Michael Horton has a simple thesis: American Christianity has lost sight of Christ, and is selling a product that bears little resemblance to historic, Christ-centred Christianity.
It’s a thesis a lot of people, from many corners of the Christian world, would agree with. He argues that most of American Christianity has been colonized by American culture, and rather than transforming the world, has been transformed by it. Again, a lot of us would agree.
So far, his thesis seems to resonate with some of the conclusions Nadia Bolz-Weber reached in her twenty-four hours of viewing Christian television (Salvation on the Small Screen): the name of Jesus was rarely mentioned except as a talisman, and little reference to His life, teachings, or death made it into the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s 24 hours of exhortation to a fuller, better, more properous and successful Christian life.
Having just read Bolz-Weber’s book and enjoyed it, I was thinking of that when I began Christless Christianity, and nodding along in agreement with the author’s condemnation of American Christianity. But this author was about to take me into different territory, and not necessarily territory I was comfortable navigating.
Yes, he takes potshots at the easy targets, like Joel Osteen with his smooth-talking success mantras and other TV preachers whose “prosperity gospel” agenda is even more blatant. But he directs his attacks at the Christian left as much as at the Christian right – emergent church leaders such as Brian McLaren come in for some of Horton’s criticism too, for promoting a social gospel that does not have the cross of Christ firmly at its centre.
Horton’s argument is that Christian teachers as diverse as Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone evangelists, and most everyone else in the American church, are all preaching a gospel based on the our intuitive assumption that human beings are essentially good and just need a little improvement. He says that American churches and preachers in the last century have been in the business of offering good advice from God’s word, keys to success or exhortations to do a little better at representing Jesus in this world.
Whether the particular type of “good” these churches are selling is social justice, personal wealth and success, or abstinence from sex-and-drugs-and-rock’n’roll, Horton argues that all these diverse messages are really the same old heresy – salvation by works. Different churches may define “sin” and “goodness” differently, but they are all selling the message that with the right kind of effort and motivation, we basically good people can refrain from sin and do a little better. And where, he asks, is the gospel of Christ in all this?
When we get down to the gospel that Horton believes we should be preaching – the missing “Christ” in the Christless Christianity he castigates – it turns out to be a fairly narrow and specific version of Christ. It is not just Christian, not just Protestant, but a specifically Calvinist vision of Christ’s work and ministry, one that depends on a belief in total human depravity and a belief in the doctrine of penal subsitutionary atonement. That is, the belief that what Jesus was doing on the cross was accepting the punishment of a wrathful God who really, really hates sin and can’t stand to be in the presence of sinners, and bringing God’s grace (not to everyone, but to the elect, though Horton doesn’t harp on that, perhaps because he’d lose readers who are not strict Calvinists at that point) to people who could never do a thing to save themselves, not even freely accept His free gift.
That’s standard Christian doctrine for many denominations, and Horton’s basic argument is that even though many Chrisitans think that’s what they believe, it’s not what they’re actually teaching. He’s doubtless right about that. But he ignores the fact that there are many other ways to have “Christ” at the centre of Christianity, depending upon who you believe Jesus was and what the main point of His ministry was. The penal substitutionary atonement model, in which the only really important thing Jesus did here on earth was die for our sins, is certainly one way of understandding his ministry, but it’s not the only way. Churches and Christians who see and celebrate different facets of Jesus’ life may feel that their ministry is still “Christ-centred” – but Michael Horton wouldn’t agree with them.
The author also goes beyond theology to ecclesiology, criticzing the way many churches “do church” and laying out his pattern for how it should be done. He is scathingly critical of “seeker-driven” churches, as you might imagine, but is also critical of any church that tries to involve its members in ministry in any significant way . His ideal model of church is one with a very top-down hierarchical structure in which the pastor is there to be a shepherd and the congregation are sheep to be fed, and they are to show up once a week on Sunday morning for a very traditional service, heavy on preaching (always a gospel-centred sermon) but not neglecting the sacraments either. Then everyone should go their separate ways for the rest of the week to live out their Christian lives unburdened by any sort of church activities or minsitries.
Horton makes a valiant but entirely unconvincing effort to connect this ecclesiology to his theology and argue that the right focus on the gospel will naturally produce this kind of church, but I thought this was by far the weakest part of his argument. He seemed simply to be taking the kind of church model that he personally finds comfortable and valuable, and setting it up as a model of righteousness.
This book provoked, angered, disturbed and troubled me – which is good. I disagreed with a lot of what Michael Horton said, and reflected several times that it really takes a good old-fashioned Calvinist to make the doctrine of God’s grace sound like something narrow and angry. I also learned some thing from what he said, and was forced to reflect on how “Christ-centred” my own life, my own preaaching on the rare occasions when I do preach, my writing and my service for God, really is. I appreciated his pointing out that the message that “all we need to do is love one another” is, in its way, every bit as legalistic and graceless as good old-fashioned legalism, because it still relies on what WE have to do, and assumes we can do that with just a little nudge and a push in the right direction.
I love grace. I adore the doctrine of God’s grace, and love opportunities to be reminded of it and to remind others of it. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with attempts to channel the mighty river of grace into a very narrow pipe – to say that God’s grace was demonstrated once only, thorugh this single event, which can be understood and interpreted in only this single way, and is available only to a certain group of people. Grace doesn’t feel like that to me, and while you can argue that’s what the Bible teaches, it’s actually only one of many teachings about grace, and what Jesus came to do, that you can find in the New Testament.
So Michael Horton may be right with his diagnosis – that large swathes of American Christianity have lost the centrality of Jesus to their message – but I am less convinced that his prescription is correct. Still, I’m glad to have been shaken up and challenged a bit by this book, and forced to question some of my own preconceptions. It’s worth reading even if you end up disagreeing.