Review of Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology

HortonHorton, Michael S. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. 351pp. $29.95.

In Covenant and Eschatology, Michael S. Horton, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, attempts a massive biblical theological endeavor that has profound hermeneutical implications. This book proposes a solution to perennial methodological difficulties that have dogged the disciplines of biblical and systematic theology. Although Horton writes from the perspective of a traditional Covenant theologian, his work exhibits a profound understanding of other traditions of faith and of the broader epistemological questions facing biblical theologians of every confessional type. The following review will briefly summarize the content and argument of Covenant and Eschatology and will evaluate/critique the same.

At the outset, Horton proposes “to integrate biblical theology and systematic theology on the basis of scripture’s own intrasystematic categories of covenant and eschatology” (p. 1). In order to achieve this goal, Horton aims “to develop a theological paradigm and method dependent on the content they are intended to illumine” (p. 1). That content, of course, is the Bible. Horton chooses post-reformation scholastics as conversation partners in this endeavor (p. 2). In his quest to bring together biblical and systematic theology, Horton must defend a certain definition of theology: “the church’s reflection on God’s performative action in word and deed and its own participation in the drama of redemption” (p. 4). To this end, Horton suggests the following “lines of development”: The method is redemptive-historical/eschatological; the mode is analogical; the model is dramatic; and the context is covenant (p. 4).

After the introduction and chapter one the book divides into two major parts: (1) “God Acts in History,” [chs. 2-4] and (2) “God Speaks” [chs. 5-9]. In chapter 1, Horton analyzes “the revolt against an explicitly Christian eschatology and [distinguishes] Pauline eschatology from the Platonist trajectory” (p. 21). By setting the New Testament’s two-age model against the two-world model, Horton hopes that the Pauline eschatology “may receive renewed vigor in current discussions” (p. 21). In chapter two “A God Who Acts?,” Horton wrestles with the question of how theologians should understand predications about God’s actions in history. He considers whether the language to describe such actions is literal, analogical, or univocal. He surveys five solutions that have been offered as to how God’s agency can be described: (1) Mythological-Symbolic-Metaphorical Interpretation “as the mythological, symbolic, or metaphorical manner of speaking that conceals a revelatory encounter” [p. 54]; (2) Communal Interpretation of a Natural Occurrence “as the community’s interpretation of a natural occurrence” [p. 54]; (3) Narrative Interpretation “as a reference to the narrative itself rather than to extratextual ‘realities’” [p. 54]; (4) Immanentist Interpretation “as the ordinary effect of divine embodiment in the world in which all events are simultaneously the products of divine agency and human agency” [p. 54]; (5) “dramatic model” [p. 97] “as the extraordinary effect of divine volition in which God acts either directly or indirectly within the causal structure of human existence” [p. 54]. In chapter three, Horton defends the fifth option as his own position by arguing that God can indeed act in History (“The Problem of Divine Intrusion”), by explaining how the divine and human actors can serve as agents in the same event (“The Problem of Double Agency”), and by showing that the Bible offers a practical, not a theoretical solution the problem of evil (p. 93). Horton concludes part one in chapter four by showing that the Bible is not anchored in abstract metaphysical speculation, but “in the historical events to which the narrative itself witnesses” (pp. 119-120).

Part two of the book begins with an analogical account for the claim that God speaks (chapter five, p. 123). Chapter six provides the hermeneutical implications of the fact that God speaks (p. 147). Chapter seven expounds the implications of a covenantal hermeneutic (p. 219). Chapter eight attempts the bold move of reintegrating systematic theology and exegesis (p. 222). Chapter nine applies Horton’s model of hermeneutics to the concrete life of the church in its regular worship settings (p. 265).

