Essay / Theology

Coordinates of Covenant and Eschatology, Even for Pneumatology (Horton)

What happens when an accomplished and prolific theologian, who has not previously given extensive attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, produces a substantive book on that doctrine? This was the situation when Michael Horton published Rediscovering the Holy Spirit.

In short, what happens is not revolutionary and is not radical. It does not expose a weakness in his previous work. Horton does not repent or convert, as if he had previously been guilty of some Spirit neglect. He does not pitch the book as the testimony of one who once was blind and now can see, and is inviting others to a like conversion. This volume is not an about face or a reversal; it is simply, and calmly, a step back.

This is what we would expect if we already thought his previous theology was solid. Unless Horton had been diagnosably operating with a pneumatological deficit all these years, we would expect that when he gives sustained attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit he would continue developing that same theology but now from a different angle or from a broader perspective. Pneumatology provides him not with a new message, but with a new view of the same single subject of Christian theology.

It seems to me that Horton’s approach to pneumatology can be a helpful case study to open up an issue crucial for all Christian theologians. A couple of important themes take on new prominence as a result of Horton’s step back into pneumatology.

Horton warns in Rediscovering the Holy Spirit that

We can bring in the Spirit too late in the story. One of my central concerns in these chapters is to explore the Spirit’s distinctive role in every external work of the Godhead. The Spirit is neither “shy” nor a freelance operator; his work is not merely supplemental to the creating and redeeming work of the Father in the Son but is integral to the divine drama from beginning to end. In short, I want to widen our vision of the Spirit’s work.

If there is any note of revisionism in Horton’s account of Reformed theology, it might be here. One of the main structural moves in Reformed theology is to correlate the work of the Holy Spirit with the application of redemption. Roughly stated, the Son accomplishes redemption and the Spirit applies it. This venerable schema has very old roots in Reformed thought, and has achieved a certain prominence in some classic twentieth-century authors, from the popular writings of John Murray and Sinclair Ferguson to the dogmatic work of Bavinck and Barth.

Horton does not repudiate that schema, but he is careful to keep it from overdetermining his pneumatology. He warns that “Introducing the Holy Spirit too late in the story—at the application of redemption—we miss much of the action.” His step back involves securing the Spirit’s person, presence, and work earlier and more pervasively than the application of redemption. In particular, when he takes up the difficult question of what is new in the Spirit’s work since Pentecost, he says that “The two main coordinates… are covenant and eschatology.” –a very predictable Horton thing to say, of course, and I mean that as a compliment.

This broader perspective on the work of the Spirit sets Horton up to identify errors in pneumatology, especially the way that thinking too narrowly of the Spirit puts pressure on theologians to find “substitutes for the Holy Spirit.” Horton identifies Roman Catholic errors on this front, but it is significant that when he points out how pope, saints, and sacraments can be used to replace the Spirit, he is not operating merely polemically but is quoting Congar’s own criticism of besetting Roman Catholic temptations. Horton is also able to critique the way that the Spirit can be theologically “depersonalized and universalized,” so that he “becomes immanentized—that is, confused with creation.”

Horton’s perspective on the Spirit, taking its orientation from covenant and eschatology rather than from the accomplished-applied schema, nevertheless does find a proper place for the work of the Spirit in applying salvation. His step back to a broader biblical-theological perspective is not about denying that insight, but about properly locating it. So when he takes up the role of the Spirit in producing faith in Jesus, he aptly cites Luther’s small catechism with deepened significance:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

There is the work of the Spirit, inseparably operating with the work of Christ.


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