aware of how we really use the Bible in our circles and how it functions among us. If we are honest, we will find ourselves to be less “sola-scriptura” than we think…among many things.

    Thoughts from people here? As usual, my goal is not to be an annoying fly here. Rather, I greatly desire to see how the numerous Reformed folk here interact on challenging points. I know many here stand firmly committed to various articulations and depths of the Reformed faith, often with vast historical-theological knowledge. I remain genuinely curious how (if?) such folks (can?) interact with these issues.

    Ok, back to studying…

  3. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 15, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Well, I’m not annoyed. :)

    However, my response to this:

    WE KNOW they decided upon which writings to use based upon if said writings were (were interpreted to be) in line with their doctrines and could be co-opted by them through various authority-establishing claims they could make (attributing writings to figures they could claim as part of their constructed chains of succession, etc.).

    is that the “me” part of WE doesn’t KNOW this. I suspect that I have ignorance relative to you concerning some of the canonical choices made.

    But also, I am deeply suspicious of an analytical structure that presupposes knowledge of motives. On your account, the driving force behind the construction of the canon was to legitimate one’s own authority.

    By contrast, the standard Reformed account is that God providentially caused His church to recognize Scripture from non-Scripture, and that this recognition was in the main decisive.

    So … what evidence would you put forward to establish your hypothesis over against the other? How do you KNOW that the drive for power motivated those who sought to discern Scripture from non-Scripture?

    Certainly, the retrospective arguments of the RCC don’t help matters — they provide rich fare for your hypothesis. But I don’t accept those arguments anyways, so there it is.

    Jeff Cagle

  4. tim prussic said,

    December 15, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks, Pastor, for your short blurb on this book. It looks fascinating!

  5. Ben said,

    December 15, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Just curious, Lane, have you read volume 1 in this series (when you commented on volume 3, you hadn’t read volume 1)? I’ve read 1-3 so far and was just wondering how much from volume 1 is assumed in volume 4. By the looks of it, I know a few people who should read this book, but I’d like to know if volume 1 is necessary before I recommend it to them.

  6. rfwhite said,

    December 15, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Ditto what Jeff Cagle says.

  7. Pete Myers said,

    December 15, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Foolish Tar Heel,

    You may consider reading “The Canon of Scripture” by FF Bruce. On many secondary issues he’s not a Reformed guy… but his view on the canon is Reformed. He makes a very good case for showing how the early church “discovered” the canon, rather than “invented” it… using principles derived from the scriptures themselves.

    It’s not a particularly difficult book, as far as I can remember, but it does go into more depth than the usual stuff I give to lay congregation members.

  8. greenbaggins said,

    December 15, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Ben, I would say that Horton builds on volume 1 in such a way that you don’t have to have read it to profit from volume 4.

  9. Ben said,

    December 16, 2008 at 8:03 am

    Thanks, Lane.

  10. Richard said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I think 2009 will involve my reading Horton, Bavinck and Muller.

  11. December 16, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Jeff and Pete,

    Sorry for taking so long to get back to you and that this response is both so long and still somewhat vague. I must get back to preparing for yet another exam. I will try to engage more tomorrow sometime.

    First, off, Jeff about evidence…many such early church figures tell us exactly why some writings are to be used or considered “scripture” and why others are not. The most common reasons given have to do with said writings being in line with accepted church doctrine and/or if the writing is used by “all the other churches” (read: all the other churches said person considers acceptable churches).

    As to use of writings for legitimating authority and power, one sees this simply by doing some basic historical research into the matter. I could expound more later, but I have trouble thinking of any serious scholars of early Christianity who would question this.

    Pete, thanks for suggesting the Bruce book. I am glad you have read it. Among its many values is the wealth of primary sources it produces within its pages, making them slightly more accessible. I have used Bruce’s book. I have trouble thinking of how to assess it here. On the one hand I respect Bruce a great deal and think that if American Evangelicals read him more carefully they would find him more challenging than they often assume (he was, afterall, a British Evangelical and thus did not tend to get hung up on many of the issues us American Evangelicals have).

