Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Second Sunday in Lent.

The Collect

ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect from the First Day of Lent is to be read every day in Lent after the Collect appointed for the Day.

Daily Bible Verse

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Critical Review of The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, Part One

Part One:  A Critical Review of The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way

Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). 1,051 pages.

[See Part Two].

I have decided to do my review of Mike Horton's book in a series of articles. The reason for this is that I have fresh ideas about what I am reading as I read through the book from beginning to end. My first comments will deal with the introduction, The Dogma Is the Drama: A Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Afterwards, I want to speak to several issues that Horton raises in Part 1: Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology. Section 1, Dissonant Dramas: Paradigms for Knowing God and the World.

The first thing the reader will note is that, unlike most systematic theologies written from a Reformed perspective, Horton does not begin with Scripture or the doctrine of Scripture as the primary means of God's special revelation to man. I am not sure what his reasoning for this approach might have been, so I will not speculate.

In his introduction, Horton defends the study of God as theology and doctrine or teaching. On the positive side, Horton emphasizes the need for a systematic exposition of Scripture and for dogma:

For many Christians, words such as doctrine and theology—and especially systematic theology—conjure up images of intellectual pride, divisiveness, and the presumption that we can put God in a box, neatly explained by our categories and formulations. Of course, we are nearly infinitely resourceful in using good things with corrupt motives and for less than noble ends. We can exhibit spiritual pride also in our experience or morality. However, it is the goal of good theology to humble us before the triune God of majesty and grace. (p. 13).

Admirably, Horton goes on to emphasize that knowing God in a personal relationship is informed by doctrine and theology. He wants us to understand that living the Christian life and “knowing doctrine” are not diametrically opposed but complementary sides of the same coin. (Pp. 13-14).

Beginning with page 14, however, I had a few alarm bells go off because Horton starts to discuss the Bible as if all that matters is the “drama” or the “story” told there. For Horton, it seems that the very words of God in verbal plenary inspiration are an afterthought to the big picture. Unfortunately, Horton's Van Tilian biases seem to have predisposed him to thinking that revelation takes place solely in history and not in the propositional truths revealed through Holy Scripture, the inspired Word of God. Although Horton wants to refute the liberal theologians and their appeal to Scripture as myth, he himself winds up trying to have it both ways:

Modern secularists often imagine that their most deeply held beliefs are not really beliefs at all, but more like a simple acknowledgment of facts. They suppose that they are not personally involved, and certainly they have no sense of these “facts” being interpreted through a wider set of assumptions (i. e., narrative). In fact, “telling a story” is often classified with myths and fairy tales. Although the cure can be worse than the disease if taken in excessive doses, postmodern criticism of the “myth of neutrality” or “the view from nowhere” offers a powerful antidote to the hubris of modern reason. (P. 14).

This will become a continual problem with reading Horton's book. In too many places he agrees with either postmodernist theories of truth or with neo-orthodox theories of revelation. For example, he ends up agreeing with C. S. Lewis, the infamous Anglo-Catholic, when Lewis claims that myth and fact are not necessarily opposed to one another:

We do not have to say that Christianity is a metanarrative to affirm that it is true. C. S. Lewis pointed out that Christianity is the true myth—the myth that actually became fact. “It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth.” In other words, it is still a story, even though it is true. Not even the resurrection is a metanarrative; its meaning cannot just be read off of the surface of historical events but is defined by its intratextual context as part of an unfolding plot. (P. 18).

The implications of these sorts of ideas are devastating to conservative Christianity and confessional orthodoxy. For Horton it seems that myth and revelation are one and the same thing, although he cautiously admits that the myth is based on facts. For Horton history is revelational and Scripture as the basis for that historical revelation seems to be an afterthought, not the main focus or main thrust of his thesis. How Horton's view differs in any practical way from neo-orthodoxy I can only speculate upon. For neo-orthodoxy historical revelation is indeed impossible but Barth's theology of Geschichte or inspired history outside of time is not a far step away from Horton's view that “Christianity is the true myth—the myth that actually became fact." (Ibid.). Horton further cites Geerhardus Vos in support of his emphasis on story rather than verbal plenary revelation in the inspired Bible:

The Christian faith is, first and foremost, an unfolding drama. Geerhardus Vos observed, “The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book of dramatic interest.” The story that runs from Genesis to Revelation, centering on Christ, not only richly informs the mind; it captivates the heart and the imagination, animating and motivating our action in the world. (P. 19).

