Michael Horton is, arguably, the preeminent Reformed Theologian of our day. In addition to authoring more than 15 books, Horton is the editor-in-chief at Modern Reformation magazine host of the nationally syndicated radio program the White Horse Inn, and is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California.
In part 1 of our interview (read part 2), Horton answers 13 questions on topics ranging from his book The Christian Faith ($29.99) to Enlightenment epistemology. Part 2 of our interview will be posted Monday (1/31) wherein Horton will address Karl Barth, N.T. Wright, and other topics.
Lastly, time is running out to enter for a chance to win a free copy of The Christian Faith! Contest ends Monday!
Matthew: What was the impetus for this new systematic theology?
Horton: I have the benefit of growing in my faith because of the labors of so many contemporary books that explore the riches of God’s Word. Standing on their shoulders, I’ve wanted to write a new systematic theology for a long time now. There are some good ones out there, but I wanted to integrate biblical and systematic theology with a concern for discipleship in our contemporary cultural context, engaging with thinkers from other traditions and even non-Christian writers.
Matthew: Who is the primary audience?
Horton: The primary audience is the student of God’s Word. That doesn’t mean merely students enrolled in theology courses, but anyone who wants to dig into the rationale for the Christian faith and its inner connections.
Matthew: Your work is, in many respects, quite technical. How can the non-specialist use it profitably? And Pastors?
Horton: Definitely. My goal was to make it accessible. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy read (after all, there are 1,000 pages, so at least it requires stamina), but at least it’s my hope that motivation, not technical expertise, is all that’s necessary. I try to define terms and explain their history, rather than expecting a lot of familiarity with the subjects on the part of readers.
Matthew: The Christian Faith includes study questions at the end of each chapter, why were these included and who will benefit most from them?
Horton: Theology is not only done for the church, but at its best it is done in the church. My hope is that it will not only be used as a textbook in classes, but also in group studies within churches. The questions aren’t selected with a view merely to recalling my conclusions, but as a springboard for guided discussion of the relevant scriptural passages by others.
Matthew: If there was one thing you could say to pastors about the need for good theology, what would it be?
Horton: We’re soul doctors. Not only do medical doctors dedicate years to formal instruction, they are regularly engaged in seminars, conferences, and training programs for continuing education. We all want doctors who not only have good bedside manner and can manage a staff; we look for expertise in the healing field.
Similarly, bad theology can be deadly. According to the latest Pew study, evangelical Christians trailed atheists and Mormons in understanding basics of the Bible and Christian doctrine as well as other religions. Something is wrong, and part of that is the false choice that many assume when it comes to doctrine and life, creeds and deeds, knowing and doing.
If theology is “the study of God,” then there is nothing more important for us to explore, especially as pastors. One can’t have a personal relationship with someone apart from knowing what that person is like and we can’t be good spiritual healers unless we know how to diagnose and treat the illness.
Matthew: What will non-Reformed Christians find of value in this book? Will it be a good conversation partner?
Horton: One of my concerns is to encourage conversations between Reformed and non-Reformed theologies. Although I’m sure I have failed at points that reviewers will pick up on, I have at least tried to represent other views charitably and accurately. At the same time, I “show my work”: making the exegetical basis for my conclusions explicit as well as showing where they come from historically. So even though one might still disagree, at least one can see where Reformed theology lands on these major questions and how it arrives at those conclusions.
Matthew: Beginning in 2002 you published a series of books with WJK on four central theological topics including Eschatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Christology. How does The Christian Faith differ from these books? How can they be used in conjunction with one another?
Horton: Those books really helped me do a lot of the research that formed the background for writing this volume. They’re sort of in the “studies in dogmatics” genre, where you get to focus on doctrinal issues that you’re already interested in exploring. You can really drill down on some issues and ignore others. A systematic theology, I’ve learned, is pretty different. You can’t dwell on hobby-horses. You can’t think out-loud.
After all, you are trying to summarize “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints,” insofar as any of us can do that. And all of us who are called to the ministry as pastors and teachers are called to do that regularly.
