Wisdom the Principal Thing
A Review of Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
Frank Viola has penned a provocative book—with an introduction by George Barna. Viola is a one-time high school teacher who left the institutional church twenty years ago to become an “organic” church planter and promoter. He also moves in emergent church circles.1 Barna, by contrast, has a far higher profile.2 So the book is important due to its potential impact on the church as we know it.
Their agenda is to replace the “institutional” church with the “organic” church, which they associate with the New Testament church.3 The result is a reactionary book that suffers from all the strengths and weaknesses of a reactionary book.
Viola makes a number of valid points along the way. But he wants to do more than that. He wants to foment a revolution in the modern church. So he adopts the breathless tone of an investigative reporter who’s uncovered a scandalous revelation that the church authorities suppressed. It’s a bit too much like The Da Vinci Code.
It’s important that a reader be able to winnow the wheat from the chaff in a book like this. So this review will emphasize the areas in which Viola overstates his case.
Viola’s analysis of church history tends to fall into a stereotypical genre. The standard Protestant version of church history takes the position that the postapostolic church began to make some basic mistakes in ecclesiology, soteriology, and sacramentology. These primitive errors got locked into place through tradition and dogma, as a result of which subsequent theologians continued to build on that faulty foundation. The Reformation tried to tear down this unscriptural edifice and return to the sources. I myself agree with this analysis.
Cults typically begin where Protestants leave off. They take this understanding of church history as their starting point, but then exaggerate it. In the standard, cultic version of church history, Constantine represents a fundamental break in church history. This marks the great apostasy of the church. Then God, at a much later date, raises up a prophetic figure to restore the long-lost gospel. Several restorationist movements in the nineteenth century followed this paradigm.
Sometimes the cultic interpretation of church history receives support from liberal theologians like Käsemann and von Harnack, who create a disjunction between the original charismatic phase of the church and the later shift to the institutional church. They pinpoint this declension from the original purity of the church in certain New Testament letters, which they redate to the second century A.D. in keeping with their naturalistic reconstruction of the Bible’s origin.
By contrast, Reformed theology has a doctrine of the remnant. God always has a people. In every generation, God preserves a faithful remnant. God always has a church. It may be an underground church rather than the established church, but there is no intermission in the life of the church.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Before pointing out some of the specific weaknesses in Viola’s thesis, let’s review some of his sounder insights. His criticisms of Catholic sacerdotalism and sacramentalism are valid.4 The New Testament doesn’t require Christians to worship in a special sort of building. The New Testament doesn’t require us to donate 10 percent of our income to the church. The altar call is a theological innovation. The youth pastor is a twentieth-century tradition. The “sinner’s prayer” has become a third sacrament in fundamentalism, supplanting baptism as the rite of initiation. We don’t have to bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray. Head knowledge is insufficient to qualify a man for pastoral ministry. The authors also have a fine analysis of pastoral burnout.
At a generic level, Viola is trying to do what the Puritans and the Anabaptists tried to do, which was to reform Christian worship according to their conception of New Testament models. And Christians should always be self-critical of their traditions. We need to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this, or doing it this way?”
This book is vehemently anticlerical. Viola opposes any distinction between clergy and laity. And in order to do this, he must reject the principle of church office.
But his rejection is unscriptural. For church office is a feature of New Testament ecclesiology.5 This represents the regular ministry of the church. That stands in contrast to the apostolate, which was a unique, dominical calling. By the same token, it stands in contrast to the prophetic vocation, which was a charismatic calling during the age of public revelation.
There are scattered references to church office in the New Testament, but most of these don’t tell you what a church officer is supposed to do, which is why the Pastorals are the locus classicus (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–16). Instead of contesting the scriptural principle of church office, Viola should contest unscriptural conceptions of church office—such as we find in Roman Catholicism.
He justifies his anticlericalism by saying things like, “[L]isten to Paul’s description of a first-century church meeting: ‘Every one of you hath a psalm’ (1 Cor. 14:26)” (p. 167). Ironically, this represents the sort of atomistic prooftexting that he reviles in the eleventh chapter.
