Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Horton on Christian Gnosticism

No this is not the Horton from Horton Hears a Who. That Horton is an elephant who hears something that no one else can hear. With his huge ears he hears the people of Whoville, that live on a speck of dust. (You can tell that I have young children.) The Horton of this post is Michael Horton, a Reformed theologian and a prolific author. I am processing his assessment of American Christianity in his book Christless Christianity. He provide a cogent critique of the popular version of Christianity by associating it with two themes. First he recognizes that it is another form of legalism that is based not on rules but on good advice about how one can become a better person. As a result, there is no recognition of sin or a problem in our world from which we need to be saved, except for the fact that we don't understand who we are and that we simply need to believe the right things about ourselves. 

The second theme is that of Gnosticism. He observes that common talk about God claims that God is not someone other than us, but that the Christian message has become one that claims that God is our buddy or one that is within us and that we need to get in touch with this Personal Jesus that we create. Instead of  Jesus that is based on the external life of the church, theology or history, Jesus has become an inner experience that is individualistic and personal in nature. 

For the most part, I think he is on track with these two themes. Being someone who takes a different approach to thinking about the Atonement--I prefer the Christus Victor view-- and Justification--I think N.T. Wright is actually right--I don't think about these issues within the Reformed categories that he does. But that is not my primary critique of this book. On a much larger scale I have a problem with what he is implying as an alternative. As a theologian, he seems to be advocating an anti-experience focus on theology and historical creedal Christianity. He seems to be discounting the reality that the church as we have known it does not enter into dialogue with our culture. Therefore, he is opting for a church as traditionally understood with a gathering and a focus on preaching via exegesis and theological explication. While I agree that we don't need the syncretism that has developed in the church where the Gospel is co-opted by the thoughts and patterns of the broader culture, neither do we need to reduce church to a weekly theological where people are fed the Word and the Sacraments. His thinking about the church has not extended beyond Luther and Calvin. He does not like what he is observing in the church--neither do I--but his answer is to revert back to the past. 

I agree with his critique of the kind of church that becomes a separatists enclave where people are so busy doing church stuff that they have not part in the world outside the church. But the alternative that he gives of being a center for Word and Sacraments is not the only option. His imagination is shaped by two options 1) Gathered for worship at a church building or 2) individual Christians doing their own things. In this way, he fails to see how these two categories reveal how he has actually been co-opted by the culture of individualism just as much as those he criticizes. To revert back to the church pattern of the Reformation is to ignore the fact that the way we do life in this kind of church remains individualistic. We might hear the word together and receive the sacraments together but we leave these events held at a building--after having received God's grace--and then go our merry way into our lives that have been constructed by the culture of individualism. We don't live in the time of Luther and Calvin. We don't live today in a culture that actually can relate to one another and share any kind of life together. If we have a "missional" imagination, we can recognize that even within a church that is a center for Word and Sacrament, that individual will continue to reign. Church cannot simply be a place that proclaims dogma and does not equip people to live out that dogma. He seems to create a false dichotomy between receiving grace and allowing that grace to live through us. If the church only speaks of grace and never actually lives out this grace, then is this not what the book of James deconstructed. 

While he identifies the problems well, he fails to recognize the need for a robust missional perspective that demonstrates how the Gospel can be in dialogue with the culture and thereby result in a different way of being the church today. With such an approach, it would quickly become obvious that we must develop a theology of socioality that speaks of how the church must do life together in a way that both receives the Gospel and at the same time becomes a sign, foretaste, and witness to the Kingdom. It is not just what we say; our lives are also a witness. The way we love one another will point people the salvation which can only come from Christ. 

Must we always speak in such polemical "either/or" terms to make the point. Or is this just the way to sell more books. Maybe I could sell more if I just picked a narrow point of view and became the critic of all who did not fit my view. Well I guess I have with the writing of this post.

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