"Too Good to Be True" by Michael Horton

Gillis Harp
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2006

Michael Horton has written a unique book that is a thoughtful mixture of spiritual autobiography, biblical exposition, devotional meditation, and theological/cultural critique. The author's struggles with a terminally ill father and a mother suffering concurrently from a debilitating stroke prompts some probing reflections about the quality of true faith and the nature of divine providence. Along the way, Horton analyzes a wide variety of trials that believers face during their earthly existence, offering "devotional exercises" that he hopes can "be both a balm in the middle of trials and a study guide for the exam of life" (21).

Friedrich Nietzsche may have understood better than many evangelicals today that Christianity is indeed a religion for "losers." Evangelism programs during much of the twentieth century have sought to paint a different picture by parading celebrity converts and teaching that conversion can solve every personal problem. Religion has come to be viewed in the wider culture as merely another instrument to achieve "feeling good" and contemporary Christians have often unwittingly bought this popular view. But Horton explains that "the bottom line of this book is that the gospel is good news for losers, that in fact we are all losers if we measure ourselves by God's interpretation of reality rather than our own" (26). The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century understood this central truth better because their theology of the cross grasped the full significance of Christ's redemptive suffering.

Luther and others recognized that, contrary to outward appearances, God was actually most at work at a time and in a place that seemed to scream out his absence, that is, Jesus' crucifixion. Just when one might assume he was completely absent, God was in fact most present and at work, redeeming his lost sheep through the cross. Jesus himself sought to explain this hard truth to his disciples yet, at least prior to his resurrection, they consistently failed to understand it. As with his own Son, God the Father promises not to take us around particular suffering but to help us through it. Contemporary evangelicals need to discard their superficial "theology of glory" and allow a "theology of the cross" to reshape their whole thinking and practice. Their failure to do this is evident in many different ways. "Our public worship today," comments Horton, "is a fatal index of the fact that we do not know what to do in the presence of a God who is not only our friend but also our judge "(30). This distorted view is most evident in how Christian funerals no longer deal honestly with grief and loss but have morphed into "celebrations" that indulge believers in a sort of shallow denial. The aptly titled "Burial of the Dead" service in the classic Book of Common Prayer provides a striking contrast in how it avoids unchristian euphemisms about dying and puts the focus squarely on Christ and the gospel.

Among the best ways to address these distorted views is first to correct our view of God, to square it with his self-disclosure in holy writ. In contemporary culture, experience trumps propositional truth as set forth in Scripture, the creeds or confessions. Accordingly, many Christians today are really engaging their own projections of God, rather than coming to terms with the Bible's rich portrait. Convenient, self-serving images have come to characterize the belief of both the laity and some theologians whose "open theism" seeks to redesign God along more congenial lines. Horton argues that "we must eliminate both the idol of a loving but weak god and the idol of a strong but graceless god…Neither vision represents the God of the Bible"(64).

In the second half of his book, Horton explores the experience of Job and John's account of Jesus' raising of Lazarus to advance his argument about how believers can best view trials and understand the larger significance of suffering. To explain Job's horrendous affliction, Job's friends offer rebukes or platitudes, but Job refuses to accept their views. Job finally declares that he requires a "mediator" to make his case with God. Christians are blessed to know that they have such an advocate in Jesus. But the story of Job also teaches that our faith doesn't solve all of our problems. Christian couples may, for example, discover that their faith is not a "fix" for their hurting marriages. Moreover, the raising of Lazarus can help us keep our focus on God's larger redemptive plan, rather than our own particular problems. Just as Mary and Martha didn't understand why Jesus had delayed and thereby allowed their brother to die, so believers can often fail to recognize the big picture in times of acute suffering. "The problem comes," Horton explains, "when we think our own immediate concerns are ultimate" (173).

More than once, Horton rightly notes how our culture promotes these unscriptural understandings of suffering and how evangelicals have imbibed a pragmatic, even consumerist model of the faith. We view Christianity as an instrument to effect self-improvement and "our thirst for perpetual self-transformation is largely generated by the culture of marketing" (131). The author might have pursued this particular thread further. Why were American evangelicals so readily attracted to Ronald Reagan's ebullient (and unscriptural) optimism about human nature? How exactly does Americans's love for rags-to-riches stories incline them to misread the gospel which is, in large part, the riches-to-rags story of Christ humbling himself to become despised and afflicted? (Horton raises this point but doesn't explore it in depth.)

Pursuing such questions might have made this a different book. As it is, Too Good to be True is a genuinely insightful and admirably accessible study of a cluster of difficult questions. Many American Christians could profit enormously from reading it.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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