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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Horton’


Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

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In 1973 R.C. Sproul’s first book, The Symbol, was published. It was an appropriate title, but not one that grabs attention. This book is now in its 4th edition, and has its 4th title. In 1982 it was released as Basic Training. And in 1998 it was released as Renewing Your Mind. It has been recently updated and released as What We Believe. This is probably the best title this volume has had because it goes straight to the point. The book is about the Apostles’ Creed and therefore basic theology for Christians.

While I have not read previous editions, which is surprising to me actually, this is not the same book. It is updated and interacts with some newer challenges and has contemporary illustrations. This book is very much what you expect from R.C. Sproul. He presents theology and philosophy (his undergraduate degree is in philosophy) in an understandable and interesting way. His purpose is revealed at the end of the first chapter:

“The following chapters offer a contemporary explanation of its teaching- not to give a historical exposition of each point, but to apply its basic tenets to contemporary faith-issues.”

This means it is not an exhaustive book. It does not get into all the historical controversies that it addresses. This is an introductory book. This is not Herman Witsius’ 2 volume work (my copy seems to be missing) or even Michael Horton’s book We Believe. It isn’t like Rooted by Cannata and Reitano with its missional focus either. This really is basic training. While I would be interested in many of the historical controversies the Creed addresses, not everyone is.

In basic training, a drill sergeant will deconstruct you before building you into a soldier. This book, in some ways, seeks to deconstruct elements of a non-Christian world view to build up a Christian one.

He begins with the words “I believe” to talk about what faith is. He talks about content, assent and faith. Faith is rational, not a leap into the existential dark. Saving faith looks to and delights in Christ. Faith is not superstition either, this is seen most clearly in suffering. Faith complicates life because it brings an ethical system with it. True faith will produce a changed life; an increasingly holy life.

“To say that faith is reasonable is not to confuse faith with rationalism. Rationalism emphasizes the mind’s ability to understand all reality without help.”

This is why R.C. says “Faith involves confessing more than professing; in the final analysis, it is a platform of commitment to the will of God.” The content of our biblical faith should fill our minds and find a happy home in our hearts so we become more like Jesus.

Faith is not faith in faith, but in God. Here Sproul stresses the need for content. He notes a rally by Louis Farrakhan where he was surrounded and applauded by a number of “Christian” pastors. The god Farrakhan believes in is incredibly different from the one “we” do. There is also existentialism’s impact on Christian theology that drove it to liberalism and the Jesus Seminar nonsense that robbed theology of its content.

From there he moves into how we can speak of God, and can’t. He discusses the hidden God who is also the God revealed. In the midst of this he brings out Moby Dick, one of his favorite novels and the subject of his dissertation.

“Our talk of him is legitimate because he has entered into the arena of human activity. We confess not only that there is a God, but that God can be known and that our knowledge of him can be meaningfully communicated.”

One of the challenges that comes up is creation. While he isn’t pushing a 6 24-hour day creation, he focuses on our dignity as a result of creation. The other option is chaos, the loss of dignity and of values. God is both above creation (transcendent) and actively involved in creation (immanent) thus ruling out panentheism and deism respectively.

He then moves into Jesus as the conclusive revelation of God. He briefly interacts with the contemporary attempts to remove Jesus from history or separate a historical Jesus from the church’s theology of Jesus. He focuses on many of the names of Christ to reveal who He is.

His chapter on the virgin birth addresses the challenges presented by the attack on miracles. He also defends the historic Christian view from the common rabbinic (and liberal) view that “alma” in Isaiah doesn’t necessitate a virgin birth. The New Testament, however, clearly does teach that Mary was. “alma” doesn’t exclude virginity, and Matthew’s account clarifies it.

One of the weak links in the book is the chapter on eschatology. He sticks closely to the Creed, but doesn’t really address any of the evangelical views that in competition with one another. Perhaps this reflects his earlier lack of commitment to a millennial position. There are a few other places where I wish he would offer greater clarity.

This is really a book for those who are new to their faith, or the Apostles’ Creed. While not necessarily simplistic, Sproul is introducing concepts to people. More advanced readers will not be challenged enough. But it is one to keep on hand to help those younger in the faith.

[I received a complimentary copy of the book for the purposes of review.)

