The book I’m reviewing today, written by well-known Reformed theologian and prolific author Michael Horton, will make you think. It may challenge some of your assumptions. However, being challenged is a good thing, isn’t it? Even if we don’t agree, we need to remain humble enough to listen to the viewpoint of others in the Body of Christ, especially those who, like Horton, are serious students of the Word of God.
The back cover does a better job than I could in summarizing this 231-page book:
“In this challenge to ‘Christianity Lite’ Michael Horton insists that instant spiritual gratification offered by much modern preaching is more like ancient Gnosticism than biblical faith. Pop culture assumes that a feel-good faith brings us into a chummy relationship with God.”
Rather than just criticizing this trend, “The author paints a compelling picture of the delights of true spiritual intimacy: we learn the true meaning of grace by facing the true depths of our sin. We delight in God’s Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. We are loyal to His Church, the Body of Christ, and its ordinances.”
“Such objective means of intimacy with God, Horton asserts, are in danger of being lost by subjective, gnostic elements in evangelical Christianity. He calls for a return to the teachings of the apostle Paul and the reflections of his teaching in Luther and Calvin as correctives to the unbiblical mystical spirituality of our day.”
I found quite interesting Horton’s insights into how large segments of the evangelical church have been influenced (whether they know it or not) by Gnosticism. For those of you who may not be familiar with this term, Gnosticism comes from the Greek word ‘knowledge.’ Gnostic ‘knowledge’ is not only anti-historical and subjective, but it is also anti-intellectual and immediate. This is why St. Irenaeus called it ‘pseudo-knowledge’ and Paul told Timothy it was ‘knowledge falsely called’ (1 Timothy 6:20). Gnostics preferred what we often call ‘heart knowledge’ to ‘head knowledge,’ although Christianity knew no such dichotomy.
I appreciated the section on spiritual warfare, specifically Horton’s exposition of the “Armor of God” in Ephesians 6. After explaining each article of armor, he points out that “everything in Paul’s list of armor is objective rather than subjective, external rather than internal, Christ-centered rather than self-centered. God’s armor has to do with the Word, the gospel, justification, and truth, not with binding demons of addiction or setting up face-offs between the forces of darkness and the forces of light through signs and wonders.”
Horton makes an important distinction throughout the book between the “theology of glory,” which he deems unbiblical, and the “theology of the cross,” which he deems biblical. He declares that “health and wealth preachers” are guilty of teaching a theology of glory. Their message appeals to self. It offers a type of hope in this life that the Bible doesn’t teach. Instead the Bible tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him amidst many trials.
The writer stresses that we should not desire to see the glory of God in emotional spiritual experiences. Though I would agree with him, I believe the Spirit of God occasionally grants us, by His grace, unusually intimate times with Him in prayer and praise, moments in which we get glimpses of the glory of Christ. They cause us to recognize our sinfulness and bow down humbly before Him. They bring us extra joy and wonder in our walk with Him.
Another good insight:
Horton contends that evangelical preachers often preach the results of the gospel, such as the new birth, conversion, etc. more than the objective facts of the gospel. What is “the gospel” that Paul said he preached to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:1 ff)? The apostle explains it clearly in verses 3-4: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that he was buried, that he was raised again according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.”
Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:1-8 that the new birth is not something we do, but rather a work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, “it is the apostolic preaching of the cross, not the motions of one’s heart or will that creates this new birth, as the Holy Spirit awakens sinners to their need through the preaching of the gospel.”
I should add, however, that though I agree with Horton that spiritually dead people must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before they can respond to the preaching of the gospel, it was striking to me how little he makes of the importance of faith and repentance, which is our response to the regenerating work of the Spirit.
Hymns and Worship
On another subject, Horton is critical of many hymns and worship songs written from the nineteenth-century onward because, in his opinion, they focus too much on Jesus as a “Friend” and as Someone who lives inside us, but almost never on what He did for us, for example, that He satisfied the wrath of God.
Horton is also disparaging of hymns and songs that are more about the worshiper’s experience than about God Himself. I think there is some merit to Horton’s critique, but could he have gone too far in the other direction? By only focusing on the objective facts of the gospel message, are we not in danger of losing the relational and intimate dimension of the Christian faith? We see joyous intimacy with the Lord frequently in the writings of Paul, the Psalms of David, and elsewhere in the Scriptures.
My evaluation of this book?
In the Face of God has some important things to say to the evangelical church, but I would contend that it contains many generalizations and overreactions. One generalization: at times it seems as though Horton puts everyone from New Agers to many evangelicals into the same “gnostic boat.”
As for overreactions, in stressing so strongly the objective aspect of Christianity, Horton underplays the subjective aspect. In stressing so strongly God’s work in salvation, he underplays human responsibility. In stressing so strongly the transcendence of God, he minimizes His immanence. This overreaction may well come from the fact that Michael Horton admits to having grown up in a seeker friendly Baptist church in California, which, as a young man, he came to realize was out of balance. Unfortunately, in my opinion, in this book he may have become out of balance in the opposite direction.
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