Review of Horton’s God of Promise


Michael Horton in this book gives the church and updated primer on covenant theology, drawing upon and routinely surpassing the works of Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson. It is superior to these two works both in style and choice of content. Few can match Horton’s clear, lucid writing. With regard to choice of content, Horton covers the same ground that most systematics cover, but he does so without being repetitious. As a whole, the book is outstanding, but I can only recommend it with a few qualifications (more below). Given the controversial nature of some things in this book, the reviewer must remind the reader that the first half of the book will only explicate some of Horton’s conclusions. The immediate absence of criticism in no way implies agreement with Horton, except as noted.

Controversially, Horton frames his covenant theology around the idea that there were two covenant principles in the Old Testament: the principle of promise given to Abraham and later repeated in the Davidic covenant, and the principle of works found in the Sinaitic covenant. Horton argues persuasively that Yahweh’s unilateral, unconditional promises to his people are always made in terms of the Abrahamic covenant and never the Sinaitic covenant (though he affirms elements of promise in the latter). While I do not care for the language of “republication of the Covenant of Works” (and Horton distances himself from that language), it does appear to be the case that there are two principles present (which Paul himself repeats in Galatians 3-4).

This view is particularly strengthened when Horton deals with the question of “conditions in the covenant” (176). Horton grounds his covenant theology within the Trinity, within the Pactum Salutis. The Covenant of Grace is merely imaging in history the eternal covenant. In neither covenant are their conditions or the possibility that God will fail to bring his people to fruition. There are conditions, however, in the Sinaitic covenant. Further, there are conditions in the administration of the covenants.

Horton’s most controversial chapter is “Providence and Covenant.” Horton notes that God has made a nonredemptive covenant with creation, the Noahic Covenant (113). Here he gives his common grace to all of creation. Much of the chapter is standard Reformed teaching on common grace. Horton notes that religious fundamentalism sees all of culture as “evil” while theological liberalism sees all of culture as “already saved.” He rightly rejects both approaches.

He then examines various millennial views as they relate to culture (119). Horton grudgingly acknowledges that even amillennialism has its dark moments: Christendom, Holy Roman Empire, Calvin and Servetus, and Augustine’s recommending the sword against Donatists (120). Horton charges that these guys, while rightly holding the Two Kingdoms view, did not practice it (more on that later).

Horton’s chapter on the Sacraments is the best in the book. He grounds his understanding of sacrament in the nature of how a covenant is made—cutting and oath (144). The circumcision passages in Genesis have Yahweh giving a self-maledictory oath. Of importance is the language of “cutting off,” which in the Old Testament represents rejection by God. The most dramatic moment of cutting off is Christ’s crucifixion, and in baptism we are united to Christ’s circumcision-death (148; cf Romans 6:1). In short, circumcision-baptism is judgment and alludes to judgment-moments in Israel’s history (1 Cor. 10:2; 1 Peter 3:21; Matt. 3:11ff).

Therefore, we see Horton placing baptism out of the arena of metaphysics and into the realm of covenant and eschatology. In Christian baptism the Covenant Lord brings his servants to an eschatological account, and those who are united to him by faith have life (152-153). Anticipating his section on the Lord’s Supper, Horton shows us why a covenantal (and therefore Reformed) understanding of the sacraments is superior: the reality (seated in the heavenly places with Christ) is not only signified but is actually communicated. A truly covenantal understanding of the sacraments does not have to worry about collapsing sign into the thing signified, or vice-versa. If one doesn’t hold a covenantal ontology, then one is forever in dialectic and tension on whether the sacraments do anything, with any answer to that specific question necessarily being a wrong answer.i

Excursus: What is a Covenantal Ontology

Horton correctly notes: “The covenantal background of the sacraments discloses a worldview far removed from the Greek one we have inherited at this point. In the former, sacraments inhabit the world of oaths and bonds, not substances and accidents” (153). The basics of a covenantal ontology include: “the name (calling on the name, being given the name), word, proclamation, promise, presence, the divine witnessing involved in God’s countenance, and so on, and are part of the vocabulary of covenant rather than metaphysics” (144).

A moment’s reflection will reveal how appropriate this “covenental ontology” way of reading the sacraments really is. He completely exposes how false both Romanism and Zwinglianism are. On Horton’s view it is impossible either to divorce or confuse the sign and thing signified. Even more important, when one reads the Scriptures, one sees little of substance, accidents, and primary substances. One does read about blood, cutting, oaths, and presence.

