Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Horton)

Horton, Michael.   The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

In Tolkien’s Two Towers Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas attack a while-clad old man, thinking him Saruman. Realizing their error, they apologize to Gandalf saying, “We thought you were Saruman.” Gandalf says, “I am Saruman, or rather Saruman as he should have been.”  We may say with this work that Michael Horton is Karl Barth (or NT Wright; insert your favorite villain) as he should have been.

Horton has given us the first presentation of a systematic theology derived along dramatic categories.  Other treatises capture the drama of Scripture or its historical unfolding, but Horton sees the historical unfolding of God’s plan as a drama.   Narrative and systematics need each other. The narrative keeps theology from becoming abstract, and systematics shows “crucial implications of that plot and the inner connections between its various sequences” (Horton 21).  

The narrative structure also helps one’s epistemology.  Horton skillfully interacts with recent postmodern challenges and notes that many of the challenges simply miss the Christian story.   With Jean-Francois Lyotard, we agree that metanarratives are dangerous.  Horton simply denies the Christian story is a metanarrative in the sense that modernity is.

Horton’s section on ontology is quite fine.   He gives a summary of his “Overcoming Estrangement” essays and suggests that one’s epistemology follows one’s ontology.  If one sees the body as simply a prison of the soul, then epistemology will be a kind of “seeing the Forms” or “getting beyond sense experience” (47).  But if one holds to an ontology of covenantal embodiment or finitude as a divine gift, pace Plato, then the primary metaphors for knowledge will be “oral/aural” (49).  This is the real strength of Horton’s project.  He is able to show (with admirable skill) how non-Reformed and non-covenantal views simply default to a pagan metaphysics.

Horton is consistent in applying the speech-act theory.  God’s speech-acts, understood in a Trinitarian manner, rooted in Triadology, ground our understanding of inspiration.  The Father’s speaking is the locutionary act; the Son is the content or illocutionary act that is performed by the speaking, and the Spirit’s work is the perlocutionary effect (157).  As Horton notes, this keeps the model from being too “”mechanical (simply the Father’s speaking) or a canon-within-a-canon (as some Christomonic models intimitate) or enthusiam per hyper-Spirit models. 

Horton gives us a brilliant review of Christology.  He takes the key gains from Wright et al and reworks them around a Reformed covenantal approach–all the while maintaining the Chalcedonian and Nicene values. His review of historical Christology is good, though he didn’t address all of the tensions created by Chalcedon.  He (and I) rightly affirm Chalcedon, but Chalcedon’s other commitments to deification-soteriology and substance-metaphysics would prove troublesome for later thinkers.  I refer to Bruce McCormack’s fine essay on this point.

Criticisms and Concerns

To his credit, Horton is aware of Barth’s challenge to the term “person” in the modern world.  If person means something like “center of reflective self-consciousness” (which is usually how people today, Christian or otherwise, use the term), then it is obvious we cannot apply it to God.  In God, so reasons classical theism, there is one mind, will, and unity of operation.  The modern usage of the word “person” would imply at least three minds.  That is polytheism.  

Horton says we can save the term person by using it analogically of God (295ff).  This is certainly true.  The Father-Son relationship is the model from which we conceive of earthly father-son relationships.  But still, it is not clear how far analogical predication helps on the definition of person.  Even if we grant there is not a univocal relationship between the idea as it applies to God and man, it is still true that the definition as it applies to God (whatever it is, it cannot mean three centers of self-consciousness) and man (a center of self-consciousness) is, quite frankly, different.

On the other hand, despite Barth’s earlier usage of “huparchos tropos” in CD I/1 (which itself has a respectable Patristic pedigree and does not have the same problems as “person”), in later volumes he seems to have no problem using “Person” as it is used in traditional dogmatics (CD II/1: 284).

Horton’s most problematic area is where he thinks he is using the Eastern Essence/energies distinction.   On surface level it sounds good:  we can’t know God in his essence but only in his energies (operations towards us).  Fair enough.  He also says this is what the East believed.  Well, it depends on which Eastern father at which time.  As it metastaized in Gregory Palamas, the energies of God were the only way God could interact with the world.  For the post-Palamas East, nature and persons were hyper-ousia.  This means, among other things, that you can’t have a personal relationship with Jesus because he is beyond being; this is the precise critique that Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss made of John Romanides).

Horton is using “energies” as God’s covenantal speech-acts.  I like that.  It is really good.  It is simply the opposite of what the East means by it.  As Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw points out, the energies are the peri ton theon, things around God.   And contrary to Horton’s earlier (and good) criticisms, you approach these peri ton theon by means of apophatic negation and the ascent of the mind (shades of Origen!).   Eastern monks, as documented by John Meyendorrf, are very clear on this point.