While it is true that Scripture is not always speaking in terms of dogmatic doctrine, it is a stretch to appeal only to the historical narratives as if that is the only genre included in the canon of Scripture. The Bible obviously does include extended dogmatic teaching, particularly in the pauline epistles and in the four accounts of the Gospel. The Bible is not simply historical events recorded in the interest of an inspiring and dramatic “story”. Nor is the Bible meant only to stir us emotionally, although it can and does do this at times. The Bible is not simply a written version of a Hollywood movie on the exodus from Egypt. The Bible contains extended teaching in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In fact, the word “Torah” means “teaching”. The “teaching” of Moses is a crucial part of the Old Testament. Although I understand that Horton is trying to make his systematic theology new and refreshing to a new, postmodern generation, it seems to me that he ends up conceding too much to neo-orthodoxy and postmodernism. He even speaks in glowing admiration of Karl Barth—as if Barth were a true teacher of the Gospel rather than a heretic who denied the authority of Scripture, revelation in the very words of Scripture or any idea of objective historical events recorded therein:

Although he often stood in a critical relation to Reformed orthodoxy, Karl Barth expressed his debt to these theologians for introducing him to the richness and depth of the church's dogmatic reflection—in sharp contrast with Friedrich Schleiermacher and liberal theology. As Barth began to prepare his Gottingen lectures, he expressed wonder at how his training could have skipped over the rich heritage of Protestant orthodoxy. (P. 31).

One has to wonder how Barth was a positive voice for orthodoxy when both Cornelius Van Til and Gordon H. Clark sharply criticized Barth's existential theology. Although Van Til's critique is at best weak, even Van Til strongly objected to Barth's attack on Reformed orthodoxy:

Only if we start with Luther and Calvin and their idea of God’s speaking directly in Christ and Scripture, do we have a Christ who chooses us before we choose him. (Van Til, C. (1962). Christianity and Barthianism. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia.)

Unfortunately, Horton capitulates more to postmodernist ideas and neo-orthodoxy than Van Til himself did. But part of Horton's problem is that he rejects the Bible as propositional truth. He out and out attacks Carl F. H. Henry's view of Scripture as the verbally inspired Word of God in the form of logical and propositional truth claims. And even worse, Horton says that Gordon H. Clark's view of Scripture as the univocal Word of God is rationalist and confuses Scripture with God's being, something that Gordon H. Clark would have strongly disputed. These sorts of straw man misrepresentations of the Scripturalist position as a confusion of God's being with His revelation is not only wrong, it is for all practical purposes dishonest:

Like Scotus, however, many modern theologians (both conservative and liberal) have regarded the doctrine of analogy as a halfway house on the way to skeptical equivocity. If we cannot be sure that our predictions correspond exactly to the inner being of God, then how can we claim true knowledge? This charge has been leveled in recent decades, for example, by writers as diverse as liberal theologians Langdon Gilkey and conservative evangelical Carl F. H. Henry. According to Gordon Clark (Henry's mentor), truth is only given in the form of propositional statements and if our knowledge is only analogical of God's, we have no foundation for certainty. (P. 56).

Unfortunately, Horton does not seem to be aware of Clark's actual position or Carl F. H. Henry's true position since neither of these men would dare to say that we can know God's being univocally. God's being, according to both Clark and Henry, is incomprehensible. There is no dispute whatsoever here. In fact, Gordon H. Clark's defenders and he wrote a response to the false accusations of rationalism on the part of Cornelius Van Til and his supporters when Clark was charged formally with rationalism and other departures from the Westminster Confession during the Clark/Van Til controversy in 1944. At that time Clark was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. (To read the charges click here: The Text of a Complaint. To read Clark's response click here: The Answer). What was at issue in the dispute between Van Til and Clark was the nature of God's special revelation in Holy Scripture. Is Scripture univocally the very words of God, the inspired and plenary verbal Word of God? Or is Scripture only an analogy of God's Word? Clark's critique of Van Til's position was so devastating that the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church overwhelmingly confirmed Clark's ordination and dismissed all charges. Not only was Clark's position not rationalist but Clark's view also did not violate the Creator/creature distinction as Van Til and his followers had falsely charged. Anyone willing to read Clark's response in the section, On Incomprehensibility, can see that Clark is not saying that we can know God's being in any way whatsoever. What Clark does says is that we can know what God has revealed in Scripture on that one single point of convergence. Unfortunately, the false accusations of Van Til have been perpetuated down to the present day and Horton's straw man caricature of Carl Henry's position and Gordon Clark's position is inexcusable, frankly. Clark goes to great lengths to show that Van Til's accusations were wrong. For example, The Answer says:

