Posted by David Gadbois
As one considers where Horton’s The Christian Faith falls in relation to other systematic theologies, one likely thinks of the primary and secondary intended audiences of the work. Is it meant to address academics, seminary professors and students, approaching the traditional topics of systematic theology at the level of a theological journal such as the Westminster Theological Journal, JETS, and others? Or is it more accessible in its approach, akin to the very basic yet helpful, clear, non-technical works of populizers such as R.C. Sproul, Packer, or indeed some of Horton’s own previous works? Is it more useful for pastors and elders, informed laymen in the pew, those new to the Christian faith, those considering the Christian faith, or our relatively young covenant children? The reality is that Horton had the challenging task of crafting his systematic theology so that all of these categories of people could find it useful. The matter is one of emphasis when one considers his work in relation to other systematic theologies. The center of the crosshairs, however, would probably be pointed at the first-year seminary student, if I had to make a guess. This is not surprising, considering that this is the same space that most of the classic systematic theologies inhabit. But Horton is using a shotgun, not a sniper’s rifle. So I doubt that any of this work would go over the head of a normal high school-aged student. It does not read like a collection of journal articles (for that, see Horton’s 4-volume dogmatics), and his writing is not bogged down by unexplained technical theological jargon. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that pastors and even seminary professors wouldn’t regularly turn to this work regularly for insights and fresh, clear explanations of the topics he covers. Those in the theological-wonk layman category (as I count myself) certainly won’t be disappointed, either.
I still remember vividly being in between my third and fourth year of college as an aerospace engineering major and stumbling across Berkhof’s ST while on summer project with (ironically) Campus Crusade for Christ, in the small library of the project house in Ocean City, NJ. Having grown up in broadly-evangelical and baptistic churches, and without the benefit of having the categories instilled by any sort of catechism training, Berkhof’s work was a revelation to me. It seemed that light bulbs went off on every page that I read. I was amazed by how Berkhof effortlessly brought together all of the relevant biblical passages on a given topic and was able to harmonize those verses while defining and defending orthodox doctrine. The structure of the topics was so clear, orderly, and comprehensive; the doctrines and terms were so rigorously and carefully defined. I remember thinking “this is like God and Christianity…for engineers!” One might say that this was true to a fault. The old joke is that you can leave Berkhof’s systematic theology out in the rain for two days, bring it inside, and it will still be dry. It does at time read like a scientific textbook, and his concise style of writing can sometimes be a detriment (although it is sometimes welcome, too). Horton’s work avoids these deficiencies, as his writing follows a more organic and conversational narrative. So I certainly have no complaint pertaining to his tone and writing style, it is very warm and pastoral.
I think that is fitting, given that any systematic theology that is going to take its place next to the classic works of systematic theology is going to have to be a pastoral and churchly work, not primarily an academic one. Horton himself conveys this very sense in the subtitle of the work – it is a systematic theology “for Pilgrims On the Way.” It is not just for pastors or professors on the way.
One also considers how deeply a work of systematic theology is involved with other theological disciplines, such as historical theology, symbolic theology, exegetical theology, biblical theology, and philosophy. If one considers the task of systematic theology to be primarily in harvesting the insights of exegetical and biblical theology, then one would expect a work like this to focus on primarily using the text of Scripture to establish and defend the doctrines and systematic relations it enumerates. The exegesis of individual texts, as well as the exposition of the broad themes of Scripture and the unfolding history of redemption must be paramount. That is because these are the things that are normative to the sola scriptura Christian and to the church. Historical theology, on the other hand, is only descriptive. It is often convenient to couch doctrines in a sort of narrative that historical theology provides, as a framing device, but it would be a mistake for a systematic theology text to get too bogged down in historical minutiae when explaining or defending various doctrines. As for philosophy, theologians have often seen this discipline as the “handmaiden” to theology. That is, it gives us tools and categories to elucidate and organize revealed truth in the Scriptures. While one would not expect a systematic theology to talk about philosophy for its own sake, one would expect it to make liberal use of it, where appropriate, in its exposition and defense of various doctrines. Epistemology can help us talk about the nature of revelation (general and special), ontology can help us understand the Trinity, metaphysics can help us understand the decrees, predestination, secondary causes, and so forth. As with historical theology, I wouldn’t want an ST to be weighed down too heavily by detailed philosophical discussions. I think Horton’s work pretty much hits the right balance in employing and addressing these various fields of study. This might disappoint some church history wonks and philosophy buffs out there. I know I am probably not as sensitive to these issues as others – perhaps I should be. But I’m pretty sure most middle-of-the-road readers will be quite satisfied with Horton’s approach. If I had to venture a criticism (or, perhaps just a preference), I would have liked to have seen Horton dig deeper on the exegetical end in many of his discussions. I found many of Reymond’s treatments more satisfying in this regard.
In the next post I want to discuss the place of theological creativity in systematic theology, and whether or not Horton’s book offers positive insights and original contributions to modern Reformed theology, that is, it is a work that develops Reformed theology rather than simply summarizes and defends what has preceded it. Also, I would like to start digging into some of the specific topics covered in Horton’s ST. Many of the discussions I thought were excellent, others I would have liked to have seen covered in more depth and more forcefully (e.g. the filioque, eternal generation of the Son, analogical knowledge, and others), and there were also topics and issues that I was surprised he omitted. I also think that the “sparring partners”, the various representatives of divergent theologies or varying opinions within Reformed orthodoxy, Horton chose to interact with in the work will cause a reasonable amount of debate. He spent time dealing with some figures I couldn’t possibly care less about (Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Barth), but more helpfully interacted with New Perspectivists (like Wright) while essentially ignoring Shepherdites and Federal Visionists. What should we make of all this?