Criticisms aside, this book is magnificent.  While it cannot replace Berkhof, Horton admirably deals with current challenges to traditional protestantism.  Few Reformed folk can really go toe-to-toe with neo-Hegelians like John Milbank.  Horton meets him head on and wins.  Horton also responds to recent Roman (Ratzinger), Eastern (Zizioulas), and Anabaptist (Volf) models with much skill.   His true value, however, is using Vosian covenantal insights to structure systematic theology.  


The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Cocceius)

Cocceius, Johannes. The Covenant and Testament of God. trans. Casey Carmichael. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.

Although his teaching aroused some controversy, Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) unified both rigorous scholastic methodology with a sensitivity to the biblical plotline. (Regarding his scholastic methodology, Cocceius outlines his Summa according to the following headers: §.  This allows him to keep the topic clear even when he pursues tangents.) In one sense Cocceius wouldn’t have thought he was teaching anything new, yet later writers were forced to deal with his takes on the Sabbath and the multiple abrogations of the Covenant of Works.  Positively stated, he offered a powerful presentation of the Pactum Salutis, the Covenant of Redemption.

Cocceius structures his covenant theology around five abrogations of the covenant of works.   Willem J. van Asselt has a helpful introduction on this point (van Asselt xxxi). These five abrogations are:

  1. The Fall
  2. Establishment of the Covenant of Grace
  3. Detachment and renunciation of the old man
  4. Death
  5. Resurrection from death

Like most writers on covenant theology, Cocceius begins with definitions: “God’s covenant is a divine declaration of the way of receiving his love” (Cocceius §5).  It is one-sided (monopleuristic) regarding the way we receive his love.  It is two-sided (dipleuristic) when man obligates himself.

Cocceius proves there was a law-covenant in the Garden because of the law or rectitude on man’s heart. If there is rectitude, then there is a corresponding standard (§8). Even without express Scriptural support, Cocceius provides the intellectual foundations to the Covenant of Works.

Cocceius’s defense of the covenant of works leads to an attack on the Socinians.  As the Socinians believe death was natural, they are led to believe that man was cursed the moment he was created, since without doing anything he had already received the judgment for breaking God’s law.  Of course, the Socinians don’t actually say that, but there it is. Like Barth, they come very close to seeing creation as a sort of Fall.

Against Rome and Bellarmine, “grace” can’t be rendered “making acceptable.”  If God’s covenant with man had some sort of gracious element, and if man had to endure the testing, then he hadn’t yet been “acceptable;” therefore, grace can’t be “making acceptable” (§31).

If we are going to speak of merit in the garden, it isn’t condign merit, but merit according to the pact.  Even if we never sinned, “we could not obligate God, because he receives nothing from us” (§41).

Cocceius and the Sabbath

Did Cocceius believe the Sabbath was abrogated after the Mosaic economy?  Not exactly. He says the Mosaic sabbath “advanced the natural equity that binds the mind and soul to have time for God and His worship” (§13).

Second Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

It is abrogated in the sense that God’s mercy takes away condemnation in the reception of the covenant of grace (§75). The cause of this act is the “eudokia you thelematos tou theou” (§84).

The Pactum Salutis

Cocceius addresses the problem of whether the will of the Father and Son is the same.  He affirms (§92). Rather, the single divine will is appropriated differently. This single passage removes any apparent difficulty in the Pactum Salutis.  The fear had always been that such an intratrinitarian agreement necessitated three wills.  Cocceius demonstrates that “appropriation” solves this problem.

Cocceius mightily rejects any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.  To do so, he notes in which respect the Son is economically subordinate (§94). 

  • The Father is greater than the Son in relation to the Son’s humanity.
  • The Son’s role of mediator cannot imply any lesser status (§95).

Cocceius can even speak of Jesus’s condign merit, as his humiliation is proportionate to the rewards in his exaltation (§103). We establish the reality of Christ’s merit based on 1) the pactum salutis and 2) the rewards for his obedience (which also flows from the pact) (§107). Indeed, “he required merit by act, since he really furnished what he did for salvation.”

Section §108 deals with limited atonement. The argument is simple.  Christ did not act as Surety for all men. Moreover, an acceptable sacrifice actually expiates sin (§116). When Scripture speaks of “dying for the world,” it refers to the universal promise made to Abraham (§123).

When we speak of Christ’s being a Surety, we mean that He stood forth for his people with their sins laid upon Him. The Father had given Him a seed, and this inheritance “responds from another part to the guarantee.” He took upon Himself the payment for our debts (§134, §155).

