Pre notes on Horton’s Peolpe and Place

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

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

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

If we see the Word as a creation of the Church, then we can’t avoid the conclusion: “Wherever the totus Christus idea conflates Christ as head with his ecclesial body, Christ’s external word to his church can easily become an instance of the church simply talking to itself” (84).  Horton then draws the devastating conclusion: “And since we are dealing wtih speech about salvation, can this mean anything other than the church saving itself (and perhaps the world?) by its good praxis?”   Further, quoting Laura Smit elsewhere, the question is asked, “How can Christ return and judge the church if he is identical with the Church’s eucharistic body” (Horton 152).

Ratifying the Treaty: Signs and Seals

The Bible does not speak of sacraments in metaphysical language but in language that connotes eschatological presence.

  1. Words and signs create a covenant.  They do not “fuse” essences (101).

  2. There is no nature-grace problem but a sin-grace problem.

  3. Eschatology creates a tension:  we have a foretaste of the future feast now, which creates in us a painful longing for the Age to Come.   Eschatological presence intensifies Jesus’s ascended absence.  This actually helps us on the doctrine of assurance.  Assurance is mercilessly attacked by Anchoretic traditions (Trent even condemns to hell any who speak of it), since how can we, as finite humans, “infallibly” know something in the future?   Eschatology and a covenantal ontology can help.  Who are we to ridicule assurance when the King of heaven feeds us from his banquet and promises to strengthen our faith?  Any questioning of assurance is merely treason against the King.  Because of eschatology, assurance will remain in tension–but it is still real assurance because God says it is! (Speech-Act theory).

Poignant remarks:

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

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

Instead of Plato’s two worlds we have St Paul’s Two Ages (3).

Some critical remarks:

Horton tries to read Jenson as a thorough Hegelian because Jenson denies our participation in God is not an instantiation of an eternal form but rather a vehicle for the divine (92-93).  Granted, Jenson’s Hegelian language isn’t the best, but Horton’s critique is odd since Jenson seems to be criticizing the same Platonism as Horton is.

Horton tries to employ the East’s essence/energies distinction, and it is certainly superior to Thomist and modern models.  I don’t disagree with him, but Gregory Palamas’s metaphysics is infinitely more nuanced than Horton is presenting (and ironically, I think Palamas is ultimately susceptible to the same critique of substance ontologies that Horton gives.  In defining God as hyperousia, both essence and Persons, Palamas can only allow that the energies are present.  The persons in the divine drama have since been eclipsed; only the energies remain).


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