“Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology” in The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way — A Review

Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, pp. 13-219.

It is widely acknowledged that Michael Horton is a prolific author, professor, and pastor. Horton has navigated and mastered multiple teaching platforms, and his multi-channel ministry is as compelling as his footprint of theological influence is large. The Christian Faith, published in 2011, is a thick book—approximately 1000 pages in length—and, in this substantial work, Horton reinforces his fecund reputation, fully displaying his theological expertise. The book is structured in six parts, each of varying length, e.g., Horton’s prolegomena (“Part I: Knowing God”, pp. 33-219) is approximately twenty percent of the book. For this review, my summary and analysis is restricted solely to Horton’s “Introduction” and treatment of prolegomena.


Theology is the study of God. As is the case for any science and field of study, introductory matters are dealt with first. Thus, Horton first discusses the things theologians need to discuss first: “Part 1: Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology” is comprised of five chapters, in which Horton explores the character, source, and nature of Christian theology. Horton’s discussion of the topics of prolegomena will be as follows: ontology, epistemology, revelation, Scripture, and doctrine (see “Comparative Chart For Part I” on page 219).

In Chapter 1, the author lays out three paradigms to contrast and then defend the biblical, Christian view of ontology. The three paradigms are: (1) “overcoming estrangement,” (2) “the stranger we never meet,” and (3) “meeting a stranger” (36). Two paradigms are from Paul Tillich’s analysis of the Philosophy of Religion, however, Horton adds a third paradigm (“the stranger we never meet”). Horton defines and examines underlying worldviews for each paradigm (36-40), and upgrades and retools Tillich’s contrasting paradigms for his own stated purposes: “I will define these paradigms and then defend a version of meeting a stranger that fits with the biblical drama” (36). To that end, Horton explains that even though their respective worldviews are vastly different, in the final analysis, both non-biblical paradigms (#1 & #2) share a “univocal” view of ontology. The third paradigm is antithetical: the “meeting a stranger” paradigm fits with the biblical “analogical” view of ontology. Horton defines and discusses the Creator-creature distinction, which is the basis of the biblical, Christian view of ontology. Horton explicitly states that God is independent of creation, however, God desires to reveal himself to creation. Hence, there is no need for creation to “overcome estrangement” (paradigm #1), nor a reason to believe that God is “the stranger we never meet” (paradigm #2). Horton explains that God is a stranger who willingly condescends (paradigm #3) to meet us in the milieu of the created order.

What characterizes the Christian view of epistemology? It is “faith seeking understanding.” In other words, it is the Christian prioritization of hearing over seeing (85-93). In Chapter 2, Horton discusses this epistemological priority; this characteristic follows the biblical patternWord before world. Hence, biblical epistemology and Christian faith share the same doxological posture. As Horton explains: “Faith is not a general attitude, such as optimism. It has a specific object, namely, God. . . . Therefore, “faith seeking understanding” that accords with biblical (covenantal) epistemology is best defined as invocation” (108). On the next page, Horton elaborates: “At the heart of the theological way of knowing, then, is the hearing of an announcement so that hearers may call on the name of the Lord” (109). Hence, Christian epistemology and doxology go hand in hand. In summary: hearing the Word from outside themselves, believers meet and call upon God.

In Chapter 3, Horton discusses divine revelation, and distinguishes and contrasts “special revelation” (redemption knowledge) and “general revelation” (creation knowledge). Horton lays out a biblical doctrine of revelation, joining the testimony of revelation from the Old Testament (“to uncover”) with the New Testament (“to know), and observes—“the goal [of the Word of God] is always God’s communion with his covenant people” (115). The Creator uncovers and makes known to the end of shared communion. The author further explains that the Word of God is “not a generic concept” (135), but rather the phrase is used as a placeholder to refer to three objects: “(1) the hypostatic (i.e., incarnate) Word: Jesus Christ; (2) the sacramental Word: proclamation; (3) the written Word: the canon of Holy Scripture” (136). Horton follows this threefold distinction with another: the law-gospel distinction. He summarizes: “The law’s imperatives tell us what must be done, the gospel’s indicatives tell us what God has done” (138).