To begin with, the Corinthian church was hardly a model congregation. Paul had to spend much time correcting abuses. Second, the level of participation would depend on the size of the congregation. A megachurch, like the church of Jerusalem, which sometimes assembled in the Temple courtyard, couldn’t be as participatory as a small house-church. Third, Viola is misinterpreting his prooftext.6 Fourth, he seems to be siding with Pentecostalism in the charismatic/cessationist debate, but that’s a point of ongoing dispute.7 Fifth, even if we grant the Pentecostal position, that doesn’t eliminate the need for a traffic cop.8
Because he repudiates church office, Viola also repudiates ordination. But Jews ordained their rabbis, and this carried over into the New Testament as well.9
Instead of contesting the scriptural principle of ordination, Viola should simply contest unscriptural conceptions of ordination. In a high-church tradition like Catholicism, ordination is a constitutive rite. It confers certain abilities on the ordinand. It empowers him to pronounce absolution or transubstantiate the communion elements into the true body and bread of Christ. It qualifies him to discharge his clerical duties.
But Protestant ordination, correctly understood, is not a constitutive rite. Rather, it’s a rite of passage. It presupposes that the ordinand is already qualified to perform his duties. The function of ordination is not to confer special abilities on the ordinand, but to confer public recognition on the ordinand. Like a college diploma.
In that respect, ordination is secondary. All things being equal, a minister should be ordained, but it doesn’t qualify him to be a minister. Yet even Pentecostal denominations ordain their ministers.10
Because Viola opposes church office, he also opposes full-time, salaried clergymen. But Paul was not opposed to remunerating a pastor for his services (1 Tim. 5:17–18).
Viola justifies his anticlericalism by saying things like:
Jesus’ approach to affecting lives was interactive and hands-on. His lectures were few and far between and always led to implementing the point of the lesson in the trenches of life. (p. 256)
The early Christians did not build Bible schools or seminaries to train young workers. Christian workers were educated and trained by older workers in the context of church life. They learned “on the job.” Jesus provided the initial model for this “on-the-job” training when He mentored the Twelve. Paul duplicated it when he trained young Gentile workers in Ephesus. (p. 249; cf. p. 200)
There are several problems with this analysis. First of all, Jesus did quite a lot of “lecturing” in the Gospels. And that’s just a sampling. Second, Paul was a rabbi by training. Third, we need to make allowance for the fact that the New Testament church had a limited talent pool to draw upon. After all, it began with 120 members (Acts 1:15). Fourth, there’s a big difference between the “tutelage” of a modern mentor and having Jesus or an apostle as your private tutor. Fifth, the New Testament was written to men and women living in the first century. So they already had a cultural preunderstanding of what it meant. But what was common knowledge for a first-century Christian is hardly common knowledge for a twenty-first-century Christian. You and I can’t just step back into the first century A.D. or the tenth century B.C.
Viola also flirts with a quasi-charismatic view of divine guidance, which he sets in opposition to the institutional church. But this, too, is unscriptural. In the Book of Acts, signs and wonders coexist with elders or deacons. And, in James 5:14–16, divine healing is institutionalized. The elders are to pray for the sick.
By the same token, Viola opposes sermon preparation on the grounds that “there is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching described in the Bible and the contemporary sermon” (p. 86). But this assumes a charismatic model of preaching. And even if we shared his quasi-charismatic outlook, his disjunction is still debatable.11
Faith and Reason
One of Viola’s seminal errors is his unscriptural grasp of the relation between faith and reason:
The teaching of the New Testament is that God is Spirit, and as such, He is known by revelation (spiritual insight) to one’s human spirit. Reason and intellect can cause us to know about God. And they help us to communicate what we know. But they fall short in giving us spiritual revelation. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply … In the words of A. W. Tozer: “Divine truth is in the nature of spirit and for that reason can be received only by spiritual revelation … God’s thoughts belong to the world of spirit, man’s to the world of intellect.” (p. 206)
This is theologically erroneous. What is more, Viola’s anti-intellectualism is the source of his jaundiced views on Christian education. But in Scripture, the fundamental distinction is not between spirit and intellect, but between regenerate and unregenerate reason. The spiritual impediment is ethical rather than intellectual. The unregenerate can grasp revealed truth, but they are hostile to it. Regeneration creates a mind that’s more receptive to revealed truth.
