Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006)
I wrote this review three years ago, right after the book came out in 2006. I hesitated to publish it because I like Mike Horton and am appreciative of his ministry, both in his writings and on the White Horse Inn. In writing this review, I am not in any way suggesting that Professor Horton’s book is not a useful contribution to covenant theology. My main concern is that Horton’s book is viewed by some as a lay-level intro to covenant theology from a Klinean perspective. While the book does show the influence of Kline’s thought at some critical junctures (especially the use of the suzerainty treaties and the republication thesis), there are also aspects of the book that fall short of presenting Kline’s full system.
As soon as I say that, I cringe. For why should Horton be obligated to present Kline’s full system? Nowhere in the book does he claim to be summarizing Kline’s covenant theology. He may in fact have some differences with Kline, for all I know — and that would be perfectly okay with me. Kline’s covenant theology is merely one man’s attempt to make systematic sense of the teaching of Scripture and is not the only viable option within the Reformed tradition, much less is it inspired or inerrant. But still, I have this general feeling that many lay-people may think that Horton’s book is at least compatible with Kline, and perhaps more than compatible, an actual attempt to summarize Kline. So I want to put forth this review, not because I have anything against Horton, but to make clear that Horton’s book is not a substitute for reading Kline’s work.
Most of my criticisms below are of the sort that are really irritating in book reviews, e.g., “The author didn’t say anything about topic x, which is really important to me, the reviewer. How dare the author fail to address my hobby horse!” I’m sure that if one were to ask Horton he would respond, “Well, I had a page limit; the book is for lay-people; I couldn’t deal with every issue; and see my four-volume systematic theology published by WJK for the details.” Fair enough, and I respect that. No book is complete; it is merely part of an ongoing conversation.
So, with those caveats out of the way, here’s the review as I wrote it three years ago.
For many years, there has been a need for an accessible introduction to covenant theology explaining and defending the traditional federal system. O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants was the closest to meeting this need. In many ways it is an admirable book, loaded with detailed exegesis in the original Hebrew and Greek. It was my first major introduction to covenant theology back when I was transitioning from Dispensationalism to covenant theology in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, as I later learned from Meredith Kline’s lectures at Westminster Seminary California (1992 to 1996), Robertson’s book is marred by modifications of the traditional federal system at critical points. Thus, I ordered Michael Horton’s latest book in the hope that it would fill the need for a summary of Kline’s covenant theology geared to a lay audience. Although Horton is certainly indebted to Kline at many points, and is thus closer to the mark than Robertson, in my opinion Horton’s contribution still falls short.
Horton begins his book in chapter one by distancing himself from approaches which attempt to reduce Reformed theology to a central dogma from which the rest of the system can supposedly be deduced. Rather than being a central dogma, Horton argues that covenant theology provides a web or architectural structure for contextualizing a whole gamut of doctrinal topics. When other doctrines are situated within this web or structure, clarity is brought to old problems and tensions. I am attracted to this idea as a proposal for doing theology. However, it has the disadvantage of changing the focus of the book from being an introduction to covenant theology. To be sure, the next four chapters (chs. 2-5) are focused on covenant theology. But in the last four chapters (chs. 6-9) the attention shifts to an examination of related doctrines from the perspective of the covenant motif. This shift in emphasis in the second half was regrettable in my opinion, since it chews up valuable space that could have been given to several critical topics in covenant theology that are inadequately addressed in the first half (see below).
In chapter two Horton summarizes the work of George Mendenhall, Delbert Hillers, and Meredith Kline. These Old Testament scholars of the 20th century drew attention to significant parallels between the Hittite suzerainty treaties and the biblical covenants. These Hittite treaties were tools of international diplomacy in the second half of the second millennium BC, in which a great king (or suzerain) established a relationship with a lesser king (or vassal). Horton sets out the main parts of these ancient treaties or covenants: the preamble, the historical prologue, the stipulations, the sanctions (blessings and curses), and the deposit of the treaty tablets in the temples of both parties. Horton also discusses the ceremony in which the treaty was ratified by the slaughtering of a sacrificial animal and the taking of an oath on the part of the vassal. This helpful chapter would be even more useful if accompanied by a chart outlining the parallels between the Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants.
