Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book Reviews Gone Wild

This is a review by John Frame on Michael Horton's Christless Christianity that's making its way through the blogdom of men. I've reviewed Horton's book here. While I appreciated Frame's review in that it made be think critically and reevaluate what I liked about Horton's book, as a hole I find Frame's response to be unhelpful. At times it brings some helpful reminders but by and large I believe it is overblown.

There's an old saying: if a critique doesn't apply to you, don't worry about it. Maybe I should follow my own advice. So maybe this is foolish to traipse into the midst of this here. The reality is with respect to Michael Horton's book Christless Christianity is that if you go to a healthy church (big or small, mega- or country) then don't worry about in the sense that you feel it is pointed at you. Learn from it and guard your heart. But John Frame's review of the book seems to worry that too many well meaning Christians are unduly thrown under the bus but then in turn he is unfair.

While this is a discussion that I first commented on in a friend's facebook link, I weigh in here because (1) I have found Christless Christianity helpful and (2) as a pastor I have encountered Christians that by into the pop-evangelicalism that Horton rightly warns us. It's been said: 'what is assumed in this generation will be lost in the next.' I believe, from some of my experiences, that this precisely where we are, particularly in my generation. There are far to many that either are assuming elements of how the gospel shapes our ministry or worse have grown up in a culture that assumed elements of how the gospel shapes our ministry and now (again: for some) as they are being handed the reigns they are on the cusp forgetting it entirely. So for John Frame's critique: if he can find a whole lot of well meaning churches that don't quite fit into the doom and gloom of 'Christless Christianity', we shouldn't pretend it isn't out there or that the reliance on worldly methods aren't finding captive audience in a whole host of "Christian" venues.

Here were some of my initial thoughts:
I read Horton's book and found it to be very helpful. Frame's review, not so much. I will need to read Frame's review with a fine tooth comb but Frame seems entirely overblow. So for example, Frame complains Horton doesn't balance his view but when Horton does clarify with balance Frame lays these quotes out as unclear or contradictory. For someone who doesn't like Machen's warrior children, Frame seems to have an axe to grind.

From pastoral experience, I can agree with Frame that sometimes in our people the subjective isn't bad and people are well meaning--and I think Horton's new book brings some balance here. But also from pastoral experience I think their is a focus on subjective can be unhealthy. So for example, when someone tells you your preaching is not applicational unless you give them something to go and do. I think Frame is unrealistic of the dangers that Horton rightly points to.
Let me just say, that their can be a spiritual deadness in circles that focus on doctrine. This is analogous to the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1-7. They are commended for their purity, particularly in hating the Nicolaitians. The put to the test (doctrine test?) those who call themselves apostles. The sniffed out the false ones--and yet they had lost a 'first love' sense of Christ. I have encounter individuals who have felt the weight of doctrinaire approaches and which sucked the air out of their love for Christ. We all want true doctrine to ignite passion and zeal for the Lord--zeal with knowledge. This is the heart of Augustine, the Reformers and Christians like Jonathan Edwards. We should rightly have an impassioned love for Christ. And yet, the pendulum can swing to far the other way, into Romanticism--as noted by Horton. But here's the problem, when someone critiques one end of the spectrum (as Horton does), I think can be a false charge to accuse them 'but you didn't point out the other end of the spectrum (as I think Frame does). Would be say to Paul in writing to the Galatians: "but Paul you didn't rail on the licentious libertarian" or Paul writing to the Corinthians: "you didn't warn against legalism". Paul's arguments serve as part of a polemic that is good and true--and I would argue Horton 's arguments do the same.

Back to my initial thoughts:
Another example, Frame is critical of Horton's critique of Olson as if Olson isn't an issue but I have encountered Christians who think he is helpful, encouraging and a nice preacher to listen too.

One more thing, I think Frame is too tough on Horton's law/gospel. Unless he's aware of something I am not, Horton would hold to a 3rd use of the law. BUT Horton's point is too many preachers too many people use law without a proper gospel orientation. So good right and true imperatives follow indicatives. But our tendency is to just give imperatives. Horton even says once we have the gospel "Now the law can guide and direct us, no longer out of fear of judgment, but out of genuine thanksgiving for God's grace." (156)

Frame is entirely unfair on Horton's view of "practical preaching". Horton is clear that it isn't bad to ask how to deal with your marriage, and scripture does bring this wisdom (146). Horton's focus though is right. While preaching through Hosea I've had people say "I'm too focused on condemnation" even though I talked about what idolatry looks like in our day (application) and I had others saying "I've never heard the gospel so powerfully from the OT" --I still seen the attitude that Horton confronts: it's not application without tips for happy living. Frame seems at points to think it doesn't exist in sincere Christians.
Let me give another example. I was once at popular youth rally for my small evangelical denomination. At the event, there was something that passed itself as preaching/teaching. I succinctly remember a message where young people were called to believe in Jesus. But the message was entirely devoid of the cross, the work of Christ, as our reason and motivation for repentance. The young people were basically challenged to commit to God. Many of the young people felt a connection with the speaker because he spoke to their hurts and needs--as you can imagine can be quite serious in a diverse group. He was right to address their hurts. But on the real solution he was rather vacuous. Never in my life had I witness so prime an opportunity to share the sufficiency of Christ and power of the gospel left by the wayside. Not only was it not emphasized--the whole cross was missed. I left asking "what Jesus did they come to". They were told God could be their buddy--but not told why and how. There was no mention, even in a non-technical way, of reconciliation.

