Just Thinking

In the Face of God: A Review

In my last article (Spring/Summer 1996) I wrote about the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the Cambridge Declaration which they drafted to remind evangelicals of our common heritage, the Protestant Reformation, and the five solas of that historic period: Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and to God’s glory alone. While I intended to address each of these articles separately, much has been written on this subject since then, particularly Here We Stand, eds. James Boice and Benjamin Sasse (Baker Book House, 1996), which is a compilation of the papers presented at this conference on the five solas. Hence, I have chosen to review Michael Horton’s latest book, In the Face of God:The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy (Word, 1996). Horton is a vice-chair of the Alliance and is president of Christians United for Reformation (CURE).

The author contends that gnosticism is sweeping through the evangelical church today. Michael Horton does not believe that there is “an intentional, well thought-out renaissance of the ancient gnostic heresy in its pristine form,” yet, he writes, “Something larger has crept into our Western culture like a fog…. I am instead attempting to explore a way of thinking that pervades the broad topography of the American intellectual, religious, and social landscape” (p.25).

Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Scholars debate the various origins of this ancient worldview—some regard it as a fusion of Greek philosophy and Christianity, while others, Greek culture and Eastern religion. Essentially, gnosticism affirms the priority of secret revelation (higher knowledge) over the given revelation of the Scriptures, and disdains the material world in view of the spiritual world. Horton traces this pattern in the church through several tendencies, including: 1) “the subjective over the objective…the path to spirituality is through inwardness, meditation, and self-realization;” 2) “direct encounters with God over events mediated by matter and history;” and 3) “spiritual techniques for gaining access to and control over the secrets of the universe” (pp.46, 53).

The author’s intent is not to point a finger at a particular church or movement (though many readers may not appreciate the fact that he doesn’t hesitate to name names), but to raise the larger, more critical question: How do we rightly worship God? This question, of course, assumes what many pastors and parishioners are debating— Is the way we worship a matter of style, or is there a particular model ordained in Scripture?

Whereas I do not completely agree with Michael Horton’s assessment, his examination of individuals’ encounters with God in Scripture leads one to conclude that God has prescribed a way for us to approach him. Citing the story of Jacob’s dream, he writes,”Jacob’s first reaction was one of fear. We ought always to suspect the vision-seer who is happy and carefree in the presence of God…. [T]he universal response of everyone in Scripture who received a dream or vision from the Lord was one of terror and great distress” (p.71).

Martin Luther’s conversion is also illustrative and a childhood pastime of Horton’s serves as a striking metaphor. As a boy, the author relates that he often attempted to run up a “down” escalator but was never able to reach the top. For the monk Luther, there were “three ladders devoted saints sought to climb in order to experience nearness to God: the ladder of mysticism, the ladder of merit, and the ladder of speculation” (pp.73 74). Writes Horton,”Luther soon realized that the God at the top of the staircase would not be the ‘beatific vision,’ the God of forgiving mercy who ‘lets bygones be bygones.’ He would be, instead,‘the consuming fire.’…It was out of this experience with God that Luther discovered that he had been trying to climb up the ‘down’ staircase” (p.79). Luther longed for a higher knowledge to experience God directly in all His majesty yet he discovered a God who revealed himself in Scripture and that he could look upon God only through the cross of Christ where God descended to us.

Horton adds, “If we look only for the God of glory, we will find no consolation, for we are but dust. Furthermore, we are sinful creatures, and God’s power and majesty, holiness and grandeur, will drive us—like Adam and Eve—deep into the forest where we hope to escape his heavy presence. What we must look for is not God as he is in himself, but as he has hidden himself in Christ” (p.176).

Much of In the Face of God is devoted to Luther’s subsequent critique of what he called the theology of glory (his monastic attempt to see God fully disclosed) as opposed to the theology of the cross, in which believers, naked before a holy God, may approach Him only by being clothed with the righteousness of Christ. (This discussion is fairly complicated but most interesting. For more on this, see Phillip Watson, Let God Be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther [London: Epworth Press, 1947] and Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985]). Horton, in turn, analyzes the evangelical church through this comparative model and determines that much of our worship is being ordered by a theology of glory, mysticism if you will, rather than by God’s self-revelation in Scripture through the cross of Christ.

The author demonstrates that gnostic ideas have infiltrated the church, but the question remains whether we may attribute the shape of the contemporary church to this philosophy, or whether there are other, more significant factors, at work. Perhaps, as some scholars have posited, living in the crucible of postmodern times— where technology and pragmatism rule—has shaped evangelicalism, and in fact our world, more than anything else.

I attended a service recently in which the pastor, an able expositor of the Word, explained why the church did not have a cross in its new sanctuary. He told the congregation that its absence was not intentional—a cross was drafted in the original architectural plans—but at the last minute it was removed to make room for the video screens.

Wherever we worship, may our prayer be that whether in praise or preaching, the “bottom line” which informs our actions may not be what works, but be the very Word of God.

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