Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. Has the church been taken captive?

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church
Author: Michael Horton
Publisher: Baker Books (272 pages)
ISBN-10: 0801013186
ISBN-13: 978-0801013188

I wish to thank the fine people at Baker Books for sending me this review copy.

Has mainstream evangelicalism gone Pelagian and taken captive to consumerism, pragmatism, self-sufficiency, individualism, positive thinking, personal prosperity, and nationalism?  Dr. Michael Horton thinks so.  The author of Christless Christianity is Professor Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, California.   Dr. Horton has good and accurate insights on the situation of popular mainstream evangelicalism.  I agree with much of the opinions he has expressed.  Mainstream evangelicalism is going in the wrong direction.  We need to be Christ-centered, not human-centered.  Otherwise, evangelical churches will see the same fate as most mainline churches.

I have read and reviewed another  book of Dr. Horton’s, Introducing Covenant Theology, and gave him two thumbs up for that one.  In Christless Christianity, Michael Horton takes an extremely critical approach and leads the reader through his critique of the less-than-desirable theologies in some of our mainstream evangelical Christian leaders.  This is only the second book of Dr. Horton’s that I’ve read and I hope he has taken a more positive approach in his other books.   I think the tone and the approach he takes is less-than desirable because it takes on a very condemnatory tone.   I know that Dr. Horton is concerned about the state of today’s evangelical church.  I am too.  However, after you hear a person rant on and on about the same subject, it gets tiring after a while. This is how I feel about this book.   This book is basically a rant against what’s going on in today’s misled evangelical Christianity and it feels far from being a book on theology.

I fully agree with Horton’s view of law and gospel, on the theology of the cross, and on the monogeristic position that we are helpless and cannot save ourselves.  I have absolutely no disagreement with Horton on these theologies.  However, I think he is picking on the wrong target.  I am also glad he is speaking up against the false promises in today’s feel-good therapeutic and prosperity gospel theologies.  Furthermore, I have never been a fan of Robert Schuller and prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen because I think their theology is wrong-headed.  To be fair and just, I am coming to their defense because I think Dr. Horton has gone too far and is even unfair at times in his critique of them.  He labels today’s mainstream evangelicals as “revivalists”.  This is the wrong term to use.  In chapter three’s “Smooth Talking and Christless Christianity”, the author basically spent most of the entire chapter critiquing Osteen’s teachings.   Horton feels that Osteen is really a “positive thinking” Robert Schuller-type who shameless advocates a theology of glory, and is selling a gospel that teaches people how to be a success in life.

Another beef with this book is that it misleads the reader into thinking that most of our modern-day evangelicals are spouting a message that humans are sinless and do not need Christ to save us from our sins. That is simply not true.  Many, if not most, evangelicals do preach on the seriousness of our sins, some times a little too much.  Many accurately divide law and gospel.  Moreover, other than our traditional-orthodox evangelical protestants, some of the mainstream evangelical churches are likely the last remaining bastions where law and gospel is still proclaimed and rightly taught rather than the wrong-headed antinomian approach.

Revivalist preachers like Charles Finney, whom Dr. Horton harshly criticized, was painted as a Pelagian, or at best, a semi-Pelagian who was fixated on human self-will. Horton says of Finney:

“Where American Transcendentalism and Romanticism (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of the New Age movement) attracted Boston’s intellectuals, Charles Finney and his revivalistic legacy  represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.”… And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier… Efficiency was the rule for success in religion as in business, and ever since evangelicals have judged new movements by whether they “work” in terms of subjective experience and moral transformation.” (p. 52).

Finney’s sermons were anointed by God’s Holy Spirit and his messages have brought a deep conviction of sin and were used by God to lead many souls to salvation or recommit their lives to Christ.  On the contrary, it was not popular but it brought a conviction to many souls, as did the sermons of John Wesley.  Finney’s and Wesley’s sermons have encouraged many to live their lives to the glory of God.  People with an Augustinian-bent can believe that the human will can play a part in the sanctification process but not in justification.  Sanctification is the only place where synergism is active in the Christian’s life.  However, what many of our pro-Augustinian Calvinists (and Lutherans included) misinterpret about “revivalist” evangelical preachers is that when they put the emphasis on how the human will plays a big part in the sanctification process of the Christian, they also assume that evangelicals are saying that it also has a part in justification.  There are many mainstream evangelicals who do not see the power of human will playing a part in one’s salvation.

At times, in one’s zeal for evangelism, a revivalist’s plea to the sinner to accept Christ comes across as decision-theology.  I have to admit that some evangelicals who are theologically untrained do give the wrong impression that it is in the power of one’s will that enables one to choose salvation.   However, we should not allow our theology to blind us to the point where we deny that the human will does exist and can have a part in the life of a Christian.

