Over the past several years, Michael Horton has given us detailed examinations of important Christian doctrines such as ecclesiology, eschatology, Christology, and soteriology. Now Horton has given us a systematic summary of, as his title explains, The Christian Faith (Zondervan, 2011). I discussed this landmark work with Horton, who explained what sets his book apart and what he wished he could have developed further.
If you go into any major evangelical seminary, you’ll find two or three commonly assigned systematic theologies published in the last 20 years (Wayne Grudem’s, Millard Erickson’s, or Robert Reymond’s). What’s distinctive about your new systematic theology, The Christian Faith?
God’s people have profited tremendously from these contemporary systems. I wanted to offer a summary of the Christian faith from a confessional Reformed perspective, interacting with contemporary biblical scholarship and some of the more recent questions that have been raised both within and outside of the tradition. Robert Reymond’s fine work explores the richness of Reformed theology, though I have some differences that I mention, mostly in a footnote here or there. But, like Reymond, I wanted to show how Reformed teaching holds together, not just on some topics (like sin and grace), but as an attempt to articulate the broader system of faith and practice.
Some have compared your volume to Louis Berkoff’s Systematic Theology from 1932. Is that a fair comparison, at least in the pattern or design, of your project?
I didn’t come up with that comparison! I’ve used Berkhof for years and intend to continue to do so. It’s a marvelous compendium of doctrine. But basically, it’s a synopsis of Bavinck’s magisterial (and lengthy!) dogmatics. I wanted to spend more time fleshing out each topic by integrating biblical theology with historical and systematic theology. So each major topic begins with a development of the theme from promise to fulfillment. In addition, I try to show the significance of each doctrine for life and engage with contemporary writers outside the tradition—even non-Christians. My basic approach is this: Theology arises first of all out of the drama of redemption, from which certain doctrines emerge that generate doxology and shape our discipleship in the world. That’s the rubric I have in mind in each chapter: Drama, Doctrine, Doxology, and Discipleship.
Are there shortcomings in contemporary theological studies that you hope The Christian Faith begins to remedy?
A lot of Christians today are put off by “systematic theology.” They may not see how it relates to the Bible (even biblical scholars are understandably suspicious of theologians!). Others may not see how it relates to Christian living or God’s vision for the church’s activity in the world. My goal throughout this volume is to persuade fellow believers that sound theology arises out of the Scriptures, to the practical end of reconciling sinners to God in Christ, so that we worship the Triune God and love and serve our neighbors in the world. Theology fuels mission. And I believe that Reformed theology—not just the “five points,” but its broader confession—is the richest, deepest, and most faithful account of the whole teaching of Scripture. Of course, that case has to be made and not just asserted; hence, the size of the book!
In his recent Doctrine of the Word of God, John Frame writes, “If God were to send a real reformation today, what would be its target? What would be its chief doctrinal concern? My answer: the necessity of Scripture as God’s personal word.” Do you agree?
Definitely. We’re trying out a lot of different sources for faith and life today, from how to be saved to how to plant churches. My sense is that many of us are losing our confidence in the power of God’s Word to create the world of which it speaks. So yes, I agree wholeheartedly that we need a renewed conviction of God’s personal address in command and promise. I would only add, with Abraham Kuyper, that our confidence in Scripture rises and falls with our confidence in the gospel. We can be distracted by all sorts of good and worthy enterprises, but the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” The Spirit gives us faith, uniting us to Christ, through that word of redemption in Christ. Of course, Scripture also exhorts, commands, reproves, and directs. However, until we are convinced that God is actually addressing us here and now through his Word, convicting us along with the world of sin and forgiving and renewing us in his Son, the Bible will remain a closed and irrelevant book. Any genuine reformation has to start with the gospel; from there we come to know that the one who addresses us in Scripture as Lord is also our Redeemer.
As you look at theological developments today, what challenges should young scholars, pastors, and leaders be spending energy on for the next 20 years or so?
We Americans are activists, and that’s definitely true of evangelicals. That’s been part of the movement’s strength. But can also become a weakness. Like Martha, we can be “troubled by many things,” rather than choosing “the better part” with Mary, sitting at our Lord’s feet as disciples. There is a lot of work to be done in recovering sound doctrine and exegesis, but Christianity is not just a list of truths; it is a church. It’s possible to have been raised in the church today without ever having really belonged to the church. One can go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group to college ministry without ever having been baptized, catechized, and making a public profession of faith for membership in a local body. To be a disciple is to become an apprentice of our Lord through the ministry that he established in the Great Commission. It’s not just about “getting saved,” but “growing up into Christ” in his body. So we need to do theology not only for the church but in the church, and we need to think through more concretely what that looks like in an age of “mission creep.”
Systematic theologies are always, by nature, in summary form. But was there an area in your text that you wished you could have developed further?
That’s part of the torture of writing one of these things. In my four-volume dogmatics series with Westminster John Knox I could wander into themes that interested me already. But that’s also why I learned a lot from having to focus also on many important topics that I had not treated. My Zondervan editors were terrific—and persistent—in keeping to my word limit, so I had to curb my enthusiasm and make sure I treated the whole breadth of Christian doctrine. If I had more space, though, I would have added a fuller exploration of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Classic Reformed treatments (think of Calvin’s Institutes, for example) included these sections, but there’s been a tendency in modern systems to divide the labor between systematic theology and ethics. I think that can contribute to the pulling apart of the fabric of faith and practice, dividing the spoils between theologians and ethicists. Although I endeavor to integrate these throughout the book, having a distinct section on the Decalogue would have been useful, I think.