But even more, I went back and talked with the teens from church and we talked because most of them were very familiar with Scriptures they intuitively understood they must repent because of Christ. So they naturally filtered the message through a grid of knowing the shed blood of Christ as the necessity for our repentance and the means by which we are healed. In other words, they assumed the gospel because it was in their hearts even when they heard one message utterly lacking the true gospel.

As I reflect back, I am saddened when I think about the young people who receive a steady diet of that sort of preaching. If they have so little focus on Christ in everything they hear--and not just one bad sermon--then what kind of 'Christian' culture are we developing? This kind of moralism, by no means ubiquitous in evangelicalism, does rear its ugly head. Far too often it goes unnoticed by the leaders appointed by God to guard against such things. Most often it is not by sinister motives that due diligence is not given--and that's what makes it so dangerous. Like a frog in a kettle we are oblivious to the changing temperature in our midst. I can remember youth leaders enthralled by how the speaker "reached" the young people and so I say that like Hercules it is the sweet sound of the Sirens that appeals to us. But the more we are willing to take in the sound, the less likely we will be to lash ourselves to the deck.

And again to my first thoughts:
I find it ironic that Frame complains that Horton imposes historical issues (Gnostic & Pelagianism) on modern day views and beliefs (I would say Horton makes analogies that yes as a historian can't be overread into situations today) but then Frame imposes 'Lutheran' rather than 'Reformed' categories on Horton.
It is always a good reminder that while history can offer analogies and if we don't know history we are doomed to repeat it. As someone who enjoys history and church history, would should remember that historical analogies (Gnostics, Pelagians, Arians, etc.) to today's beliefs do not entail one-to-one correspondence. We should say this without ignoring the reality that heresies long since defeated by sound orthodoxy and Biblical theology do resurface in a sort of mutant form by now today can make credible in roads in new camps. So for example: Socinians and Liberals in their own times denies the aspects of penal substitution in the cross but today its is the heir of evangelicals where this denial is catching root as noble. Analogies are not to be equivocation but once you have that delicate balance and set some guard rails against ahistoricism, analogies can be, nonetheless, illuminating.

I am not going to go point by point through Frame's review. That would be unfair and unhelpful. The White Horse Inn has posted a response here that deals with Frame's critiques. I am also going to recommend that one read both the book and the review of it by Frame but read it with a grain of salt and a critical eye. At the end of the day, I think Frame's critiques go beyond fairness and substance into too much nitpicking. One cannot help but wonder, particularly in light of his conclusion that Horton is representing a "narrow" and "factional" subgroup, if Frame's own experiences and biases have colored his thinking too much.

I appreciate Frame's stern warning that when we call someone or something 'Christless' was are pronouncing an anathema. We should realize the severity of such charge, but then the issues are serious too. This is not an accusation to wield lightly. There are churches that are to much on the fence in these area: the love Christ but they are infatuated with the wisdom of the world. But isn't that precisely the problem of the early church whether in Corinth or in Revelation 2-3? In many ways being on the fence is worse then being on the wrong side of the fence. I am reminded here of J. Gresham Machen who thought that the greatest threat was not the liberals of his day--at least he knew where they stood. Rather the greater threat was those who were willing to stand on the fence, a foot in both garden. We have to choose which master we will serve. We have to choose our greater love. Being on the fence on day can will lead to persuading others the next day that view on the other side isn't so bad.
Ok I'm done. Sorry, hope this doesn't come across as a rant. I think Frame's review forces one to think critically and keeps one from pharisaiclly applying Horton's critique to ever well meaning Christian in our day.
If one uses Horton in this way it is hardly Horton's fault. Truly grasping the concepts of the book should sufficiently guard against such nonsense. It is true that being more gospel-centered shouldn't become a badge of pride, even when it is a sober warning we must heed. Over at the new Evangel blog, James Wilson points out the danger of a 'Gospel Centralityolatry'--the idol that I make the gospel more centered than you (see also here). We should be cautious: "We’ve created a sub-culture of language and jargon that makes us unique, and if people describe things in a different vernacular we hold them in suspicion." Don't let 'Gospel-Centeredness' become a new legalism.

Christless Christianity is a call that needs to be heard is the prophetic call that those of us who live, move and have our being in the sub-culture which is evangelicalism need to both hear and head. What is assumed in this generation is and will be lost in the next. It's time to return to a more faithful pattern and for this Christless Christianity is a worthwhile tool.

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