A Dallas Seminary Student’s Reaction to Horton’s Christian Faith

Over at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, one Nate Claiborne shares with Nick Norelli his initial reaction to Michael Horton’s Christian Faith:

We’re working through it right now in a systematic theology colloquium at Dallas Seminary and so far it hasn’t faired too well. Not necessarily because of theological disagreements but because Horton is very imprecise in his formulations and mishandles references in the footnotes and in his interactions in the text. And occasionally he says things that seem almost heretical, depending on how you take them. I’ve been working through it chapter by chapter, but you’re [Nick Norelli] more well read than I am it seems like, especially on the material that comes up in Horton’s chapters 6-8 and 13.  (bold added)

I’m reading through Horton’s Christian Faith, and while I’m not even that far into it, as Mr. Claiborne as his other classmates, so far, as my abilities would allow, I’ve not discovered any bordering on the heretical.

At any rate, here are the title of the chapters that Mr. Claiborne has in mind: (6) God: The Incommunicable Attributes (7) God: The Communicatable Attributes (8) The Holy Trintiy; and (13) The Fall of Humanity.

I wonder what Mr. Claiborne is referring to.  I wish he had given an example or two.  But all we have are these assertions.

Neither do I want to speculate…

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38 Responses to A Dallas Seminary Student’s Reaction to Horton’s Christian Faith

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    I’ve heard others make the same claim about Horton’s scholarship; per his footnoting and bibliographic stuff (research). I am a little surprised to hear the word “heretical” in reference to Horton; maybe I could go for “heterodox,” but not “heretical” 😉 .

  2. ScottL says:

    I haven’t read it, but leave it to seminary students to call out bad theology (even heresy) if they can. Reminds me of MacArthur on the mistranslation of doulos. As one wise person said, if you want to find the bad, you’ll find the bad.

    By the way, I am not against seminary. I received my master’s from a seminary. But, goodness me – borderline heresy?!

    • T.C. R says:

      Bobby,

      I never heard the charge before until now. But doesn’t Horton, someone of his stature, have someone to check his references and so on? That’s quite sloppy.

      Scott L,

      Well, it seems like at DTS that they are going through Horton with a fine-toothed comb.

  3. Nate says:

    It’s probably worth noting that I said “seem almost heretical,” which is a bit different than either saying “says heretical things,” or “is borderline heretical.” If you give some of what Horton says an uncharitable reading and take things a certain way, you could probably conjure up some heresy. I don’t think that would be fair to what Horton means though.

    Part of the problem with Horton so far is the lack of clarity. To give an example, since you asked for one, in Horton’s discussion of impassibility, he suggests that the divine essence is impassible, but the persons are not. It is hard to see how this is not predicating something concerning the essence that does not apply to the persons. The question could be raised whether you can assert something like that without making the divine essence a fourth entity within the Trinity. To do that would be heretical, but Horton doesn’t mean that and even explicitly denies that to be the case. But he is not very clear though, someone could give a statement like that an uncharitable reading, ignore the larger context and disregard other statements Horton makes, and end up with heresy. It is hard though to reconcile Horton’s denial of the essence being a fourth person in the Trinity, and then predicating an attribute to it that the persons don’t share.

    As to the barb of leaving it to seminary students to call out heresy, the purpose of the class is to critically interact with Horton’s book. I didn’t call out heresy, I just noted some criticisms of the book. Nothing Horton has said so far is strictly heretical or really even borderline if taken in context, he just formulates things vaguely enough to leave himself open to misinterpretation. I want to like Horton’s book, I usually love most things Westminster (Van Til, Frame, amillennialism, for example), and for the most part Horton is no exception. He says some really great things. His work just lacks the kind of precision and clarity you tend to expect from a Reformed systematic theology. I’m enjoying working through it, I’m just disappointed since I expect a little more from it.

  4. T.C. R says:

    Nate,

    Thanks for taking the time to clear up a few things. But since Horton explicitly denies such claims, then to charge him of “seem almost heretical” (perhaps my “borderline” is too strong a term) because of certain unclear statements, yes, is “uncharitable reading.”

    After all, Horton begins his work with the Nicene Creed. 😉

  5. Nate says:

    I apologize for coming across that way, I should have phrased my own sentiments differently and left out any reference to the H bomb. I think more so in the future, in my own reading I’ll try reading him in light of both the Nicene Creed as well as the other creeds he would necessarily subscribe to. Certainly nothing he says should be taken to be in opposition to them.

