Saturday, July 12, 2008

Howard Snyder's Review of 'Pagan Christianity'

What follows in this post is the verbatim of the full text of Howard Snyder's review of 'Pagan Christianity' which appeared this spring in the Revitalization magazine (Vol. 15 No. 1 Spring 2008) edited by Asbury's Prof. Stephen O'Malley. Howard gave me his permission to reprint it here. What it demonstrates, in my view, is that Howard thinks 'Pagan Christianity' has some good critiques of the failures of Institutional Churches, but thinks that the way forward is through revitalization movements, NOT the model suggested in Viola and Barna's work. He is also clear enough that the reading of early church history in 'Pagan Christianity' is flawed in various ways, as is its naive understanding of what the NT has to say about Christian community, its structure and its leadership.

What’s the Fuss about “Pagan Christianity”?

Frank Viola’s 2002 book Pagan Christianity: Exploring

the Roots of Church Practices has kicked up some

fuss since it was revised with the help of George Barna

and recently released under the Barna/Tyndale imprint.

This is a ground-clearing book. Many Christians

will be surprised—maybe shocked—to learn how much

contemporary “Christian” practice has no biblical basis whatsoever.

The question is: So what? Is such development merely the appropriate

fruit of gradual adaptation to changing circumstances? Or

is today’s church guilty of the charge Jesus leveled against the Pharisees:

“You nullify the word of God by your traditions” (Mt. 15:6)?

Legitimate adaptation and contextualization, or betrayal?

Viola (and now apparently Barna) believe the answer is “betrayal.”

They celebrate those who have “left institutional Christianity”

and have begun meeting in unstructured house churches—seen

here as the only legitimate form of the church.

The authors summarize: “The DNA of the church produces certain

identifiable features. Some of them are: the experience of authentic

community, a familial love and devotion of its members one

to another, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the native instinct to gather

together without ritual, every-member functioning, the innate desire

to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, and

the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings. We believe that

any church that obstructs these innate characteristics is unsound, and

therefore, unbiblical” (p. 263).

One can hardly argue with that, except

for the idea that it is possible for groups to meet “without ritual.”

I have considerable sympathy with the book’s argument. Contemporary

Christians, in my view, are not self-critical enough of

the ways they do church—whether liturgical Protestants, revivalist

evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, seeker-sensitive congregations,

or “emerging” churches (not to mention the Roman

Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Most of us do not pay enough

attention to what the Bible plainly teaches about the nature and

practice of the church as Body of Christ. So I wish church leaders

everywhere would calmly read and reflect on this book.

But that is not the end of the story. In the background here is a

deeper question: How do we view changes in church practice over


Legitimate development, or betrayal and maybe even apostasy?

This debate has a long history, tracing back at least to Peter’s

God-prompted decision to have dinner at Cornelius’ house. In the

Middle Ages people were anathematized, imprisoned, denounced, or

burned at the stake depending on how they answered the question.

Here also the issue of revitalization comes in. The logic behind

the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization

Movements holds that genuine renewal is not an either/or issue.

Three Approaches to Church History

Traditionally, the church’s development through history has

been seen in one of two ways: The “traditional orthodox” approach

or the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory.

The Traditional View. The most generally accepted view—the

traditional orthodox interpretation—is that God has guided the

church through history, protecting it from heresy and apostasy, assisting

it to adapt to changing circumstances. The development of

clergy, liturgy, church buildings, and all the rest were the ways in

which the church successfully adjusted as it grew and got more

complex, and the way it extended its influence.

Constantinianism—the development of the church after the

conversion of the Emperor Constantine—is the key test case. In the

traditional orthodox view (celebrated first by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical

History), the success of the church under Constantine was

the great triumph of the church. God’s hand was in it all.

In this view, it is foolish to expect the church today to look like

the New Testament church (which was essentially a network of

house churches with highly flexible leadership patterns). The New

Testament church was the church in embryo; the little seedling that

has now wonderfully put forth branches into all the world.

The Secret History of the Faithful Remnant. The other view, unsurprisingly,

is just the opposite. God has been working down

through history through a mostly hidden underground church. The

“institutional church” is corrupt and largely apostate. But God has an

unbroken succession of the true church that has appeared from time

to time in groups that the official church viewed as heretical or extreme.

This true church has surfaced periodically under names like

Montanists, Priscillians, Anabaptists, Waldensians, and so forth—

and in networks of house churches today.

This view has been advocated by various people—notably the

German Pietist Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), and today people like

Gene Edwards. Pagan Christianity seems to assume this theory.

In this view, Constantinianism was a great tragedy—the fall of

the church. The only route to fidelity is a return to the New Testament

pattern, some form of restoration to the original model.

The choice here is rather clear-cut. But there is a third way, a

mediating position that can be supported biblically, historically,

theologically, and sociologically.

The Renewal Movement View. This view recognizes the truth in

both the traditional view and the counter-view. Yes, God has been

working through the “institutional church” down through history, despite

its problems. Yes, the church has often been unfaithful, corrupt,

and, in certain times and places, apostate. And yes, God has often

worked through marginal groups—even sometimes rather extreme

groups, like the “Montanists” — to enliven a “faithful remnant.” And

yes, many of these groups were not really heretical doctrinally, yet

were shamefully persecuted and often driven underground.

The renewal-movement view holds that, despite the church’s

frequent unfaithfulness, God has continued to work through “institutional”

Christianity. It also observes that underground “remnant”

churches can themselves become corrupt, or dysfunctional (I’ve

known some), or moribund, needing renewal.

Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition note John Wesley’s insights

here. Wesley was outspoken in his denunciation of the failures

of the Anglican Church in his day. Yet he did not abandon it.

His views on the church, drawn largely from the New Testament,

church history, and contemporary groups such as the Moravians,

had much in common with the “secret history” view.

But Wesley felt it was possible (and substantially proved it) to

create a “faithful remnant” movement within the larger “institutional”

church. This was British Methodism during Wesley’s lifetime.

In this view, God has worked throughout history to bring new

life to the church through a series of movements. This dynamic is foreshadowed

already in the Bible, especially in Israel’s history. It can be

documented over the centuries of the church. God has never given up

on the church—even the “institutional church.” Neither should we.

Yet in particular times and places the church may become so unfaithful

that it falls under God’s judgment and may even disappear entirely.

Rethinking “Pagan Christianity”

We who find the renewal movement view convincing thus

have a mixed reaction to Pagan Christianity. Though a valuable

contribution, it is neither the last word nor the whole story.

Some specific criticisms: The book speaks of “transformation,”

but exactly what that means is mostly undefined. The authors

paint with too broad a brush in speaking of “contemporary Christianity”

and the “institutional church.” Many “traditional” churches

do demonstrate genuine discipleship, community, and deep spirituality,

whatever their imperfections. The book holds that local

churches should be “autonomous,” despite what the Bible teaches

about translocal networkings of the Body of Christ. And it largely

ignores the contribution of Roman Catholic orders, an “institutional”

form that in many notable instances faithfully embodied

genuine Christianity for centuries.

Two other issues are more fundamental: First, the book’s basic

syllogism is fallacious. It holds that because much church practice is

pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned. Viola

writes, “Should we follow a model of church that is rooted in New

Testament principle and example, or should we follow one that finds

its origins in pagan traditions? That is the ultimate question” (p. 264).

But the options are not that simple, and the “model” advocated is not

as unambiguously New Testament as the authors believe.

Second, the authors do not really deal with the key issue of

contextualization. Yes, the New Testament vision of the church

should be normative. But what does that really mean in very diverse

cultural contexts? When it is appropriate to adapt cultural traditions,

even “pagan” ones, and use them for kingdom purposes?

Still, the cumulative weight of Pagan Christianity is impressive.

Christians today who want to see the church be faithful to the

gospel of the kingdom should ask themselves: Which of our current

traditions are consistent with Scripture and help us to be faithful

communities of the kingdom? And which really nullify God’s

Word? If churches confront that question prayerfully while seriously

examining Scripture, many things may change.

–– Howard A. Snyder


Michael Gilley said...

This is a little off subject but I just noticed that you're on CNN.

Click Here

I don't think they quoted you very well. You looked somewhat like the intolerant "bad guy." It helps to have read your post on this a few weeks ago.

Bill Heroman said...

Ben, I still appreciate your earlier efforts, but I think Howard did a really fantastic job here. My own response has been posted on my blog.

Thanks so much for posting this excellent review. I think he just about almost said it all.

Falantedios said...

Coming from a tradition whose history is 90% 'secret history' and 10% renewal, I really appreciate this review.

I've always thought that both the "traditional orthodox" and "secret history" schools of thought claimed far more than they could support either historically or biblically. TO baptizes too much, and SH simply can't show any evidence for its sprawling claims.

Thank you for sharing this, Dr. Ben.

in HIS love,

graham old said...

I think that Snyder's review is more positive than your preamble would suggest. However, he still manages to misread a couple of important points.

Firstly, V&B don't suggest that there is only one model of Church. In fact, they say the opposite.

Secondly, PC does not hold 'that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.' In fact, they explicitly say that they don't say that.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the tone of the review and it certainly makes some valid and important criticisms.

N.C. said...

I just wonder if this is part of Barna's "penance" since repudiating and critiquing the church growth movement his research was so critical to helping along?

His personal presentations while promoting his "revolution" book were filled with unflinching critique of pastors/churches.

This Pagan Christianity thing he's carrying water for seems like the proverbial swing to the other extreme.

2nd man united said...

“When is it appropriate to adapt cultural traditions, even “pagan” ones, and use them for kingdom purposes?” I think it’s important to distinguish between “pagan” practices and “cultural” practices. My understanding is that a “pagan” practice is one that supercedes culture, although it may be expressed in a cultural context. For example, man has always tried to exercise dominance/control over others in a quest for prominence. This has been expressed in many different forms depending on the cultural context. For example, in our culture it’s the CEO in the business world or the CEO-type pastor in the institutional church. A “cultural” practice would be the way in which we celebrate birthdays. Given the fact that structure determines function in all systems, adopting a pagan practice to accomplish a kingdom purpose is like trying to drive your car without a steering wheel. It eventually ends in destruction. Plus, why would you want to?

ChrisJohnson said...

I first heard about this book by reading glowing endorsements by Alan Hirsch, Andrew Jones, Michael Kruse, and Brant Hansen. At the time, I thought, “This is a book I gotta read” but I got busy with other things and never bought it. Then when I read Ben Witherington’s review, I thought to myself, “I really don’t need to bother reading this book.” Then when I read Jon Zens’s thoughtful response at, I thought to myself, “On second thought, I should read it.” Now after reading Howard Snyder’s endorsement for the book on the book’s webpage, the many positive things he said about the book in his review and his wish that “church leaders everywhere calmly read and reflect on the book,” I’ve decided that I need to read it. Thanks Ben, Jon, and Howard for helping me make up my mind. I looking forward to reading it and making up my own mind.