Guilt by Association
Much of his book is an exercise in guilt by association. Viola takes a traditional practice. He then attempts to discredit this practice by claiming that it suffers from a pagan pedigree. Strictly speaking, this is known as the genetic fallacy.
It’s legitimate to point out that certain dogmas may have an unscriptural origin. But Viola is very undiscriminating in his targets. He applies guilt-by-association to art, music, architecture, and attire. Yet there’s nothing intrinsically evil in the fact that early church architecture, to take one example, was influenced by Greco-Roman models. Unlike dogma, much of this is a matter of indifference.12 It’s not as if Romanesque architecture is forbidden in Scripture.13
This goes to a deeper problem. Viola lacks a doctrine of common grace. Not everything that unbelievers do is evil. Due to natural revelation and common grace, unbelievers can produce various things that are good.14
Ironically, his tactic could be turned against his own book. For example, he makes heavy use of Will Durant in his historical analysis. But Durant was deeply invested in the Far Left causes of the day, so Viola should consider the possibility that Durant was skewing church history to further his political agenda.15
Likewise, Viola commends two or three figures who are associated with the local church.16 But some evangelicals regard the local church as a cult.17
There are some glaring inconsistencies in Viola’s indictment of contemporary Christendom. On the one hand, he attacks tradition because it’s too tradition-bound. On the other hand, he attacks historical novelties like Sunday school, youth pastors, Bible colleges, the altar call, and so on. So is his objection that Christians should stop doing something because it’s too traditional or because it’s too innovative?
He praises Moody as one of the “greatest Bible expositors in church history” (p. 216 n. 106), while just a few pages before he faults Moody for his patronage of Sunday school and Bible colleges (pp. 211–213). And in another chapter he laments the “staggering influence of Moody” (pp. 69–71).
On the one hand, he says things like, “We have abandoned those church practices that were acceptable and normative in the New Testament” (p. 265). On the other, Viola tells us that “[t]here is no blueprint or model that we can tease out of the New Testament by extracting verses and trying to imitate them mechanically. The church of Jesus Christ is a biological, living entity!” (p. 238).18
On the one hand, he offers a mystical or biological view of church governance:
If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings … [T]hey will minister out of what Christ has shown them—with no human leader present!
And because the church is organic, it has a natural expression—as all organisms do. For that reason, when a group of Christians follow [sic] their spiritual DNA, they will gather in a way that matches the DNA of the triune God … the native instinct to gather without ritual, every-member functioning … the internal drive for participatory gatherings. (p. 263)20
On the other hand, he appeals to scholars when it suits his purpose:
Seminarians and Bible college students alike are rarely if ever given a panoramic view of the free-flowing story of the early church with the New Testament books arranged in chronological order. As a result, most Christians are completely out of touch with the social and historical events that lay behind each of the New Testament letters. (p. 229)
Thanks to recent biblical scholarship, we can now reconstruct the entire saga of the early church. (p. 239)
There is a strong consensus among evangelical scholars that the early church did not have a clergy, did not meet in sacred buildings. (p. 264)21
But when he appeals to academic scholarship, that undercuts his appeal to mystical guidance. This constitutes a tacit admission that a twenty-first-century Christian lacks the background knowledge to properly interpret the Bible. Hence, we do need experts who specialize in the field of Old Testament and New Testament studies. That’s where the value of a formal Christian education comes into play.22
On the one hand, Viola opposes a professional clergy because it’s too elitist. On the other, he opposes a professional clergy because it leaves a pastor vulnerable to financial extortion in case the congregation doesn’t like his preaching (implying it’s not elitist enough).23 But this objection cuts both ways. As we’ve seen in the Catholic sex scandals, it’s a problem when a clergyman is only answerable to his superiors. In a polity where the pastor is directly accountable to his parishioners, a pastor can’t get away with as much.