Furthermore, Christ is a sponsio in that he offered himself to the Father on our behalf (§350).

Faith in Christ justifies us because:

  • He makes his promise and gift fixed on the grounds of the covenant (Heb. 3:1)
  • It is the consummation of the heavenly marriage.
  • It is the first effect of the Spirit of the life of Christ in us.

We call the sanction of the Covenant of Grace “the oath of God” (§198).

The Third Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

The cutting off of Christ was the cause of the abolition of the Old Covenant (which, to be sure, is not identical with the Abrahamic covenant, §344).

On the Sacraments

Sacraments are seals, not moral causes, pace Rome.  Seals are effects (§436).  Indeed, as the cup is the testament in his blood, Jesus the Testator seals that on us.

Do not remove the Cup

Rome says that the bread, being transubstantiated, already has blood in it since it is a living body.  But a living body is not offered to us, but a slain and sacrificial one.  It is a body that is broken (§496).   You cannot simultaneously say it is a living body and that blood has been shed (see also, §502ff).

Cocceius has another interesting rebuttal to the Mass.  When Paul says we have koinonia in the body of Christ, it can’t mean eating.  It is elsewhere contrasted with the koinonia of demons, yet no one suggests we eat demons (§520).  Moreover, the Israelites were said (v.18) to have koinonia in the altar, yet they did not orally receive the altar.

Fourth Abrogation

The fourth abrogation is the death of the body.

Fifth Abrogation

The fifth abrogation is the resurrection from the dead.


It would be a stretch to say this is one of the best scholastic texts.  That would be Francis Turretin.  I wouldn’t say this is the most useful scholastic text on covenant theology.  That would be Herman Witsius. Nonetheless, Cocceius engages the biblical text in ways that often surpass others.  While he is not always the clearest writer, his formatting the texts by section markers separates him from others and prevents the reader from getting lost..  While this is an advanced text, it is required reading to understand how the Reformed view the covenants.  One can no longer speak on Reformed covenant theology without seriously engaging Johannes Cocceius.

The New England Mind: The 17th Century (Miller)

Miller, Perry.  The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

One reads Perry Miller for the same reasons one reads Edward Gibbon: the delightful prose and the breathtaking scope of his topic. Never go to Miller for accurate doctrine.  He gets much of it wrong.  That might not be accurate, though.  Miller has read the primary sources, and there are many of them.  How well he understood them is another question.

On Predestination

“….penetration of God’s sovereignty into his [the Puritan’s] personality” (Miller 17).


“Virtue is not, as Aristotle and the scholastics said, a mean between two ends, but an extremity itself” (46).

Peter Ramus

Many Puritans considered him as dying “equally for the cause of logic and of Christ” (Miller 117). Missionaries would translate Ramus and condense him down so the Native Americans could read him alongside the Bible.

Aristotelian systems divided the whole of logic into three parts: simple terms, proposition, and discourse (122ff). A simple term contains the predicable.  The key is that its logic didn’t focus on method so much as learning the predicables.

To Ramus most of this was unnecessary memory work and didn’t actually train the student to use systems and methods. By focusing more on method than memorizing predicables, a Ramist was able to show how the terms are interconnected, something Aristotelians could not always do.

Logic is divided into invention and judgment.  “Invention is the part in which are arranged individual terms, the concepts, the arguments or the reasons, with which discourses are constructed; in judgment are contained the methods for putting arguments together”(128).

Arguments can be either artificial or inartificial.  An artificial argument is the facts as they are observable (e.g., fire causes heat).   The argument is embedded in the thing itself. An inartificial argument is one whose cause is not immediately apparent.

The most important point is that the syllogism serves the axiom, not the other way around. This removes the tendency, probably common among scholastics, to reduce everything to syllogisms.  In other words, “judgment is made immediately from axiom, mediately from syllogism” (135).

Ramus went even further.  He simplified the syllogism “into two modes, which he called the simple and composite” (136). A simple syllogism is one of the standard three figures.  A composite is something like a hypothetical or disjunctive syllogism.  Whereas Aristotle emphasized the square of opposition, Ramus introduced the opposition in a catalog of arguments.

Ames: “Contradiction in the composite syllogism always ought to divide the true from the false” (138).

“Method proceeds from universals to singulars.”

Miller suggests that the division between Aristotelians and Ramists is like the one between nominalists and realists, with the former seeing logic as a product of the mind (146).

Invention: an act of faculty intelligence performed according to the law of truth.