I believe that one can choose to reject God’s sanctification process due to our curved-inward nature that is hopelessly inclined toward sin, selfishness and self-idolatry.  However, our human will to say “Yes” to God’s salvation is made possible only through God’s gift.  Before I was theologically trained myself, I did not realize this important piece of theology, so, I can sympathize with some of my friends who ignorantly teach this to parishioners in evangelical churches.  Some of it may just be an issue of semantics but some of it is definitely due to a wrong understanding in theology.

The author also took the approach of trying to teach what unorthodox Christianity is like rather than what orthodox Christianity is supposed to be like.  Have you heard the analogy of how to recognize a genuine dollar bill from a counterfeit?  When one wants to teach someone how to recognize a counterfeit $100 dollar bill from a genuine one, the teacher should have the student should learn what characteristics makes a genuine $100 dollar bill, not what makes a fake one.  The student is not able to learn effectively from studying a counterfeit one. If you enjoy what seems like endless ranting about what is wrong with today’s evangelical church, you will enjoy this book; but if you want to learn about what is authentic evangelical theology, I would suggest you find another book.

Horton labels preachers like Osteen as semi-Pelagian New Age teachers.  Some of today’s teachers may be self-deceived but they are not as dark as Professor Michael Horton would seem to portray.    I wish more theologians as theologically astute as Dr. Horton could write books that help us to properly understand evangelical theology rather than continuously rant about what is not genuinely evangelical.  It would just be more edifying to the entire body of Christ.

There are very few books that I have reviewed and had to stop before reaching the end.  This is only the second one ever because I could not endure the negative tone.  It is not easy to read.  However, I did manage to review this one but not the other.  Please do not misunderstand my intentions for this review and commentary, for which I give the book a thumbs down.  Christless Christianity is available from Amazon for $13.59 in hardcover.

I have read and reviewed his book Introducing Covenant Theology and gave him two thumbs up for that one.I have read and reviewed his book Introducing Covenant Theology and gave him two thumbs up for that one.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Mary and the evangelical mind

In the November 2009 edition of First Things, a Roman Catholic journal on religion, culture, and public life, the Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) article: “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” addressed the issue of Mary, which is an important to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.   It was very balanced and well thought out in my opinion. Previously, I have heard the defense for Mary from a Catholic point-of-view but what stands out most in this article was the evangelical admission of ignorance of doctrinal beliefs held by Catholics regarding Mary.

Despite all this common ground, however, both Marian dogma and Marian devotion remain contentious issues. Evangelicals understand that the Catholic Church does not equate adoration of God (latria) and veneration for Mary (hyperdoulia). It seems to many Evangelicals, however, that the devotion of some Catholics to Mary can obscure the preeminence, unique sinlessness, and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ as well as the common pneumatological ground of worship for all Christians who pray “through Christ in the Spirit.”

Emphasis on Mary’s intercessory role, coupled with prayers to Mary, can create confusion between adoration and veneration—and risks leading people away from, rather than to, the Savior. This is especially true in contexts where devotion to Mary is a deeply ingrained part of cultural identity. We do not think this is the intention of Catholic teaching as expressed in Lumen Gentium, and Catholic members of ECT have addressed in helpful ways exaggerations of Marian piety. In an age of syncretism and radical pluralism, the recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI declaring Jesus Christ the one and only Savior are an encouragement to all faithful Christians. We acknowledge that there is little Evangelical reflection on any of these Marian themes, certainly nothing commensurate with the vast Catholic literature in the field. This stems from Protestant neglect of Mary, born of a conviction that the Catholic portrait of Mary exceeds its biblical warrants. Full article…

The mysterious claims of apparitions of Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe have occasionally caught my attention, hence, the mystique behind Mary.  However, deep inside, I admit that I have secretly held Marian teaching with a slight contempt, simply because it seems like Mary’s humanity should be so obvious to us as Christians.  We regard her as a person not without sin, therefore, the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception is unnatural to the evangelical mind.  I have read and heard many Catholics address her as The Blessed Virgin Mary.  To address her as such gives us evangelicals a funny feeling inside because the concept of her being so blessed would almost stand on the verge of idolatry.  That is why evangelicals do not even go there.

We ask ourselves: “Is Mary really that blessed that she should deserve the title The Blessed Virgin Mary?…and why Mary, and not Peter, Paul, James and John?”  Sure Mary was blessed to give birth to Jesus the Christ but she was still only a human being.  However, the more I think about this, I don’t think I would have any problem with this title of honor.  However, what seems to give us evangelicals problems concerning Mary is the adoration and veneration given to her; herein lies the underlying fear.

