Review: Horton, Pilgrim Theology

Horton, Michael. Pilgrim Theology. Zondervan, 2011. 506 pp. $34.99
Zondervan | Amazon
Michael Horton
is an incredibly prolific scholar. He has written over twenty books, which includes a 4-volume theological project with WJK (2002–2008) and a one-volume systematic theology, The Christian Faith (Zondervan, 2011). In 2013 (despite the misprinted copyright of 2011), Zondervan released a shorter version of the Horton’s Christian Faith that focuses on the “core doctrines for Christian disciples” (the subtitle). It is “more than simply an abridgment . . . [since it is written] for an entirely new and wider audience.” It is “less detailed” and “serve[s] as something of a travel guide” (14).

These kinds of books typically pique my interest not only because I’m studying systematic theology, but because I have also been involved in high school ministry for the last seven years. Getting teenagers excited about theology can be hard enough, but explaining theological terms, concepts, backgrounds, etc. and drawing out their importance can be even more difficult. Therefore, I often look to these types of books to help summarize and communicate theology on a wider level in ways that does not leave out what is most important and that does not leave readers in the shallow end of the pool (something very difficult to accomplish).

Differences and Similarities between PT and TCF

I’ll begin by briefly noting some differences between Pilgrim Theology (PT) and the larger book, The Christian Faith (TCF). PT is roughly half the pages of TCF (506 vs 1,052) and includes 19 chapters compared to 29 chapters in TCF. Both books contain a glossary, but PT “bolds” these terms throughout the book for easy reference. It also includes visuals of “key distinctions” throughout most chapters (e.g., economic/immanent Trinity, imputed/infused righteousness). Many of the footnotes found in TCF have been removed or slimmed in PT, lending to Horton’s goal of being “less detailed” in the sense of avoiding data-overload for his intended audience. He does point to TCF for longer discussions or more detail, but sadly he doesn’t always provide page numbers (e.g., see PT, 99 n. 8). While TCF ends each chapter with Discussion Questions, PT chapters end with a list of Key Terms, Key Distinctions, and Key Questions which are different than the ones found in TCF.

Even though PT has less chapters and therefore less content, the order of presentation is still very similar (in PT he leaves out angels/demons, but this makes sense since this topic only received . Horton also presents his fourfold guide: Drama (Scripture’s story), Doctrine, Doxology, and Discipleship. “Like the directions on a compass, there are four coordinates that guide us in our journey to know God” (PT, 16). These are not steps or stages, but are all “engaged simultaneously.”

Engaging PT

Overall, PT is a fantastic introduction to Christian theology. Horton does an admirable job of communicating difficult concepts, terms, backgrounds, etc. to his intended audience, and he accomplishes most of the goals he sets out early in the book. The content combines historical, theological, and biblical material in order to give a rich understanding of each doctrine and Christian theology as a whole. Even though PT is a different kind of book than TCF, I tend to like PT better since it is a true re-write of the content found in TCF with more engagement with Scripture.

PT also comes with a “study and discussion guide” that can be found here (posted by Zondervan).  To be honest, I wish Horton would have included some of this material in the actual book. As you’ll see, it recaps the Key Terms and Key Distinctions. But it cross references each term and distinction with a the larger discussion found in TCF. Furthermore, the discussion questions are separated into Horton’s fourfold drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. Lastly, it includes “further reading” with reference to other books, but also cross referencing the corresponding pages in TCF. These helpful elements are missing in PT, but can thankfully be found in this study guide.

While I really appreciate this introductory work, it is not without some drawbacks. This text may be very helpful in certain undergraduate courses, but I do not see myself recommending it to people in my church without someone to help guide them through it. First, at times Horton provides some rather vague definitions. In the middle of his discussion of the Trinity, he writes that “Essence refers simply to reality: what is there to know” (94; also note, the term is in bold, yet “essence” does not exist in the glossary). Horton doesn’t need to get into the philosophical or Greek background of this term, but his definition will not do for the average person at my church (thus, this may be more specific to my own setting).

Second, although Horton aims to write for a wider audience, the text still remains fairly academic. For example, in talking about the Fall he writes:

God created human beings with all of the gifts necessary for fulfilling his commission. Calvin correctly saw this notion of a ‘weak spot’ in human nature (as both concupiscence and the donum superadditum entail) to be nothing but a species of the Manichaean (gnostic) heresy, which made God the author of evil. In this understanding, the biblical opposition between sin and grace becomes the Neoplatonic opposition between nature and grace. According to Christian Neoplatonism, grace is a substance infused into the soul in order to elevate finite nature toward the Infinite. (p. 141)

Concupiscence and donum superadditum are bolded on the previous page (yet not found in the glossary, like “essence”), yet their discussion is insufficient for a reader unfamiliar with these terms to understand this quote. Also, what are Manichaean (gnostic) beliefs? What’s the difference between Neoplatonism and Christian Neoplatonism aside from the brief remarks Horton makes in the text? At this place, and others, I’m worried it will result in confusion rather than clarity.

Furthermore, some pages have a large number of bolded terms (e.g., p. 30), while other pages see no bolded terms when they appear needed (e.g., only one bolded term on pp. 131–39). This inconsistency makes it difficult to benefit fully from the glossary when not at all new terms are bolded, and when some bolded terms are entirely missing.

Third, TCF only included one page on angels/demons and for some reason Horton decided to completely remove this in PT.

Despite some of these quibbles, I still find this to be a very useful text. Writing a book on Christian theology must be an incredibly difficult task. After writing his four-volume work (WJK) and larger TCF (Zondervan), it seems Horton has continued to improve his clarity and carefulness in writing this third book-length work on theology. I hope that a second edition of this work (and TCF) can correct and improve some of these minor areas. Even still, we’re currently left with a gift to students and the church.

Many thanks to Zondervan for the review copy.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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One Response to Review: Horton, Pilgrim Theology

  1. Peter Green says:

    Thanks for your review, Jordan. Very good summary, comparison, and charitable critique. I’d be curious to see a review and comparison of, for example, Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord, since it is also aimed at a similar audience, and comes from the Reformed camp, albeit a different side of that camp.

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