Ramism ran headlong into a problem: how can one really assert the identity between arguments and things (155)?  They denied that concepts were merely mental and subjective, which would seem to be nominalism.  Both the medieval nominalists and the Puritans (at least as Miller reads them) believed in an almighty, albeit arbitrary God. By putting rationality in the nature of things, Ramus allowed the Puritans a God without the chaos.

Ames illustrated how art (i.e., the rule of making and governing things to their ends) moves from God to man: the mind of God → enacted by God → clothed with objects and forms → extracted from objects by the human mind.

While he was a Ramist, much of William Ames’ theology is quite Thomist.  He asserted divine ideas or “platformes” in the mind of God.  The idea of a thing preexists in the mind of God. Especially as relates to “art,” these divine ideas are the radii of divine wisdom (167).

“Affections” are “the instruments of the will as it embraces or refuses a thing” (253).

Ramus didn’t so much as attack Aristotle on rhetoric; he simply got rid of the unnecessary parts.  Ramus’s students, especially ministers of the Word, saw that forcing a sermon to fit the grid of “praecisio, significatio, extenuatiom digressio, progressio, regressio, iteratio, dubiatio” was useless, if not actually impossible (315).  Ramus argued that the logical form (which the student would have already covered in the dialectic) could carry the weight of the “rhetorical” aspect.  Ramus said a student was better off imitating Cicero than trying to reproduce an Aristotelian manual.

This view on rhetoric led quite naturally to the “plain style” of Puritan preaching.  By plain style they didn’t mean “ignorant.”  They meant setting forth the “reasons” and “use” of a text.

The Covenant of Grace

Here is where Miller gets in trouble.  He writes, “Accordingly, between 1600 and 1650, English Puritans were compelled, in order to preserve the truths already known, to add to their theology at least one that hitherto had not already been known, or at least not emphasized, the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace” (366). This statement is false on every level.

Maybe he isn’t saying that, though. A few pages later, he mentions that the covenant of grace was in earlier Reformers.  What he suggests, I think, is that the Covenant of Grace took on a new practicality among the New England Puritans who also happened to be Ramist, Federalist, and Congregationalist all at once (374).

The problem is not that Miller hasn’t read the sources.  I dare say few have read New England Puritanism as intensely as he did.  He limits his vision, though.  He is completely aware of any developments/origins of covenant theology outside of North America and some aspects of Perkins and Ames.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry


Clark, R. Scott. ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007.

This is an early foray into the Federal Vision controversy.  The book’s value, however, extends far beyond rebutting Federal Vision errors.  It explores parallels between “a faith formed by love” (Rome) and FV’s rejection of law/gospel, covenant of works, and imputation of active obedience.

How we Got Here

R. Scott Clark explores the history of evangelicalism and puts the spotlight on the fact that American Reformed Christians thought of themselves as evangelical first, confessional second, conservative most of all.  This led to a loss of key Reformation categories.

Where Are We: Justification Under Fire

David VanDrunen explores recent ecumenical documents on justification.  He reminds us, contrary to all these documents, that “faith is the instrument by which we are justified.”  Love is a fruit flowing out of this justification.  By contrast, the Joint Declaration says justification is that which gives faith (loc. 544). Furthermore, while the Roman Catholic doctrine of progressive sanctification sounds Reformed at times, it is always placed within the context of justification.

Norman Shepherd: He will sometimes use innocent-sounding phrases like “living faith.”  The question then becomes, “Are we justified by an obedient faith?”  Indeed, in “The Grace of Justification” (Shepherd 15) “faith is the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not enough for Reformed revisionists to say, “But faith is never a faith that is alone.”  That’s not the point.   Just because faith is never temporally apart from works, it does not follow that faith is the fount of good works causally (Van Drunen loc. 895n).

Covenant Nomism and the Exile

Rich Lusk: “The initial clothing in white is received by faith alone.  This is the beginning of Joshua’s justification.  But if Joshua is to remain justified–that is, if the garments he has received are not to become re-soiled with his iniquity–he must be faithful.  Thus initial justification is by faith alone; subsequent justifications include obedience” (Lusk, “Future Justification to the Doers of the Law,” accessed at

The above might be the worst thing a Federal Visionist can say.  I know, it is tempting to say that any random quote by Wilson would be the worst thing–and there is some truth to that idea, but unlike Wilson, Lusk is able to communicate in clear sentences.  Federal Visionists cannot say, “Oh, but you misunderstand.”  No, not really. We misunderstand Wilson, to be sure, because everything he says is “yes and no” (contra 2 Cor. 1:20).  Lusk is quite clear: in by grace, stay in by works.

Duguid’s thesis: if we get in by grace and stay in by law, and if the exile is a metaphor for the punishment of sin, then does God have a relationship with his people when they are in exile” (loc.1037)?  If we get in by grace and stay in by works, then why does God renew his covenant with a sinful people who already had broken it?