I know the ECT article addressed this, but protestants, in general, do still get the impression from Roman Catholics that Mary is so highly regarded as a saint that the veneration of her as a saint could lead one to worship her, and pray to her as a secondary mediator after Jesus.  Evangelicals and protestants do not pray to Mary, let alone to any other saint.  In the evangelical mind, it would be on the verge of idolatry to pray to anyone else but to God Himself.  As evangelicals, we have always been taught that the only mediator and intercessor between humans and God is Jesus Christ himself.

I have no trouble with Mary’s virgin birth.  In fact, Mary’s virginal concept is an orthodox doctrine that evangelicals cherish.   It is actually seen as a bellwether test of orthodoxy, and it is usually included in many of our statements of beliefs.  However, this doctrine of Mary’s virgin birth is not on the forefront of the evangelical mind.  Should it be?

The next christian apologists in the next christendom

Today, many large cities in North America like New York City, Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and some European cities like London have become very multicultural. People arriving from other nations have changed the dynamics of the established Christian heritage through migration. The western world, as we knew it, is no longer truly “western” in the historical sense of the word. People of other races, cultures and ethnicities have brought with them different cultural beliefs, practices and religions. As a result, the Christian heritage that once existed in western civilization has lost dominance and has become blended into the dominant western world. Reflecting upon biblical history, today’s social environment resembles something like the polytheistic society of ancient Israel. In ancient biblical Israel, the monotheistic Hebrew people lived amongst a diversity of cultures and religions. The dominant Israelite religion was eventually overshadowed by its surrounding cultures and religions. Within today’s context of North America and western European nations, the same thing has happened with our monotheistic Christian religion today.

How may this be relevant to Christianity in the 21st century? This century may show itself to be a most important one, especially in terms of the spread of Christianity in the world. This century may produce more Christian apologists than ever before. In the face of a multi-religious and multicultural environment, the role of Christian apologetics will act to distinguish Christianity from other faiths within the religious and cultural marketplace.

It will definitely seem politically-incorrect to even speak about a certain “strain on the Christian faith,” but being who I am, well, I may have a voice that is able to speak to this subject without being accused of being politically-incorrect. North America’s change into a multi-religious and multicultural society has placed a certain level of strain upon the whole dynamics of how one’s Christian faith plays a part in our society.

The role of Christian apologetics is going to be more important in today’s post-modern polytheistic and multicultural society. As Christians, our commitment in keeping Christ’s commandments to love God and one another has faded within the values of younger generations in the secular sphere. God’s Spirit will call men and women to rise to the challenge—to answer the call—to defend the faith within contemporary society. “Defending the faith” as apologists for Christ is not in any way, shape or form even remotely related to extreme Islamic fundamentalism or the early crusaders of the Roman Catholic Church. To do Christian apologistics is to do works of love for Christ and the gospel. Traditional Christian values are no longer the norm in our secular humanistic society today. In this type of shifting social and religious environment, the role of Christian apologetics will be extremely important–no matter what part of the world we are in.

In years ahead, the variety of Christian apologetists and their theologies will be even more diverse than what it has been in modern history. They will come from varied theologies, churches, and varied cultures and ethnicities. Lines that previously divided denominations, churches, cultures, race, and ethnicities will blur and blend together. Today’s church includes the global church. If you did not know, the majority of the Christian church today exists in the global south and is no longer located in the northern hemisphere. (Read: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins). It should not matter which denomination they are from because all denominations are important in eyes of Christ. This is the situation in our post-modern world. It may be difficult for many traditionalists to accept this but that is what I can foresee in the future. But by their works of love, the reign of God or “kingdom of God” in Christ will be distinguished and be visibly witnessed in those whose faith is strengthened by God’s Holy Spirit. This must be the norm if one’s Christian faith is to survive and grow in our shifting global environments. God’s holy and universal church is spreading and will spread across the entire world. It is happening before our own eyes this century, and we are witnesses to this.

If we are to recognize our church as apostolic and universal (catholic), we need to honor our previous generations of Christian apologists for the works of love they have done for the body of Christ—that is the holy Christian church. Throughout the history of the early Christian church, the works of love of Christian apologists were invaluable to the survival of the early church, e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Jerome. In the early Roman Catholic Church, there was Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. The great protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin brought immense freedom in the life of the church, which in turn, introduced great political and social freedoms to society. We also have modern apologists from the 20th century like Francis Schaeffer (Presbyterian), Norman Geisler (evangelical), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), G.K. Chesterton (Roman Catholic), and John W. Montgomery (Lutheran), who have contributed much to the intellectual Christian defense. There were also the Calvinist presuppositionalists apologists like Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark. Today’s leading evangelical apologists might be people like Lee Strobel, R.C. Sproul, and Josh McDowell, and then there are many more in the making. This may be the century for North American Christian apologetics.