What do Christians believe? And what role, if any, do the teachings of Christianity play in helping believers live out their faith?
It is precisely these kinds of question which Michael Horton attempts to answer is his systematic theology, The Christian Faith. In his book, Horton attempts to teach through all the major teachings of Christianity. He wrote this book out of the Reformed Tradition, which emphasizes covenant theology. Being a seminary professor at Westminster Seminary California, Horton has the pedigree and experience to write such a book.
Hortons emphasizes the Christian Scriptures as “drama.” He understands the importance of story for shaping people into who they become. In fact, he sets up his understanding of the Christian life as drama, doctrine, doxology and discipleship (13). Horton wants us to pay special attention to the story of Scripture (drama). The story of Scriptures helps us to formulate the teaching of Scripture (doctrine). Reflecting on what Scripture teaches should lead us praising God (doxology). Worship then sets the agenda for how we live in the world as Christians (discipleship). So his emphasis on the story and shape of Scripture fills an often missing piece in many systematic theologies.
Horton also makes some helpful correctives to the “missional church movement.” He argues that the church is not merely on a mission. Before anything else, the church is a people. Before the church can give, she must gather to receive grace through the preached Word and the sacraments, “If the church is not first of all the place where Christians are made, then it cannot be a community of witnesses and servants” (898).
Throughout the book, Horton emphasizes the “ordinary” means of grace: preaching the Word and the administration of the sacraments. In one of the most helpful places in the book, Horton unpacks a theology of preaching which understands God’s Word as being “sacramental.” Through the preaching of the Word, Christians actually receive grace: “Though seemingly powerless and ineffective, the creaturely mediation of [God’s] Word through faltering human lips is the most powerful thing on earth” (761).
Horton wraps up his introduction with a plea to go “back to the sources!” meaning the Greek and Hebrew text of the Bible (30-31). Ironically, although Horton is clear that Scripture should set the agenda for a systematic theology, he thens spends the next eighty pages evaluating various philosophical systems without referring to much Scripture (pages 35-112)!
Horton’s theology suffers from being a “tweener”: it’s reading level sits “in-between” a highly academic level and a popular level work. Because the breath of systematic theology is so vast, he’s never really able to dig down into one topic long enough to answer all of the questions on the issue. On the other hand, he references way too many academics and philosophers to be useful for the average congregant. I’m not sure how many people need to know about the Heglian dialectic!
It is true that Horton writes out of the Reformed tradition and is very clear on that. Unfortunately, he never takes the time to defend his interpretation of covenant theology. He regularly assumes his theological system, which colors his conclusions at times. For example, he assumes the church in the new covenant age is a “mixed” body, filled with believers and unbelievers.
For example, Horton believes that God calls out a “remnant” from within the visible church to be saved: “The doctrine of election is meant to ensure that in spite of the failures of the visible church, God will preserve a remnant” (853). In other words, the covenant community of the church is filled with believers and unbelievers (children of believers and those who make false professions of faith). Horton then goes on quote from Revelation 5:9. But the context of Revelation 5:9 that God calls out people from the world, not the visible church, to be saved.
Having the covenant community be “mixed” is so vital for Horton because it legitimizes his whole doctrine of the church. It is also used to uphold infant baptism (796). Sometimes, Horton sees the visible church relating to the invisible church in terms of type-antitype relationship (852). At other place, he see the visible church relating to the kingdom in the same way. What is unclear is whether Horton sees the invisible church and the kingdom as equivalent.
Like most systematic theologies, Horton’s is helpful in places and not helpful in others. However, the quality of the writing, the “tweener” nature of the reading level, and some repetitiveness undercuts the usefulness of Horton’s book. This is a book not worth buying or borrowing. I would bypass it.