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.



  1. Jeff Cagle said,

    June 6, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Nice beginning, David. You definitely made me want to run out and get it.

  2. June 6, 2011 at 8:18 am

    “Pilgrim Theology,” as I affectionately call it, is fantastic. I’m a layman among laymen, so it probably doesn’t mean much when I say it is lightyears more accessible than Berkhof’s ST. And like Calvin’s Institutes, it has wonderful flashes of devotion and doxology throughout. Very pastoral on that score. And deeply edifying intellectually and theologically — and timely to the day and age the church finds herself in now. Best part is the fruitful discussions a group of faithful brothers and I have been having as we meet bi-weekly to discuss the next chapter.

    Looking forward to this series of blog posts.

  3. David Grissen said,

    June 6, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for all this good info. I’m motivated to get this new volume to add to my library.

  4. Paul said,

    June 6, 2011 at 10:02 am

    “paging Paul Manata”

    Is this a page from the manager’s office calling me in to ream me?!

  5. Jed Paschall said,

    June 6, 2011 at 12:04 pm


    Think of it as being called into the schoolmaster’s office of yesteryear to have your knuckles thwacked! The imagery is more poignant I think.

  6. P. L. Manata said,

    June 6, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Or maybe like being called outside by a dad of yesteryear taking his son out the woodshed in order to tan his hide like a red-headed stepchild.

    Well, whoever’s imagery is more poignant, I now fear for my future!

  7. David Gadbois said,

    June 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I wasn’t planning on it, Paul. I know you were disappointed by the book by what you thought were various sins of omission, and I understand that on one level, since there were many areas I hoped Horton would tackle and yet didn’t. But I am willing to give an author a pretty wide berth when it comes to things they don’t include in the context of a book that is already massive and has to have a limited scope due to the single-volume format.

  8. P. L. Manata said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Hi David, not just sins of omission. There were several distortions and confusions. For example, when I pointed out that he massively misrepresented a basic position of William Lane Craig, one that is well known (esp. to an *apologetics* prof). Horton is making corrections to the second printing, and I’m not trying to pour salt in an open wound, just pointing out that the issue wasn’t omission. Moreover, it wasn’t philosophy *per se* that was ignored, but *analytic* philosophy (and theology). Continental philosophy and philosophers were widely discussed. This is curious and removes any defense that Horton just didn’t want to be too “philosophical.” It’s symptomatic of the curious avoidance of analytic theology by theologians (and that problem goes both ways, mind you). Lastly, it wasn’t like I complained that he didn’t touch on my pet peeves that I thought he should have fit in an already large work. It’s more like there are some basic, obvious, and situation-focusing and determining issues he didn’t so much as nod at. For example, given today’s climate, what’s the excuse for stopping with Nietzsche on the natural knowledge of God? To me that’s irresponsible not simply making wise decisions on what to conclude due to space constraints.

  9. P. L. Manata said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    David, as you know I also pointed out several points I liked about Horton’s ST, and I really don’t mean to derail your review or rehash the discussion that took place at my blog. I look forward to your remarks on the book. I’ll have to bow out of commenting further as it’s too stifling here (not by you) and I just can’t do the walk on eggshells thing to avoid getting berated by mod (singular, and again, not you) via emails for rather silly reasons. I’m sure you understand. If there’s something I really find necessary to respond to, I’ll just do so at my own place.


  10. David Gadbois said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Paul, I can’t refresh my memory as to the specifics of your criticisms, as your old blog has apparently disappeared. But my whole intention is to spark discussion about the strengths as well as weaknesses that folks perceive in the book, so you are more than welcome to join the fray. I’ll be detailing more of what I perceive are the pluses and minuses as we go along.

  11. June 8, 2011 at 12:03 am

    I have Horton but I haven’t read it yet. There *is* a need for a one-volume ST to replace the increasingly creaky Berkhof. I’m very interested in Douglas Kelly’s work and eagerly await volume two (and three). As for Reymond’s work, I’ll just say that his rejection of eternal generation is one of the high points of the work (it’s a tough job, but someone had to finally do it). I’m surprised that no one mentioned Richard Gamble’s work (although it’s actually going to be a three-volume biblical theology rather than an ST). Looking forward to your further posts.

  12. David Gadbois said,

    June 8, 2011 at 2:12 am

    Richard, I no doubt missed some works in my discussion above. Yes, my emphasis is certainly on single-volume works, although not exclusively (it is hard to mention Berkhof without a comparison to the somewhat earlier 3-volume Hodge, for instance). I also didn’t want to go too far afield of Reformed orthodoxy, or else I could have also mentioned Millard Erickson’s ST, or even Barth’s Dogmatics if one is willing to allow simply anything that is nominally Reformed! I also didn’t want to go too far back before Berkhof timewise, or else one could mention a Brakel, John Brown of Haddington, and of course Turretin’s Institutes.

    I admit I have completely missed Gamble’s work. I’ll have to check it out. If there are any other omissions I hope someone speaks up, and I’ll include it.

  13. June 8, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Manata, watch it with those red-head comments.

  14. Tim Prussic said,

    June 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    Thanks for the comments, David. I’m sad to say I’ve not picked up Horton’s ST, but I hope to soon. Thanks for your thoughts on it.

  15. Jack Bradley said,

    June 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks, David, very helpful. I would add Shedd’s ST to your list. It is much more accessible now that his third volume of supplements has been incorporated into
    one volume (P & R) with the other two original volumes. As one example, his treatment of the difficult communicatio idiomatum is exceptional.

  16. June 11, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    I picked up Horton’s ST as soon as it was released. I found his discussion of eschatological systems pretty even-handed. As I continue to consult it, I hope to find it as good as Horton’s previous works.

    I have to admit that John Brown of Haddington’s ST is one of my go-to favorites, with Berkhof and Charles Hodge as close follow-ups. I use Reymond’s to good effect, though certainly disagree at some points. Like most, I have a bunch of STs that I consult as needed, and value the different points of view within the orthodox Reformed tradition.

  17. June 13, 2011 at 1:46 am

    I’m not sure if someone mentioned Berkouwer’s staggering Studies in Dogmatics. For a Reformed confessionalist, it is simply unsurpassed.

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