Evaluation & Critique

Law & Gospel as a Hermeneutic
Horton states, “Within the context of covenant, one can distinguish two subsets of divine discourse—two distinct illocutionary forces or stances: commanding and promising” (p. 136). He elaborates that God’s commanding (law) and promising (gospel) “do not coincide with Old Testament and New Testament, as if the former were ‘law,’ while the latter were ‘gospel’” (p. 136). Horton appeals to 2 Corinthians 3:6, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Because Horton’s stated purpose is to derive a hermeneutic from the categories of scripture, his description of the function of Law and Gospel will not do. While Horton specifically rejects the possibility that Law and Gospel might refer to the old and new covenants respectively, the text to which he appeals (2 Cor 3:6) does in fact relate “letter” and “spirit” to the old and new covenants respectively. One cannot develop the exegesis in detail here, but it is sufficient to note that “letter” in 2 Corinthians 3 refers specifically to the Sinai covenant given to Moses. Moreover, “spirit” in the same chapter is explicitly connected to the new covenant, “[God] made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Horton may be correct in his theological estimation of the alternate ways in which God speaks. However, he cannot establish his case by a simple proof-text appeal to 2 Corinthians 3:6.

Law & Gospel and Speech-Act Theory
Horton understands the function of Law and Gospel through the framework of speech-act theory. Speech-act theory has to do with
“the idea that all utterances have a perfomative dimension…the thought that speech is a species of action. . . In any use of language—any occasion of someone’s speaking, that is—there are many things the speaker does—many linguistic acts she performs. Each linguistic act corresponds to a type of action; and a principled way of organizing linguistic acts provides a framework into which the particularities of occasions on which one or another is done can potentially be fitted so as to provide for illuminating accounts of speech-actions. The classification of linguistic acts which Austin got started may be thought of as a means of imposing system on to the actual data of linguistic communication.”[1]

Speech-act theorists maintain that there are three types of speech-acts: locutionary (saying something), illocutionary (things are done in saying something), and perlocutionary (thing done by saying something). According to Horton, the law and gospel function as perlocutionary speech-acts—that is, “In the discourse of judging and justifying, individuals are actually judged and justified” (p. 136). Because speech-act theory developed as a hermeneutical device for categorizing human speech, one wonders about the appropriateness of fitting God’s speech into this framework. Yes, if the Bible is taken seriously, one must admit that God’s speech actually does accomplish in its hearer that which it speaks (perlocutionary act). However, is it possible to imagine God ever performing an illocutionary speech-act? In other words, when does God’s speech ever not produce an effect in the hearer (as in an illocutionary speech-act)? Does God ever merely just “do something with words” without respect to a hearer (p. 126)? The nature of revelation is such that God’s words always presuppose a hearer, and according to scripture the hearer is always effected, “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty , Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Therefore, because an illocutionary speech-act is impossible with God, how can speech-act theory really be a helpful framework for understanding how God speaks? God’s speech accomplishes what He wills not because it is a certain kind of speech, but because God is a certain kind of Being. With respect to Law and Gospel, God’s commanding and promising does not effect judgment and justification because of the imperatival force of the utterance in itself. Indeed, a human agent can command and promise also, but the human agent’s commanding and promising may only result in an illocutionary speech-act. With God’s speech, this is never the case. With God, His promises and commands always obtain their intended effect.

Horton’s book offers a provocative and persuasive case for integrating biblical and systematic theology. However, as systematic theologian in the above mentioned instances, he should pay closer attention to exegesis of the biblical text.

[1]Ted Honderach, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), s.v. “linguistic acts”. Thankfully, fellow seminar member Justin Carswell helped me to understand a little bit about the background of speech-act theory. He writes, “There are three categories of classification according to Austin: Locutionary (saying something), Illocutionary (are done in saying something), and Perlocutionary (done by saying something). Example: Someone says, ‘It’s 10 o’clock,’ which says what time it is (locutionary), reminds Jane that it’s time for class (illocutionary), and alarms Ted (perlocutionary). Yes, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary. Much of current work is being done in the illocutionary area. What it boils down to is that language is not merely words and actions are not merely physical actions. There is more going on, namely ‘all utterances have a performative dimension.’”

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