Tag Archives: Michael Horton

The Greatest Threat to the Gospel Today

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 Lifeyou 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.

Why is Pentecostalism Popular in Latin America and Elsewhere?

Introduction to Pentecostalism Allan Anderson

I was looking for a book about Pentecostalism and its history and theology.  I wanted to get something from a sympathetic perspective.  I found it with this volume.  Allan Anderson is a former Pentecostal pastor and apparently a global authority on the subject.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

One of the questions I had coming to this book was why Pentecostalism appeals so widely in developing countries.  Anderson partly answers this question in chapter 10, “A Theology of the Spirit.”    Here’s what he says:

The popularity of Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in the developing world can also in part be attributed to a particularly contextual spirituality.  Pentecostalism purports to provide for much more than the ‘spiritual’ problems of life.  The important role given to divine healing and exorcism, the particular emphasis on the power of the Spirit, but also the comprehensive community projects and significant involvement in political and civic organizations and trade unions, represent a new and vigorous spirituality offering help to human problems.  This spirituality is a holistic approach to Christianity that appeals more adequately to popular worldviews than older Christian traditions had done, and in some respects was also more satisfying than ‘traditional’ religions had been.  Furthermore, throughout Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America, Pentecostalism has been more meaningful precisely because it has continued some pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols and invested them with new meanings. (202)

A little further on the same page, Anderson refers to Amos Yong and his attempt to develop a Pentecostal theology of religions.  Writes Anderson:

[Yong] points out that Pentecostals in the Third World, especially those who are part of Christian minorities, are in constant interaction with other religions.  He says that the experiences of the Spirit common to Pentecostals and Charismatics demonstrate ‘indubitable similarities across the religious traditions of the world.’  This opens up the way for a constructive Pentecostal theology of religions that explores ‘how the Spirit is present and active in other religious traditions.’ (202-203)

This does explain a lot.  To put it in my own words, Pentecostalism is popular in part because it accommodates other religious traditions.  Pentecostalism is popular partly because it assimilates pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols.  At least some Pentecostals believe the Holy Spirit is living and active in non-Christian religions.  If we take Anderson’s word, Pentecostalism does something like what the Roman Catholic Church did in Latin America and elsewhere.  The Roman Catholics took a pagan goddess and transformed her into Our Lady of Guadulupe.  Today this is widely applauded as a form of contextualization.  Unfortunately, that word is often a euphemism for syncretism.  Interestingly, in the previous chapter, Anderson bemoans a previous generation of Pentecostal missionaries who regarded non-Christian religions as wicked paganism.  Therefore, in an earlier period, it appears there was inconsistency in Pentecostalism on this point.  Whether Anderson and Yong’s views are widely held in Pentecostalism today, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the alleged holistic appeal of Pentecostalism mentioned in the first quote doesn’t seem to reach very far.  In my estimation (based on my reading of this book and conversations with Pentecostals) Reformed theology and worldview is far more holistic than Pentecostalism, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet in Latin America and elsewhere.  Why not?  I think Anderson answers that question when he write this:  “…as I have elsewhere observed, a criticism often justifiably levelled at Pentecostals is that sometimes a theology of success and power is expounded at the expense of a theology of the cross” (198).  A theology of the cross never plays well for the crowds, and that’s at the center of the gospel as proclaimed in Reformed churches.  If you want the crowds, promise them signs and wonders.  If you want to pull in the masses, promise them experiences.  Promise them padded bank accounts.  Sadly, the trajectory of all this is what Michael Horton called Christless Christianity.

Michael Horton — The Gospel Commission

I’m not writing a full review of this one.  I just wanted to make a few comments.  The central point of this book is to reconnect church and mission in the thinking and practice of Christians.  That’s laudable and very necessary!  And I think Horton succeeds in making his case.  The discussion of contextualization in chapter 4 was outstanding.  Horton notes how many Christians in other parts of the world “bristle at the suggestions, usually coming from Americans and Europeans, to develop a uniquely ‘African theology,’ ‘Brazilian theology,’ and so forth” (124).  Horton offers insightful critiques of both contemplative spirituality and the emergent movement.  There are a few places where some readers may put question marks:  natural law, two-kingdom thinking (with an appeal to Abraham Kuyper!), rejection of a Christian use of the imprecatory psalms, and so on.  Still, overall, I enjoyed this volume and I think it’s a helpful contribution to the development of Reformed thinking about the missionary task of the church.  Lately I’ve been thinking that many of Horton’s books start to sound the same.  That’s why I put off reading this one for so long.  The Gospel Commission one has some similar themes to previous volumes, but there is a lot that’s new here.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that this is one of the best Reformed books dealing with mission (not that there’s a lot to compare it to!).

Horton: Wright and Justification

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michael Horton’s massive systematic theology The Christian Faith.  The plan is to write a full-scale critical review for The Confessional Presbyterian.  There’s certainly a lot with which to interact.  So far, my impression (after nearly 650 pages) is mixed.  There’s much good to be said, but also some frustrating aspects.  For the details, you’re going to have to wait.