    On the other hand, I do not buy this Protestant theological argument about the church “discovering” the canon as opposed to “inventing” it. It is a theological and not historical argument. For starters, the “canon(s)” itself is a church-created category of times well after the writings within it(them) were written. So, by definition the “canon” (whose canon, by the way?) is a creation of the church. As to the contents of what became one of the accepted “canons” of scriptures, saying early church figures simply recognized them misleads with respect to what happened historically. Various people actively selected, fought over, included, excluded, (created!), edited, etc., which writings were to be considered acceptable and often vigorously sought to impose their choices on others, especially as we get into the 3rd through 5th centuries.

    Also, the “criteria” they used for choosing and ways they handled such writings as authoritative writings do not square with our Protestant ideals, which you use Bruce’s book to support here. This is not conjecture on my part. Numerous early Christian figures explicitly tell use why they make their choices and how said writings are authoritative. And, again, beyond this, applying some basic social theory to our historical enquiry (which all good historical study does) complicates the situation further.

    Just for fun, to my knowledge we do not have a single example of anyone claiming some writing is Scripture, or to be read publicly, or is in a canon, etc., because someone considered it “inspired.” Inspiration did not function as a category or criteria for “recognizing” scripture among early Christian cultural producers in the way us Protestants would like to think. Kalin’s dissertation and published work (widely accepted by scholars across the so-called spectrum) fairly definitively shows this. Again, he does not do this through what some here would label conjecture. He most basically works through explicit claims of our ancient sources.

  12. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 16, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    FTH (#11):

    Just for fun, to my knowledge we do not have a single example of anyone claiming some writing is Scripture, or to be read publicly, or is in a canon, etc., because someone considered it “inspired.”

    Well, perhaps this might be a starting point for discussion then. Here is Clement of Alexandria:

    [after quoting the OT and the Gospels at length] … Such are the laws of the Word, the consolatory words not on tables of stone which were written by the finger of the Lord, but inscribed on men’s hearts, on which alone they can remain imperishable. Wherefore the tablets of those who had hearts of stone are broken, that the faith of the children may be impressed on softened hearts.

    However, both the laws served the Word for the instruction of humanity, both that given by Moses and that by the apostles. What, therefore, is the nature of the training by the apostles, appears to me to require to be treated of. Under this head, I, or rather the Instructor by me, will recount; and I shall again set before you the precepts themselves, as it were in the germ.

    “Putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour…

    [Here follow numerous citations of Paul]

    … Such are a few injunctions out of many, for the sake of example, which the Instructor, running over the divine Scriptures, sets before His children; by which, so to speak, vice is cut up by the roots, and iniquity is circumscribed.

    — Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 3.12.

    Two things strike me. First, here in the early 3rd century, Clement is seamlessly equating the words Paul and of Jesus as cited in the Gospels with the word of the Lord and the Scriptures.

    So “inspiration” in the sense that the word is used in the Confession — that the words of the Scripture are God’s Word — is not merely held by Clement, but held without argument. This latter fact suggests that his view was not particularly controversial; i.e., that its origins were earlier than 3rd cent.

    Second, though I grant that Clement does not make an argument in the form you desire (“The writings of Paul are Scripture because they are inspired”), he nevertheless encapsulates this equivalence:

    The words God wished to communicate The writings of the apostles.

    Is it not the case that this equivalence is functionally the same as the argument you wished for?

    Nor let us pass lightly over Peter’s assessment of Paul, which places his writings on the par with Scriptures (2 Peter 3).

    And to forestall an objection: even if one were to make the argument that 2 Peter is pseudepigraphical (which I don’t accept!), it still provides insight into the beliefs of the 1st or 2nd century church about the writings of Paul.

    Jeff Cagle

  13. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 16, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    FTH (#11):

    I do not buy this Protestant theological argument about the church “discovering” the canon as opposed to “inventing” it. It is a theological and not historical argument. For starters, the “canon(s)” itself is a church-created category of times well after the writings within it(them) were written. So, by definition the “canon” (whose canon, by the way?) is a creation of the church.

    If it’s a matter of definition, then there’s probably not much to discuss. But in the case, I don’t think an appeal to definition helps unless one wishes to beg the question.