The view of the Complaint is that “God because of his very nature must remain incomprehensible to man” (P. 2, 3: O. 8); it is “not the doctrine that God can be known only if he makes himself known and in so far as he makes himself known” (ibid.). Moreover all knowledge which man can attain differs from the knowledge of God “in a qualitative sense and not merely in degree” (P. 4, 2; O. 15). Thus God's knowledge and man's knowledge do not “coincide at any single point” (P. 5, 3; O. 21). A proposition does not “have the same meaning for man as for God” (P. 5, 2; O. 20). Man's knowledge is “analogical to the knowledge God possesses, but it can never be identified with the knowledge” which God “possesses of the same proposition” (P. 5, 3; O. 21). “The divine knowledge as divine transcends human knowledge as human, even when that human knowledge is a knowledge communicated by God” (P. 3, 1; O. 9). “Because of his very nature as infinite and absolute the knowledge which God posseses of himself and of all things must remain a mystery which the finite mind of man cannot penetrate” (ibid.). This latter statement does not mean merely that man cannot penetrate this mystery unaided by revelation; it means that even revelation by God could not make man understand the mystery, for the preceding sentences assert that it is the nature of God that renders him incomprehensible, not the lack of a revelation about it. As the analysis proceeds, these quotations with the argument from which they are taken will be seen to imply two chief points. First, there is some truth that God cannot put into propositional form; this portion of truth cannot be expressed conceptually. Second, the portion of truth that God can express in propositional form never has the same meaning for man as it has for God. Every proposition that man knows has a qualitatively different meaning for God. Man can grasp only an analogy of the truth, which, because it is an analogy, is not the truth itself.

On the other hand Dr. Clark contends that the doctrine of the incomprehensibilty of God as set forth in Scripture and in the Confession of Faith includes the following points: 1. The essence of God's being is incomprehensible to man except as God reveals truths concerning his own nature; 2. The manner of God's knowing an eternal intuition, is impossible for man; 3. Man can never know exhaustively and completely God's knowledge of any truth in all its relationships and implications; because every truth has an infinite number of relationships and implications and since each of these implications in turn has other infinite implications, these must ever, even in heaven, remain inexhaustible for man; 4. But, Dr. Clark maintains, the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God does not mean that a proposition, e. g., two times two are four, has one meaning for man and a qualitatively different meaning for God, or that some truth is conceptual and other truth is non-conceptual in nature.

Here is the crux of the issue. By insisting that God's knowledge is qualitatively different from that of man and that “his knowledge and our knowledge” do not “coincide at any single point,” the Complaint is advancing a theory of a two-fold truth; while Dr. Clark holds that the nature of truth is one, that if man knows any item of truth, both God and man know that same identical item, and that on this item God's knowledge and man's knowledge coincide. According to the Complaint man can never know even one item of truth God knows; man can know only an “analogical” truth, and this analogical truth is not the same truth that God knows, for the truth that God knows is “qualitatively” different, and God cannot reveal it to man because man is a creature. To repeat: the truth that God knows and the truth that man knows are never the same truth, for they do not “coincide at any single point.” God's knowledge therefore would be incomprehensible to man for the specific reason that God could not reveal any particular fact about it without destroying the “Creator-creature relationship.” Dr. Clark holds that God can reveal any item of knowledge in propositional form without destroying the Creator-creature relationship, and that such a revealed proposition has the same meaning for God and for man when, as is sometimes the case, man understands it. (From: On Incomprehensibility).

Horton wishes to disguise his departure from traditional and orthodox confessional Reformed theology by placing his attack on the univocal nature of God's special revelation in Holy Scripture in a section on the philosophical worldview of Christianity, along with his Van Tilian presuppositions--which presuppositions are not straightforwardly admitted but instead are only obliquely referenced. (Pp. 56-57). As you can see from the above quote, Clark's position is not that we can know everything about God but that we can know what God reveals in the plenary verbal form of written Scriptures. The axiom that Clark developed is that the Bible is the Word of God, without equivocation. Horton, like most neo-Van Tilians, wishes to equivocate and vacillate back and forth between lip service to inerrancy and verbal inspiration and his essentially new version of neo-orthodoxy that emphasizes the “story” of Scripture and that Scripture is basically historical events that are inspired myths, though he concedes these “myths” are factual. (P. 18). For Horton, it is not the words of Scripture that are determinative of doctrine but the big story and the historical events:

The great doctrines of the Christian faith arise out of this dramatic plot. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). Where the world's religions focus on timelessly eternal truths, the most important teaching of Christianity concern historical events. There was once a time when the Son was not incarnate and had not yet won our redemption at Golgotha. Yet we live on this side of that divine achievement. (P. 20).