The Covenant of Works in Moses and Paul by Bryan Estelle

Estelle begins on a strong note by rebutting Rich Lusk’s reading of Aquinas. Lusk said Aquinas maintained that strict justice can only exist among equals.  That’s true.  That’s also not the only thing Aquinas said: man can only merit (here for the sake of argument) based on God’s previous divine ordination (ST I-II 30.203).

Do This and Live: Christ’s Active Obedience as the Ground of Justification by R. Scott Clark

The Reformed have linked the imputation of Christ’s active obedience under his priesthood.  As a result, those who reject this shortchange “Christ’s work for us in favor of his work in us” (Clark loc. 3524).  Then comes a subtle shift: the ground of my justification is not outside me, it is inside me.

When Jordan replaces “merit” with “maturity,” he seems to see our problem as ontological, not legal.  Adam needed more being.  This is hard to square with the claim that he was created “in righteousness and true holiness.”

Legal fiction: imputation isn’t a legal fiction.  God’s “speech-acts are creative, constitutive, and nominative” (3886).  In any case, the charge from Romanists is odd since they do the same thing with the merits of the saints.

Faith formed by Love or Faith Alone? By Robert Godfrey

Thesis: the medieval church taught that faith, “in its essence, was simply or implicitly a mental category or habit to which the believer must assent, fides informis” (Godfrey 4026; see passages in Thomas II-II Q.41).  Charity, therefore, brings the act of faith to its form (Thomas).   Therefore, the unformed faith perfects the intellect as formed faith perfects the will.  At this point, he is capable of doing good works.

And before critics say “faith working by love” (which is not what Thomas was saying, for what it’s worth), the point here is that faith “does not take its power to justify from the working of love” (4123).


There was a point in my life when I was critical of faith alone.  But even then, I never advanced the idea that it leads to antinomianism.  I knew from observing other people that that wasn’t true.  The value in this book isn’t simply a comprehensive refutation of Federal Vision or N.T. Wright. Much has been written since then.  Rather, the book points out where the FV writers (and Wright) are simply ignorant of basic Reformed distinctions.  I speak from experience.  I never joined the FV club (mainly for factional reasons) but I did embrace many tenets.  Quite frankly, I was ignorant.

You are welcome to disagree with the conclusions in this book.  However, you can’t disagree with the Reformed and medieval source as to what the Reformed actually teach.

Covenant and Election (Van Genderen)


Van Gendere, J. Covenant and Election.  Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1995.

Have you ever wanted to know the intricate details of 20th century Dutch covenant theology?  Van Genderen is here to tell you. It is a survey of Dutch responses to the problem of Covenant and Election in the early 20th century.  The problem is if we identify election with the covenant of grace, then election tends to crowd out the covenant. This had disastrous results with Abraham Kuyper.  On the other hand, if covenant is free from election, we have Arminianism (and today, the horrors of Wilsonism) creep back in. I am not entirely sure what his conclusion is.  On one hand, he fully rejects identifying election with the covenant of grace (or more precisely, the scope of the two aren’t identical). On the other hand, he doesn’t go as far as Klaas Schilder, either.

Van Genderen’s problem is that if the covenant is established only with the elect, yet Genesis 17 says Yahweh will be a God to us and our children, then on what basis do we put the sign of the covenant on the children and claim those problems?  This was the problem Kuyper faced. This is why some Kuyperian churches of 800 members might have only 14 take communion. For Kuyper only the baptism of true covenant children is a valid baptism (Van Genderen 25). Therefore, at every baptism the church must presuppose regeneration and election.  

Van Genderen has a fantastic section on Karl Barth’s problematic theology.  For Barth, election is identical with the doctrine of God. The problem with Barth’s claim that in divine election of Jesus as the elect and reprobate man makes faith superfluous.  True, Barth emphasized it, but there was no need. The divine “no” and “yes” in Christ reduces unbelief to an ontological impossibility (41).

Per covenant and creation, Barth has the wild claim that the first man was at once the first sinner.  

Van Genderen does move towards a construction of how we should see covenant and election.  The covenant is not a contract (63). God and man don’t negotiate. Rather, it is promise + demand + threat (69). Election doesn’t overshadow everything; the promise does.

He holds to individual election, but wants to place our experience of it within not only Christ, but the church community.

He ends with some thoughts on Schilder, which we can only wish were more developed.  With Schilder we see the covenant God as the speaking-to-man as responsible party. A proclamation always comes with an urgent call to accept it. The covenant is a legal status “defined by the speaking God, the God of the Word” (99).

