“Communing in a
Vibrant Corporate Life”
A Review of
People and Place:
A Covenant Ecclesiology.
by Michael Horton.
Reviewed by Kent Ellett.
People and Place:
A Covenant Ecclesiology.
Paperback: WJK Books, 2008.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology is the fourth and final volume in Michael Horton’s contemporary restatement of Reformed systematic theology. His work is erudite and ecumenical in scope, but Horton is bold, unwilling to give an inch of what he considers Reformed ground. Over and against the “chaos of Evangelical individualism” Horton describes the Church as the locus of God’s special gracious activity amidst covenantal relationships. Here is a champion of grace, who finds the church’s identity in preaching, baptizing and communing in a vibrant corporate life. The reader will find in Horton not just a Reformed thinker, but a conversation partner of the first order.
Engaging (or more often contending with) contemporary movements within evangelicalism, post-liberal narrative theologians, and traditional Anabaptist, Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Horton is particularly concerned to make sure that ecclesiology does not usurp Christology. He fears that some doctrines of salvation take “participation language” too far and conflate Christ and the church.
He traces what in his view is this deleterious theological tendency in Augustine’s conception of the “totus Christus” and the Eastern doctrine of deification. Whether theologians spiritualize Jesus in order to make him just as present in the church as he ever was in the flesh (Origen and Schleiermacher) or by offering an over-realized eschatology that turns the Church into a “second incarnation” where the church becomes a self-justifying institution appealing to no higher authority than itself (the Roman tradition), Horton sees such thinking as disastrous. For Horton, participationist soteriology and an over-realized eschatology that confuses Christ and church loom as ecclesial enemy number one and two in these pages.
“In Christ” language for Horton is not describing an infusion of grace or the church’s mystical union in and with Jesus. He even worries about biblical language like “the body of Christ” being taken to mean that Jesus’ person and presence are somehow united with the church. At a particularly crucial point he writes:
En Christo language throughout Ephesians is unmistakably concerned with participation, but it is the kind of koinania that obtains between covenant partners–who remain partners even in union as the marriage analogy suggests. The husband and wife becoming one flesh can hardly mean fusion or assimilation…(203)
There went the mystery out of the marriage analogy. Perhaps more clearly in another section he writes:
Although Reformed theology also appeals to the totus Christus motif without scruple, it is always connected with the historical economy: sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection, so that what has happened to Jesus will also happen to us. Christ is the representative head in a covenant, not the “corporate personality” in whom his own identity as well as ours is surrendered to the whole. (185)
This seems to be setting up a false choice between a view of atonement and salvation that has little to do with participation in Christ’s person, versus a flat identification of Church that can’t distinguish between Jesus and itself. In the quotation above Horton has put off deep participation in resurrection reality until the eschaton, and he is sure not to let the eschatological party slip too much into the now.
Also in the passage above he seems to have reduced participation in Christ to a mere covenantal relationship. Here he is open to the charge of an under-realized eschatology which does not take seriously Paul’s realized claim that “you have been raised with Christ.” One simply can’t adequately describe current participation in heavenly reality–“he has seated us in the heavenly places in Christ–” with Horton’s categories. One does not elucidate the claim “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” by merely saying Jesus is the head of a covenantal relationship. If I have grasped Horton’s argument, this is a very significant reductionism.
With a very traditional understanding of sola scriptura, a refreshing amount of Horton’s treatment of the church is dedicated to biblical exegesis. Much American protestantism, influenced by the enlightenment, will not see the practical impact of theological language until it can grasp that theological reflection is an inevitable task that precedes as well as flows from exegesis. For that reason I think it a great strength that Horton sees the work of Jon Levenson as seminal. Jeffrey Neihaus and others have fruitfully begun to ground Christological language in its ancient near-eastern context rather than let it fly off into subsequent philosophical theology. “In Christ” language such as that found in Ephesians 1-3 is always “rooted” for Paul in an understanding of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah who reconstituted Israel and its temple. The only historical-critical way to get at the actual meaning of Paul’s “in Christ” language is to hear it in the context of ancient near-eastern creationism.
Mesopotamian and Canaanite kings were thought to participate in the heavenly god’s life. Royal earthly palaces participated in the heavenly temple and cosmos–tapping into the vivifying power of gods. Thus, the courts of God even in the Psalms were filled with trees of life–watered with living water. The creative order as it expressed itself through the earthly temple held back the resurgent forces of chaos. It is clear that in the ancient near east the temple was the strange and wonderful place where heaven and earth met, and it became the locus of God’s current ongoing and eschatological restructuring of the world. (Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14)
Horton seems to miss the point of the church as temple, trying to distinguish Israelite thinking from the dominant creation mythology of the near east. It’s as if for Horton that near-eastern temples were cheap participationist knock offs of real one–that was governed strictly with representative and covenantal theology. Historically it just did not happen that way. The Bible itself makes it clear that Israel borrowed the language and mythology of Kingship from the other nations. To be in the temple was to be infused with a qualitatively different form of life–it was to participate now in God’s heavenly life-giving power. Thus, to be in Christ is not merely to be in covenant with him, as precious a concept and relation as that is. Additionally, it is to be mystically joined to the heavenly temple in Christ, as a current foretaste of the coming consummation of heaven and earth.
