Justification

2-Volume Set

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Michael Horton
Editor(s): 
Michael Allen
New Studies in Dogmatics
  • Ada, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , November
     2018.
     400 pages.
     $39.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310491606.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael Horton’s Justification is the fourth part in The New Studies in Dogmatics series, edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain. The series wagers, as they state in their preface, that “the way forward in constructive theology lies in a program of renewal through retrieval.” In other words, the way to theological renewal is in “drawing more deeply upon the resources of Holy Scripture, in conversation with the church’s most trusted teachers.” The series promises to present, in each of its volumes, an awareness of the state of the question, attention to patterns of biblical reasoning, engagement with ecclesiastical statements of the doctrine, and an appreciation of the location of the doctrine within the broader system of theology and its contribution to Christian piety and practice. In the two volumes of Justification, Horton accomplishes it all, with praise.

The first volume is a magnificent work of historical theology in which Horton explores how the doctrine of justification was understood from the church fathers through the Reformation. After mapping out the crucial points of contemporary debates over justification in the introductory chapter, Horton turns to the patristic era and the emphasis the Fathers gave to the great exchange in the believer’s union with Christ. Horton’s comparison of Origen’s and Chrysostom’s commentaries in the Epistle to the Romans is eye-opening since many of the contrasting points parallel aspects of current debates. In surveying the patristic understanding of justification, Horton is careful to point out that “syllabi of quotations have limited value, given the occasional nature of much of patristic theologizing and the variance of views expressed even by the same author—indeed, often in the same text” (1:75). Horton’s honest approach validates the credibility of his work with the historical material. Following, Horton turns to the medieval period, paying close attention to how significant Medieval figures (such as Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel) approached the subject of justification in relation to their understanding of penance. Having built the scene, Horton uses the second half of volume 1 to trace how the Reformation walked through the road from penance to Christ, triumphing over nominalism by turning back to the biblical concept of grace, “as not given to solve the problem of nature but sin” (1:238). Overall, Horton leaves no doubt that the view the reformers had on justification was no innovation. It was a return to Scripture—“their message was nothing more or less than that Pauline summary” in Romans 8:39. 

After portraying how the church understood the doctrine of justification from its early years, Horton shifts his presentation to a more exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic-theological approach in volume 2. For Horton, the contemporary debates assume false choices in the treatment of justification. Accordingly, the first binary that needs deconstruction is the one between biblical studies and theology. In his words, “Theology must always be grounded in patient exegesis of the text in the original languages, while exegesis must always be honest and explicit about its dogmatic assumptions and its ecclesial location” (2:20). Horton writes from a traditional Reformed point of view, defending the “old perspective” on justification from the attacks of the New Perspective on Paul and the even more radical Apocalyptic view.

The first two parts of volume 2 address aspects of the historia salutis (the history of salvation). In chapters 1 and 2, Horton locates the discussion on justification in a covenantal framework by addressing Adam and Israel, as well as Paul’s understanding of “works of the law.” Following, Horton presents an argument for a Victorious Victor view of the atonement. Horton’s integrated view recognizes the Agnus Dei account (which includes forensic and economic aspects of Christ’s work) as the essential mechanism of the cross, while, “at the same time,” acknowledging the Christus Victor account (Christ’s triumph over Satan, death, and the evil powers), for God himself is vindicated at the cross as “just and justifier” (Romans 3:26). For Horton, substitution and justification are the “mechanism, not the goal, of Christ’s victory” (2:237). His Vicarious Victor account finds its foundation in three basic premises: (1) the biblical concept of the victory of Christ as grounded in his satisfaction of God’s justice (2:238); (2) Christ’s victory must affirm God’s simplicity and not set his goodness and love over against his judgment and wrath, but see these attributes as integrally related (2:242); and (3) Christ’s triumph over the power of darkness is the deliverance of his people “in the heavenly places" (i.e., spiritual realm), from Satan, to whom humanity willingly has given itself over in hostility against God. Interweaving the emphasis on Christ’s victory and his substitutionary accomplishments, Horton defends the traditional Reformed view of the atonement—and justification.

Justification per se is the object of analysis part 3 of volume 2 presents—what it means and by what mechanism it is accomplished (i.e., imputation)—followed by Horton’s presentation, in part 4, of how one benefits from the works of Christ, namely, through faith. Horton closes the book by explaining how the historia salutis (the history of salvation) relates and is applied in the ordo salutis (the way in which a person shares in that salvation), highlighting the fact that Christ’s substitutionary work and glorious victory can benefit those who through faith trust in him for salvation, thus being united with Christ. In fact, the bookends of these two volumes address that very subject: the great and sweet exchange. As Horton quotes from the Epistle to Diognetus: “In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” (1:39).

Horton is a great writer and a very resourceful researcher. He is well aware of current debates and interacts—without fear—with all the relevant works by scholars from various contexts and with different opinions. Also, he is skilled in making sense of the biblical data in a very natural and systematized way. All of these qualities elevate his work to such a high level that anyone who desires to adequately grasp and engage the Reformed view of justification in modern academia will have to read and interact with Horton’s Justification. For those in the Reformed academic world, this should be required reading in any course on soteriology. Besides, Horton hits home with his prevalent awareness that “the doctrine of justification lies at the center not merely of our systematic reflection on the meaning of salvation but of our piety, mission, and life together” (2:53). Horton’s Justification is much more than a solid, convincing academic piece; it is a close look into what makes the gospel good news, filling believers with confidence and hope in Christ for this life and the one to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucas Sabatier M. Leite is a doctoral student in Biblical Counseling and Systematic Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Horton is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. Author of many books, including The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, he also hosts the White Horse Inn radio program. 

Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.

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