Horton's disdain with the idea that doctrine can be logical and propositional seethes from almost every page of the introduction and the section on knowing God:

Separated from its dramatic narrative, doctrine becomes abstract, like mathematical axioms. However, if we focus on the Christian story (the tendency of some narrative theologies), we miss the crucial implications of that plot and the inner connections between its various sequences. (P. 21).

In short, the “grammar” of Christianity for Horton is not propositional truth and understanding doctrine logically and rationally. For Horton doctrine is about events, stories, inspired and factual myths, and analogical truths that may or may not be what God knows and reveals at all. This sounds more like neo-orthodoxy than confessional Reformed theology.

Unfortunately, the Westminster Confession refutes Horton's postmodernist point of view:

6. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.6).

More critical examination of Horton's systematic theology will follow soon. Stay tuned.



Addendum:  One has to wonder why Horton winds up sounding more like an agnostic at some points instead of a conservative theologian?  If our knowledge of what God communicates does not coincide at any single point, then how do we know that the cross satisfies for all the sins of the elect?  Maybe there's something God knows that we do not know when God communicates that doctrine to us in the inspired and written Scriptures? 

Also, if according to Horton, all of Scripture is like the metaphors he mentions, then what Horton is really saying is that Scripture is indeed just a huge metaphor.  This is particularly true when Horton attacks the doctrine of Scripture as propositional truth:

. . . For a certain proposition to be true, according to this perspective, it must mean exactly the same thing for God as it does for us.  
Especially as refined by Protestant scholasticism, however, the doctrine of analogy affirms that finite and creaturely knowledge is nevertheless true knowledge because it has its ultimate source in God even though it is not identical with God's knowledge.  (P. 57).
Like other Van Tilians, Horton confuses the doctrine of incomprehensibility, which no Clarkian denies, with the doctrine of special revelation.  For example, when we say that Jesus died on the cross, that truth is precisely the same truth both for us and for God.  Of course, God knows more than we do about His covenant of redemption and His eternal decrees.  But on that one point of doctrine--which by the way is not a myth but an historical fact recorded in the infallible and inerrant and inspired Word of God--what we know and what God knows does coincide exactly.  2 + 2 = 4 for both God and for us, although God's knowledge of mathematics surely exceeds ours.  If there is no single point of convergence between our knowledge and God's knowledge even in special revelation, then for all practical purposes your theology of analogy is to make Scripture merely a metaphor for truth, not doctrinal truth itself.

For Horton, it is impossible for us to know absolute truth in any respect whatsoever.  Only God knows absolute truth:
Creatures can obtain finite knowledge (dependent truth) because God possesses infinite knowledge (absolute Truth).  Therefore, against certain forms of postmodern theory, Christian theology affirms that there is a God's-eye perspective from which genuine truth can be communicated, but, against the tendency of modern thought, it denies that anyone but God occupies this privileged perch.  We must be satisfied with God's Word and leave God's sovereign knowledge to himself.  (P. 57).
Horton is not being honest here.  His view of Scripture is that it is not the very words of God but merely an analogy of God's words.  What is worse, Horton's appeal to the Reformers as supporting his view is simply untrue.  Although the Reformers did affirm the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God and the Creator/creature distinction, they did not say that Scripture is not propositional truth or absolute truth nor did they say that Scripture does not converge with God's knowledge at any one single point of reference.  That is Horton reading his Van Tilian presuppositions into the Reformers and into Scripture itself.

Perhaps Horton is unaware of the implications of his position.  But nevertheless endorsing Van Til's theory of analogy and reading postmodernist views into 16th and 17th century Reformed scholasticism and their understanding of the archetypal/ectypal distinction is disingenuous.  For Horton Scripture and truth must in the end be merely relative.  Unknowingly, Horton winds up agreeing with Immanuel Kant that revelation is impossible because God is absolute and we are finite.  All that matters is theology from below.  Special revelation is finite and therefore cannot univocally be propositional truth or absolute truth, even in any single point of convergence.  Maybe Jesus did not really die only for the elect?  Maybe that truth is optional?  Maybe that is why Horton can fellowship with semi-pelagian Arminians without batting an eye?