In essence, while protecting against conflating Christ and church, Horton protects far less against the imminent danger of a lifeless church that cannot see itself as spiritually connected with and in it’s head. While there has always been the danger of the church asserting mystical grace without making itself subject to a higher norm, it has also just as often become secular and lifeless, unable to recognize the spiritual power already available through Jesus.
This weakness, as I see it, runs right through Horton’s view of the sacraments. Anamnesis becomes remembering “what Christ has done apart from us in history.” (152) This vitiates the meaning of anamnesis, which clearly calls for the covenant community to see itself as having passed through the Red Sea, having been sustained by the bread of life in the wilderness and raised through the chaotic waters in baptism. Remembrance is a participatory event. Clearly we are not Jesus of Nazareth. That is not the question. The question is whether in Jesus Christ the church by eating and drinking in faith participate in heavenly realities–and are mystically joined with Jesus and are infused with sustaining grace and life.
Obviously, this has consequences for Horton’s view of the church’s holy character. The church owes the Reformed tradition for its persistent articulation of the gospel of grace. Horton writes, “A church that is not sinful and does not sin is not a church at all, but a religious society that stands in defiance of grace and forgiveness.” This is a powerful restatement of John’s, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Yet, it does nothing to explain the apostle’s subsequent, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.” Both apostolic messages are found in the same letter and need to be uttered together. Without holiness, the Hebrew writer insists, nobody will see the Lord.
Certainly, part of this holiness is the consistent confession of sin and receiving forgiveness. The church affirms that Christ works powerfully through the church in spite of and sometimes precisely because of its sin and weakness. No holiness is possible without God’s gracious initiative. The question before the Reformation since Arminius is whether God’s empowering grace may be resisted. The persistent Reformed tendency to paint Arminius into a Pelagian corner should no longer suffice. Faith may be utterly other-regarding–free from any hint of self-righteousness– and still be actively seeking the Lord’s sanctifying grace. While all who covenant with Christ will be sinful and broken until Jesus returns, those who covenant with Christ find that his grace is not without effect. And the expectation of Christian life is that of gradual victory over the sin.
Horton’s vision of the church, however, is more than a covenantal community with Christ as its representative head. It really is the creation of the living and gracious word of God. Over against the latent Pelagianism observable in Evangelicals from Finney to Barna, Horton insists that the church is only God’s gracious creation–made by a strange and other-worldly Word. Against a church culture that continuously demands that the word be relevant to where people live, Horton insists that the world has no idea about what is “ultimately useful or relevant.”
There is nothing wrong with the seed of the Kingdom. The seed is life-giving seed regardless of how the church tries to create a hybrid that can accommodate itself to the hard, rocky and weedy hearts. Taking on influential players like Hauerwas to Grentz, Horton insists that while reason and experience always play a part in apprehending the Word, we cannot simply appeal to them as separate and counter-balancing norms. When this is permissible what inevitably happens is the transcendent Word (in the late William Placher’s word), gets “domesticated.” Horton writes, “while the covenant community is temporarily prior to the inscripturated canon, the word that creates ex nihilo asserts its temporal and communicative priority over both.”
In a culture that often appeals to nothing higher than ones own itch much less the latest fad, such a canonical view of the Word of God holds much promise. Yet one might suggest that this Word that creates the church cannot be allowed to be “conflated” with the later canonical texts. While we simply do not apprehend Jesus apart from the canonical scriptural tradition, exegetical integrity demands that the Word of God in the new Testament should never be identified with the Bible. If there is a canon–then the principle of sola scriptura, itself, demands that the ultimate canonical authority be the word of re-creative grace articulated in Galatians 6.
This is not an effort to get around difficult and culturally offensive New Testament texts. Traditionally orthodox churches can meet the threats to scriptural authority posed by the varieties of contemporary post-liberal and evangelical thinkers without resorting to Horton’s theories of inerrancy that rest on a modernist and foundational epistemology, and which deliberately refuse to make practical distinctions between Word and scripture. Only when the Word of God is seen as the essential kerygma of gospel/creed will context variant sections of the text be appropriated responsibly. Recognizing the Christ-and the creed that mediates his strange presence– as the ultimate rule of faith and practice will not then subvert scripture but ensure right kinds of appropriations of all of it.
Horton is as good as any at exposing the church growth movement as a terrible complicity with demonic consumerism. But he is perhaps at his best in his devastating critique of the nation state. Horton’s is not a pacifism that refuses to take up arms with the state and then turns on a dime espouses liberal social engineering done at the point of that same sword. Here is a thinker who can see captivities to the spirits of this world both on the left and the right.
For someone raised in the Stone-Campbell movement Horton shows a decided lack of interest in the actual daily practices of the church. On one level this is because he does not want to absolutize any set of context-variant practices. Even while he recommends the Presbyterian style governance exemplified in Acts 15, he makes no claim to a universal form of church polity. His goal is to simply discuss what ought to be universal “catholic” practice. And he believes many of these daily practices–such as that of a distinctively Christian economy are implicitly defined in the covenantal framework one experiences in the community’s preaching and celebration of baptism and the Supper.
Rather than a full-fledged constructive ecclesiology People and Place strikes me as sometimes very insightful criticism of contemporary ecclesial problems with distinctly Reformed correctives. Even from the perspective of one who does wish to articulate responsibly a participationist soteriology, it is clear that I have located one of my primary Reformed conversation partners.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com