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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Horton, Michael S.


Covenant and Salvation. Union with Christ.


Louisville-London: Westminster John Knox 2007. XI, 324 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 19,99. ISBN 978-0-664-23163-7.


Hans Burger

Covenant and salvation is the third part of a four volume series written by Michael S. Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. In this project, he examines the gospel of salvation from the perspective of covenant theology.

In this volume, he deals with justification, union with Christ, and participation. Whereas traditional dogmatics risked reducing these themes to timeless truths, H. proposes a ›redemptive-historical hermeneutic charged with dynamism and dramatic interest‹ (6) in continuity with Reformed federal theology. H. engages in a fresh dialogue with the New Perspectives on Paul, Radical Orthodoxy, as well as the new Finnish interpretation of Luther. These schools all oppose a forensic understanding of justification and make a plea for a new appraisal of participation in Christ. Further, he tries to enrich his Reformed heritage with insights from Eastern Orthodoxy as well as speech act-theory.

Part One, Covenant and Justification, is a discussion with the New Perspective about Paul’s doctrine of justification. Foundation­al to H.’s position is his distinction between the covenant of works, made with Adam and with Israel at Sinai; and the covenant of grace made with Abraham and David. H. agrees with Sanders’ description of Second Temple Judaism as ›covenantal nomism‹: a synergism based on a gracious covenant. H. sees close parallels between this covenantal nomism and late medieval nominalism, as well as between Paul and the Reformers. Building on Sanders, H. criticises Dunn and Wright for not distinguishing the two covenants, and for confusing Paul with covenantal nomism. H. defends a ›classical‹ understanding of Paul with regard to justification and denies that a gospel of justification of the ungodly by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ would result in license. He values that Wright shows the cosmic, ecclesiological and eschatological di­mensions of the gospel-narrative, but he maintains that the gospel includes a message of individual salvation.

In Part Two, Covenant and Participation, H. shows that justification can still be understood as effective. Central to this effective understanding is a forensic and Trinitarian reworking of the theory of speech acts. God’s forensic judgment is a speech act. God’s verdict does what it says. He follows K. J. Vanhoozer, correlating the locutionary, illocutionairy and perlocutionairy aspect of speech with Father, Son and Spirit. He uses this communicative approach of God’s Trinitarian acts as a powerful tool. H. understands the forensic word as the source of the entire order of salvation. The forensic justification is the foundation and source of the mystical union with Christ, the participation with Christ, and the transformative effects of this participation.

This implies that forensic grace has transformative effects, al­though the transformation itself is not a part of justification. Hence H. breaks with a ›schizofrene tendency‹ (302) in Reformed soteriology: a forensic understanding of justification in combination with an understanding of transformation, independent from this forensicism, generated by the concept of an infused habit. This medieval ontology of infused habits is no longer needed in a covenantal ontology generated by the effective word of God. In this way, the word really can be understood as the seed of regeneration. Re­generation no longer has to be interpreted in a causal, coercive frame­work, but as a result of a communicative act, made effective by the Holy Spirit.

H. further clarifies his understanding of participation. He op­poses a Neoplatonic metathexis: an ontological participation of the natural in the supernatural (in God). He finds this concept of participation in Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy as well as in the New Finnish School. His own alternative is participation in Christ, who brings about a koinonia with enemies. No metaphysical binaries like finite/infinite are mediated, but the enmity of sin is reconciled, which has to be understood against the background of the covenant. The foreign experience is not assimilated, but something new arrives, which can be viewed in terms of advent. He uses Tillich’s typology: not overcoming estrangement, but meeting a stranger, and becoming friends.

The concept of theosis he proposes builds on this concept of participation in Christ. Union with Christ involves divinisation. However, this divinisation implies no participation in the divine being or essence. H. enriches Reformed soteriology with a distinction from Eastern Orthodoxy: the Palamite distinction between essence and energy. According to this distinction, we know God according to his divine energies, but we have no access to his hidden essence. God’s uncreated glory emanates, transfigures and glorifies us also by participation in Christ’s transfiguration and glorification. This will happen in the future resurrection of the dead, where the consummation occurs.

My questions concern first H.’s distinction between two covenants. H. sees the Sinai-covenant in continuity with the covenant of works, in opposition to the covenant of grace made with Abraham and David. However, if the covenant with Israel at Sinai is understood as a first elaboration of the covenant with Abraham, and the covenant with David as meant to consolidate the covenant with Israel, all fulfilled in a new covenant, then at least four covenants need to be distinguished, apart from a speculative covenant of works. This refinement might lead to a different evaluation of the New Perspective on Paul. It could create space for an effective justification which includes our works. If the verdict of God does what it says, a justification apart from works can still include in its effects the works done as its result. The metaphor of clothing shows that this is possible, uniting the gift of righteousness with the righteous works done if we have clothed ourselves with Christ.

Further I am not convinced by H.’s defence of the concept of imputation. The word ›imputation‹ comes from Paul’s quotation of Gen 15,6 in Romans and Galatians. He uses this quotation to show the continuity in God’s dealing with Abraham and the people of the new covenant. This limits his possibilities of showing how the righteousness of Christ is given, for Christ is not mentioned in Gen 15. Should we then use this word for such a central concept to explain how the righteousness of Christ is given in justification?
Another question concerns the relation between justification and participation. According to H., justification is the forensic foundation of participation. But if Christ was raised for our justification and if his resurrection is itself a justification (300), justification already presupposes union with Christ, as Reformed theology knew (198–200). Does not this imply that justification presupposes participation? – Finally, I wonder how H. in his covenantal ontology understands the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit. This theme is remarkably absent in his book.

For anyone interested in the Reformed tradition of covenantal theology, this is a creative and renewing book. H. engages in an open conversation with many voices in contemporary theology. It is a well-informed book that incorporates insights from other parts of the Christian tradition. This beautiful book is worthy of careful reading.