It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but I had to break radio silence to write up a little notice about Michael Horton’s new, 2-volume work, Justification. It’s the fourth entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, and it does the series proud. I won’t mince words, it’s in the top three books of the year for me, if not the top spot. (I’d have to check the notes to remember what else I read). I have read a lot of Horton, but this might be his magnum opus.
Being two large volumes (375 pp and 493 pp) I won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive summary of the work. Nor will I adjudicate some of the intra-Reformed debates that do poke out in certain chapters. I’ll leave it other reviewers to take up some of those important, critical questions. Instead, I’d rather just highlight a few strengths and commend it to you in general.
First, Horton’s just a good writer. It’s always worth noting when an academic knows how to write clean sentences that do not strain a reader’s patience. The years of popular writing alongside dogmatic exploration come in handy here, helping you along when you might be tempted to turn to the wayside in some of the denser pieces of analysis.
Second, I like that Allen and Swain gave him space to play. Two volumes sort of blows the proportion of the series out of the water. But justification is such a hotly disputed matter, with several, important movements in 20th Century scholarship, numerous reinterpretations, many, related historical and exegetical desiderata in need of comment, it’s wonderful to have something of a one-stop shop like this coming from him, so that’s great. (Oh, also, in case you’re wondering, all of this space does give him room to stretch his legs and distinguish these two volumes from his earlier work, Covenant and Salvation, so it’s not just redundant for those who have read it.)
Third, turning to the volumes proper, I have trouble deciding which I liked better. I think I probably benefited personally from the first more, though, simply because I was less familiar with the material. It’s essentially a history of the doctrine, exploring it from the patristic period through the Reformation, paying close attention to figures like the earliest fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, and Augustine, on to Medieval figures (Aquinas, Ockham, Biel, etc.) to the Magisterial Reformers. One quick benefit here worth noting, is that while the Fathers were diverse on justification in many respects, Horton shows that the Reformation doctrine is far from a novum, having a great many theological taproots into the first centuries of the church. It is not, however, a comprehensive account going deep into the early modern and modern periods, distinguishing between the continental Reformed, the Puritans, later Lutherans, Pietists, developments, post-Schleiermacher, etc. So, historians looking for more, will still have to look elsewhere on that score.
All the same, a lot of what Horton does is put on his Big Story Deconstructor hat, and through careful attention to mostly primary texts, recent disputes about the Scotus Story, the nature and supernature distinction in Aquinas and other Medievals, etc. dismantles components of some of the prominent academic and popular narratives told by folks like Milbank, Gregory, etc. about how the Reformation is the result (and facilitator) of the rise of nominalism, individualism, and sundry other ills of modernity. In fact, Horton goes so far as to argue that the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification more proper represents the “triumph of nominalism,” besides showing at length how far the council varies from even Augustine’s or Aquinas’s account of the grace of justification (neither of whom even held the Reformation doctrine).
I have to say, Horton taking a hammer to so much of the bad, anti-Protestant polemics is satisfying to watch. It’s an irenic hammer, not given to spleen or invective, but a hammer, nevertheless. (Don’t miss the footnotes!) He also just dispels a lot of mythology around the Magisterial Reformer’s approach to the doctrine, rejecting any number of modern, false dichotomies, and spurious charges repeated even by some modern Protestants.
With volume two, though, Horton turns the corner from history into actually articulating a positive, dogmatic and biblical account of the doctrine, driven by properly exegetical and theological argumentation. And I’ll just say, this is an example of constructive doctrine done well. Here he doesn’t just repeat the Reformers, but engages at length with recent New Testament scholarship (largely in Paul, but also the Gospels), delving into Old Testament roots of the doctrine, Biblical theology of the covenants, 2nd Temple texts (Qumran, the Rabbis, etc.), and lexical and semantic examinations of key terms in Paul. Alongside a retrieval of the Reformers, you’ve got exegetical dives into key texts touching on disputed issues like ‘works of the Law” in Paul, imputation, union with Christ, the pistis Christou debate, the role of works in justification, the place of resurrection, and a surprisingly comprehensive, multi-faceted, false-dichotomy-busting account of atonement that’s worth the price of the volume.
In doing all this, he’s able to draw on and engage with the heavy-hitters and critics of the “Old Perspective” in Pauline studies (Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Campbell, Bates, Hays, Barclay etc.) there is still exegetical life in the bones of a fairly classic, Reformed account, that can hold its own against both New Perspective and Apocalyptic perspectives. Additionally, I was pleased to see Horton put Barclay’s and Sander’s recent work on 2nd Temple Jewish accounts of grace, to show just how closely the Reformation disputes between Catholics and Protestants around grace mirrored some of the differing accounts of grace on offer at the time of Paul in the 2nd Temple period.
I’ll also add that one of the advantages of having worked his way through the history of volume 1 first, Horton is able to show the way so many of recent, New Testament scholarship’s criticisms of Reformation accounts of the doctrine simply fail to make contact with their object, by dint of caricature and misunderstanding. What’s more, it enables you to see the way some of the biggest moves in Pauline interpretation by Biblical scholars have, themselves, been funded by modern, theological programs (Barthianism, etc.) every bit as dogmatic as the Reformation accounts they were trying to replace. In which case, it’s another good example of the way historical theology serves as an aid (indeed, a necessary ingredient) in the exegetical and dogmatic task.
I’ve said this before, but my original dive into Pauline studies was through New Perspective scholars (Dunn, Wright, etc.), and it’s been a slow process of unlearning so much of what I “knew” to be true of Reformation perspectives and their viability today. Here, again, the polemic is irenic, but necessary (and don’t miss the footnotes!). For anybody looking for an up-to-date, go-to volume that does that in conversation with recent developments, Horton’s volume 2 is now the place to look.
I’ll add a couple of notes here on who to read it: if you a student interested in justification, a scholar working on the issue, etc. no-brainer.
If you’re a pastor, and you think you don’t have time, or you feel you’ve dealt with the doctrine before (back in seminary, all those years ago…), you might be surprised at how much you can still gain with the engagement with contemporary scholarship and close exegesis of several passages. I got to preach out of Galatians this last week at my church and Horton’s work was reverberating in the background of my sermon at several points. There’s a lot of academic, heavy-lifting, but this is theology that preaches.
Finally, I’ll say that if you’re a Protestant who is thinking of swimming the Tiber for any reason (theological, historical, aesthetic), you should strongly consider digging into Horton’s work first. (Also, if you’re a Roman Catholic who is genuinely interested in reading a strong, Protestant account of this crucial doctrine, it’s worth it for you too–you can say you’ve read one of the strongest accounts out there.) The matter of justification is one of key doctrinal issues dividing the two branches of Christianity and it is not something that can be brushed aside quickly, but ought to be faced squarely and wrestled with at length. Yes, the book is long, but it’s worth the time to think these things through carefully before making such a weighty and momentous decision.
I add this only because I find that often (not always!), folks who are thinking of leaving, or who reject Protestantism, have not actually read the best (or classic) accounts of the doctrine, and so are “leaving” the theology of their Protestant youth group, or the popular accounts of salvation you pick up in a pietistic, revival night. And by comparison, yes, they’re weak–you wonder how such a thing account of salvation could have ever fired the minds of the Reformers. But, of course, they’re not the real thing. This is.
Alright, I’ve left out much that could be said, but I think I’ve said enough for now. The work is excellent, worth your time and money, and should make an excellent Christmas present to any theological student in your life.
Soli Deo Gloria