Horton: People and Place–A Covenant Ecclesiology

Horton finishes his unique project by examining the role that “covenant” plays in ecclesial discussions, yet the book is not simply another exercise in “how covenant theology proves infant baptism.” It is much more nuanced and detailed. Horton has demonstrated more than any other recent Reformed theologian in capably responding to recent movements in theology from Radical Orthodoxy, a renewed Eastern Orthodox apologetics, and the contributions from more anabaptistic thinkers.

Horton’s whole project is taken from a line of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion (Horton is simply illustrating a point, not using Tillich’s theology!). Tillich saw two ways of “doing religion:” overcoming estrangement (varieties of Platonism) and meeting a stranger (Horton’s more covenantal approach. Horton continues this analysis into the church and shows us an ecclesiology that is based off the announcement of the Ascended Lord.

While it is common to assert that the Church is a creature of the Word, Horton points out the similarities between this position and speech-act theory. God’s word is not only pedagogical, but performative: it (He!) creates the Church (Horton 39 n.3). This theory helps us overcome the (supposed) impasse between actual reality and forensic declaration (which lies at the heart of critiques of justification by faith alone as legal fiction): “When God declares something to be so, the Spirit brings about a corresponding reality within us” (45). This means, as Horton puts it, that reality’s character is “linguistically mediated” and that speech is effectual.

If we see the Word as a creation of the Church, then we can’t avoid the conclusion: “Wherever the totus Christus idea conflates Christ as head with his ecclesial body, Christ’s external word to his church can easily become an instance of the church simply talking to itself” (84). Horton then draws the devastating conclusion: “And since we are dealing wtih speech about salvation, can this mean anything other than the church saving itself (and perhaps the world?) by its good praxis?”

Ratifying the Treaty: Signs and Seals

The Bible does not speak of sacraments in metaphysical language but in language that connotes eschatological presence.
Words and signs create a covenant. They do not “fuse” essences (101).
There is no nature-grace problem but a sin-grace problem.

Horton recapitulates the argument of his book in chapter 6. Chapter 1 argued the where of Christ’s presence (Ascension), chapters 2-5 argued the how of Christ’s presence (Covenantal Speech-Act), and chapter 6 argues the what of identity on earth. In what sense is the church one and many?

Horton makes several key distinctions between “unity” and “unicity.” Unity is a healthy respecting of differences best seen in a covenantal community. This can only be by the Spirit. Noting Leslie Newbigin’s poignant remark, when we make the church an “extension of the Incarnation,” we confuse sarx (Christ’s flesh) with soma (his body as the church). In such a move any union is at the level of fused essences flowing downward in a hierarchy (as is necessary in all Platonic and Dionysian visions; 187). Rather, our union with Christ is through the Spirit in anticipation of the age to come.

This has important practical applications. When faced with high-church claims to “unity over Protestant divisions,” one may rightly ask if unity is even possible on a Roman or Orthodox position? Does not their own version of unity reduce all to sameness, in a sense losing unity altogether for unicity? If they hold to a Dionysian ontology in which differences are overcome through an ascent on the divine ladder (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 34), do they not lose the many to the one? Indeed, to borrow a line from the postmoderns, does not differance become violence?

Throughout this discussion Horton engages in some very important analyses of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf, thus adding a particular relevance to his work

Poignant remarks:
Low church versions confuse Christ with the believer, while high church versions collapse Christ into the community (92).

Webb: Words could spring forth as praise because God has already said the Word that releases us from our sin (The Divine Voice, 107).

Some critical remarks:

Horton correctly condemns the political maneuvering of Urban II (259ff), but fundamentally misses the point and result of the first crusade. While many knights did see themselves as waging war against the infidel, the first crusade is better seen as a sustained defensive measure against Islam (remember, the Muslims invaded first).