Having demonstrated these parallels, Horton states that “God adapted the international treaty as the template for his relationship to creatures” (p. 29). This unqualified statement gives the impression that the covenant idea itself was inspired by the pagan treaties. However, I suspect that that many readers will be uncomfortable with this. When Kline taught the parallels between the Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants, he explained that the pagan covenants were a vestige of God’s original covenantal revelation at creation, in which God was revealed as the Great King (suzerain) over all of creation with Adam as God’s servant (vassal). The fall did not totally erase the memory of the creation covenant among the ungodly line that descended from Cain. It was preserved by common grace and rooted in the conscience. Thus, by using the treaty format to express his covenant with Israel, God was not borrowing from the pagans but drawing on the remnants of the creation order that had been preserved by common grace. I’m sure that Horton would agree with this, but it would have been helpful if he had spelled it out.
Chapter three is the most important chapter in the book and it is here that Horton’s central thesis becomes clear. The chapter’s title, “A Tale of Two Mothers,” is derived from Paul’s use of Sarah and Hagar as symbols of the contrast between the Abrahamic promise and the Mosaic law (Galatians 4:21-31). Horton uses this passage as a springboard to argue that there are two types of covenants in the Bible: (1) law covenants which are conditional and which employ the suzerainty treaty format discussed in the previous chapter; and (2) promise covenants which are unconditional and which are modeled on a different type of covenant called the royal grant. The classic example of the law covenant in Scripture is the Sinai covenant with its blessings and curses, and the promise of long life in the land of Canaan conditional upon Israel’s obedience. Examples of royal grants include the Abrahamic promise and the Davidic covenant, in which God made irrevocable promises to Abraham and David. Horton’s distinction between law covenants and promise covenants shows the strong influence of Meredith Kline on his thinking.
In chapter four, Horton deals with the covenant lawsuit found in the prophetical literature, in which Israel was confronted for its failures under the Mosaic covenant and warned that the impending curse (exile) was about to fall on the covenant breaking nation. There is also a positive side to the lawsuit, for the prophets not only brought a message of doom and gloom, but spoke of a spiritual restoration of Israel under a new covenant (e.g., Jeremiah 31). In this chapter Horton also surveys the controversy over whether the new covenant should be viewed as a “covenant” or a “testament.” He sides with the “covenant” view.
When we come to chapter five, the biggest flaws of this book come to light. Let me set the stage by explaining some background that Horton himself does not mention explicitly, although I sense that it is in the back of his mind. Many students of covenant theology have felt that there is a dissonance in covenant theology. On the one hand, we claim that the covenant motif does a better job of organizing Scripture than dispensations. After all, the Bible never explicitly mentions dispensations but it does mention covenants quite frequently. But on the other hand, there is a feeling of dissonance, because the covenants that we talk about in covenant or federal theology (the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace) are never explicitly mentioned in Scripture. The covenants that are explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New) play a surprisingly minor role in the Reformed creeds and in the standard Reformed systematic theologies. Thus, there is a need to show how the traditional federal system relates to the biblical covenants that are inductively drawn from Scripture. Unfortunately, in spite of his promising title for chapter five, “From Scripture to System: The Heart of Covenant Theology,” Horton doesn’t really connect the dots. Instead, he offers a rather traditional exposition of the three covenants (of redemption, of works, of grace), relying mostly on quotes from the standard Reformed creeds and dogmatic sources, with only a dash of exegesis thrown in. The covenant of works receives the most attention, presumably because it is currently the most contested of the three.
Another problem with chapter five is Horton’s treatment of the covenant of redemption. Horton defines the covenant of redemption as the eternal decree to save the elect in Christ. Of course, the decree is an important element of the covenant of redemption, but as a definition it is inadequate. One must go on to describe the crucial role of Christ as the second Adam who stands in a covenant of works with the Father on behalf of the elect. The way Kline would put it is this: there are in fact two covenants of works. There was the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam, which covenant was broken by Adam’s failure as God’s vassal under that covenant, resulting in the imputation of his sin to the human race. But there is another covenant of works, which actually precedes the Adamic covenant of works, but follows it in temporal execution: the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam. In this covenant, Christ is God’s obedient vassal who successfully passes the test by his obedience unto death, resulting in the imputation of his righteousness to the elect. This is the covenant of redemption. Meredith Kline spends much effort in Kingdom Prologue and Glory in Our Midst attempting to demonstrate this understanding with painstaking exegesis. Kline’s brilliant contribution to Reformed federal theology on this point is not clearly presented in Horton’s book. To be fair, Horton does affirm that Christ fulfilled the covenant of creation (works) on behalf of the elect (pp. 87-9, 94, 106-8). But he doesn’t tie this explicitly to the covenant of redemption.