    I am bracing on my own for when the discussion shifts to eschatology since I am pretty sure I’m the only one in the class who would agree with Horton over and against the dispensational tide. We’ll see how it goes 😉

  6. Nick Norelli says:

    I don’t find it unthinkable that Horton could say some actual heretical things, e.g., he has on the Nicene Creed with the filioque on p. 11 and the filioque is heretical according to our Orthodox brethren, whom I happen to agree with on this issue because it logically leads to heretical views of God. Yet in his discussion of the filioque on pp. 303-06 Horton doesn’t really say anything. He just gives some brief bullet points about the history of the controversy and doesn’t delve too deeply into the theology associated with the addition of the clause. So has he said anything heretical there? No. But that’s because he doesn’t really say anything. All I know is that he thinks that the filioque doesn’t threaten the ecumenical consensus. This seems to be an example of the vagueness that Nate mentioned. And I’ll add that I think Nate was being about as charitable as someone can be to be honest. I can think of much harsher ways to say what Nate said.

  7. T.C. R says:

    Nate,

    Horton positions himself here: ““This volume is an attempt to explore that faith [Christian faith] as it is summarized in the confessions of Reformed Christianity” (p. 30).”

    Nick,

    Also in respect to the filioque, Horton says, “At the end of the day, it does not seem that the controversy can be settled by proof texts but by more fundamental and general exegetical assumptions concerning the basis for the divine unity” (p. 306).

    The East severed from the West.

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Per the point provided by Nate on how Horton describes the Trinity and impassibility; that’s not surprising, that’s how any good Thomist must describe God — i.e. essence (substance = Godness), accidents (qualities/attributes = persons). So you have a “God behind the back of Jesus“. It seems like Nate must have his baloney detector on, that’s good! 🙂

    @TC,

    You would think that Horton would. It’s all hearsay for me. Although I did hear from someone who worked with Horton and knew him personally that this is the case with Horton’s research (in general). But I can neither confirm/nor deny that, personally 😉 .

  9. Nate says:

    @Bobby and @TC

    In chapter 8, footnote 40, there’s a bit of a mismanagement of the reference to both Frame and Van Til. Van Til never formulates his statement the way Horton does puts it (God is both one in person and three in person) and any reference to where Van Til talks about the Trinity as a single person is noticeably absent, (Van Til does, but unless you’re like me and know exactly where that discussion takes place you might not know where to verify it).

    He then cites Frame in support of Van Til’s formulation, but the page you do get in Frame makes no reference to this idea of Van Til’s and actually is a discussion of the idea of triunity as an attribute of God, in reference to some things said by Aquinas. Frame does support to an extent what Van Til was saying, just not on the page cited by Horton. He discusses that formulation in depth in other writings (like his book on Van Til), and I think even deals with Van Til’s idea in his chapters on the Trinity of the work cited. It seemed to me like Horton just mishandled the issue in a way that is not really excusable given his relation in the Westminster family to both of those authors. Of all people, he should probably know better shouldn’t he?

    • Bobby Grow says:

      Yes, I agree, Nate, he should.

      And I disagree with Horton’s (and Westminster’s) Thomas Aquinasism 😉 relative to articulating a doctrine of God. I think Thomas Torrance (Colin Gunton, Robert Jenson) provide a much better way forward.

      • Nate says:

        Bobby,

        I can see where Horton might evince Thomas Aquinasism, but Frame and Van Til are both rather critical of Aquinas, and Frame on this exact point. Do you have references for those sympathetic to Aquinas, or do you see it as a pervasive almost unstated influence?

    • Mike says:

      Nate,
      This speaks mostly to my inability in Van Til but just where can one find his discussion on the Trinity?

      • Nate says:

        His discussion of the Trinity is pervasive in his works, but his specific doctrinal formulation of it is in his chapter on the Trinity in his Introduction to Systematic Theology. The specific quoting starts at the bottom of pg. 363 and continues to the end of the chapter.

        Ideally, if you’re not familiar with Van Til, it would be better to read his whole Intro to Systematic Theology of which the chapter on the Trinity is second to last. If you take the shorter route though, read the whole Trinity chapter, and then see how John Frame clarifies some things in his book Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought on pgs 65-71, as well as the discussion in Frame’s Doctrine of God book on pgs. 703-705.

