Book Review

"Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices" by Frank Viola and George Barna

Mark Traphagen
Frank Viola
Wednesday, January 7th 2009
Jan/Feb 2009

If the following scene never happened in any low-budget 1950s science fiction movie, it should have. A flying saucer lands on the White House lawn. All the leaders and media of the world quickly assemble for earth's first close encounter with advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. Cameras are aimed and microphones extended, ready to capture what wisdom or offer of knowledge unprecedented might come from the intergalactic traveler. With a hiss and a hum, the door of the UFO swings down and the man from space emerges. Having learned English from our TV transmissions, the visitor asserts, "People of earth, everything you know is wrong."

Something similar seems to be the mission and message of house church guru Frank Viola and evangelical numbers cruncher George Barna in Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. According to this intentionally provocative book ("Warning: If you are unwilling to have your Christianity seriously examined…give this book to Goodwill immediately!"), nearly everything the Christian church has called "church" since the end of the first century has been wrong. Worse actually-it has all been outright pagan. (The reader is left wondering why the authors bothered with the question mark in the title.)

No pew is left unturned. In fact, pews themselves are overturned (34-5). Viola and Barna breathlessly unveil the allegedly pagan origins of church buildings, orders of worship, sermons, pastors, music ministers, tithing, baptismal and communion rites, and Sunday schools. Even Sunday-best clothing is pagan, a product of the rising middle class (a group no better than the Babylonians, one would surmise). Their alternative? The authors call for an "organic" church, reproducing their image of the early first-century church. In this book and his other writings, Viola makes clear that this means small house churches with minimal leadership and "every-member" participation. No seminaries, no denominations, no buildings, no professionally trained clergy, no order of worship. Just "folks" gathered around the coffee table sharing their Bible-inspired thoughts, like an Oprah book club with folk guitars.

All this is not to fault Viola and Barna for asking why we do what we do when we "do church." By reason of their name alone, Reformed Christians should and have asked the same questions. The founding Reformers examined every practice of the then-dominant Roman Catholic Church in the light of Scripture, and were famously ruthless for casting aside any tradition that failed the test. Pagan Christianity's writers claim to be applying the same criteria, sola scriptura. How is it then that they come to the conclusion that Wittenberg and Geneva were just as wrong as Rome? If you're insisting that the baby is as fit for the drainpipe as the bathwater, you had better be able to provide solid reasons. Upon examination, Viola and Barna are no Calvin and Luther.

Pagan Christianity comes to bad conclusions from good questions down a two-lane highway of poor historiography and fantastic leaps of logic. The authors tout their many tiny footnotes and overflowing bibliography as evidence that they have done their homework and proved their case. They are, however, heavily dependent upon secondary sources. The majority of citations for their most crucial and controversial points are from very few sources, not surprisingly those that agree with their conclusions. They almost completely ignore the many good sources that would refute the book's assertions. On the book's website, the authors respond to this criticism (noted by many reviewers) by insisting that they didn't interact with all sources because Pagan Christianity was intended to be a popular-level book. Ben Witherington III, a scholar knowledgeable in Christian origins, has stated on his blog that he had extensive critical interactions with Viola before the book was published, none of which seemed to have had any effect on the final product.

Viola and Barna also lean heavily on older sources that did not have access to the huge amount of information uncovered only in the last fifty years or so about the first century. There seems to be little awareness of the possible agendas beneath some of these sources. In a number of places, the authors take statements of agnostic historian Will Durant about early Christianity at face value. While they favorably quote Durant's assertion that "Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it," they neglect to tell their readers that on the same page in Caesar and Christ Durant claims that the idea of a divine Trinity was stolen from ancient Egypt.

Most readers of a popular-level book will not be aware of how highly selective Viola and Barna are with their sources. This, however, is not the only pitfall they face. The writers repeatedly overstate their case to the point of absurdity or make assertions without proof or documentation. For example, they assert that most churches today consider two candlesticks on the communion table to be "the sign of orthodoxy." Steeples symbolize rejection of grace and man's efforts to reach God by his own efforts. There is little real difference between a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. Calvin was wrong to rely on any of the early church fathers because they were "proto-Catholics." Jesus despised the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6) because their name might mean "conquering the people" and therefore must refer to professional clergy. Such examples could be easily multiplied.

A particularly glaring omission shows up in the authors' apparent ignorance of the Jewishness of early Christianity. We are told that hierarchical leadership was brought into the church by Constantine and was the "leadership style of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans." Memo to Moses: your "leadership style" had its origins in pagans born centuries after you! Again and again, practices of the early (post-New Testament) church are attributed to pagan origins, when they could in many cases be better explained by the Jewish roots of the first Christians.

This brings us to an underlying assumption of the book one hopes would be apparent to most Reformed readers: Pagan Christianity presupposes a discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants so deep it would make Scofield cringe. Without any supporting arguments, Viola and Barna assert that the New Testament church and its worship and practices were radical rejections of all Old Testament counterparts. Furthermore, they out-regulate the regulative principle in their assumption that the small house meetings to whom Paul wrote were intended to be the permanent and only form of the church. This ignores not only how social structures of that time were different from ours, but the fact that the first-century church was a persecuted, minority religion-not a state the New Testament establishes as necessarily normative. Many of the earliest believers met in Jewish synagogues.

Despite these and many other weaknesses of Pagan Christianity, this reviewer hopes the Reformed community never rejects the necessity to continually assess why we do what we do when we "do church." The fact that Frank Viola and George Barna leap to many unwarranted conclusions does not justify us sitting back with smug pride, sure that we have it all down right. One of the great lessons displayed in the lives of Reformers like Calvin and Luther was their insistence on questioning their own beliefs and practices before they stood up to challenge Rome. Semper reformanda begins in our own hearts, our own willingness to be corrected wherever and whenever the Spirit shows us we have erred from Christ's plan for his church. We are aided in that task by good and faithful scholars who both know how to use well the tools of their trade and have a solid commitment to follow wherever those tools, by the Spirit's work, shed light from the Word of God on the church's path.

Wednesday, January 7th 2009

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

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