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Review of Horton “Christless Christianity”

November 4, 2011

I read the book (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, Baker, 2008) a year ago, and sent in this review through one of those text boxes on the book’s site (the only way you could contact). I had to get this one, as I wanted to see an updated version of  the excellent but underexposed Beyond Culture Wars (1996), and was being greatly irritated by the rhetoric I was challenging in some Christian debates, seeing some Christians who seem to worship America and capitalism more than Christ (who some barely mention in the discussions), yet only use Him to prove they “are on the side of the truth”. Hence; “Christless Christianity”!

I certainly like how Horton goes after the way American spirituality “uses God or the divine as something akin to an energy source”, “like electricity” (p178-9 [&83]) that we “plug into”.
That ALWAYS bothered me, and was discouraging when it didn’t really feel that way (but then, of course, they ironically tell you it is not by feeling, making it all the more confusing!)

He also really helped me understand Matt.11:17 (children dancing at the marketplace) and Rom.10:6-7 (bring Christ down or bring Him up from the dead), which I had never fully understood, and never saw anyone expound upon.

It also clarifies more what his vision of the Church really is. Like the “Word and sacrament” part, which was mentioned in BCW, but not really elaborated on.

(So for someone not familiar with his brand of Reformed faith, it’s easy to take that stuff for granted).

The concern I have, as with BCW, is the high praise of Augustine, the “Historic Church”, early American preaching (e.g. the Puritans) and even Luther and Calvin. A lot of problems came with Augustine, and were perpetuated through those other authorities who followed or were influenced by him.
For one thing, Augustine’s life of sexual immorality before conversion greatly affected his teaching, and it looks to me like instead of laying all of his deep guilt at the foot of the Cross, he just projected it through some of his message, and tried to double-insure himself with a twisted mix of works-righteousness and unconditional election (if all else fails).
After all, this guy is who made the later Catholic Church much of what it became. So its ironic to criticize Christians now for “moralism”, but then uphold Augustine, who basically popularized this response.

I’m glad he now acknowledges that a lot of the problems he addresses are found in Calvinistic churches as well.
But that should show that a turn from Calvinism is not the cause of the problems he is addressing.

I also would like to see him further distinguish IFB style fundamentalists from new evangelicals (such as Osteen’s fans). The former group will agree with everything Horton says about “therapeutic” focus, the errors of Osteen and others, and the need for a more “God-centered” focus on His holiness rather than man.
But their alternatives for psychology are the same exact “inner” focus Horton is criticizing. (e.g. the “life change” from the “personal relationship with Jesus” as the “Biblical Answer” the Bobgans and others argue for).

I also wonder, with the focus on “Law”, and then, the statement on p.62, about the regenerate being “raised from the dead” by the “spirit, working through the Gospel”, and that this happens, “not just once, but every time we encounter the Gospel afresh”, and the “sacraments” as “means of grace” (like the Catholics call it), or “convey saving grace” (p219); what exactly this means. For the way the Catholics take that, you are basically in and out of Christ (salvation) every time you sin, until you “confess and repent”, then then “partake of Christ” anew through the sacraments, by which salvation is a “process”. That, clearly, is works-salvation.

But then, that is apparently what Augustine taught. (And Calvin’s teaching that God gives reprobates false faith which He later takes away also ends up in practice encouraging works-righteousness, to “show thyself elect”).

Also, while he is dead on about the American church’s “inner focus”, simply going back to a formal, liturgical and hierarchical system seems to be the opposite extreme, and not the Biblical truth. The Reformers broke away from a Catholic Church that held those positions, and took them to the point of becoming totally corrupt. The sacraments became virtual idols that had some sort of “spirituality” or spiritual “presence” even, in themselves. The hierarchy became kingly, or at least a “paid professional” power base that does not seem to be what the New Testament really taught (most leaders were itinerant and had to be provided food and rest; it wasn’t the “elected/hired” government official or CEO pattern it eventually became); and with one leader exalted to almost’s Christ’s level. They tried to control secular rulers and institute the Kingdom themselves just like the first century Israelites.

Their authority became divine, and their traditions assumed to be apostolic, even though many of them clearly weren’t. The biggest example being works-salvation.
Luther, Calvin and the others, in order to challenge this and go back to a more scriptural model, had to basically reject the “external” authority of the Church, and rely on their own “private interpretations” (which Horton is criticizing in the modern church). So why should their ideas now become the new “apostolic standard”? Their interpretations look like a mix of select Catholic traditions (including a revival of Augustinian electionism) supplemented by the new “faith alone” position, which the Catholics will all say was at odds with “historic Christianity”.

And I don’t agree that Calvinism has captured all of the Biblical truth. But if we have to put aside our “private” interpretation and go with an “external” one, then why shouldn’t we go with a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox authority, then? (At least their institutions can be traced all the way back to the first century body, where Protestantism clearly broke away and not the other way around).

So this should show the problem is not as simple as just following an institutional church.

Otherwise, it was a great treatise. I really wish the Church would take notice of the overall message.

Forgot to address:
183: It s the Spirit, not Jesus who lives within us (strange position on the Trinity. Jesus is the one who is “in” us through the Spirit).

190: sheep expected to be shepherds themselves (He is criticizing this, but it is supported by Heb.5:12)

231: Calvin quotes Cyprian “whoever has God for his Father has the Church as his mother”

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