Monday 16 November 2009

Beware! A New Version of Covenant by Michael Horton

At the Affinity conference in the UK in February of this year (2009) Michael Horton presented an extremely troubling view of covenant theology that I find hard to reconcile with the Westminster Standards. It appears to me that the Kline-Horton paradigm is to interpret biblical covenants through the lens of recently discovered, Near Eastern, and especially Hittite treaties. Perhaps the two most helpful books to analyse the source of their theological constructs are:

Meredith G. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963.
Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

Horton is an extremely lucid communicator and ‘The White Horse Inn’ appears to have been a blessing to multitudes in spreading the reformed faith. However Horton’s ministry is not primarily in view initially but rather the injunction of Paul in Romans 4:3: ‘For what does the Scripture say?’

I have only engaged in a cursory reading of God of Promise by Horton but here goes the argument.

Chapter 2: ‘God and the Foreign Relations’. Horton puts forward that ‘there are remarkable parallels between ancient (especially Hittite) treaties and the covenantal structure of the OT (24)’. In sum he identifies that there two Hittite treaties, The Suzerainty Treaty and The Royal Grant (or patron covenant); the former is conditional, while the latter is unconditional (33).

Then in Chapter 3 ‘A Tale of Two Mothers’ he makes a huge quantum leap in applying this covenantal framework to biblical covenants. Red flags should be raised immediately because the Hittite gentile practices were the very opposite of God’s intention for establishing a holy nation (Exodus 19). However here we see the connection with T. David Gordon et al., and Horton states:

A covenant of law is established at Mount Sinai, engendering an earthly Jerusalem, which is identified with Hagar the slave; and a covenant of promise is given to Abraham and his seed, engendering a heavenly Jerusalem, which is identified with Sarah the free woman. Confusion of these two covenants, Paul believed, lay at the heart of the Galatian heresy, a charge repeated by the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century. (35)’.

Need I say more! He pitches the Abrahamic covenant against the Mosaic and this chapter contends that the Mosaic covenant is a Suzerainty/conditional/law covenant and the Abrahamic covenant is a royal Grant/unconditional/promise covenant (39ff). This Hittite framework is then applied to the New Covenant in Chapter Four and here comes another staggering assertion. Horton concludes:

Concerning the covenantal unity of the two testaments: “Law and promise” do not represent the Old and New Testaments or berit and diatheke, respectively, but characterise two different kinds of covenants that obtain the same history (74-5).

Horton then insists on covenantal discontinuity between the New and the Mosaic covenant and he asserts that the Mosaic covenant is conditional, obsolete (Heb. 8:13) and not a covenant of grace (75). In the last chapter in the book ‘New Covenant Obedience (Chapter 9)’ I find it interesting that Horton somehow seems to lose his ability to teach clearly as he unfolds that he agrees in principle to the threefold division of the law (178) but that we go to the content of the NT for the meaning of the moral law (179-80). I have to admit that I cannot pinpoint him as to whether he is abrogating the moral law for the church but I guess in reality that is what will happen when such a radical discontinuity is taught between the Mosaic moral law and the new covenant.

Historical and contemporary theology teaches us to be extremely cautious when theologians introduce material into their theology that is alien to the community of faith. N. T. Wright, James Dunn et al do this with the use of the Pseudepigrapha, the Apochrypha and the writings from Second Temple Judaism; the result is a new theology of justification that takes hours to unravel and untold confusion. Rudolf Bultmann established hypotheses based on importing Gnostic gospels to explain John’s Gospel; a worldview that has now thankfully collapsed. Here we have Horton and Kline importing Hittite Treaty’s to explain God’s covenants, thus leading to a revision of our whole framework of theology. This is exactly why Horton has gone on to write his four volumes on covenant (published by Westminster John Knox Press). A revisionist view always requires a wholesale change in all of our theology.

This blog comment is far longer than I intended. Perhaps someone could take up the challenge to write a brief essay entitled: Does the Idea of Covenant in the Theology of Meredith Kline and Michael Horton fit within the Framework of the Westminster Standards? I think I have my answer already but it would be good to see something on paper.


Julie said...

You may find it helpful to read Horton's article entitled "What's Really at Stake," at the website. In this article he is criticizing "federal theolody" (i.e., federal vision) and he quotes Charles Hodge explaining how belonging to the nation of Israel (law) was not equivalent to being a child of Abraham (promise). The entire article was one that defended the Westminster Confession, and criticized those who would deny the existence of the covenant of works.

Kevin Bidwell said...


Many thanks for your comment. I agreet that Michael Horton in many ways has a very helpful reformed ministry. However what is under scrutiny is his understanding of the covenant. In Horton's book he states that the Mosaic covenant is not part of the covenant of grace. If you compare that comment with the Westminster Confession chapter on covenant, this makes Horton at odds with Westminster theology.

As in all theology we are on a knifedge and this is especially true of covenant theology. Hope that helps.
Stick with studying Westminster theology on the covenant and we are on safe and well trodden paths.

Kevin B