Monday, August 19, 2013

"Christless Christianity" by Micahel Horton: A Review

In all these approaches, there is the tendency to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God's drama of redemption. (18)

Ever begin to read a book and almost immediately you realize that this will be one you will want to return to over and over again? That was my assessment of Christless Christianity: The Alternative gospel of the American Church by Dr. Michael Horton. From the very beginning, Horton presents the dire diagnoses of the American church. He writes:

My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for "relevant" quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God's judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be. (19)

That is not to say that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal, rather it is becoming theologically vacuous (23). Horton, then, highlights a number of cancer cells destroying the church of Christ; two of which are worth noting. The first is moral therapeutic deism. Here he highlights the death of the doctrine sin, the therapeutic nature of the church borrowed from the culture that makes the individual feel better about themselves instead of desperate for a Savior. He calls this "Christianity Lite" and rightfully so. This theology corrupting the church, Horton argues, is just another form of works righteousness with its emphasis on "self-realization, self-fulfillmetn, and self help" (40).

This is not only works righteousness, however, but a modern form of Pelagianism - our most natural theology (44). Here he highlights the teachings, sermons, writings, and theology of Charles Finny who he believes has influenced the church more than we give him credit. Finny was not an Arminian. He was Pelagian and the church has followed suit.

Secondly, Horton argues that American Christianity is Gnostic. He hints at this earlier in the book but gives its full treatment in the latter chapters. There is a difference between Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Pelagianism, for example, leads to Christless Christianity because we do not need a Savior but a good example. Gnosticism, on the other, turns us away from the story of a good Creator, a fall into sin, and redemption through the incarnation, bloody death, and bodily resurrection of the son into a myth of an evil creator, a fall into matter and redemption by inner enlightenment (165-166). But this does not mean that there is no overlap. Both Pelagianism and Gnosticism keeps us looking to ourselves and within ourselves, while the gospels calls us to look outside ourselves for salvation (166).

We see this Gnostic bent when we hear people talk of being spiritual but not religious. That is to say, one wants spirituality without any particular creed (167). Thus we turn to a spiritual God that becomes our buddy that does not condemn and, therefore, does not forgive.

Perhaps a simplier way to summarize this argument is to return the basic religion vs. rebellion/legalism vs. libertarianism we find in the New Testament. I think Horton is dead right in his assessment of the American church and how the gospel is presented and believed today. He is right in condemning not just liberals for this, but also well-intentioned conservatives. Our natural tendency is to run from grace and to either religion (or Pelagianism with its emphasis on works righteousness) or to antinomianism (or Gnosticism with its emphasis on spirituality, God's love, no creeds, etc.).

In short, this is one of the most important books I have read in recent years. Horton gives examples, statistics, and data to back everything up. He dedicates several pages looking at the theology of the likes of Finny, Joel Osteen, Robert Schuler, and others who have contributed to Christless Christianity in America. This is a wonderful resource that I wish was unnecessary. Horton is a great writer who is gifted at identifying the real problem and articulating how the gospel is better.

Read this book over and over again!


For more:
Pelagianism, Gnosticism, and the American Religion - Part 1
Pelagianism, Gnosticism, and the American Religion - Part 2
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