In his opposition to church architecture, Viola says:
To use the Old Testament as a justification for the church building is not only inaccurate, but it is self-defeating. The old Mosaic economy of sacred priests, sacred buildings, sacred rituals, and sacred objects has been forever destroyed by the cross of Jesus Christ. (p. 27)
That’s overstated. For one thing, the apostles continued to frequent the temple. For another, the architectural symbolism of the tabernacle and temple is primarily cosmological rather than Christological. So it doesn’t prefigure the first coming of Christ. Rather, it alludes to Eden, on the one hand, while it prefigures the eschatological new Eden, on the other.24 It’s important for us to distinguish between various elements of the Mosaic cultus. Likewise, there’s nothing typological about an Old Testament choir that I can see. Why would choirs be obsolete under the new covenant?25
This doesn’t mean that Christians are under any sort of obligation to worship in a sanctuary or cathedral. We’re not. But Viola acts as if whatever is not commanded is forbidden. He fails to appreciate that many things are simply permitted.26
In his knee-jerk opposition to developments that he deplores, Viola leaves many loose ends. But what’s his alternative?
For example, he deplores the turn the church took under Constantine. But the main thing Constantine did was to decriminalize the Christian faith. He put an end to state-sponsored persecution of the Christian faith. Does Viola think that was a mistake? Does he think Christianity should be outlawed? But if Christianity were illegal, it would be illegal for Viola to publish Pagan Christianity!
Viola rightly opposes the altar call and the sinner’s prayer as a substitute for baptism. However, a certain percentage of adult converts were already baptized as infants or children.
So what does Viola think should be done in that case? Is the prior baptism still valid? Or should the adult converts be rebaptized?
The early Christians did not divide themselves into various denominations. They understood their oneness in Christ and expressed it visibly in every city. To their minds, there was only one church per city (even though it may have met in many different homes throughout the locale). If you were a Christian in the first century, you belonged to that one church. (pp. 249–250)
But even in New Testament times there were schismatic groups. Moreover, many nineteenth-century restorationist movements took this same position. Yet a successful movement inevitably becomes institutionalized. Over time it becomes just one more denomination—or cult.
Viola’s book would be more useful if he were more modest in his ambitions and if he offered some correctives or voluntary alternatives to the status quo. But because he wants to replace the institutional church with the “organic” church, he overplays his hand. There’s a cumulative process of error in his analysis because he frequently begins with a false premise and then carries it through to its logical but erroneous extreme. The reader must spend far too much time threshing the grains of wheat from the heaps of chaff.
1. Since Viola is the principal author, I’ll generally refer to him in the course of this review. See http://www.ptmin.org/biography.php for a biography.
2. “To date, Barna has written 39 books, mostly addressing leadership, trends, church health and spiritual development. They include best-sellers such as Revolution, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, The Frog in the Kettle, and The Power of Vision. His most recent book is Revolutionary Parenting. Several of his books have received national awards. He has had more than 100 articles published in periodicals and writes a bi-weekly research report (The Barna Update) accessed by more than a million people each year, through his firm’s website (www.barna.org). His work is frequently cited as an authoritative source by the media. He has been hailed as ‘the most quoted person in the Christian Church today’ and has been named by various media as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders,” (http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=AboutGeorge).
3. Institutional church “refers to a religious system (not a particular group of people). An institutional church is one that operates primarily as an organization that exists above, beyond, and independent of the members who populate it. It is constructed more on programs and rituals than on relationships. It is led by set-apart professionals (‘ministers’ or ‘clergy’) who are aided by volunteers (‘laity’)”; “The term organic church does not refer to a particular model of church. (We believe that no perfect model exists.) Instead, we believe that the New Testament vision of church is organic. An organic church is a living, breathing, dynamic, mutually participatory, every-member functioning, Christ-centered, communal expression of the body of Christ”; and regarding the New Testament church: “We believe that a return to the spiritual principles, the organic practices, and the spirit and ethos of the first-century church, along with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, should guide our practice of the church in our day and time” (http://www.ptmin.org/pcobjections.htm).
4. At the same time, Viola targets paedobaptism. But paedobaptists are used to fielding stock objections to infant baptism. So his attack would be unconvincing to any astute paedobaptist.
5. By “office” I simply mean a permanent position, with specific duties, held by successive incumbents. By “successive,” I don’t mean apostolic succession.
