Almost immediately after writing it, I am struck by the irony of the title of this post. Usually, I compose the content of a post, then come up with a supposedly catchy, provocative title 😉
Today, I started with the title. The initial purpose of the title of this post was to declare that I have finished reading Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton thereby setting the stage for the content of the post, my thoughts on said book. The secondary purpose, though at first unintended, informs that I have seen, experienced much of what Horton describes.
I ran through this book rather quickly and will probably read it again sooner rather than later. From this first quick read, here are a few things I take away: Horton diagnoses certain ills that infect the body of the American church, and two main themes seem to dominate. First, there is a strong element of Pelagianism that permeates much of the church. Secondly, there is a strain of Gnosticism that parallels the Pelagianism. This Pelagianism often takes on the form of a ‘legalism lite’ while the Gnosticism arrives in the form of the subtle primacy of subjective religious, emotional,self-focused experience over the objective authority of Scripture. His diagnosis is not unique to either of the broad, polar extremes of ecclesiology, the liberal and conservative branches; there is an overarching human-centricity that permeates both. He also points out the ironic commonality of the ‘deeds, not creeds’ mindset that has been so firmly ensconced in liberal Christianity and now boldly infects much of the church growth movement as well as the neo-liberal Emergents. Before continuing, Horton does not argue that the church, as a whole, has necessarily arrived at a Christless Christianity, but that signs are evident that the church is well on its way to that state. He argues that what is being engaged is not so much heresy, but more silliness, lightness, and self-focus. Almost gone are the days where the flock comes to church to be ministered to and taught, fed, truths of Scripture and have the sacraments administered. Some pastors no longer see their role as being one who feeds the flock and regularly administers the sacraments, but rather view church as the place where they cast vision and give marching orders to the flock. These marching orders can range from calls to engage those Joel Osteenesque steps to having a better life now to an exhortation to the flock to get out there and ‘be the Gospel’ without ever really and carefully explaining what the Gospel is, the proclamation of Good News given and offered to us more than something we ‘do’ or ‘are’. Think again on that ‘deeds, not creeds’ mentality previously mentioned.
Horton, with much clarity, traces the pragmatic methods of Charles Finney, quite frankly Pelagian in his theology, to the formulas used by contemporary church growth experts today. The fallout from this pragmaticism is often an unintended devaluing of the supremacy of Christ in both corporate worship and evangelism. Rather, church is to be an entertaining event to draw crowds wherein the Gospel (hopefully) may be found on a table filled with personal anecdotes and calls to moralism by self-effort without a clear expounding of the absolutely astounding nature of grace through faith found in Christ, God incarnate, in light of our sin nature, our total depravity. We end up, sadly, with a de-clawed Gospel, that ‘therapeutic, moralistic deism’ mentioned in a quote in the book. Even more sad, so many are content with just that. What is often engaged in that often ill-defined call to a personal relationship with Jesus, is a narcissism, a salvation solely focused on self rather than one lived out in covenant community. I have been guilty…
All in all, a sobering read, clear and concise. Another good book in the same vein is The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David Wells. Next on the list to read, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, also by Horton.
Hey! It dawns on me…this is my first book review ever. It dawns on me, too, how hard it is to be objective when you are close to the subject matter of the book being reviewed.