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If you are going to write a book on the Apostles’ Creed these days, you need to come up with some novel aspect to the book because there are many books out there by the likes of Witsius, Packer, McGrath, Horton and others. I’m not talking about novel theology, for that would be problematic.

Ray Cannata and Joshua Reitano, in their book Rooted, has come up with a specific and significant addition that makes their book very much worth reading, and studying. They added a missional element to the book so we can think through how our catholic (universal) theology leads us to mission (this article is essentially an excerpt).

“You can believe that God is mighty to guide you as you go out and recklessly pursue his mission to love and serve your neighbors, even when the mission seems impossible. You can believe that God is mighty enough for you to put aside your obsession with being “safe” and move toward the pain of those in need.”

Ray and Joshua currently serve in very different places. Ray used to pastor a church in NJ (near NYC), and is known in the PCA as “the Pastor who ate New Orleans.” Joshua is the pastor of a church in Cincinnati. These are 3 very different contexts so their idea of mission is not limited by particular contexts.

“The Kingdom expands when you lay down your life, when you sacrifices your desires and your comfort for the good of others.”

The book is comprised of 13 chapters, or studies, that work through the Apostles’ Creed. Each chapter begins with a Scripture text and ends with the focus on mission and some questions for group discussion. It is intended to be used over the course of a quarterly study. The chapters are short enough to be read in 20-30 minutes time frames. Any book that brings up the Three Stooges and Ted Williams has to be interesting in my estimation. There are the obligatory references to The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and U2 (my potentially published book has some of those) but they fit and aren’t the standard references you might expect. They also draw on a number of personal and historical events to illustrate their points. As a result the book is accessible (not over people’s heads) and interesting as well as meaningful.

“Belief in the resurrection of the dead enables you to live a big life. It allows you to take up your cross and move toward pain and suffering.”

I might use this with our men’s group or community group next year. It is sound, convicting and (as I said above) interesting. Like many churches we struggle with that idea of mission- being part of God’s great, big story in order to invite others into that story. There have been recent books that come to mind that offer a similar call to a radical life. This is far more gracious, warm and balanced. I found the others lacking a gospel foundation and motivation. They seek their motivation in great theological truth, not guilt. Pastorally, this is very important. I want holy affections, as Edwards called them, to arise as a response to biblical truth. This book seeks to do that very thing.

[I received a free copy from my friend who works with the publisher Doulos, not necessarily for the purposes of review.]

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The Church in America has struggled with the notion of Christian activism over the years. Usually such activism is associated with the “Religious Right” but there are groups that would not consider themselves part of that “Religious Right” that engage in activism as well. Is the Church to be involved with activism? Are Christians to be involved in activism? This is the subject of Appendix E in The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Frame begins with mentioning the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. There they remind people of the great influence of Christians on Western culture. Christians have been instrumental in education (founding many of our colleges), health care (founding many of our hospitals), political freedom, literacy (the original reason for Sunday School) as well as the arts and more.

“Without Jesus, without the gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.”

The efforts and influence of Christians have not lead to a perfect society. They have lead to a clearly better society in many instances (note I didn’t say all). Here in America, as a result of the Fundamentalist movement, large portions of the Church retreated from social action. Ironically, it was often the more liberal branches of Christianity that lobbied for things like Prohibition which would typically be associated with Fundamentalists today.

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Ever feel like you are missing something? It can happen when big names, wise men, hail a book. People you know find the book life-changing. Self-doubt begins to creep in, “Am I missing something important?” Perhaps I had erroneous expectations.

The book is Tullian Tchividijian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

The big names include guys like Paul Tripp, Scotty Smith, Matt Chandler, Gene Edward Veith, Michael Horton, and Steve Brown.

Scotty Smith called it “a faithful and fresh exposition of Colossians.”

I began to read the book because I’m preaching on Colossians. I had heard his sermon on the subject at hand, and thought it was very good. So I thought this would be a great book.

“Progress in obedience happens only when our hearts realize the God’s love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience.”

My expectations were off. I expected an exposition of Colossians. What I read was a polemic against legalism. Don’t get me wrong, we need polemical material against legalism. And he said some really good things.

“The gospel is the only thing big enough to satisfy our deepest, eternal longings- both now and forever.”