6. “As in 7:2 and 11:21, ‘each one’ does not mean every single individual … Paul presents a hypothetical scenario, ‘suppose that when you assemble,’ rather than a real description of what is happening,” David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 657.
7. For example, O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004).
8. “In the very free charismatic service of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul repeatedly calls for an introduction of ‘order’ and ‘edification,’” Roger Beckwith, Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003), 17. “In Corinth, where there was not even an effective eldership either, we know from 1 Corinthians 14 that the result was great disorder,” Beckwith, 56.
9. Beckwith, chapters 6–7.
10. “The charismatic movement has been led by experience of the free exercise of charismatic gifts not to dispense with outward ordering but to emphasise it, so that church life may not degenerate into chaos. There are few Christian circles in which the ordained ministry is as authoritarian as it often is in the charismatic movement,” Beckwith, 16.
11. “Do the worshipers bring a pre-chosen, pre-prepared choice of psalm or hymn, their item of teaching, or something disclosed? In our view some of these gifts are by definition brought in the sense that teaching arises out of processes of reflection over a time span, even if an event may also trigger some more sudden insight … It is essential to allow for a distinction in translation and meaning between those gifts which can hardly be other than spontaneous (e.g., tongues), those which are likely to require sustained biblical reflection (e.g., item of teaching), and those which resist exclusion from either category (prophetic speech, something disclosed). Wolff’s attention to tradition in Paul is confirmed elsewhere in this epistle,” Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1134–1135.
12. For example, “In the actual construction Solomon decorated it [the Temple] with many well-known Phoenician motifs; cherubim, palm trees, open flowers (1 Kings 7:29–36),” Daniel Block, “Other Religions in Old Testament Theology.” Biblical Faith and Other Religions, ed. David Baker (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 47–48.
13. At one point Viola says, “Von Simson shows how the metaphysics of Plato shaped Gothic architecture. Light and luminosity reach their perfection in Gothic stained-glass windows. Numbers of perfect proportions harmonize all the elements of the building. Light and harmony are images of heaven; they are the ordering principles of creation,” p. 29 n. 135. But one could say the very same thing about the tabernacle and temple. They used reflective materials. They used numerological symmetries. And they represented a microcosm of the world. Cf. G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), chap. 2; Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 286f.; “Tabernacle” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 816–818.
14. “Good,” not in the sense of righteous, but excellent.
15. In preparation for this book review, I asked a leading church historian what he thought of Durant. He expressed a very low opinion of Durant’s scholarship.
16. Watchman Nee, Stephen Kaung, T. Austin-Sparks (p. 216 n. 106).
18. Viola can’t tell the difference between figurative and literal statements. The church isn’t really a “biological, living entity.” That’s picture language. And Scripture uses a variety of metaphors for the church.
19. I don’t know on what basis Viola presumes to impute this general ignorance of seminarians or Bible college students.
20. This is yet another example of how Viola gets carried away with metaphors. He uses a genetic metaphor that goes beyond Scripture—then presses the implications of this metaphor as if it were a literal description of the church.
21. I question his assertion regarding a scholarly consensus about the absence of clergymen in the early church.
22. It’s possible for a smart, studious layman to know whatever his pastor knows—by reading the same books. But that requires a certain aptitude and diligence. And that’s quite different from “spiritual revelation.”
23. That also depends on how the polity is structured. A pastor can be paid by the denomination rather than by the congregation. That would afford him a degree of financial insulation.
24. See footnote 7.
25. It’s ironic that Viola is so opposed to choirs since choirs are a form of lay participation in the service, and our authors lobby for a participatory style of worship.
26. For example, Viola launches a ferocious assault on church steeples, which—in his fanciful typology—is a throwback to the tower of Babel. But church steeples are simply a form of signage—like the Golden Arches—to identify a building as a church. Likewise, Viola attacks the pulpit. But the basic function of a pulpit is to make the speaker visible to the audience. He also attacks clerical collars. But this is no different than any other uniform, such as a policeman’s.
Stephen Hays doubled-majored in history and classics at Seattle Pacific University and is currently both a student and teacher's assistant at Reformed Theological Seminary He resides in Charleston, SC.