This is a good historical survey in some parts but is woefully underdeveloped in others.  There is brief mention of Olevian and the substance/administration distinction, but no discussion of how Schilder himself would have interacted with it.

J. Mcleod Campbell: Nature of the Atonement

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Campbell, J. Mcleod.  The Nature of the Atonement.  Eerdmans.

Mcleod Campbell represents a different stream of Scottish theology.  It is Reformed theology without limited atonement. His argument, to be presented below, is incomplete in many ways.  He really does not develop a constructive case for universal redemption that would overturn the Owenian dominance in Reformed theology.  On the other hand, his take avoids ALL of the criticisms lobbed at standard Reformed takes on the atonement.

Further, he knows, like many of his traditional critics, that federalism and limited atonement go together.   Summary of thesis: Is the inner relation of God one of abstracted lawgiver or as merciful Father revealed in the innermost being of Jesus?

If God provides the atonement, then forgiveness must precede the atonement.  The atonement is the form of the manifestation of God’s love, not its cause. We begin with the presupposition that God is communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t have to be “contracted” into being gracious to us.


It’s not clear how Christ’s “feeling sorry” for my sin actually removes my sin.  Further, it’s not clear on what ground Christ has any right to “feel sorry” for my sin. However, if there is a connection between Incarnation and atonement, and if Christ is consubstantial with us in the Incarnation, then perhaps he does have this right.


Calvin: “God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham” (Comm. Jeremiah 31:31-35). God’s covenant brings obligations, not conditions.

Problem with federalist position: emphasis is on what i have to do IF I am to know I am saved.  More imperative, less indicative.

Opening problems with limited atonement:

  1. No assurance of faith.
  2. Coupled with doctrine of election, this turns us to ourselves and to “evidences.”
  3. Tends to make justice the essential attribute, and love arbitrary.  Perhaps, though divine simplicity functions as a control mechanism that makes this type of thinking impossible.  But the argument here is that the demands of justice must be met before God can be loving.

Mcleod Campbell counters that God is love in his innermost being. This is a key Athanasian insight to which Campbell will return again and again, but he never systematically develops it.

James Torrance summarizes the dynamic this way.  If you and I have a falling out, and I come to you and say, “I forgive you,” it’s a word of love. It’s also a word of condemnation, for I am implying that you are in the wrong.

Campbell doesn’t immediately start with the extent of the atonement.  He says that’s an illustration from the nature of the atonement. “Is it fair to ask men to put their trust in that God of whom we cannot tell them whether He loves them or not” (75)?

Constructive argument:

(1) LA substitutes a legal standing for a filial standing (76).  Campbell points us to Gal. 4:4-5 instead. He sees the problem that we collapse the Fatherhood of God into that of Judge.

(2) LA does not reveal the name of God in Christ–that of love (79).

(3) A prima facie reading of the NT teaches that Christ died for all men (82).  You cannot preach the good news to all otherwise.

(4) Public justice rests upon distributive or absolute justice (83).  Campbell is focusing on the supposed “legal fiction” involved in imputation.

(5) God was not angry at the Son on the cross.  We know this because of perichoresis.

(6) If I can’t know that Christ died for me, how can I truly have filial trust in the Father (98)?

(7) The love of God is the cause of the atonement, not the effect (46). See Romans 5:1ff.  Did the atonement make God loving towards me, or was it because God loved me?

(8) Campbell distinguishes between an atoning sacrifice for sin and a penal substitution (107). Must the Savior experience an equivalent punishment, or an adequate one (119)?

(9) The pardon of sin is connected in direct relation to the gift of eternal life (128).

(10) Christ came not to deliver us from punishment, but to cleanse and purify our worship (144; see Hebrews’ use of Psalm 40).

(11) Christ is “confessing” our sins (145)  This is a filial understanding of atonement.  It brings us to adoption as sons.

(11’) The Father’s heart did demand an atoning of our sins, but so that he could bring us back to filial relation (147).

(12) Union with Christ solves the need for imputed righteousness.  If all is perfect in Christ, and I am in him, then what need is there for imputed righteousness (168)?  There is no “as if” in Christ (222).

(13) There is a corresponding unity and relation between Incarnation and Atonement (228).

(14) The Fatherhood of God is antecedent to God as moral governor (242).  This is precisely the correction Athanasius made to Origen.  If God is eternally Lord and Moral Governor, then there is something he is eternally Lord over.  Thus, eternal Creation.  Thus, Origen.

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.