I had great editors at Zondervan who made sure there was no repetition from these earlier works. So it really is a new book, including new research, from the ground up. These other books can still serve as “for further reading” resources on various topics and I footnote those spots along the way.
Matthew: Have any of the positions you articulated in the WJK series changed in The Christian Faith?
Horton: I wouldn’t say that any positions have changed, but I appreciated some of the critiques in reviews that helped me articulate some controversial views more clearly. For example, some of my appropriations of speech-act theory in relation to effectual calling and justification created confusion among some readers. Their feedback was helpful.
Again, you can “think out loud” in those other books, but in a systematic theology your job isn’t to be provocative, but to try as best as you can to be a steward of the mysteries of God to fellow believers.
Matthew: Narrative seems to be the guiding philosophical rubric under which you intend The Christian Faith to be received. Is this a conscious accommodation to the openness of narrative in the postmodern mind, or do you think the Gospel intrinsically forces us to articulate theology in this way?
Horton: The emphasis on theology arising out of a story, a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, is hardly a postmodern innovation. Unfortunately, there has been some polarization: a tendency either to reduce theology to propositions or to narratives. One of my central objectives is to show how this is a false choice.
The great doctrines of Scripture are propositional, but they arise out of a narrative: the great drama of redemption, and they lead to doxology and discipleship.
Matthew: In addition to “story” you also note that the story doesn’t matter much if it does not have genuine content; and in doing so you note the growing problem of theological illiteracy in the church. How do these points relate to one another?
Horton: The drama of Israel and the Messiah and his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return is indeed the greatest story ever told.
But we can’t postpone the further question: “Is it true? And is it true for me? What is its relevance for me and for the world?” That’s where the doctrine comes in: Jesus not only died and rose on the third day, but “was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.”
Matthew: In the introduction you state, “there are no uninterrupted facts” and “Since God is the author of reality, it is his interpretation that we must pursue.” How does this statement orient us towards a Christian narrative? How does this statement relate to the prevailing secularized narrative of modern Western Culture?
Horton: With ancient precedents, since the Enlightenment especially there’s been this quest for the pure method that will yield certain knowledge. The assumption is that you can investigate reality without any presuppositions about what is actually there to be known. Christian theology has always begun with reality (God and his interpretation of the world he has made) and then asked how we can know it. This leads us to the doctrine of revelation.
A naturalistic Westerner is just as committed to certain presuppositions as a Christian or an animist or anyone else. We aren’t autonomous (self-creating sources of our lives and meaning), so we need to approach the mysteries of God and the world with reverence and respect for our role as covenant servants rather than the Covenant Lord.
Matthew: Your systematic theology directly engages with and evaluates Enlightenment epistemology and its descendant known as Modern Theology. In your opinion, why do so many Evangelical theologians ignore the Enlightenment project when thinking about theology?
Horton: I think there’s a tendency sometimes to assume that theology flies above the radar, unaffected by the cultural contexts that affect it for good or for ill.
Ironically, some conservative evangelical approaches especially to questions of epistemology (how we know what we know) are as indebted to modern (Enlightenment) assumptions as some post-conservative evangelical approaches are indebted to “postmodernism” (however we define that). The main Enlightenment thinkers were reared in evangelical pietism. Many even began their studies preparing for the ministry. Then they embraced deistic or pantheistic views. In theological terms, they were Socinians: that is, a combination of Pelagian and Arian heresies (denying original sin and Christ’s divinity). So in many ways, the Enlightenment itself was a theological movement, a rebellion not against religion and morality (far from it), but against Christian orthodoxy.
Modern theologians like Schleiermacher are top-ranked figures in any modern philosophy textbook, and modern philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard had an enormous influence in modern theology. So there’s no way to talk about one without the other.
Matthew: Do theologians ignore the Enlightenment at their own peril?
Horton: Yes, I think so. In many ways, I believe, what is called “postmodernism” is really an extension—in some ways, a radicalization—of many modern tenets and impulses. If we lionize or demonize either modernity or postmodernity, we may miss the log in our own eye. Taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ requires that we constantly review our own assumptions to understand how we are shaped by the spirit of our age.