    Let’s consider the two alternative arguments:

    (1) The Scriptures consist of those writings inspired by the Holy Spirit, containing the infallible word of God. These writings were recognized by the church and enumerated in “the canon of Scripture.”

    (2) The “canon of Scripture” was created by the Church to legitimate its own authority.

    Both of these arguments contain historical claims. Both arguments contain implicit theological claims (about God’s activity or inactivity wrt the recognition of the canon).

    FTH, I consider some of the rhetorical flourishes in #11

    “…simply by doing some basic historical research into the matter.”
    “…I have trouble thinking of any serious scholars of early Christianity who would question this.”
    “…applying some basic social theory to our historical enquiry (which all good historical study does)”
    “Kalin’s dissertation and published work (widely accepted by scholars across the so-called spectrum) …”

    There’s nothing wrong with rhetorical flourishes, of course, and I can’t fault you for living within your milieu. But what’s striking about that rhetoric is that it engages in a power struggle. It divides the “good guys” — those who are serious scholars, good historical students, those who do their basic historical research — from the “others”, who make theological arguments instead of historical arguments.

    There’s no offense taken, BTW. This is not a defensive statement, since I readily admit my relative ignorance about the data. My sum study of Church history is 2 grad level courses and two years teaching a HS level course.

    Rather, I would like for you to seriously consider an alternate hypothesis. What IF the rhetoric you employ is in fact rhetoric that you have learned by osmosis in the Academy? And what if that same rhetoric is employed by those in the Academy in order to engage in a power struggle with the Church?

    I think are several pieces of evidence that might favor that hypothesis. But the most telling to me is the false dichotomy between “historical” arguments and “theological” arguments.

    Every historical argument is also a theological one. Either God *did* act in certain ways, or else He was an absent landlord and the tenants did it all themselves. Either way, we are saying something about God when we make arguments about cause and effect in history.

    Put another way: did God strike the Egyptians with the plagues? How would one construct a historical argument that is free of theological assumptions, in order to answer that question?

    In my view, one can’t. If our method assumes that “good history” and theology are orthogonal to each other, then we will always, always “discover” that God is the absent landlord.

    And so it is with the Canon. I’m willing to take a look at the evidence you have, and I certainly don’t have a rose-glassed view of the Church Fathers (esp. Tertullian). But I’m not willing to set aside theology in order to be considered a good historian, for the precise reason that it’s impossible to do so. One may exchange one theology for another, but historical method always carries theological freight.

    I hope this is coming across irenically, not combatively. I’m not saying this to shout you down! Rather, I would like to respectfully ask you to introspect about what your own rhetoric reveals about your own approach to power struggles and theology.

    Grace and peace,
    Jeff Cagle

  14. Pete Myers said,

    December 17, 2008 at 4:39 am

    Foolish,

    Feels like you and Jeff have a profitable discussion going… I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with everything Jeff has said.

    The only thing I’d punctuate is that, actually, Bruce does offer historical argument. Sounds like you’ve already read him, so, I’d point you particularly towards chapter 21 “Criteria for Canonicity”. I’m not expert, but, his arguments there aren’t theological, but historical… and his use of scripture is as an historical source for the way in which prophecy was recognised or rejected in the early church.

    I “feel” your argument though! It can *feel* like the Protestant argument is assuming it’s conclusion. And sometimes the way it’s put – it is. But, reading the material fairly, I think it’s a better reading of history than the catholic argument. The very fact that there were so many arguments about the canon in the early church, that weren’t resolved easily demonstrates precisely that *there was no one authoritative church body*, and also that *there was no one authoritative church tradition*.

    If the authoritative hierarchy of the church dictated the canon from the top to the bottom, then, why did so much work have to be put in to prove/persuade/argue the case? The very nature of the forming of the canon demonstrates, I think, that those who ruled the church were having to point to reasons outside of simply their opinion in order to justify their decisions for canonical inclusion.

    Just as Acts 15 proves that even apostolic authority rests upon the Word of God… so the debates about the canon prove that the churches authority rests upon the Word of God.


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