Today I just wanted to comment on chapter 19, “Forensic Aspects of Union with Christ: Justification and Adoption.”  Thus far this chapter is one of the best.  Horton ably lays out the Reformed doctrine of justification and its biblical basis.  He also interacts with critics of this doctrine, chief of whom is N. T. Wright.

Wright alleges that the Reformed doctrine of justification posits the imputation of God’s righteousness.  Horton replies:

However, it is crucial to point out that it has never been the Reformation position that God’s righteousness is imputed.  First, this assumes that righteousness is a substance or a commodity that is transferred from one person to another, rather than a legal status.  Second, missing from Wright’s courtroom setting is the third party: the mediator who, as representative head, fulfills the law and merits for himself and his covenant heirs the verdict of “righteous” or “just” before God.  Although the one who fulfilled the terms of the law covenant as the human servant is also the divine Lord, it is his active obedience rather than the essential divine attribute of righteousness that is credited to believers.  (632).

A few pages further, Horton discusses the relationship between justification and holy living in the theology of Wright and other NPP scholars:

N. T. Wright pleads, “If Christians could only get this [doctrine of justification] right, they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it.”  Thus, the gospel is something to be done by us, not simply an astonishing and disruptive announcement of what has already been achieved once and for all on our behalf.  Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to conflate them.  (641).

Essentially this boils down to a confusion of justification and sanctification, or, in more basic terms, law and gospel.  Horton rightly points out that Reformation theology has derived an ethic from justification (640), but it has not infused ethics into justification.  In the words of the hymn beloved by Warfield, when it comes to justification, we must “cast our deadly doing down.”

Friends You Should Meet (6) — Michael Horton

It’s no secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a greater grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

Most of the authors I’ve been introducing I first became acquainted with as an undergrad.  Michael Horton came into my life comparatively late — as a seminary student in my last year.  I knew nothing about him, but his book Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism grabbed my attention.  It was a compelling expose of the foundations of much of what passes for Christianity on our continent.  A short while after that I was driving around Edmonton and accidentally came across someone talking about Reformed theology on the radio.  It was the White Horse Inn, hosted by Michael Horton and three other “gents.”

Michael Horton received his seminary training from Westminster Seminary California (WSC).  He went on to receive a Ph.D. from Oxford.  Since 1998, he’s been a professor of theology and apologetics at WSC.  He is an ordained minister of the United Reformed Churches and his credentials are held by Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California.  He’s the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and, as mentioned, host of the nationally syndicated White Horse Inn radio broadcast.  He’s authored numerous books and articles and regularly speaks at conferences in the United States and around the world.

Why is Michael Horton important? First of all, he grew up in a world distant from the Reformation.  In later years, he discovered Reformation theology and became convicted of its biblical richness.  Not all is well within Reformed churches, but Horton’s contribution is to point out that, rather than looking to what used to be called “evangelicalism,” we should look deeper into our own heritage.  Because it is so oriented to the Bible, our confessional heritage has the resources for necessary ongoing reformation.  Second, Horton writes two kinds of books:  scholarly and popular.  If you’re familiar with the scholarly stuff, you know that it’s the foundation for the popular.  In both types of writings, he takes the Bible seriously and understands and emphasizes the centrality of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

Where do I start? I’ve read at least ten books by Michael Horton.  My favourite is A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (previously published as  Too Good to be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype).  I’ve given away numerous copies of this little book because of its realistic, biblical treatment of suffering.  Another Horton must-read is Christless Christianity: the Alternative Gospel of the American Church.  This is a jeremiad, lamenting and exposing the shallowness and emptiness of North American Christianity.  It has a bearing on many of our Reformed churches too.  We’re in no less danger of falling into a form of “Christless Christianity.”  The third one that I’ll recommend here is A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship.   In this one, Horton again exposes the problems with what passes for worship these days, but also outlines the biblical beauty of Reformed liturgy.  Finally, there’s the classic Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel.  This is an excellent exposition of the doctrines of grace.

What to look out for? There are three things that readers should know about Horton.  These things come up occasionally in his writings and on his radio program, lectures, etc.  The first is that he follows Meredith Kline’s reading of Genesis 1-2.  In other words, he holds to the Framework Hypothesis.  However, he is not a theistic evolutionist (the URCNA allows for the Framework interpretation, but not for theistic evolution).  Second, his view of covenant theology may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to some readers.  In his book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, he again follows Meredith Kline.  Like many Reformed people past and present, he holds to three biblical covenants:  redemption, works, and grace.  Though some might disagree with this covenant theology, it does fall within the parameters of the Three Forms of Unity.  Moreover, it is arguably the classic Reformed view in many respects.  Finally, as a matter of emphasis, in his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), there is not a strong accent on the confessional categories of true and false.  I especially noted this in his book People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology.

Over the years, reading and listening to Michael Horton has been a great blessing for me and my ministry.  Through him I became even more convinced that Christ and the gospel have to stand central in everything we do as church.  Let me finish with a characteristic Horton quote:  “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-confdent and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient.” (Christless Christianity, 243).