Concerning the Temple (or “Temple-speak” as I shall call it), Horton is correct to note that the person and work of Christ replaced the Temple economy with its sacrifices (268ff). Further, he is correct that we should not as Christians seek a rebuilt Temple. While Horton’s final conclusions may indeed be correct, the inference does not follow that because Revelation “spiritualizes” (whatever that word means) a Temple that all prophetic references to “Temple-speak” are necessarily about Jesus. What then is the point of a temple, one may ask? The answer to that question hinges on several eschatological presuppositions, but those aside, one may posit that a newly-built temple, while having no relevance for Christian worship (indeed, it would be blasphemy) is necessary to Anti-Christ’s false covenant with the Jews.

Oddly enough, Horton quotes Jurgen Moltmann with approval (Moltmann elsewhere has given one of the most penetrating critiques of ideological amillennialism). At this point, almost without warning (270-271), Horton shifts from his “spiritual temple” to why Christian activism in politics is wrong.

While his section on “Holy War” has much promise, I am skeptical of Horton’s invoking Meredith Kline’s “intrusion ethics” (272). Whatever merits intrusion ethics may have, and while it does mitigate some of the harsher passages in the OT for today’s application, I doubt it would have been of much comfort to the Canaanites! (Admittedly, Horton realizes “intrusion” is a terrible ethical term, as it implies relativistic ethics. His use of “irruption,” while perhaps not allaying all of the difficulties in his position, is much better and doesn’t have the situation-ethics overtones). While “irruption ethics” sounds good in broad, general outlines, it is by no means clear that it automatically follows “mean texts” (which itself is a subjective judgment). Horton, in responding to Kant, says that “imprecatory psalms” are delayed because God delayed his judgment (277). Maybe so, but he is reading that into the passage.

Intrusion ethics becomes particularly troubling in this quote, “Other examples of intrusion ethics appear in the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac and Hosea’s marriage” (ibid). Admittedly, these are ethical nightmares (the former more so than the latter) for any systematic theologian, but Horton’s position at this point seems to reduce to a voluntaristic Divine-command ethic, which is odd given his commitment to natural law.

While perhaps not a criticism of Horton, in another place we see how tenuous the sharp divide between cult and cultus is. While we should be wary of “killin ‘em terrorists for Jesus” (GOP?), Horton himself shows, even if does not realize it, how difficult it is to dichotomize one’s life: “As throughout the history recounted above, the cosmic battle is waged through earthly agents; personal and institutional; religious and social; cultic and cultural; rhetorical and political. Yet the church knows the real enemy behind behind these penultimate agents” (283). He is correct that this battle is taking place in history. And he is correct that we cannot take an AK-47 against the “real agents,” but the unspoken conclusion hangs heavy in the room, a conclusion I suspect he would disavow: may we not, acting as good citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Left Hand (actually a good name for a political party!), take the AK-47 against the penultimate agents? On a 2 Kingdoms ethic it’s hard to see why not (all other things . Even more, as Horton states this battle is in history, we are historical beings (per his correct critique of Karl Barth), we cannot divorce our lives from this history.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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2 Responses to Horton: People and Place–A Covenant Ecclesiology

  1. cal says:

    Ecclesiologically, I appreciate Horton’s claim that the Church (and the Scripture) are creatures of the Word, and that while the Church stands under the Word to always listen. That’s all well and good. But I think his bifurcation between overcoming estrangement and meeting a stranger is a false division. Even though the main problem is not nature-grace, it is still a problem due to the curse (which ultimately, as he says, makes it a sin-grace problem).

    There’s still estrangement between men, man and the rest of creation, man and himself. Which gets me to the point that while seeing is certainly a move upwards, involving a kind of glorification, the NT (especially St. John) really does emphasize not hearing, but seeing and touching (!), the Word of life. There is a promiscuous blurring of the senses, which marks out the eternally New from the temporary Old. Of course, none of these points justifies EO’s false theology of icons or Rome’s sacramental-industrial complex. However, it does mitigate against to sharp a division between cross and glory.

    Covenant, as a metaphysical lens, might get in the way of Christology proper. I think Irenaeus is the earliest, and best, biblical theology who utilized covenant without it monopolizing all things. As John Behr has rightly shown (and helped me be a better Protestant), Irenaeus keeps Christ rightly as the center, of which the covenant (among all of Israel’s treasures) is one aspect (Check out Behr’s lecture of Irenaeus or get his recentish book).

    Like

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