Study notes on Caspar Olevian and Substance

I will write a formal review later.  R. Scott Clark has several fascinating sections reconstructing German Calvinism in the 16th century, along with rebutting the Heppe-thesis and such.  The review will cover those parts. This book is so useful on justification and covenant, that it could  serve the brethren and sisteren if its better quotes were put in an easily accessible bullet-point format.


The Basic Argument

“Considered objectively, the substance of the covenant is comprised of God’s saving acts in Christ and the explanation of those acts in Christian theology” (Clark xviii). The double benefit refers to the objective work of Christ for us and the sanctifying work of Christ in us.


The first few chapters place Olevian in his humanist and scholastic context.  It’s important at this point to get his Aristotelian terminology understood.

Primary substance: indivisible substances extra intellectum (Clark 60).  Think this-man, that-tree.

Secondary substance: think classes and kinds.  God is a primary substance.  The primary substance, if you will.  More importantly, “God” is not a genus, so he can’t be a secondary substance.

Olevian on Substance and God

Substance of the covenant: objective truths of the Christian religion summarized in Apostles’ Creed (67).


Olevian’s Trinitarian Doctrine of God

“Medieval soteriology….thought of infused grace (gratia infusa) as the means of final justification, Calvin made it the office of God the Spirit to infuse the elect, subsequent to justification, with the grace of sanctification” (83).

A person, as per the Trinity, is a subsistence “unsustained by any other” (97).

Trinity, Creation, and Substance

Substance is defined as “being’ because ‘being proper’ belongs to it” (101). Yet for Olevian substance is shorthand for “all that God has done for us in Christ. It was shorthand for the twofold benefit” (102).  The substance of the covenant describes the special relations between God and the elect.

Olevian’s Federalist Christology

Contrast with Lutheran Christology

  • genus maiestaticum: Christ’s humanity transformed by personal union with his deity (107).

Reformed Christology

  • Christ’s taking the form of a servant meant he had to take a true human nature, with all of its frailties (111).
  • extra calvinist

Brevis Admonitio: A Christological Federalism

“Olevian assumed a distinction between deity and humanity on the basis of his understanding of natura.  Chemnitz, on the other hand, assumed the possibility of different relations between Christ’s humanity and divinity on the basis of his understanding of degree (gradus) and class (genus)” (121).

Christ died as “sponsio” of the New Testament (130).

Justification: The First Benefit of the Covenant of Grace

Justification: First Part of the Double Benefit

  1. “Forgiveness of sins (remissio peccatorum) is the first “offered benefit” (oblatum beneficium) which is received by faith” (151).
  2. Christ’s righteousness is the ground of our justification, and is externally imputed to the believer.

Romanist View

Per Canisius:

  1. Justification is an ontological matter, a transformation (Clark 156).
  2. The beginning of justice is sufficient to satisfy God.  God “holds his judgment in abeyance until final justification or sanctification is achieved” (meritum de condigno; 156).
  3. Justification is a result of the mediation of grace.
  4. These benefits are applied in baptism (158). They are complex, not duplex.
  5. Christ fulfills these internally in us.  For Olevian, Christ has already fulfilled all righteousness (159).

Olevian’s Response

  1. Christ has already fulfilled all righteousness and we benefit through faith.
  2. “The voice of nature or law of the covenant requires that justice before God must be either completely proper or alien to oneself” (159).
  3. “Justification cannot be something accomplished within us, since Christ has already accomplished it externally” (160).

Sanctification: The Second Part of the Double Benefit

Our “renovatio was also promised on prevenient, unmerited divine mercy” (185).

Key point: Olevian’s Trinitarianism and “focus on God the Spirit, combined with the use of the covenant which had the effect of creating a locus in his theology for a doctrine of evangelical obedience without threatening his doctrine of justification by imputation” (187).

In other words, Olevian’s strong sanctification theology never fell to the dangers of Federal Visionism.


He held to a monergism in justification but saw a mutuality in the administration of the covenant of grace (190).

Means of Grace

“Because repentance is sanctification, it cannot be a condition of the remission of sins” (198).

There is an organic relationship between the sign and substance, so that “the signs themselves entail covenant stipulationes” (200).

Children are in the covenant, but the Lord’s Supper is a feast of covenant renewal, and infants are not eligible for it (205).

The Economy of the Covenants (Witsius)

This is the classic statement of Covenant Theology at the end of the 17th Century.  Witsius steers an irenic course between Voetsius and Cocceius. The first volume deals with Covenant Theology proper while the second volume analyzes the various types and shadows of the Old Testament.

Image result for herman witsius

Generally, covenants signify a mutual agreement between parties, with respect to something (43).  A covenant of God, furthermore, “is an agreement between God and man, about the way of obtaining consumate happiness,” including sanctions (45).  This covenant comprises three things: a) Promise; b) condition; c) sanction.

