My response to Michael Horton's Christless Christianity

My response to Michael Horton's Christless Christianity January 16, 2011

For the most part I agree with Horton in Christless Christianity that American Christianity has lost the gospel.  I’m almost as discouraged as he is by what I hear and read from and about American churches and what they preach.

It reminds me of something Wolfhart Pannenberg said to me and a group of people having lunch with him some years ago at Luther Theological Seminary.  He said “When I go to most churches and hear what is preached and ask ‘Where is the gospel?’ I think to myself ‘The gospel is what he should have said’.”

Yes, I know, I’m guilty of globalizing.  The Lord has a remnant and a pretty big one.  But I fear that most churches have fallen into the trap of singing and preaching and teaching what people want to hear.  When was the last time you attended church and the sermon made you feel really convicted?  I believe Wesley said that the purpose of preaching (the gospel) is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  There’s too much comforting the non-afflicted going on in most American churches.

Having said that, I must take issue with one thing Horton says in Christless Christianity.  On page 44 he writes that “Arminianism still holds that salvation is a cooperative effort of God and human beings.”  He references me in that general context, so I know he read Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.  He also refers to Thomas Oden–favorably, so he must have read The Transforming Power of Grace.

To Mike I say: Please!  When you are saying what Arminianism holds, say what Arminians really say and don’t put words in our mouths.  Sure, you can say “This is what I think Arminianism SHOULD say even if it doesn’t.”  True, classical, historical Arminianism does NOT hold that salvation involves any “effort” of human beings–certainly not on the same level as God’s. 

Let an analogy make my point.  Who would call the following scenario a “cooperative effort” between the giver and the receiver of a gift?  A university professor discovers that a student has been evicted and is living under a bridge with no real shelter or food or anything.  The student has become destitute and is also ill and in need of medical attention.  The professor gives the student $1,000 to get him back on his feet and thus probably saves his life.  All the student had to do is cash the check.  Now who would rightly describe that situation as a “cooperative effort” between the professor and the student?  Nobody would.  Nobody.  It would be ludicrous. 

It’s just as ludicrous to describe the Arminian belief about the roles of God and a repentant sinner in salvation as a “cooperative effort.”

Horton’s description of Arminianism is more generous than many Calvinists’, but it still falls short of complete honesty and violates one of my basic rules of engagement between Calvinists and Arminians: Always express the other view the way people who hold it express it and only then say what’s wrong with that.  Again, Arminians do not say that salvation is a “cooperative effort.”  What we say is that God won’t save anyone without their free consent.  But we adamantly deny that conversion involves “effort” as if the person being saved must do some (good) work to be saved.

This is a problem that is plaguing evangelicalism today–fellow evangelicals describing each other’s theologies unfairly and then demolishing the straw men they have created.  I thought Mike was above that; we have talked at length about these matters.  I don’t fault him for believing that what Arminians believe amounts to this, but that’s different than saying it is what Arminianism “holds.”

What if I published something saying that “Calvinism holds that God is the author of sin and evil?”  Calvinists would rightly howl in protest.  Then I could say, “Well, that’s how I see it.”  Then, they would quite rightly protest that how I see it is not how they say it.  They’re right.  What I say is that Calvinism’s doctrines of providence and predestination lead to the good and necessary consequence that God is the author of sin and evil even though they (almost) all deny it. 

What Horton should have said is that “Arminians deny that salvation involves human effort, but I think their theology implies that.”  Okay.  I disagree, but I can respect that.  I would have no right to protest that even though I would argue against him.

When, oh, when are evangelicals going to stop this uncharitable and even unChristian habit of setting up straw men out of others’ theologies and then chopping them or burning them down as if they had really scored a point or two? 

Horton’s error doesn’t quite rise to the level of demagoguery, but there’s plenty of that going on and this is too much like it for Mike’s comfort.  He should correct what he said publicly.

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