Law, Gospel, And Covenant: Reassessing Some Emerging Antitheses -- By: Michael S. Horton

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 64:2 (Fall 2002)
Article: Law, Gospel, And Covenant: Reassessing Some Emerging Antitheses
Author: Michael S. Horton

Law, Gospel, And Covenant: Reassessing Some Emerging Antitheses

Michael S. Horton*

[*Michael Horton is Associate Professor of Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California.]

At present there is considerable debate within conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches over the precise nature of covenant theology. While much of this debate has been prosecuted over websites and e-mails rather than in journals and monographs, it will be well-known to readers of this journal.1 On the one hand, there are those who regard the classic formulations of covenant theology (elucidated below) as not only consistent with but essential for an adequate articulation and defense of the evangelical doctrine of justification. According to this perspective, one of the marvelous benefits of covenant theology is that, while clearly emphasizing justification sola fide, it also provides for the integration of sanctification and other aspects of union with Christ. It is unwarranted, then, to reduce salvation to a choice between “forencism” and “relationship,” since “covenant” provides the context in which every soteriological theme is stamped with simultaneously forensic and relational aspects.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the dominant interpretation of Reformed orthodoxy (perhaps even the confessions themselves) is unduly influenced by Lutheran categories and concerns. While these tendencies have pushed Reformed orthodoxy repeatedly into forcing a biblically unwarranted antithesis between “law” and “gospel,” so it is argued, the bipolar nature of the covenant of grace (incorporating both divine initiative and obedient human response) offers a more biblically balanced approach that avoids both legalism and antinomianism. The choice is clear for such writers: embrace a Lutheran law-gospel hermeneutic or a Reformed covenantal alternative. For many proponents of this view, this same choice invites corollary antitheses between systematic and biblical theology, “scholasticism” and “biblicism,” the legal and the relational. If the alleged antithesis between law-gospel and covenantal paradigms can be shown to be false, perhaps we can then move on to discredit the unwarranted oppositions implied by the other pairs.

Our purpose in this brief space is not to explore potential sources for the internecine controversy, nor to provide a detailed analysis of this vast topic, but to indicate briefly in fairly broad strokes how the Reformed position came to its

distinctively covenantal understanding of theology precisely through its reflection on the re...

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