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People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology Perfect Paperback – September 2, 2008
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About the Author
Michael S. Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. He is the author of a number of books, including Covenant and Eschatology, Lord and Servant, and Covenant and Salvation, all published by WJK.
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Horton’s whole project is taken from a line of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion (Horton is simply illustrating a point, not using Tillich’s theology!). Tillich saw two ways of “doing religion:” overcoming estrangement (varieties of Platonism) and meeting a stranger (Horton’s more covenantal approach. Horton continues this analysis into the church and shows us an ecclesiology that is based off the announcement of the Ascended Lord.
While it is common to assert that the Church is a creature of the Word, Horton points out the similarities between this position and speech-act theory. God’s word is not only pedagogical, but performative: it (He!) creates the Church (Horton 39 n.3). This theory helps us overcome the (supposed) impasse between actual reality and forensic declaration (which lies at the heart of critiques of justification by faith alone as legal fiction): “When God declares something to be so, the Spirit brings about a corresponding reality within us” (45). This means, as Horton puts it, that reality’s character is “linguistically mediated” and that speech is effectual.
Ratifying the Treaty: Signs and Seals
The Bible does not speak of sacraments in metaphysical language but in language that connotes eschatological presence.
Words and signs create a covenant. They do not “fuse” essences (101).
There is no nature-grace problem but a sin-grace problem.
Horton recapitulates the argument of his book in chapter 6. Chapter 1 argued the where of Christ’s presence (Ascension), chapters 2-5 argued the how of Christ’s presence (Covenantal Speech-Act), and chapter 6 argues the what of identity on earth. In what sense is the church one and many?
Horton makes several key distinctions between “unity” and “unicity.” Unity is a healthy respecting of differences best seen in a covenantal community. This can only be by the Spirit. Noting Leslie Newbigin’s poignant remark, when we make the church an “extension of the Incarnation,” we confuse sarx (Christ’s flesh) with soma (his body as the church). In such a move any union is at the level of fused essences flowing downward in a hierarchy (as is necessary in all Platonic and Dionysian visions; 187). Rather, our union with Christ is through the Spirit in anticipation of the age to come.
This has important practical applications. When faced with high-church claims to “unity over Protestant divisions,” one may rightly ask if unity is even possible on a Roman or Orthodox position? Does not their own version of unity reduce all to sameness, in a sense losing unity altogether for unicity? If they hold to a Dionysian ontology in which differences are overcome through an ascent on the divine ladder (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 34), do they not lose the many to the one? Indeed, to borrow a line from the postmoderns, does not differance become violence?
Throughout this discussion Horton engages in some very important analyses of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf, thus adding a particular relevance to his work
Conclusion and remarks:
Horton ends his book with his own eschatology reminiscent of Meredith Kline. He makes some good points and presents them in a cogent and winsome manner, yet I have reservations about Kline's Intrusion Ethics. Fortunately, most of Horton's series doesn't demand that position.
The primary mode (perhaps Horton would go as far as to say the only mode, thus of course not including general revelation) of God communicating to humankind is through His Word and Sacraments, which can only be found from within the Church which is the totality of people who have been saved by grace and the place where people come to salvation. This I find, is a bit problematic for a practical outworking of one's ecclesiology. How well does the Word have to be preached to meet Horton's covenantal demand of God speaking through the Word? How much or in what manner must the sacraments be administered for God's grace to be present and active within a Church community? These are but a few of the questions one must wrestle through with Horton's argument. Nonetheless, it is a superb piece of scholarship that should be read and wrestled through by any serious pastor or academic who is interested in engaging with ecclesiology, regardless of whether one is Reformed in his or her theology.
One day I hope someone I know will also read it. Then, we can talk about it at my house and possibly barbecue some meat.
I think my friend Lee is going to read it. He goes to my church. It's cool he wants to read it. Maybe we can start a posse.