Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama

Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama is a book about theological method.  Unashamed of his Reformed heritage, the Westminster professor, draws on the redemptive-historical insights of John Calvin, Hermann Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, and others, to speak to issues of post-modern literary theory and the narrative theology of George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, “Messieurs Lindbeck and Wolterstorff, meet Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos!”  The result is an erudite and creative proposal that instructs Christians to conceive of the Bible as a Divine Drama.

In brief, Horton employs biblical theology and speech-act theory to show how this biblical drama–God’s acts of redemption and his interpretive revelation– should be the starting point for doing theology.  In this regard, Horton’s proposes an inductive method of doing theology.  Still, he relies on other theologians and philosophers to shape his thesis.  He depends heavily on Post-Reformational theologians and appropriates many of their redemptive-historical insights to combat and correct the modern philosophy and postmodern literary theory.  Yet, like Kevin Vanhoozer, Horton is adroit in gleaning from postmodern theories and philosophical instrumentation to better articulate what the Bible is doing.

The book is broken into two sections: “God Acts in History” (ch. 2-4) and “God Speech” (ch. 5-9); however, the contents of each chapter seem to move from one problem area to another.  In other words, instead of delineating a clear line of explanation, Horton responds to the problems and counter-proposals as he sets forth his case.  In this, he makes countless contributions to the subject of theological method; however, it is challenging to finish this book with a step-by-step program for ‘doing theology.’  Nevertheless, in the narrative of his book, there are four ideas that find repeated attention and that Horton sets out from the beginning.  They are a redemptive-historical method, an analogical mode (of discourse), a dramatic model, and a covenantal context.  We will consider these in turn.

First, Horton argues that we should read the Bible along redemptive-historical or biblical-theological lines.  Following the Dutch-American Reformed tradition, Horton conceives of biblical theology as an organically-connected development in biblical history–one that is laced with eschatological anticipation.  In this way, eschatology is not simply a systematic loci, but an interpretive lens.  Promise-fulfillment is the basic structure of the biblical narrative.  And the entire Bible itself takes on an escalating covenantal shape.

Horton contrasts the Platonic dualism that has lurked within the church from Augustine to Bultmann with the biblical, “two-age model”  which integrates history and eschatology.  Whereas the former sets up an unbiblical noumenal-phenomenal antithesis, the latter places eschatology within history and sees one age following another.  Jesus inaugurated the age to come with the ratification of the new covenant–the shedding of his blood on the cross– and his triumphant resurrection/ascension.  Today, we await the culmination when the King of Kings comes again.  Thus, according to Horton, we should read the Bible redemptive-historically.  I agree.

Second, Horton addresses the subject of biblical language.  Is it univocal, equivocal, or analogical?  He argues for the last of these three, and shows how and why proposals that turn away from analogical discourse result in aberrant doctrines.  For instance, in chapter two he shows the difficulty of fusing liberal, God-denying action in history with biblical & orthodox language (e.g. when Bultmann uses the language of resurrection, he is not speaking of physical, historical event).  Horton supplies four possible ways that the Bible and the world relate: (1) “mythological-symbolical-metaphorical” language where the God has spoken in his word but not in a way that comports with history, (2)  “communal interpretation of natural occurencce” where God acts providentially in history but does not provide sufficient interpretation of explanation, thus communities of faith are left to devise their own meaning, (3) “narrative interpretation” in which the Bible gives a plausible explanation of reality, but which may not in fact correspond to reality, and (4) “immanent interpretation” where belief is held that God lives, moves, and has his being in the world–this is a panentheist approach that blurs Creator and creation.

Horton lists all these to show the competing (and false) models in the church and academy today and to argue for a view of the Bible that recounts both God’s acts in history, as well as his covenantal speech found in Scripture.  God acts in his works and in his words, and Horton emphasizes that while the Bible only gives us analogical expressions of the God who acts and speaks, these analogical accomodations are true interpretations of God’s work of redemption.  He goes further though, asserting that Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, is in fact the univocal center of revelation, and that in him their is a univocal and irreducible core to the revelation of God in redemptive history.