    • T.C. R says:

      Nate,

      Thanks for the follow-up. Regarding Horton’s mishandling of key references in his footnoting, you have made your point. Now of course a person has to be familiar with Van Til and Frame to appreciate the weight of your critique.

      • Nate says:

        It’s actually worse than I presented above, since I did a little digging and Frame says in the exact wording that Van Til did not mean “God is one in person and three in person in exactly the same sense,” which is what Horton somewhat intimates in his footnote. Had Horton looked a little closer, he might have found Frame’s actual discussion of Van Til’s formulation (which was on pg. 704 rather than 228) and could have been more accurate in his presentation of both men’s views.

        This I think is not an isolated incident in Horton’s work as whole. I documented several errors with respect to his Introducing Covenant Theology, and other classmates have noted issues with the way he handles sources elsewhere in The Christian Faith. I’ve noted those where relevant.

  10. Chuck says:

    So the heirs of Lewis Sperry Chafer and C.I. Scofield are calling Horton “almost heretical”? Now that’s irony! 🙂

    On a more serious note, Horton’s recent diatribes strike me as coming from someone with a more Lutheran hermeneutic instead of a Reformed one. He’s associated with what’s been called Westminster West’s “Radical Two Kingdom” approach to Christ and Culture that, to me, is essentially a “dispensational” hermeneutic because in it the Church is to have no say or concern about the broader society.

    Both classic dispensationalism and “R2K” both are essentially antinomian and retreatist in that regard like Chafer and Scofield! Very ironic.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      That’s a bit of a sweeping generalization; wow!

    • T.C. R says:

      Chuck,

      I’ll have to explore these themes some more. Interesting, nonetheless.

    • Nate says:

      I have not read Chafer extensively (or much at all really) but I would imagine most of my professors who have would consider it slanderous to say that classical dispensationalism is antinomian. If you have specific quotations you’d like to reference that make that case, I’d be interested to check it out.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Which is why I said this is a sweeping generalization, caricature, poisoning the wells, guilt by association, argument of the beard; are there any more formal fallacies we can attach to this, straw man maybe? 😉

        Just because someone goes to DTS doesn’t ipso facto make them a classic Dispy, Chaferian, Scofieldian, Ryriean, et al. Not any more than standing in a garage makes someone a car 😉 (there’s your cheese for the day 🙂 ).

  11. ScottL says:

    Nick –

    To ascribe to the filioque is heretical? I mean, some might claim that, and definitely in past centuries. But is it worth, even if we want to be ticky-tack, labeling as heretical?

  12. Bobby Grow says:

    Torrance has solved the filioque issue.

  13. Nick Norelli says:

    Scott: Yeah, it’s worth it.

    Bobby: No, he hasn’t. He didn’t bring world peace either if that was your next claim. 😛

    • Bobby Grow says:

      @Nick,

      Have you read Torrance’s points on onto-relations within the inter-Trinitarian relations? Molnar in his recent book on Torrance provides a good sketch on that, if you’re interested.

  14. T.C. R says:

    Nate,

    This is quite sloppy. I imagine a second edition is well on its way to correct these. 🙂

    At any rate, now I have a better understanding of where you’re coming from in your critique of Horton.

    • Nate says:

      Hopefully you’re right, although some of his errors in Introducing Covenant Theology were brought to his attention prior to the second attention of that book (because they were published in a journal review and sent to him prior to publication) but he didn’t acknowledge any of them or make revisions. Hopefully he won’t do the same when some of these errors are brought to light in this book.

      I’m glad you see my angle better. The title of the post I think somewhat stereotypes me, since where I go to school, in my case at least, doesn’t tell you very much about my theological position. I would consider myself within Horton’s tradition, not as an heir to Chafer or Scofield. The class I’m in is a final systematic class (your 7th semester class if you will) before I graduate with a Th.M and the purpose is to demonstrate the ability to critique and constructively engage a recent work in systematic theology. To that end, I’m sympathetically, yet critically reading Horton.

      • T.C. R says:

        Nate,

        About the title, it was the first to come to mind. But too late to change. 😉

        Well, you’re well on your way as a constructic critic.

        Me too, I’m close to Horton than either Chafer or Scofield. Ah!