While it is a free agreement between God and man, man really couldn’t say no.  Not to desire God’s promises is to refuse the goodness of God, which is sin. Witsius views the CoW as probationary, yet Adam wouldn’t have “earned” the reward per any intrinsic merit.  The reward is rooted in God’s covenant, not in man’s merit.

Doctrine of God

God’s knowledge of future things cannot be conceived apart from his decreeing them (141).  The creature acts in concurrence with God’s action. All things come from God. There is only one first cause (I.8.15). If something could act besides having God as its cause, then there would be multiple first Causes, which is polytheism.

God and sin.  If all beings come from God, and even though sin is privation of being, it, too, is a kind of entity, then it also arises from God’s plan (para 22)

Book II.

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Covenant of Grace

Definition: a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner, God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and every thing relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant, by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that goodwill by a sincere faith (2.1.5).

Chapter 2: Of the Covenant between God the Father and Son

The covenant of redemption is between God and the Mediator. The will of the Father, giving the Son to be the Head and Redeemer of the elect; and the will of the Son, presenting himself as a Sponsor or Surety for them (2.2.2). Christ’s suretyship consists in his willingness to undertake to perform that condition (2.2.4).

The exegetical foundation is in Zech. 6.13.  There is a counsel of Peace between God and the Branch.

Covenant and Justification: God the Father, through Christ’s use of the sacraments, sealed the federal promise concerning justification (para 11).  Christ’s baptism illustrates the sealing of the covenant from both sides.


Chapter 1: Of the Covenant of God with the Elect

The contracting parties are God and the elect (281). The son is not only mediator but testator, who ratified the covenant with his death. Are there conditions in the covenant of Grace?  Earlier divines like Rutherford spoke a qualified “yes,” though Witsius removes himself from that language. Condition: that action which gives a man a right to the reward (284).

The Decalogue

The substance of the decalogue is the same as the moral law (p. 165). When God gave the decalogue to Israel, he published some reasons annexed to it that were peculiar to Israel alone (176). There is in some sense a repetition of the Covenant of Works in Sinai (IV.4,47).  However, it was not repeated simpliciter. Carnal Israel embraced it as a covenant of works (Rom. 9.31). Sinai contains no promise of grace.

The Old Covenant

Witsius contrasts the promises made to Abraham with the stipulations of the Sinaitic Covenant. In Sinai God did not promise to give the people a heart to obey (337).  And it is to this covenant, and not to the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants, that God contrasts with the New Covenant.


This is the classic statement.  Witsius gets somewhat speculative in the second volume, but the first volume definitely rewards careful study.


Review: John Owen on the Christian Life (Ferguson)

This book is exactly what you would expect from an Owen scholar writing on John Owen.  It is clear and rarely goes off rabbit-trails.  While it is old in some ways, and not every locus of systematic theology gets treated, a careful study of this work will repay pastoral ministry.

Ferguson begins with Owen’s covenant theology.  It seems, surprisingly, that Owen held to something like a “works-principle” in Sinai.  Covenant of Sinai: sometimes referred to as Old Covenant. Owen is aware of the tensions in saying that all covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Under the covenant of grace, yet in some way there were principles of the Covenant of Works (JO: 19:389). Sinai can’t simply be Covenant of Grace because of the sharp contrasts between “a better covenant.”

Covenant theology allows Ferguson to draw several inferences on soteriology: Union with Christ: the work of grace–”same instant wherein anyone is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified” (JO: 3.517). Effectual calling takes place in Christ, is an act of God the Father (JO: 20: 498), and binds the believer by the indwelling of the spirit (JO: 21:147). Effectual calling produces a change in both status (justification) and life (sanctification), yet it does not identity the two.

Sanctification is the pinnacle of this volume. Structure of sanctification.  The work of grace produces the exercise of duty (Ferguson 55). Owen gives a long definition in JO 3.369-370. In one sense it is an immediate work on believers, since it flows from regeneration and from our Head, yet it is also a process (56). The Lord Jesus is the Head from whom all gifts flow, yet the Spirit is the efficient cause who communicates them to us (Ferguson 58).

Very thorough chapter on Assurance and why the believer may experience varying degrees of it.  This lets Owen talk about the sealing of the Holy Spirit.  Owen: “No special act of the Spirit, but only in an especial effect of his communication unto us” (JO 4:400). He seals the believer by his personal indwelling, but there are no rules as to how/when the believer may recognize it.

With the volumes numerous quotations from Owen, from almost all of his works, we recommend this as a handy guidebook to navigating Owen.