A few days ago I was sent a note about a series of posts written by Ben Witherington III, who is an Evangelical scholar and professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, as well as author of numerous scholarly and more popular books on Jesus, the early Church, and the Bible. (Full disclaimer: Witherington has appeared in a couple of recent DVDs co-produced by Ignatius Press: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? and Lost Gospels or False Gospels?). He has, shall we say, some serious credentials when it comes to the subjects he writes and talks about.
The same cannot be said for the authors of the book, Pagan Christianity?, which is the focus of Witherington's posts (four and counting). They are Frank Viola, who has a background in social science education and "church planting," and George Barna, who is the founder of the Barna Research Group. This is not a knock on their character or intelligence, but merely points out the obvious: they aren't historians or biblical scholars. (And, needless to say, this doesn't mean they shouldn't write about history or the Bible. It does mean that their strong claims deserved to be analyzed carefully by those who know a lot about the topics involved.)
The book is marketed as a strong critique of the "institutional church." From the book's website:
Have you ever wondered why we Christians do what we do for church every Sunday morning? Why do we "dress up" for church? Why does the pastor preach a sermon each week? Why do we have pews, steeples, choirs, and seminaries? This volume reveals the startling truth: most of what Christians do in present-day churches is not rooted in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Coauthors Frank Viola and George Barna support their thesis with compelling historical evidence in the first-ever book to document the full story of modern Christian church practices.
Many Christians take for granted that their church's practices are rooted in Scripture. Yet those practices look very different from those of the first-century church. The New Testament is not silent on how the early church freely expressed the reality of Christ's indwelling in ways that rocked the first-century world. Times have changed. Pagan Christianity leads us on a fascinating tour through church history, revealing this startling and unsettling truth: Many cherished church traditions embraced today originated not out of the New Testament, but out of pagan practices. One of the most troubling outcomes has been the effect on average believers: turning them from living expressions of Christ's glory and power to passive observers. If you want to see that trend reversed, turn to Pagan Christianity . . . a book that examines and challenges every aspect of our contemporary church experience.
I've not read the book, but Witherington's posts indicate that it is, in some ways, simply a more sophisticated variation of the anti-Catholicism (and anti-mainline Protestantism) that has been part and parcel of a Fundamentalist viewpoint for many decades. Witherington writes:
And of course the big bad guy in Pagan Christianity is not going to be sin, suffering, the Devil, or any of those things. The big bad guy is going to be what is loosely called the Institutional Church and that other famous whipping boy—‘church tradition’ and oh yes--- Greek philosophy. The particular animus is against the Roman Catholic Church for paganizing Christianity. Dan Brown would have liked this book.
But frankly there are no such thing as ‘institutional churches’. Churches have institutions of various sorts, they aren’t institutions. Furthermore, the Bible is full of traditions and many of those developed after NT times are perfectly Biblical. It’s not really possible to draw a line in the sand between ‘Biblical principles’ and traditions. The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not. And there is a further problem. It is ever so dangerous to take what was normal in early Christianity as a practice, and conclude that therefore it must be normative. It may have been normal in the NT era for non-theological reasons, for example for practical reasons.
To tell us that the church is really people, people united in Christ and serving the Lord, is to say nothing for or against the ‘institutional church’, or for that matter its institutions. Everyone agrees that the church is people, more specifically people gathered for worship, fellowship, and service. Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization. So what’s the beef here, and where is the real thrust of the critique?
Let us begin with a historical point made on p. 6 on the basis of old and weak evidence. The idea is that Christianity had become overwhelming Gentile and already was adopting numerous pagan practices in the last third of the first century A.D. Frankly, this is historically false. Not only did Jewish Christianity continue well into the fifth century in many forms and places and in considerable numbers, including in the Diaspora and not just in Israel and Syria, in fact all of our NT was written by Jewish Christians with the possible exception of Luke's works, but he seems however to have been a god-fearer. And in fact many of the NT documents were written for Jewish Christians including Matthew, Hebrews, James, Jude,1 Peter, and probably John, the Johannine Epistles, Revelation.
If you are wrong about the history of the early church, and wrong about the character of the canon as well, then it is no wonder you will make mistakes in your argumentation. It is interesting that documents like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Protoevangelium of James, and other documents which came out of largely Jewish Christian circles are just ignored as well. These folks need to read a book like Oscar Skarsaune’s edited volume on Jewish Believers in Jesus. They will discover it is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries--- wrong, and wrong.
There is a lot of great stuff, but rather than give quote after quote, take a moment to look through the four posts:
• Pagan Christianity: by George Barna and Frank Viola (June 30, 2008)
• Pagan Christianity, Part Two (July 1, 2008. Okay, one more quote: "In the second main chapter of Barna and Viola’s book Pagan Christianity, we are given a brief history of some forms and orders of worship, with perhaps a special emphasis on low church Protestant worship. Missing is a discussion of Catholic worship, various forms of Orthodox worship and Anglican worship. I suppose it is just assumed that these forms of worship are so unBiblical, that don’t even warrant discussion." This is a fascinating post.)
• Pagan Christianity, Part Three (July 2, 2008)
• Pagan Christianity, Part Four (July 3, 2008)
Much more could be said, but the over-arching reason I find this interesting is how it highlights what I think is a rapidly growing chasm within American Evangelicalism, between those in the "emergent church" movement (and in related movements) who makes feints toward taking Church history seriously but usually only end plundering it (and misrepresenting it) for their own 21st century purposes, and those who take seriously the need to study early Church history and patristics, and who end up with a much more Catholic vision of things (and who, in many cases, do become Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). Yes, that's simplistic, but I think it captures the basic issues at hand, which are primarily historical and theological, with ecclesiology holding a central place in both of those arenas.