Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Michael Horton, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. Paperback, 270 pages.
In 1923 a stick of literary dynamite was tossed into American Christianity. J. Gresham Machen published his response to the deformation of the church in his day, Christianity and Liberalism. In this book, Machen decisively demonstrated that Christianity and theological liberalism are two entirely different religions. The sad irony is that nearly 100 years later, Machen’s book remains relevant. Only the names have changed. Today’s greatest threat to Christianity is not called liberalism.
With this book, Michael Horton (professor at Westminster Seminary California and URC minister) has done for our generation what Machen did in his, surgically exposing the ultimate emptiness of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. In fact, according to Horton, much of what calls itself Christian is simply missing the boat on who Jesus Christ is according to the Bible – that’s the essence of Christless Christianity. Writes Horton,
Christless Christianity does not mean religion or spirituality devoid of the words Jesus, Christ, Lord, or even Saviour. What it means is that the way those names and titles are employed will be removed from their specific location in an unfolding historical plot of human rebellion and divine rescue… (p.144)
Christless Christianity means the trivialization of the Bible’s message of good news through Jesus Christ.
By its very nature and by the author’s admission, this is “not a cheerful missive.” Horton incisively takes on the health and wealth pseudo-gospel of popular figures such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer as well as the postive thinking pseudo-gospel of Robert Schuller. He rightly points out that while the erstwhile Emergent movement put its finger on various problems in American Christianity, the solutions it offered were no less problematic. For instance, he critiques Brian McLaren, who “scolds Reformed Christians for ‘their love affair for the Latin word sola.’” (p.194). More “Christless Christianity” isn’t the answer.
In the first chapter, Horton promised to follow this book up with a “more constructive sequel.” In 2009 he delivered with The Gospel-Driven Life – you can read my review here. Nevertheless, he does begin to offer constructive alternatives towards the end of Christless Christianity as well. He calls for resistance to the trend identified in this book. It all has to do with going back to the Word of God and what it says about us, about our ultimate problems, and about the solutions in Christ. Horton writes:
A church that is deeply aware of its misery and nakedness before a holy God will cling tenaciously to an all-sufficient Savior, while one that is self-confident and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient. (p.243).
While this book addresses the “American Church,” I think many of us will recognize the same trends spilling over into Christianity elsewhere, including in Reformed churches everywhere. Horton’s cry from the heart is one we all need to hear.
I have one slightly critical note regarding Horton’s perspective on worship. He rightly notes that in much of contemporary American Christianity, people come to church to do something. “Everybody seems to think that we come to church mostly to give rather than to receive.” (p.191). Horton seeks to correct this by drawing attention to the ways in which public worship is about God ministering to us. While this is a helpful correction, some balance is called for and that can be achieved through emphasizing the covenant structure of biblical worship. Yes, God’s ministry of Word and Sacrament to us stands central in biblical worship, but reflecting the structure of the covenant also means that there’s a place for human response. Horton has worked with that in A Better Way, but it would have been helpful to have it mentioned here also.
Obviously, my overall assessment is positive. Five stars, ten out of ten, whatever you wish – this book receives my highest recommendation. My prayer is that, unlike Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, this book would be entirely irrelevant in 100 years.