Third, building on the redemptive-historical storyline and the way that God reveals himself through redemptive acts and inspiring nterpretive speech, Horton shows that this results in a divine drama where the world is a stage, the Bible a script, the people of God actors, and the covenantal structures (e.g. circumcision and the sacrificial system under the Mosaic administration; baptism and the Lord’s supper under the New Covenant) serve as visible props to reenact the drama.  This dramatic ideal is not held exclusively by Horton.  Hans von Balthasar developed it at length in his 5-volume Theo-Drama, and before that John Calvin even appealed to theatrical language.  More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer has appealed to this understanding in his The Drama of Doctrine

As with his emphasis on “two-world” model mentioned earlier, this historical progression of people and plot, which is sovereignly written and directed by God himself, overturns the static, platonic view of reality.  Instead of a purely vertical understanding of the platonic cosmology, with the earthly, material world somehow reflecting the timeless, immaterial noumenal worls, the Bible as Divine Drama puts the story on a horizontal axis that is moving from Creation to Consummation.  Simultaneously, the biblical drama casts God as the intervening hero who descends from heaven to earth to wisely, powerfully, and gloriously deliver his people–this is seen typologically in the OT and definitely in the NT with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, Horton develops this drama along the unifying theme of the biblical covenants.  He maintains that biblical canon itself is a covenantal document (a la Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority), and that the revelation of redemption contained therein reflects the gracious initiative of God to save a people for himself, a people who journey in this age as pilgrims but in the age to come as partakers of the Kingdom of God.  As Horton works out this proposal, he on more than one occasion emphasizes the necessity of a theology of the cross, over against a theology of glory.  The Christocentric reality is that the covenantal pattern of the Bible is that those who will enter into glory must travel the road of redemption as sojourners and sufferers (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).  He critiques any reading of Scripture that purports an overrealized eschatology, and he cautions those of us in covenant with Jesus Christ to realize that the cross comes before glory.

So overall, Horton’s proposal is compelling, even if it is hard to follow at points.  His argumentation is strong and his knowledge of biblical theology and postmodern philosophy is vast.  Furthermore, it is obvious that his intention is not to advocate a system of theology.  This is seen in the way that he answers objections from liberal theologians on his left and the way he challenges hyper-conservative theologians on his right.  He aims to traverse a narrow path between “experiential-expressivists”  who subvert the Bible to contemporary prejudices and “cognitive-propositionalists” who in the name of orthodoxy reduce the Bible to a series of eternal truths and miss the narrative, historical, and eschatological framework of the Bible. 

Similarly, Horton’s use of speech-act theory and double author discourse does not distort the text or run into the rocks of Tillich’s method of correlation.  Instead, Horton deftly employs philosophical language to articulate what the Bible is in fact doing.  This selective use of literary theory and philosophy, along with his repeated appeals to biblical theology, serves as a needed corrective against extreme liberalism and reductionistic biblicism.  Against both of these polarities, Horton is emphatic on the covenantal structure of the Bible, the way in which God has time and again redeemed a people for himself, something that the Divine Drama is continuing to do today.  Which leads to a final point.

Horton concludes his work with a chapter on the “Community Theater” where he suggests ways in which the twenty-first century church is called to perform the drama found in Scripture.  Appealing to the likes of Calvin, he shows how preaching the Word, performing the sacraments–his word, not mine, and effecting church discipline display for a watching world the Divine Drama.  Thus the church is to appropriate the speech and acts found in the biblical narrative, the language of the covenant, and to continue walking by faith in the redemption once for all accomplished in Christ and once for all delivered (read: spoken) to the saints.  While the objective work of redemption and revelation is completed, its local reenactment by the redeemed people of God will continue until the end of age.

On the whole, Horton’s book is an enriching proposal on how to do biblical and systematic theology.  It is not for the faint of heart, though.  It is a technical work that requires background knowledge of contemporary theology and Post-Reformation Reformed theology.   Simultaneously, it is a book that while written clearly could be structured better.  The book is generally organized by the four emphases consider here, but the execution of explaining these ideas is lacking.  Nevertheless, his main point of reading the Bible redemptive-historically, analogically, and covenantly comes through, and his model of a Divine Drama is one that helps unify the gap between theory and practice.  I commend Horton’s book to you and hope that it helps you delight in the God who acts and speaks!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

2 thoughts on “Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama

  1. Thanks for this helpful summary, Dave! I’ve started this book a few times and have not persevered; I think I’ll give it another go now that I’ve got a good overview. Love the blog!

    • Paul,

      Thanks for reading it. My book summaries always seem to go longer than I want. Hope your remaining days of summer are going well.


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