Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology: Initial Thoughts

Posted by David Gadbois

Michael Horton’s 1-volume systematic theology, The Christian Faith:  A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, was published earlier this year by Zondervan and has had the unenviable task of living up to the high expectations foisted on it by many in the Reformed community who have been hoping that this work would be something of a definitive and modern 1-volume treatment of systematic theology from a Reformed perspective, essentially a work that would replace and eclipse Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (originally published in 1938).  A tall order, indeed.  I will offer some unorganized thoughts on this volume in the following series of posts, and my aim is to spark discussion relating to the book in the combox.  I do not mean to offer forth a “review” of The Christian Faith in the normal sense, meaning a comprehensive or systematic review of the work.  I am still working my way through it, and am still digesting key portions of it that I have read and, indeed, have re-read.  I want to offer my initial, unorganized observations, as a lover of systematic theology and of the Reformed faith, of Horton’s work both generally (as pertains to its scope, format, tone, structure, and approach) and specifically (as it touches the individual topics and doctrines and takes specific doctrinal stands).

In the interest of being anti-climactic, I’ll put my cards on the table straight away.  If you are a serious student of theology, you should have Horton’s ST in your library.  It is not even a close call.  But don’t go thinking that you can throw your old copies of Hodge, Turretin, Bavinck, or Berkhof.  What amazes me about all of these works, as well as other single and multi-volume contributions to systematic theology, is how wonderfully they compliment each other rather than how one “replaces” or even “updates” previous works.  Indeed, it is simply unrealistic to hold the bar so high that an author is only successful if he creates a work that is “definitive” or a modern “classic” that makes past works essentially obsolete.

None of this, however, negates the fact that a modern work like Horton’s was desperately needed.  As much as I am devoted to my own patron saint, St. Louis Berkhof, his work is over 70 years old at this time.  It is dated, and thus its usefulness to Christ’s church in 2011 is limited.  We need to re-express the Reformed faith in modern language, using the most sophisticated arguments and up-to-date scholarship, answering recent objections and departures from orthodoxy, employing the sort of new insights that have fueled theological development since the time of the Apostles, without abandoning the classic, orthodox content that we confess as Reformed and catholic Christians.  We need a work of theology that builds on top of the groundwork that the 15-16th century Reformers and the various Reformed confessions laid, not one that that sets those principles aside.  Unfortunately, one can count the number of orthodox, Reformed systematic theologies since Berkhof and Hodge’s time on the fingers of a single hand.

A little over a decade ago (1998), there was some hope that Robert Reymond’s work, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, would be the reliable and modern single-volume work that Reformed seminaries should put into the hands of 1st and 2nd year students.  But this work drew harsh criticism for its rejection of the eternal generation of the Son, and in my opinion suffered from various rationalist errors inherited from Gordon Clark relating to theological prolegomena.  For these and other reasons it did not attain the prominence in Reformed circles that some had hoped.  It did, however, exemplify some positive trends in systematic theology literature.  Namely, the emphasis on both exegesis (Reymond included reasonably lengthy and detailed exegesis of key passages) and the insights of biblical theology in forming and defending Reformed doctrine, while avoiding over-emphasis on historical theology.  Also, the writing style was more accessible than previous 19th and early 20th century works; the tone is more pastoral than academic, and the style of discussion more warm and conversational.

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (1994) was a work that was squarely aimed at a non-technical audience, and was successful in presenting much catholic, and even Reformed doctrine (at least on soteriology, decrees, predestination)  in an extremely clear and accessible manner, although it departed from confessional Reformed theology with its espousal of baptistic ecclesiology and sacramanetology (i.e. credobaptism), as well as a non-cessationist view of the charismatic gifts and non-dispensational premillenial eschatology.  Nonetheless, this work is still frequently useful in instructing and informing those who are either new to the Christian faith or those who are beginning to explore the Reformed faith from other Christian traditions.

If one would begin to consider multi-volume works, Morton Smith’s 2-volume ST is fairly recent, but sadly not widely distributed.  Douglas Kelly only has one volume (2008) of his multi-volume systematic theology published so far.  The same goes for Richard Gamble, the first volume of his The Whole Counsel of God was published in 2009.  One could consider Horton’s own “Covenant” trilogy, or John Frame’s “Lordship” series, but these only cover a fraction of the traditional theological loci, so are not the sort of comprehensive works that distinguish traditional systematic theologies.  Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord (single-volume) is good but very brief and introductory in nature.  If one is willing to go further back some decades, one could appropriate Robert Culver’s 1-volume ST (Calvinistic/baptistic) with some benefit.  Charles Hodge’s ST (3 volume), Robert Dabney’s ST (single-volume), and William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology (single-volume) would be the obvious 19th century works to turn to that faithfully express the American presbyterian tradition.  If one is willing to tap non-English sources, Bavinck’s 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (an author Berkhof was heavily indebted to) and the more recent single-volume Concise Reformed Dogmatics by J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema (published in the Netherlands in 1992) have been translated (2008) into English in just the last decade.

Returning our attention to Horton, one should note that he presents his work from a similar ecclesiastical background as Berkhof’s, both being ministers in the Dutch Reformed tradition.  Horton is a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America (URC or URCNA), a federation of churches that broke off from the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC or CRCNA) that Berkhof belonged to in his time.  As such, the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt) feature prominently throughout Horton’s ST, although as a professor at Westminster Seminary California, he is not shy in appropriating the insights of our presbyterian brethren, especially exemplified in his frequent citation of the Westminster Standards.  Incidentally, the URC is the federation to which  my own church belongs, and although I am merely a layman (non-office-bearer) one should note that all members of URC congregations are generally expected to affirm the 3 Forms of Unity without exception.

In the next post, I want to discuss the task of systematic theology in relation to exegetical theology, historical theology, biblical theology, and philosophy (paging Paul Manata) in relation to Horton’s approach in his ST.  Also, I want to discuss the purposes, scope, and audiences of his work in relation to previous comprehensive works of systematic theology as well as considered in light of the benefit of Christ’s church.