Michael S. Horton, Made In America: The
Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. Baker Book House: 1991.
A Review by Paul A. Sue.1
Michael Horton, president of CURE (Christians United for Reformation)2 has written an engaging and incisive analysis of the state of evangelicalism in America today. I believe it is one of the most important books published in 1991.
In eight insightful chapters, Horton analyzes the sad demise of evangelical Christianity in America. He ably shows how the mindset of many Christians today have been infected by worldly attitudes and philosophies such as consumerism, pragmatism, subjective emotionalism, relativism, and narcissism.
In chapter one, Horton gives us a condensed history of early America beginning with the Puritans' vision of a sovereign God. Certainly much of modern man-centered Christianity seems to have a deficient view of God. Often He is portrayed as a helpless Deity wringing His hands in frustration at the obstinacy of autonomous sinners. Indeed, the Godhood of God is being redefined by many evangelical theologians today, resulting in a God who is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. As A. W. Pink declared decades ago, "Present day conditions call loudly for a new examination and new presentation of God's omnipotence, God's sufficiency, God's sovereignty. From every pulpit in the land it needs to be thundered forth that God still lives, that God still observes, that God still reigns."3. Horton goes on to show how the inroads of Arminianism, the 'Half-Way Covenant', and the Enlightenment compromised the Biblical view of God's sovereignty. Horton then describes the effects of the Great Awakening under Whitefield and others, but goes on to note that "by the time of the Second Awakening the existential act of faith replaced the objective content of faith in popular revivals By undermining the doctrinal, intellectual foundations of the faith, evangelicals left evangelicalism without a serious defense By default, secularism became an inevitable force shaping American public and private life." (p. 31).
The book's second chapter, entitled "The 'How To' Gospel", details the rise of the pragmatic, program-oriented, professional evangelism that is now the hallmark of most evangelical churches today. Horton quotes George Marsden who notes that "After Edwards' time revivalist theology in America moved steadily toward emphasizing the human side of religious experience Free will was virtually an American dogma." (p. 42). Horton comments further, "The gulf between the truth-centered evangelism of Edwards and Whitefield and the technique-centered variety of industrialized religion is illustrated by Charles Finney " (p. 44). Regrettably, the heritage of Finney, Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody lives on in the careers of our 20th century mass crusade evangelists, as we hear some of them begging hardened sinners to "please give Jesus a chance". What a travesty that the biblical gospel of God's sovereign grace has been reduced to a simplistic "Four Spiritual Laws".
In chapter three, the consumerism of the modern Soul Winning Machinery is critiqued: the numbers game, the showbiz style packaging and selling of the gospel by the slick salesmanship of televangelists, along with the attendant Jesus paraphernalia. The glorious gospel has been trivialized and commercialized for mass consumption. Sickening and sad indeed.
This leads naturally to Horton's next chapter, "From Salvation to Self-Esteem", where he deals with the hedonism, narcissism and materialism of the Health and Wealth prosperity gospel peddlers. Again, one can trace the roots of this modern perversion of the gospel to a myopic man-centered interpretation of God's Word. A decade ago, Robert Schuller wrote a book titled Self-Esteem: The New Reformation4, and today, the "new reformation" is still a deceptive force to be reckoned with. We need a new reformation indeed, but one rooted in the Biblical teachings of man's depravity and God's sovereignty!
In chapter five, "Feeling's Believing", the subjective emotionalism and experience-oriented emphasis that characterize much of modern Christian teaching is considered. Of course, there is a definite place for emotions and experience, and unfortunately the charges of dead orthodoxy are often true of those who champion theological precision. However, Horton's words of caution and criticism are directed to the excesses and extremes that some are teaching. To do this, he traces the philosophical outlook resulting from the Enlightenment, examining the influences of intuitive individualism, romanticism, transcendentalism and existentialism. Clearly, our "devotions" and "practical Christian living" must be rooted on a firm doctrinal foundation. But so frequently we hear the ill-informed insinuation that "Doctrine divides". Would they rather that we return to the darkness and ignorance of the Dark Ages? I heartily concur with Horton as he concludes the chapter thus: "At present, our culture is sliding into a new Dark Age of superstition and ignorance. Evangelicals can do nothing about it unless they themselves are committed to understanding what they believe and why they believe it." (p. 113).
This aptly introduces the next chapter, which is titled "The Return to Paganism". Here Horton deals with the rise and influence of the New Age movement, especially within the Church (Schuller, Roberts, Copeland, Tilton, etc.). In particular he notes that a recent Gallup poll shows that a high proportion of New Agers have a Protestant background (p. 139). In the vacuum left by a superficial Christianity, people are flocking to New Age teachings and techniques to satisfy their needs. In the chapter, Horton also briefly deals with the process theology being propagated by men like Clark Pinnock.
In chapter seven, "To Each His Own", Horton demonstrates how the church is guilty of accommodation to relativism. Many would espouse a liberality and broad latitudinarian spirit at the expense of truth - because they see truth as being relative. My own personal dialogue with Christians over doctrinal disagreements has made me aware of the apathetic agnostic attitude that prevails amongst many professing Christians. Horton points out the common retorts that Christians love to spout: "Christianity is a person, not a proposition" or "No creed but Christ" (p. 144). The perspicuity and authority of Scripture is also considered, and Horton concludes that "One reason why the Bible fails to be clear and authoritative is that so many Christians do not have a clear grasp of its major themes. It's a lack of knowledge, of teaching and expository preaching." (p. 152, emphasis mine). He closes the chapter with a wise caution of not letting dogmatism breed close-mindedness. This is sadly true of many who consider a point of dispute settled just because the Puritans or Calvin "said so"!
The book concludes with a chapter entitled "The Loss of Community". This chapter has a special significance and importance for this reviewer because of personal circumstances and concerns. However, it is of course, a much-needed exhortation for all of us. Again, Horton makes use of the recurring themes of individualism, pragmatism, relativism, etc. in his analysis. He notes that "Genuine selfhood is not found in absolute independence but in a context of community." (p. 172). Many Christians seem to prefer a monastic lifestyle - some Christians haven't stepped foot inside a church building for years. They have developed a cynical and anti-institutional mindset. Some are truly lonely and are hungering for genuine fellowship that often seems to be lacking in the modern mega-church. No wonder small groups and house churches are become more popular. Horton goes on to point out that "Community requires, more than anything else, a common set of beliefs Until we become serious about the content of our faith, sectarian strife will continue to cripple the Christian cause real community can be expressed only as people are centered around biblical faith and practice." (pp. 180,186; emphasis mine).
This book is well written and sounds an urgent note that needs to be heeded. I highly recommend it!
1 This review is taken from the Sovereign Grace Herald newsletter (Spring 1992), with minor corrections and updated information.(back to text)
2 CURE is now The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE); see http://www.alliancenet.org. (back to text)
3 The Sovereignty of God (Banner of Truth, 1961); p. 15. The situation has heightened with the recent debates over Open Theism, as espoused by Pinnock, Rice, Sanders, Boyd and others. See the recent critique by Bruce Ware, God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Crossway, 2000). (back to text)
4 Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word, 1982). See the excellent critique at http://www.issuesetc.org/resource/archives/gudel2.htm. (back to text)
A decade after its publication, the book is still very relevant for today's Christians. In fact, the present Christian landscape fares no better under modern critics like David F. Wells. See his recent trilogy:
Others have also voiced their concerns about the precarious direction that evangelical Christianity is headed:
Michael Horton himself has continued to write on this subject as well; see his recent book In the Face of God (Word, 1996).