Interesting insights

Of particular importance is the way Horton (and Kline) root God’s word (the Canon) in the covenant. A lot of Orthodox and Romanists will challenge Protestants with, “What came first, Scripture or the Church?” The answer is, “Neither. The covenant came first.” Canon is the binding word of the covenant Lord. Canon is rooted, not in the Church primarily, but in the covenant Lord. Said even stronger, The existence of the covenant Lord (principium essendi) automatically entails canon-word of the covenant Lord (externum principium cognescendi).

Critique and Concluding Remarks

A few things keep this book from being recommended uncritically. While the Klinean model of the contrast between principle of works/principle of law safeguards the covenant of grace and clarifies many passages in Hebrews, one wonders how easily it can be squared with the Westminster Confession’s teaching that there are not two parallel covenants.

Most unfortunate, though, is Horton’s insistence that modern day rulers are to govern by the nonredemptive Noachic covenant and the principle of common grace. I agree with Horton’s unspoken criticism that modern evangelicalism’s foray into American politics has been a disaster. Further, it is true that Calvin did praise the pagans at points. Even more noted, a commonwealth does not necessarily have to rule by the Law of God in order to be a stable commonwealth.

With all of that said, however, a number of difficulties arise which Klineans cannot answer. If we are to rule by the common-grace ethic, then we must know what the content of that ethic is. Presumably, appealing to the Bible is out (which makes the appeal to the Noahic covenant somewhat strained: which unbeliever, using his “natural reason,” would ever agree to be ruled by one of God’s covenants, including one mandating the death penalty?). Can we appeal to natural law? That still raises the question: what is the specific content of that ethic?

Horton says a two-kingdoms approach prevents the church from blurring into the state. He is correct. However, he criticizes Calvin and the Reformers for upholding Two Kingdoms in theory while rejecting it in practice. Presumably he has in mind the ubiquitous position among the Reformers that the civil magistrate enforce the true religion. Here Horton runs into two problems: 1) as noted above, what is the content of the civil ethic in Two Kingdoms theory? If you cannot define that content then how can Calvin be guilty of violating two kingdoms? I realize some would respond, “The Law of Nations.” Fair enough. On the principle of the Law of Nations, Calvin approved the death penalty for blasphemy, and his critics in Rome agreed with his reasoning. Today’s Law of Nations theory, however, is most likely encoded in the United Nations charters, to which all good Christians must resist to the death.

Horton’s second problem with Two Kingdoms is that he is defining it (to the degree he actually defined it) differently than the Reformers. Two Kingdoms means the kingdom of the Church is not the Kingdom of the state (interesting sidenote: perhaps two kingdoms in fact means two kingdoms. Monarchy, anyone?). The Reformers separated the kingdoms with regard to function, not morality.

Aside from the several major problems mentioned above. The book has much to recommend it. It is superior to Robertson’s take on covenant theology both in style and content. The section on the sacraments is worth the price of the book several times over. Unfortunately, for all of Horton’s irenecism, he presents his arguments somewhat along partisan lines (at least in terms of conclusions) that will drive many away to dangerous theological positions which could have been avoided. His take on the sacraments is what many American Presbyterians need to hear—both the gnostics in the southern United States and the high-church men who are tempted to wilder extremes.

iI remember in seminary my professors struggling to understand what Herman Ridderbos meant on baptism. It seemed like he was ascribing a lot of power to baptism, which would threaten justification by faith. The problem was that they were stuck in Greek ontology and Ridderbos moved in covenantal language.

4 comments on “Review of Horton’s God of Promise

  1. Andrew McKinley says:

    I’ve been leafing through Horton’s Christian Faith on and off, and there really is much good to be said about it. Likewise this book on covenant theology.

    A prejudice I had before reading him was his high sacramentalism but that prejudice was informed by viewing sacramentalism as too Greek for comfort.

  2. McAtee says:

    Thank you for the dedication Jacob.

    I wish I could agree with Horton. I think however his project, taken as a whole, is thinly veiled gnosticism.

    I have read at least 12 volumes of assorted Horton writings (both popular and academic) but after that forray I must conclude that there is a better way.

    Sphere Sovereignty and postmillennial Kuyperianism may be that better way.

    And by the way … Many are the people who would argue that Calvin and Augustine were postmil.

    One more thing … isn’t covenant itself anchored in ontology?

    • Thanks, Bret. I hold to sphere-sovereignty in the broadest outlines. I think the Kuyperians like SKillen and Co torpedoed the project. I think Horton and some Postmils both committ anachronisticreadings of Calvin on the millennium. I just don’t think Calvin was answering those questions. Of course, this means Calvin wasn’t an amillennialist, so construed.

      If by ontology you mean the Triune God in Eternity, yes. HOrton is using ontology in the Greek/Thomist sense of substance and accidents.

  3. […] from the human nature, but we do believe (as Scripture teaches) that the person was cut off (covenantally judged). To reject this is to make hash of the […]

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