Another surprising lacuna in the book is that there is no exegesis of the famous two-Adams texts in Paul. In fact, as far as I could tell, there is only one sentence in which Romans 5 is cited (p. 89). Romans 5 is one of the strongest proof-texts for the covenant of redemption, that is, for a covenant of works between the Father and the Son parallel to the failed covenant of works between God and Adam.
Another disappointment comes near the end of chapter five. Horton gives surprisingly short shrift to the covenant of grace. Horton states, “Since most of what follows in this work concentrates on the covenant of grace, I will let this brief account suffice” (p. 107). However, most of what follows in subsequent chapters, while it may relate to the covenant of grace, still fails to provide substantial coverage of the key issues that any introduction to covenant theology must address. For example, the doctrine of justification is mentioned here and there, but there is no detailed explanation of how justification relates to the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam. Another issue that Horton only briefly touches upon is the role of faith, repentance, and obedience in the covenant of grace. This cluster of topics has been debated since the Norman Shepherd controversy in the 1980s and continues to be a big issue in Reformed circles. Witness the lively debate ca. 2002-2007 over “the Federal Vision,” which repeats many of Shepherd’s errors and adds some of its own. Perhaps Horton wanted to keep the book positive and avoid polemics. I can appreciate that desire. Yet it is odd that he would avoid the elephant in the room.
As I mentioned earlier, the remaining four chapters are not directly pertinent to the exposition of federal theology but deal with related doctrines from the perspective of the covenant motif. Chapter six deals with common grace and provides a much-needed voice of sanity in the current political climate in the United States. Chapter seven is a brief chapter that answers the charge of “supercessionism,” a charge leveled by both Dispensationalists and liberal theologians against covenant theology. Chapter eight deals with the sacraments. When dealing with circumcision and baptism, Horton relies heavily on Kline’s work, By Oath Consigned (although in the footnotes it is incorrectly cited as The Structure of Biblical Authority). Finally, in chapter nine, Horton deals with the role of the law in the Christian life. He argues for the traditional three-fold division of the Mosaic Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial, and for the traditional three uses of the law, including the third use of the moral law as a guide for holy living.
For all of its weaknesses, God of Promise is valuable primarily for its defense of the important concept that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works. This view was the standard position of most covenant theologians prior to the rise of Dispensationalism. Due to the Reformed reaction against Dispensationalism in the 20th century, the republication thesis has fallen out of favor among Reformed scholars, aside from those influenced by Kline such as Westminster Seminary California. [See the recent book edited by Bryan Estelle, The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant.] The fear of many contemporary Reformed theologians is that this view sounds like two ways of salvation, as if Israel is saved by works and the church is saved by grace. But Horton makes clear that this is a misunderstanding of the republication thesis. As Kline argued, the republication of the Adamic covenant of works only applies to the typological layer of Israel’s national, theocratic life, not to individual salvation which is always by grace alone through faith alone. The underlying Abrahamic covenant, which is an unconditional guarantee of blessing, is never abrogated, even during the Mosaic theocracy. Nevertheless, Horton shows that there is no escaping the fact that the Mosaic law and the Abrahamic promise are based on distinct principles of inheritance that stand in tension with one another. This tension drives the plot-line of redemptive history as it moves from promise to fulfillment. This is the biblical-theological basis for the law-gospel contrast taught by Paul in Romans and Galatians.
In sum, while making helpful contributions on a number of issues in the area of covenant theology, God of Promise has too many gaps at critical points to serve as a well-rounded introduction to covenant theology. But as long as one reads Horton’s book with an awareness of its limitations, it can be studied with profit.