Addendum Two:

David Broughton Knox:

Denial of 'propositional revelation' makes Christian faith logically impossible in its fullest and deepest expression of trust, for it is impossible to trust absolutely unless we have a sure Word of God. Such denial restricts Christianity to a religion of works, that is, to following Jesus Christ as best we can. Moreover, denial of propositional revelation makes the lordship of Christ impossible of actual realization, for it is only by the sceptre of His Word that he can exercise that absolute lordship over men's consciences and wills which is His by right. For it is wrong to give absolute obedience to an uncertain command or to place absolute trust on an uncertain promise. Indeed, obedience to God as an element in the Christian life implies a command from God to obey. If there is no such revealed command (which is apprehended as a proposition) obedience gives place to prudence, that is, to the doing of what seems right in one's own eyes.  From:  The Nature of Revelation



Jack Miller said...


As I commented earlier, I haven't yet read Horton's systematic. That said, I think the definitive critical conclusions you draw from his work are not reflective of Horton's theology. There are any number of things he has written that would affirm just the opposite of your conclusions. But since I haven't read the work I won't interact with your specifics.

The little I have gleaned from the book (my wife is reading it) I think you are missing his points. For instance, the idea of drama and story is very much in line with Calvin's insistence and emphasis that the "message" of Scripture must be communicated, not just truths (see Calvin's Preaching by T.H.L. Parker). Likewise, J.Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism defines the Christian gospel as a message of a story about a real historical event (Jesus' death and resurrection) and the meaning of that event. The meaning is doctrine. The historical story, the doctrine, and the Scripture are inseparable.


Charlie J. Ray said...

Jack, with all due respect, Van Til's theology is not the test of Reformed orthodoxy. Unfortunately, Westminster Seminary, California has attempted to say that it is.

I would suggest that you read the charges made against Gordon H. Clark by Van Til and then read Clark's answer--carefully. If the doctrine of incomprehensibility extends to special revelation, then it follows that neo-orthodoxy is true after all. The rationalist view of Thomas Aquinas' view of analogy leads naturally to the irrationalism and skepticism of Barth. Van Til's theory of revelation as "analogy" undermines both inerrancy and confidence in the doctrinal and propositional truth claims of the Bible. I noticed this about both Horton and Clark. Both essentially undermine any confidence that what we know from special revelation is univocally true. For them truth is bifurcated and the lower side is basically relative and not absolute. If that is so, then the door is wide open to liberalism. Westminster Seminary East is headed that way already and the West is not far behind.

Also, if you read D.B. Knox's article on propositional revelation, it is certain that events are meaningless without the propositional truths attached to the event by the inspired writings.


Charlie J. Ray said...

I should add that the Bible never speaks of "myth" in a positive way. Myths and fables are just that. Facts are facts and propositions are propositions. The proposition that myths can be true or factual is an oxymoron.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Jack a "message" that is illogical or irrational and nonsensical is not a message but some ineffable something or other with no definition. Scripture defines doctrine particularly, specifically, and rationally (Jude 1:3; Matthew 28:19; 2 Timothy 3:15, 16, 17; 2 Peter 1:19, 20, 21). The comment above refers to R. S. Clark, not Gordon Clark.

The Bible IS God's Word. It is univocally what God thinks and intends for us to understand on the human level and it is at the creaturely level that the point of convergence takes place. Obviously we do not know intuitively or directly the way God does. Gordon H. Clark never said otherwise as the The Answer: On Incomprehensibility clearly indicates.

Doctrine is propositional truth. If it is anything other than that I would like to know what it is? Historical events, as D.B. Knox said, are meaningless if not interpreted doctrinally and it is the propositional truths attached to those events by Scripture that give them meaning.


Charlie J. Ray said...

I should also note that R. Scott Clark rejects Machen's Christianity and Liberalism:

This intramural debate [i.e. 6/24 versus day/age] is not between two religions, as Machen had it so brilliantly in 1923, between Christianity and Liberalism, and not even between different hermeneutical principles, but rather it is a debate over the application of those principles and specific exegetical conclusions." (RRC, page 61).

Basically, for R. S. Clark, empirical science must be a part of how we exegete Scripture, which is basically placing general revelation on equal par with special revelation. Unfortunately, the philosophy of empirical science has devastated any idea that science is objective or that science leads to true knowledge or epistemological certainty. Gordon H. Clark has made this absolutely clear in his critique of science and empiricism in Christian Philosophy.

The fact of the matter is that R.S.Clark's contention that 6/24 is not the position of the Bible is merely a presupposition since the text flatly says "evening and morning" and "day". I don't reject the possibility of the day/age theory or the framework hypothesis. But to dogmatically assert that the 6/24 interpretation is flat wrong is to dogmatically assert what the text never says.


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