Where I struggled was that was the vast majority of the book. It did not seem to move linearly. It was more like progressive parallelism. It looked at legalism from different perspectives. And there was no exposition of Colossians.

“Even as believers, we don’t adequately realize how Jesus is enough to meet our deepest needs, so we’re always pursuing an add-on approach- Jesus plus something.”

Colossians can be summed up by the formula that Tullian presents for us. The problem in the Colossian church was multifactorial, to steal a line from Ben Cherington. There seem to be a few different things added to Christ to find fullness. Tullian just hits legalism. So, it seems a bit reductionistic to me.

“The gospel frees us from trying to impress people, to prove ourselves to people, to make people think we’re something that we’re not.”

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About a year ago I realized I had no books on the subject of our union with Christ. I decided to go on a buying binge. It didn’t last long because there are not many books on that subject. Since then I read Robert Letham’s excellent book on the subject. Since I was on study leave, I decided to take J. Todd Billings’ book Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church.

The phrase reframing theology can often be a bad sign, sort of like ‘repainting the faith”. But here it is not. Billings is a Reformation scholar, with particular emphasis on Calvin. This book oozes Calvin, along with others. He utilizes “retrieval theology”, which was a new term for me. You look to the theology of the past to address problems of the present, and to renew our vision. We tend to be culturally captive, and see theology in light of the problems of our day. This looks to the past to gain a theological foothold to examine the problems of our day, sometimes to even see them. I hope that makes sense, and that I did it justice (I suspect some Ph.D. candidate out there could take me to task). Billings wants to reframe our thinking, so we look at things like salvation, justice, communion and ministry in light of our union with Christ.

When I taught a Sunday School class, one congregant took issue with Packer’s assertion that one only understands Christianity to the degree that they understand adoption. His assertion was that union with Christ as the most important unifying principle or doctrine that we must understand. So, I found it ironic that the first chapter is entitled Salvation as Adopted in Christ. The point is, that they are connected to one another. You can’t have one without the other. But one way we can better understand union is thru understanding adoption. Much of the book keeps our current context in mind, and explores how Christianity really differs from MTD, or moralistic, therapeutic, deism. Odd in that some of the other books I’ve been reading have dealt with that as well. Salvation as adoption is so different than MTD. God, who is transcendent (great & glorious) draws near to us in salvation. He draws near to us to save us.

“The prospect of adoption in this sense is an offense. It is too much closeness– it is the sort of closeness that requires giving up one’s own identity.”

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The book What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission by DeYoung and Gilbert has been on my list of books to read since it came out. The recent “controversy” regarding the book moved it up the list faster. It is really difficult to talk about this book without referencing at least some of what has gone on.

In the book, they noted that some people received early copies of the manuscript to elicit feedback. They were thankful for that, and included some people who would “push back”. In other words, they didn’t send it to people who would love all over it. This book is a contribution to a larger discussion on the topic of the mission of the church. So they read a number of books on the subject, drew upon their own experiences as pastors and studied the Scriptures (not necessarily in that order). They tried to do their homework. But no book is met with unanimous affirmation.

Ed Stetzer’s review, in particular, has received a great deal of attention. He affirms them in many ways, but also criticizes their views for being too narrow. As I read his review, I get the impression he wasn’t really listening.

“The mission of the church always must include making disciples, but the life of disciples will always produce work unique to its time and place, relating to the various needs and corruptions in the world around us. And such work is not only the fruit of discipleship, but is also, through modeling, part of the process of making disciples.” Ed Stetzer

I didn’t get the impression they would disagree with what he said. But he misses the point. That is the life of disciples, which they distinguish from the mission of the church. As disciples, we act justly and defend the rights of others. But he’s saying this to criticize their view of the mission of the church. The book is about what the Church is to invest it’s limited resources doing. And that, in their view, is to make disciples. Those disciples will do many things that they institutional church does not, and should not do. Let’s put it this way: John Newton was right to encourage Wilberforce to remain in politics and work for the abolition of slavery. And John Newton, who aided that cause with his personal testimony and records, was right not to establish a program of the church designed to work for the abolition of slavery. At least this is how I understand both the Scriptural testimony and the Westminster Confession of the topic of Civil Magistrate.

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