      • T.C. R says:

        Nate,

        I visited your blog and noticed your discussion on NT Wright and Justification, Romans and so on. I tried to comment, but it seems impossible.

      • Nate says:

        TC,

        Try it now, I had been using FB comments and then switched but didn’t really open up as much as I thought, or actually maybe not at all since it seemed impossible.

  15. Nick Norelli says:

    Bobby: Can you point me somewhere specific in Torrance? I have in mind chapter 7 of The Christian Doctrine of God (especially §4 Perichoresis and the Procession of the Holy Spirit). I’ll look at Molnar’s book later tonight.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      @Nick,

      Good, I’m glad you have Molnar’s book; I was going to find a nice juicy quote for you, but even better if you can just look it up and check it out yourself — with more context. Also that’s a good section on The Christian Doctrine of God, Molnar presses into some of that and some of the stuff TFT did with his work with the Eastern Orthodox. I’m heading out the door for some dinner with the wife, I’ll look up the reference to Molnar when we get home later this evening.

      Maybe I overstated a little, but not if you accept the definitions and broader Trinitarian framework through which TFT speaks 🙂 . You can decide for yourself, of course.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      @Nick,

      Molnar’s discussion starts at pg. 65-67. See what you think.

      peace.

  16. ScottL says:

    Nate –

    Sorry for the stereotype thoughts here.

    I used to be a huge systematics guy. That was my meat and potatoes. But I have moved more towards the centre and away from systematics to a better appreciation of biblical theology. I share my adventures in an article on my blog that is set to post on Wed – http://prodigalthought.net. (Sorry for the shameless plug.) 🙂

    • Nate says:

      Scott,

      No worries, stereotypes make it easy to get a handle on someone without really knowing them, so we all do it. Sometimes they apply more or less completely, and sometimes not at all.

      We might have a different understanding of biblical theology. I would define it either as theology that is focused on expositing and systematizing the biblical text, or as theology that is focused on the unfolding history of redemption (or history of covenants) in Scripture.

      I see biblical theology in a way culminating in systematics (which in turn should culminate in practical theology) but they really seem to have a kind of interdependent relationship and need each other to function properly (just like natural and special revelation are interdependent). I spent most of my 2nd and 3rd year focusing on exegetical training and biblical theology, specifically with reference to ANE literature and the OT. I am just now moving into a more systematic focus, but am still keeping the interest and reading in biblical theology, backgrounds, historical theology and primarily practical theology as a large part of my motivation for coming to seminary was to pursue counseling.

      I added your blog to my reader, I’ll look forward to keeping up with your journey!

      Nate

  17. ScottL says:

    Nate –

    Thanks for the comment back.

    I liked your second definition better with regards to biblical theology. And I am not so sure I would say the focus of biblical theology is not to move towards a firm systematisation. Simply, I see biblical theology as studying the text book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, allowing the text there in that specific context to teach and instruct us. So when we read Gen 3, we don’t run to Ps 51:5 or Rom 5:12-21, etc, to tell us about a ‘fall’. We let Gen 3 inform and instruct us. There is nothing wrong with doing such as we consider systematic theology. But biblical theology guards against too much systematising and allowing the text we are interacting with speak as is.

    Those are some brief thoughts.

    • Nate says:

      Scott,

      I prefer the second definition as well, as it is a more descriptive technical term, whereas the first could just as easily apply to systematics or practical (which after all should both be biblical in that first sense). I would agree too that biblical theology in the second sense isn’t focused on systematizing but is, as you said, focused on reading verse by verse and is focused on the most immediate context, rather than the canonical one.

      I still see this as interdependent with systematics and they both guard against the other’s errors. You pointed out the errors that biblical theology guards against, and I would agree. But I also would say that systematics guards against reading a text in an idiosyncratic fashion and ignoring both the larger canonical context and the even larger systematic context. If after reading a text on its own, it no longer fits the systematic mold, then I have to ask myself whether my reading is deficient or the mold is and then adjust one or the other. Maybe in some cases neither needs to be immediately revised and I need to dwell in the tension for a while and ask for more wisdom.

  18. ScottL says:

    Nate –

    I like this statement of yours: Maybe in some cases neither needs to be immediately revised and I need to dwell in the tension for a while and ask for more wisdom.

    I think we, as evangelicals, are too fearful of doing this a lot of the time.

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