In Chapter 4, Horton narrows his discussion of divine revelation and the Word of God, and he focuses on the sacramental Word and the written Word. Horton takes note that God uses the Word—both sacramental and written—to constitute, define, rule, and lead doxological response in believers. “God’s Word first creates the reality of which it speaks and then regulates it, as the Spirit brings about the proper effect and response within creation” (154). Horton reviews the creation account in Genesis 1-2, specifically pointing to the “pattern” of work and rest, and then notes that “we see this working-resting pattern” in Scripture in the various administrations of the covenant. Horton explains that this working-resting pattern is at back the relationship of the sacramental and canonical/written Word. God speaks and creates a covenant people, then he gives them a regulative, written Word (canon). With reference to 2 Peter 3:7, Horton buttresses this observation; he writes, “Peter speaks of the Word of God in both of these senses, as sacramental (means of grace) and as regulative (canon).” Horton notes, “the covenant Lord creates a people out of nothing by his speech and shapes, regulates, and defines the covenantal life of that people by his canon” (155). Thus, in this chapter, which shifts from divine revelation to Scripture, Horton eloquently demonstrates that Scripture is at the heart of the drama of redemption—Scripture is necessary because the “Scriptures are not only a record of redemption but are themselves the primary means of grace, through which the Spirit applies redemption to sinners in the present” (156). After establishing the necessity of Scripture, Horton follows with a summary of the doctrine of divine inspiration. He defines the biblical doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration (160-161). He highlights Old Princeton’s defense of this precious doctrine during the 19th century (176-180). In summary, the Word of God is the ongoing source of theology for the Christian community that is both created and regulated by the Word of God.

Chapter 5 is the concluding chapter to Part I. This chapter is about doctrine. However, before Horton defines doctrine, he frames the discussion with an analysis of the authority of Scripture in the context of and in relationship to the Christian community. In the prior chapter, Horton discussed the inspiration of Scripture. In this chapter, Horton discusses the authority of Scripture. The Protestant view of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture is indivisible from the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura: the reason Scripture is solely the primary authority for faith and life is because of its sufficiency. Scripture is the Word of God, hence it alone has “magisterial” (absolute) authority to norm and regulate Christian faith and life. Horton aptly demonstrates how Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, operating with contrasting views of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, hold to different views of the authority of Scripture, and, consequently, the authority of the church. Horton illustrates how this difference is at back the disparity in their respective doctrines, e.g., Protestantism has a ministerial view of church authority and doctrine, while Roman Catholicism has a magisterial view of church authority and doctrine (197).

Next Horton discusses the intersection between Scripture and culture, and provides a sobering warning: when tradition or culture are given parallel magisterial authority with the Word of God, the church no longer hears the Word of God aright; essentially we lose the judgment of the Law and the redemption of the Gospel. In effect, not hearing the Word that creates, shapes, regulates, and informs the church’s response, means that the church is indistinguishable from the non-believing world (203). With this warning Horton both defines and stresses the importance of Christian doctrine. What is Christian doctrine, and what is its nature? Doctrine is the teaching of the church that is consistent with both the sacramental and written Word that creates and regulates the church, and is the foundation of her ministerial authority.


Horton is without question an able systematic theologian, but he is also a competent apologist. Space did not allow going into detail, but Horton’s polemical capabilities are exquisitely demonstrated in Part I, particularly Chapters 1 and 5: his analysis and refutation of non-Christian worldviews and Roman Catholic teaching, respectively, are exemplary.

In addition, what most stands out in this work is Horton’s pedagogical prowess. Horton has not authored a theological tome by simply tracing prior theological-propositional-statements to the end of crafting and linking his own chain of theological-propositional-statements to be traced by others. Before his discussion of prolegomena and the important topics of systematic theology, Horton spends approximately twenty pages on an “Introduction”, in which he shares his preliminary thoughts. This preliminary material functions very much like the “world building” skill of a fiction author; this is Horton’s “world building” for those who will take up and read his thick book systematic theology. Horton’s aim is to stir up the affections and incite an appropriate vibrancy for those about to enter the theological fray. Horton is well aware of the bad rap theology has—many view it as some dull, intellectual, or proud exercise. Horton understands that nothing could be further from the truth. Horton is “world building” for his reader, i.e., the study of God is a vibrant affair, not a dull one!

To that point, Horton approvingly quotes Dorothy Sayers—“the dogma is the drama”— and explains how Christian theology “rehears[es] the story of the triune God in creation, the fall of the creatures he made in his own image, the promise of a redeemer through Israel, and the fulfillment of all types and shadows in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ” (14). In this preliminary material Horton introduces the reader to the ongoing motif of his systematic theology: theology is the drama of God, and we have been invited to participate meaningfully in that drama.


Readers will benefit from Horton’s humble discussion of the Creator-creature distinction and analogical mediation of knowledge,  and his treatment of divine revelation and the magisterial authority of Scripture, which the church, in accordance with her ministerial authority, summarizes in her doctrinal formulations. In theological prolegomena, believers first discuss the things that need to be discussed first. In his conclusion to Chapter 5, Horton briefly yet powerfully lists two things every believer will “always need”—Horton concludes, “Conceived by the Spirit through the Word and baptism, born in faith, sustained by Communion, and nurtured through prayer, fellowship, and discipleship, the church and every member of it always need theology because they always need God” (218). If we “always need theology,” then that means we will always need theological prolegomena. Michael Horton’s excellent and readable treatment of prolegomena in The Christian Faith will satisfy that perennial need.


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