Book Review

"Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity" by Frank Viola

Mark Vander Pol
Frank Viola
Friday, May 1st 2009
May/Jun 2009

It is a fruitful exercise to be challenged about what one believes, and that on any point of doctrine. "Iron sharpens iron" and discussing or interacting with those of different persuasions often leads one into a fuller understanding of what one actually believes, even if one's conclusions are different from the immediate dialogue partner.

In the second of what is to be a four-volume set, Frank Viola takes on the theological locus of ecclesiology in Reimagining Church, thus offering a dialogue partner for those of us who want to think about the church and what the body of Christ is meant to look like on earth in this time between the two advents.

There is much in this book with which Reformation Christians can agree. The criticism of egocentric, power-hungry, and tyrannical pastors is appropriately brought to bear, and with many other critiques we may raise a hearty "Amen." Viola makes a valid point that ecclesiology is a crucial doctrine and we must seek to order our worship by God's Word. It is here that well-informed readers can benefit from reading this book.

In fact, you must be a well-informed reader to weigh and assess Viola's work, in part because of the varied and challenging theological authors from which he draws, but more specifically because of the unargued conclusions he draws and the fact that certain presuppositions about what the church must look like drive his one-sided presentation of theological history. Early on in the book, Viola's social trinitarianism is as evident as it is problematic. He cites a host of twentieth-century authors who tend toward this approach by arguing that just as God is a fellowship of three persons-a "Community of three"-so also our vision of church should follow this model (33). It is important to realize, however, that while the Godhead includes both unity and plurality, this trinitarian model for the church can be pressed in unhelpful directions. Social trinitarianism has been fairly critiqued for promoting plurality at the expense of God's unity, a trajectory that often ends in the heresy called tri-theism, the view that there are in fact three gods and not one. It is appropriate, then, to inquire after Viola's doctrine of God to see if his ecclesiastical foundation is being built on shifting sand. Furthermore, whatever we might want to say about unity and diversity in the church, there are perhaps more helpful analogies from which to draw.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Reimagining Church is the over-generalized picture he paints of all institutional churches. Indeed, he paints with a broad brush and claims that nearly any church with a modicum of hierarchy, any church with a senior pastor or elders, for example, is guilty of being a false church. The abuse-of-power critique drives much of Viola's thinking here, but this kind of phenomenon can hardly be said to represent all evangelical churches or even most of them. The impression left is that Viola has constructed a straw man in order to provide his alternate proposal for what the church should look like.

Viola's purpose in writing the book is to present an "organic Christianity" that does not have any distinction between clergy and laity. The wooden application of the priesthood of all believers moves his readers in the direction of Anabaptist spirituality, where anybody can contribute by bringing a "Word from the Lord" organically, so to speak, in each worship meeting. After nurturing and instructing one group, Viola explains that "after a year and a half of receiving practical and spiritual ministry, they were equipped to know the Lord together, function in a coordinated way, open their mouths, and share the living Christ in an orderly fashion" (71).

Throughout, Viola is clearly arguing for a radical revivalist spirituality. In one example of how history is bent to prove his point, he asks readers to consider revivals of the past in order to "discover that they shifted the entire terrain of the traditional church service for a time. Preachers would stop giving sermons for months. Instead, God's people would gather and sing, testify, and share about the Lord for hours. Such meetings were spontaneous, open and full of participation. There was no human control" (56). This seems a difficult case to argue, when by consulting other sources for the history of American revivals we find that they all came about because of preaching!

In conclusion, one practical objection to raise against this "organic Christianity" proposal is the problem of inevitable theological conflict and debate in the church. Viola offers "consensus and subjection" sections (see chapters nine, ten, and twelve) wherein he proposes a mere Christianity approach, just sticking with "essential doctrines" and "core beliefs" (237). These include a few such as Jesus' humanity and divinity and the virgin birth, but it is a short list indeed and one that bizarrely ends with "et cetera"! One can only wonder what might be included under that abbreviation.

Friday, May 1st 2009

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

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church