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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Interview with Michael Horton

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Michael Horton’s new systematic theology The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way has just been released. John Starke has a good interview with him over at the Gospel Coalition. Horton was gracious to give us a few moments for one of our own.

9Marks: What were you trying to accomplish with your systematic that other recent conservative systematics (Grudem, Erickson, Reymond, etc.) have not done? What sets it apart?

Michael Horton: These other summaries of the Faith have brought great clarity and blessing to God’s people.  However, like Robert Reymond, I was interested in writing a system from a confessional Reformed perspective.  I also wanted to integrate biblical theology with systematic and historical approaches and interact with other Christian traditions as well as contemporary voices, including non-Christians thought.  The rubric I follow is “Drama,” “Doctrine,” “Doxology,” and Discipleship.”  Our doctrine arises out of the drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  The doctrine is internalized through praise and is then worked out in our lives as we love and serve our neighbors.  I try to keep my eye on all four of those coordinates in each topic.

9M: What's one or two things one of these systematic do better than your new theology?

Horton: Wayne Grudem wrote his systematic theology for his parents, and one of the reasons for its wide impact is its accessibility.  I hope mine is accessible, too, but that’s a real achievement of Grudem’s work. 

9M: You've written quite a few books. What's an example of something you say in this new theology that you've never written anywhere else?

Horton: I have an extensive treatment of the Trinity in this book.  I hope that everything I’ve written has been explicitly Trinitarian!  However, here I get into the biblical-theological development, the historical formulations and debates (ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary), and explore the radical implications of Trinitarian doctrine for all of our faith and practice.  Then I read back this treatment of the Trinity into the doctrines that come before it and everything else after it.  It’s really amazing to see how relevant this doctrine is for the whole sweep of doctrine and life.  I should add that, with my editors’ help, I scrupulously avoided simply repeating things I’ve said in other books, especially my 4-volume studies in dogmatics. 

9M: What's something you wrote in this volume that might prove provocative or controversial (among whomever)?

Horton: I hope there’s a lot that is controversial!  Theology should provoke questions, discussion, and even debate, so that we return to Scripture together with eagerness and confidence in its authority.  I’m not trying to write a conservative evangelical theology, but a confessional Reformed summary, so no doubt there will be disagreement on covenant theology, the church and sacraments, and eschatology.  Yet I try to engage other views charitably and I hope it can serve as a springboard for discussion in our circles over issues that are subordinate to the gospel but nevertheless important.

9M: If you had to pick, which one or two theologians have the most influence on this volume...

a) …from among the church fathers?

Horton: Irenaeus, the Cappadocians (Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil), Athanasius, Hilary, Augustine

b) …from the middle ages?

Horton: Bernard, Aquinas, Bradwardine

c) …from the sixteenth century?

Horton: Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Vermigli, Musculus, Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Rollock

d) …from the seventeenth century?

Horton: Francis Turretin, Peter Van Mastricht, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin

e) …from the eighteenth century?

Horton: Hmmmm.  Tough century.  Jonathan Edwards, with a view quibbles.

f) …from the nineteenth century?

Horton: Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos

g) …from the twentieth century?

Horton: J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, James Boice, G. C. Berkouwer

h) ...from something published in the last ten years?

Horton: Wow, there are many I could mention—a lot of good work has been done in recent years.  Readers may be surprised how much use I make of N. T. Wright, in spite of my disagreements with his treatment of justification and Paul. 

9M: Writing theology, in my experience, is part constructive biblical work and part theological critique of the wrong ideas of others. As you were writing this volume, what was one the bigger challenges to orthodox theology in our churches of which you were consciously mindful...

a) …from secular culture?

Horton: I think that there’s a tendency in evangelical circles either to lionize or demonize “postmodernism” as if it (any more than modernity) were a monolithic movement.  Postmodernism is reacting against genuine problems in modernity, but with no transcendent source either for its critique or for constructive solutions.  I argue that the modern self is a “master,” demanding autonomy, dominance, and control, while the postmodern self is more like a “tourist.”  If the modern person not only has a destination but imagines that he or she has already arrived, the postmodern person is more likely to drift from booth to booth at Vanity Fair without any real goal or destination: from nowhere to nowhere, but making things interesting in between.  In contrast to both, the believer is a pilgrim: a clear destination, but we haven’t arrived.   This context is very much in mind in the book, especially in the first section.

b) …from within the evangelical tradition?

Horton: Evangelicals have been at the forefront of New Testament studies, but rarely engaged systematic and historical theology.  At least conservative evangelicals would turn to Reformed systems, like Hodge or Berkhof, so we rested on those laurels.  But now evangelicals are writing academic theology, engaging important doctrines at a pretty sophisticated level.  The only problem is that many of these are critical of classic evangelical (and certainly Reformed) distinctives.  This was a major concern in writing this volume.  I engage contemporary evangelical criticisms of classic doctrines from Scripture to eschatology.

c) …from some Christian tradition outside of the evangelical tradition (whether Roman Catholic, mainline, etc.)?

Horton: Many thoughtful evangelicals are attracted today to various mainline Protestant trends (Barth, post-liberalism of various sorts, theologies of liberation and ecology, and there’s even a Schleiermacher revival).  Others are attracted to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  For a number of years now, I’ve tried to understand why so many of my friends don’t find Reformed orthodoxy compelling or even interesting enough to investigate.  I think we often underestimate the power of alternative systems, easily dismissing them.  One of the great things about the era of Protestant orthodoxy was that it knew and interacted quite deeply with contemporary scholarship, as well as with the great systems of the East and Roman Catholicism.  They didn’t reject everything, but tried to incorporate the best of the pre-Reformation church with post-Reformation insights.  So my goal is not simply to react against other traditions, but to evaluate them.

7) If a busy pastor could only read one chapter, which should he read and why?

Horton: Hmmm.  Maybe the introductory chapter, because it makes a case for reading the whole thing!  That’s part of my rationale, actually.  Scripture isn’t just an encyclopedia of important doctrines that we can dip into, taking something here and there; it’s an integral whole.  It’s drama takes us from creation to consummation.  It’s doctrine offers sweeping vistas of the relevance of these events for our salvation and witness, provoking true worship and faithful living.  I believe that Scripture actually does have a coherent “system” of faith and practice and that it’s important for us to spend our lives searching out the breadth and depth of all that it has to say to us—and to the world to which God sends us.

8) If a busy layperson could only read one chapter, which should he or she read and why?

Horton: Same here.  Obviously, the chapters that relate most directly to the gospel are crucial.  That’s the section, “God Who Saves.”  Yet, again, I’d say that it’s important to work through what comes before and after it: Who is the God who saves?  And what does he save us for?

Thanks, Michael. We pray the book blesses many with a deeper knowledge of God and themselves, as well as the ability to be fruitful in our churches.

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Great interview! Those questions helped to distinguish this book from others like it: helpful. Thank you both for your service to the church.

I think you should have quizzed Dr. Horton about why no professor there at Westminster can go out to one of the orange trees on their grounds, and teach a practical theology of creation from the believers position of becoming more and more fruitful in the world! Now that is real theology Reformed seminaries need to do!

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