Review: Horton, Covenant and Salvation

Horton attempts to give a full-orbed defense of Reformed soteriology, utilizing current scholarship, identifying potential weaknesses, and communicating this in a new and cogent manner. And he has largely succeeded.

Similar to other projects, Horton places salvation within a covenantal framework, drawing largely upon the findings of Meredith Kline. In short, Horton posits a “Tale of Two Mothers,” referring to Galatians 4. After a brief discussion of Ancient Near Eastern Suzerain Treaties, Horton shows that God’s promise to Abraham was unilateral, involving no stipulations nor any potential sanctions on Abraham. This continues through the Davidic covenant and finds its fulfillment in Christ. The Sinaitic covenant, on the other hand, is specifically sanction-oriented. The difference between these two covenants is crucial to Horton’s later argument. Horton asserts: “The deepest distinction in Scripture is not between Old and New Testament, but between covenants of law and covenants of promise that run throughout both” (17).

Horton then responds to the New Perspective on Paul. Contrary to the myths about Lutheran re-readings, Horton demonstrates from Sanders’ own findings that the 2ndTemple Rabbis (and probably Sanders himself) were semi-Pelagian. If they were semi-Pelagian, as Sanders’ own writings attest, then the “Lutheran” critique isn’t eisegesis at all. Horton then advances an interesting critique of N. T. Wright. Horton points out that Wright conflates the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants. So when the covenant “climaxes” for God’s people, is it the covenant of promise (David) or the covenant of bondage and death (Sinai, Galatians 3-4)?

Horton has a sharp section on justification and imputation. Justification, on Horton’s gloss, is not a legal fiction because Christ is the covenant-head, and if the justified are “in Christ,” then they possess his covenant status (105). Horton shows that a lot of Wright’s arguments on covenant and salvation, while sometimes shedding helpful light on the issues, really don’t make sense outside Palestine. When the Philippian jailer asks what he must do to be saved, is he really talking about the end of national Israel’s exile? If works of the law mean ethnic markers, then why is Paul accused of antinomianism?

The second part of the book deals with different ontologies. Contrary to the Radical Orthodoxy group, Horton posits a “Covenantal Ontology” which is focused on “meeting a stranger” rather than “overcoming estrangement.” The latter is an application of almost all descendants of Platonic ontologies of anti-bodiement.

Covenantal Ontology: The pactum salutis is the intra-Trinitarian covenant made in eternity. It is realized in the biblical covenants. See also pp. 182-186.

Horton notes that Radical Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism presuppose something along the following lines: overcoming estrangement. By this he means a paradigm that promises enlightenment and a liberation of nature beyond itself (155).

Several times throughout this book Horton advances a critique of Platonic Divine Simplicity, but never calls it such. He has a section on John Milbank and offers a full-orbed convincing critique of Milbank. As readers of Milbank know, he is strongly committed to the neo-Platonic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity. To put the matter briefly, such a view of simplicity negates or mutes distinctions. Horton then goes on to say, “As speculative metaphysics (specifically ontological participation) swallows up the horizon, Christology is swallowed by ecclesiology, and redemptive mediation has to do with overcoming metaphysical binaries (finite/infinite, material/spiritual,invisible/visible, corporeal/incorporeal, temporal/eternal, and so forth) rather than ethical and eschatological ones (sin/grace, death/life, condemnation/justification…this age/age to come” (165. /END EXCURSUS

The book ends with placing the traditional Reformed ordo in a communicative context. Horton wants to avoid some of the hang-ups the Reformed scholastics had when they used medieval categories to challenge Rome. Instead, Horton argues we should use communicative categories, which makes sense since Christ is the Word. Horton suggests we should see effectual calling as a speech-act whereby God creates a new reality. This isn’t that bad a suggestion, since it mutes the charge that Calvinism forces a God who forces the unbeliever’s will. God does no such thing. Rather, he creates a situation, renewing the will (does renewal = violence? I hope not, 223). Throughout Scripture we see the Spirit “bringing things to life, into existence” (Ezekiel 37). Is it so hard to imagine he can do this to the human will?

Interestingly, at the end of the book Horton employs the essence/energies distinction to critique a number of non-Reformed position. Even more, he draws upon Reformed scholastics who evidently employed something like it.

Horton has done heroic work. Milbank had offered a very challenging critique of Reformed ontology. Horton meets it head-on and and redirects it. He gives the most convincing (and charitable) critique of N.T. Wright.


4 thoughts on “Review: Horton, Covenant and Salvation

  1. I think this is an older review, so take my comments worth a grain of salt:

    1) I don’t think Horton quite grasps Wright (at least from what is written). Wright does make a distinction between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic, with the latter being a function of the former’s fulfillment. Israel’s ability to bless the nation involves Israel’s ability to bear sins. Thus, completing the Torah had the effect of fulfilling Abraham’s covenant. Which, to me, makes the most sense. Abraham’s covenant is unilateral, but its also a future declaration of Abraham’s seed’s covenantal faithfulness, but that only comes after Israel’s descent into Hades/Egypt.

    2) Covenantal ontology sounds like a match for the neo-Platonists, but it seems to hyper apply the concept of covenant. I am suspicious of claims of an intra-Trinitarian covenant; it has little scriptural warrant besides systematic commitments. But I understand the need to rebut neo-Platonist metaphysics, though I don’t think divinizing speech-act theory is the way to go.


    • Addendum: The other problem with how Horton frames Covenantal Ontology seems to define man as a wholly stable concept. In reaction to neo-Platonists, this makes sense, but it denies the idea that man in the garden was good, but not yet perfect, and still required maturity (viz. Irenaeus). An emphasis on covenant takes away the ontological development out of overreaction to a chain-of-being.


      • It is an old review. I am trying to put all my reviews in one place.

        `1) If NTW is saying that Moses fulfills the Abrahamic covenant, then that is Horton’s problem. The principle of Moses was “Do this and live” and “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by ALL this law.” Abrahamic covenant didn’t have that. And when God promises to renew his covenant in the future, it is always on the basis of Abraham and David.

        `2) I think I can make an exegetical case for the pactum salutis later.


      • 1) No, I’m not saying that. Wright seems to link the Mosaic to the Abrahamic in the sense that its conditional state, and its failure among Israelites, was part of the process of Israel’s sin-bearing role which, when the Messiah came, He accomplished and brought about the reality of the Abrahamic covenant, where all the nations are blessed in the Seed. To put it more simply, the Mosaic covenant is not alien to the history of salvation, but is necessary in condemning and centralizing the sin in the world that is part of what God’s promise to Abraham.

        2) Ok, but I don’t know if a 300 word post will be sufficient space to convince.


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