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Book Review - 'People and Place: a Covenant Ecclesiology' by Michael S Horton

Richard Sherratt

People and Place is the final volume of Michael Horton’s four volume series wherein he has sought to re-shape theological reflection through using the biblical motifs of covenant and eschatology. In this volume Horton sets forth a covenantal ecclesiology.

Horton builds on the work of Douglas Farrow locating the church as inhabiting the time between redemptive events of Pentecost and the Parousia - that is the time in which Jesus is neither fully present nor fully absent. Horton underscores the importance for recognising both Christ’s absence (Ascension) and Christ’s presence now (Pentecost). His point is that Jesus’ presence is mediated in the overlap of the ages by the Spirit which leads him to unfold a brief biblical theology of the Spirit’s work in redemptive-history from creation to new creation which is incredibly insightful. He argues that the Spirit’s works in the present is to apply the work of Christ in the past as well as bringing forward the future reality in a ‘semirealized manner’. The locus of this work is the church and so Horton possesses a very high view of the church for it is through the church that Jesus is present in the world and the church, as Christ’s body, is a ‘covenantal place’. This is then fleshed out through the rest of the book in a refreshing and enlightening manner focusing upon the church’s origin, identity and destiny.

The Church’s Origin

In part one Horton locates the church’s origin in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. This section of the book comprises four chapters. The first two unfolds a theology of the word and in the second two explains the sacraments focussing particularly on the Eucharist.

Horton argues that the church is a ‘creation of the word’ (2008: 37) unpacking the many means of ‘word’ which he sees as including both the hypostatic word and the sacramental word. For Horton the gospel and the church are united, that is through preached word God creates a community and so we can say that the church is created by the gospel. He stresses that this same word that causes the church to exist is the very same word that norms it and as such the church is captive to the word and he sets this captivity against both ‘inner reason and experience’ as well as ‘ecclesial praxis’.

Moreover, for Horton, preaching is essential for it is ‘the means through which God communicates here and now the benefits of a redemption achieved then and there’ (2008: 41) and so Horton advances a high view of preaching and sees it as sacramental. He writes that ‘the minister’s words, like the physical elements of the sacraments, were united to the substance: Christ and all of his benefits. Therefore, the Word not only describes salvation, but also conveys it’ (2008: 48). So Christ and all of his benefits is conveyed through the word both preached and visible and so for the believer, who receives God’s covenantal word ‘worthily’ the sacrament is favourable meeting of strangers (2008: 107). Throughout his excellent discussion of Baptism and the Eucharist Horton is at pains to stress that the sacraments are ‘means of grace’ rather than ‘acts of obedience’ and so provides a helpful corrective to some evangelical theologies.

The Church’s Identity

In part two Horton explores the church’s identity and mission between the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to come’ and he does this by using the themes from the creed, that the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

In chapter six Horton looks at the unity of the church and he looks at Roman Catholic ecclesiologies of the totus christus and interacts with contemporary Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, focusing on John Zizioulas. He then critiques the ecclesiology prevalent in the free churches which sees church as primarily a resource for believers with respect to fellowship interacting with Karl Barth, George Barna and Miroslav Volf.

In chapter seven Horton unpacks what it means for the church to be both holy and catholic. Horton grounds the holiness of the visible church not in the holiness of the members but rather ‘We are holy because of our election, redemption, and calling in Christ (Eph. 1:4-15)’ (2008: 192). Horton reminds us that ‘Reformed (as well as Lutheran) ecclesiologies emphasise that the holiness of the church that sets it apart from the world does not arise from within the corporate body (hierarchically) or its members (democratically), but from the ministry of the Son and the Spirit, sent from the Father, working through the Word and sacraments’ (2008: 195). Horton then turns to discuss catholicity and points out that this is both local and universal and he then goes on to explain why he believes in a Presbyterian polity as being the best expression of a covenantal ecclesiology. He is critical of the Catholic view which sees catholicity as defined by the universal and he is also critical of the Protestant view which finds the concept of church exhausted in the local congregation. That is he finds an over-realised eschatology in Rome and an under-realised eschatology in the free churches. His criticisms of both are good and his advancement of a Presbyterian polity is interesting however he did not show how it improved upon an Anglican view of episcopacy.

In chapter eight Horton outlines the apostolicity of the church. He argues that apostolicity is holding onto the teaching of the apostles taught by ordinary ministers of word and sacrament who are Christ’s gift to his church (Eph. 4). Having such a high view of the ministry he takes issue with the concept of ‘every member ministry’ and warns that this undermines the concept of the church as being the creation of the word and advises that ‘a pneumatologically rich ecclesiology should not be set over against an emphasis on the official ministry and its offices’ (2008: 237).

Horton also discusses the marks of the church (word, sacrament and discipline) and argues that the keys of the kingdom given to Peter were given to the ministers of the church who exercise them through liturgical absolution, preaching, baptism, and the Eucharist (2008: 241-256). It is then through the ministers exercising the keys that the church is able to remain true to the apostolic faith and the corporate body is preserved. In causing us to think of the church as both an historical organisation and an eschatological event is a needed reminder which is sure to enrich our understanding of what the church is and what its mission is.

The Church’s Destination

In part three Horton discusses the church’s destiny. He argues that the purpose of God has been to dwell with his people and he traces this theme through the Old Testament by focusing upon the theme of temple and points out that this theme is clearly found in Jesus. However, he is careful not to fall afoul of an over-realised eschatology and so makes it clear that whilst we should see Jesus as the temple we must not downplay that the true fulfilment of holy time (Sabbath) and holy space (temple) is the yet to be consummated new creation.

He also asks what the task of the church is in the overlap of the ages? His answer is that the church’s mission is to carry out the Great Commission (rather than the Cultural Mandate) and he briefly advances a ‘two-kingdoms’ perspective locating the cultural activity of Christians within the framework of common grace, noting that even though “Christians are in Christ, their vocations in the world are no holier than those of non-Christians” (2008: 271 cf. pp 274-280). He develops this argument when he discusses the theme of holy war arguing that churches cannot invoke the theme of holy war to justify cultural transformation and reminds the reader that Christians are not in the Promised Land but rather akin to Israel in Babylon. However, he does suggest that the holy war theme can be seen in the task of the church - to open and shut the gates of heaven through the proclamation of the gospel announcing peace and mediating union with Christ through word and sacrament.

He concludes with a chapter subtitled “The Eucharistic liturgy of the kingdom which we are receiving” in which he summarises the unfolding of redemptive history from creation through to consummation using the theme of ‘eucharistic parade’ or ‘a royal procession from work to Sabbath’. He writes that the move from creation to consummation that was stalled by Adam is completed by the Last Adam and so we can look forward to the Sabbath rest that awaits us and in the meantime we are means of God’s service to our neighbours and we keep the feast – ‘Believers are passive receivers of the gift of salvation, but they are thereby rendered active worshippers in a life of thanksgiving that is exhibited chiefly in loving service to our neighbours’ (2008: 303). Horton emphasises the place of worship in shaping our lives so when our weekly worship is shaped by the Eucharistic pattern of God’s giving us himself and we receive him in faith, so our lives in the world also take this same shape in that we give good gifts to our neighbours.

Conclusion

Overall this book presents a stimulating theology of the church that should be welcomed by the evangelical world. It is a challenging read but it will add a fresh vibrancy to our theological reflections on the church and Horton provides the theological foundations for thinking through the practical implications of a robust covenantal ecclesiology.