Book Review: Introducing Covenant Theology – By Michael Horton

Horton Covenant Theology.pngLetter MMy first exposure to Michael Horton came through reading essays of his online. This text counts as the first full book which I read by him, and it came highly recommended. Introducing Covenant Theology is, as the title so aptly puts it, Michael Horton’s introductory text to the idea of Covenant Theology.

Horton begins his study by establishing the overarching significance of the covenant motif within Scripture. This done he begins his study of what this idea of covenant actually entails, both in it’s secular historic background and with the context of Scripture. Once the intricacies of the covenant have been traced in Scripture Horton is then able to expound upon how this translates into a system of thought, it’s influence on other areas of belief, what it means for the study of Scripture and theology as a whole, and what it means for the individual believer and a framework in which they may view both the Old and New Testaments as a complimentary whole.

While there were various covenants made throughout Scripture (the covenant of redemption, of creation, of grace, etc), Horton breaks them down into essentially two types, a covenant of law and a covenant of promise, which are each administered by God in a different way. In the first God conditions something upon the people holding up a certain end of a bargain. In the second God simply promises, unconditionally, to do something for the people.“The covenant of law pertains to the nation’s remaining in the earthly land; the covenant of promise pertains to the eternal inheritance in Jesus Christ, Abraham’s seed. No Israelite was ever justified by works, but the nation had to keep the conditions of the law in order to remain in possession of the earthly type of the heavenly rest.” (p.101) Thus, “So while it is true that Old Testament saints were justified by faith according to the Abrahamic promise, the theocracy itself was to be maintained and vindicated by strict adherence to Torah.” (p.59)

This covenantal motif sets up an excellent perspective in looking at Scripture and is in short wonderfully informative in dealing with how God both reveals himself to and deals with his peoples. In terms of personal impact, this latter notion gives great security to the believer. There is a covenant of works, but this covenant is not the covenant which salvation rests upon; it doesn’t rest upon anything that the believer must accomplish. Rather, salvation (the covenant of redemption which is “an eternal pact between the persons of the Trinity”(p.78)); it is a covenant of promise, a completely one-sided move by God in order to enact salvation. It is the promise of God, which he is intent on keeping and will fulfil and doesn’t rely on us.

The framework presented here is wonderful for giving the believer an overarching understanding of the flow and history of God’s dealings with humanity whilst also affirming and instilling a rich theology on which the believer may stand.

Memorable Quotes:

-“When Reformed theology hears Scripture teaching both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, divine election and the universal offer of the gospel, it affirms both even though it confesses that it does not know quite how God coordinates them behind the scenes… God does not limit his sovereignty, or any of this other attributes, to make space for human freedom. Rather, his freedom is the very space within which our creaturely freedom is possible (Acts 17:24-28).”(p.19)

-“Abraham was not only justified before he was circumcised; he was justified apart form works while he was still ungodly in himself. The point is not simply that God justifies the uncircumcised, but that God justifies the wicked.” (p.71)

-“God’s predestination is hidden to us, but Christ is not.” (p.79)

-“However, Scripture nowhere presupposes a universal knowledge of the gospel. The law is universal because it is natural: we are simply “wired” for it. It belongs to us by nature in creation, while the gospel is an announcement of good news in the even of transgression. It has to be preached, whereas the law belongs to the conscience of every person already.” (p.93)

-“Our knowledge, freedom, and power are not merely less than God’s (quantitatively); they are in a different class altogether (qualitatively).” (p.112)

-“What happens ‘east of Eden’ is this: culture is no longer sacred but secular, yet the secular is not literally ‘godless,’ a realm beyond God’s concern and involvement.” (p.118)

-“The Bible functions as the constitution for the covenant people, not for the secular state.” (p.127)

-“One cannot treat the Lord’s Supper in an individualistic manner, but only as a covenant meal.” (p.159)

-“Jesus did not make the law easier, but more difficult.” (p.179)

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism of this text is that while it is an introductory text, I don’t feel that it is a good introductory text for the casual layman; rather, it is a good introductory text for the student or somebody already bent towards reading theology and fairly familiar with the Reformed tradition. Even being used to reading such texts there were various parts of this text (mainly towards the beginning) which I felt drug a bit. For me, the text didn’t really pick up until around Chapter 5 which is where he begins to build upon the theory after firmly grounding it in Scripture and meticulously detailing the significance of it – this is no doubt important, but it drags abit regardless. Perhaps Horton was somewhat aware of this when he began Chapter 4 with “The most difficult part of our argument lies behind us.”

I will offer one other small critique, and this is something that I’ve noticed both in this text as well as his systematic theology book The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. This is that he often bogs down the text in discussing various opposing and supporting quotations. On the one hand this can be a good thing, as it lets you know exactly where he’s coming from, where he gets his ideas, and that he’s not just sliding by all these possible counterarguments, but [at least for me] it also made the text somewhat tedious at points as I waited for him to finish the given discussion and continue on the primary point that he was intending to make. This aspect is another reason why I would suggest the text more to students than to the casual layperson, the text is geared towards not just laying out and introducing the system, but to giving many of the ins and outs which the regular reader will not likely be interested in.

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