I was really excited about Pagan Christianity? after reading the first three or four chapters. But by the end of the book, I was ready to rip it apart. I’m not sure how a book that really piqued my interest to begin with could crash so quickly. But that’s what Pagan Christianity? did for me.
I began to analyze why I could preach a great sermon and people afterwards would shake my hand and say, “Great sermon, Pastor.” But these were the very people who were struggling with self-esteem, beating their spouses, struggling as workaholics, succumbing to their addictions. Their lives weren’t changing (p. 218).
- I understand his contention with the sermon and how it can produce passive and non-participatory Christians, but he doesn’t seem to want to allow for the fact that a lot of good has been accomplished through preaching. Jesus preached. Paul preached. The Reformation – which he almost downplays altogether – resulted more from the preaching of the Word than anything else.
- He claims that accepting Jesus as Savior and the act of baptism should not be two separate events. He is mostly railing against the “sinner’s prayer” method popularized by Dwight L. Moody, et al, which I am sympathetic to. However, I have put a lot of thought and study into this subject, and I do not necessarily think that a person who accepts Jesus should be instantly baptized, nor is it biblical to baptize someone apart from them joining the body of Christ (ie., indoctrination).
- He greatly denigrates American revivalism that saw such figures as Moody, Sankey, etc., and really harps upon “personal” and “individual” salvation. He does not like the idea of Jesus as a “personal Savior,” and he spends a lot of ink tearing that apart. I understand what he is saying, but I think, above all, this rant reveals more the fact that he’s grown cynical about popular Christian jargon than anything else.
- Where he really loses me is his tearing down of the Christian educational system. He claims that seminaries, Bible colleges, etc., are based more upon Aristotelian methodologies and logic than what the Bible uplifts. He seems to want to get rid of any reliance upon reason and logic, instead trading our brains in to rely upon some quasi-spiritual learning that we do. What he neglects to see – or, at least he mentions it in passing – is that Paul was trained by some of the best thinkers of his day and was quite a logician. Now, I don’t doubt that, for many of us, we have way more “head knowledge” when it comes to our religious experience than we do heart-knowledge. And a PhD certainly doesn’t necessarily qualify anyone for ministry, or secure our ticket into heaven. But God invented Wisdom. Indeed, He is Wisdom personified, and He invites us to come “reason” with Him. But the irony of all ironies is that, not only does he necessarily have to use the same type of logic to communicate his points to the reader, but he so often refers to authors, who will bolster his arguments, as “scholars.”
- He laments the order that the New Testament canon is presently arranged and wishes that chapters and verses were never invented – as if this were the single greatest challenge to true Christianity. We do not really understand the true picture of the NT church, he claims, if we don’t recognize that Galatians was the first letter Paul wrote, and 2 Timothy was the last, etc. We get a distorted picture of what God intended for NT Christians. This is all well and fine, but there are a few problems with his citing this as a problem. First, Paul’s epistles themselves do not indicate the order that they were written, or the exact time they were written. Thus, any dating or ordering of Paul’s books is extra-biblical conjecture and thus pagan (as he defines “pagan”). Secondly, the “average” Christian does not know the correct order of the books, or when they were written, and the only way to find out is to rely upon the “guesswork” of scholars (the same scholars that Viola decries because they received their pagan doctorates from pagan seminaries). Hence, such an exercise naturally sets up a hierarchy between the “enlightened” scholars who know all about the Bible, and the uneducated and uninformed “laity” who don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to figure these things out. And such a hierarchical set up is pagan.
- Viola necessarily has to downplay doctrine and theology (in fact, the word “theology” itself is anathema to him, having been invented, or at least popularized, by Peter Abelard in the 11th century). These are, for the most part, unimportant to him. All that matters is a bunch of “Christ-centered” people, who get together (face-to-face), sing songs, pray, and spontaneously do whatever the spirit leads them to do. But this watering down of theology and doctrine – which, at their best, are simply insights into God’s loving character – is very problematic, not the least of which is because God cares about how He is represented to the world.
- Viola’s favorite phrase, by far, is “organic church.” This is what the church should look like today. But I’m not quite sure what he means by this, even though he explains it over and over again. For example, he writes: “The New Testament church was organic, not organizational. . . . The church was a living, breathing organism” (p. 248). Okay. So is the Baptist church, or the Catholic church, or the Seventh-day Adventist church not “living” and “breathing”? What does it even mean to say that a church is “living” and “breathing”? This concept does not even make sense to me and I’m not quite sure what he means by it. Furthermore, is “organizing” necessarily pagan and bad? If he would accept the OT as every bit as valid as the NT, he would recognize that God certainly condoned organization as it related to the 12 tribes of Israel – though I suppose we could also go to Revelation 7 to see that as well. At the same time, unless a church “organizes,” how would foreign missions, for example, ever work? His way of doing church would be to have some type of “vanilla” church (with very basic “historic creeds” that serve as a doctrinal foundation, even though these creeds are themselves extrabiblical – or should I say “pagan”) in each community that is totally isolated from any other church in any other community. Thus, under his model, I would go to Massachusetts and not know another Christian soul, and I would have to “reinvent the wheel” to plant another church there. But I don’t believe this is necessary, nor do I think having an overarching structure is bad (ironically, those who have gone the organic/house church route have “organized” a website that can be resourceful to those who are interested: http://www.housechurchresource.org). And, to be quite honest, there is something refreshing about going to virtually any Seventh-day Adventist church in the world, and meeting someone who knows someone you know, or knows someone that knows someone that you know. It gives a sense of connectedness; of common mission. It gives the sense that God’s work is, indeed, a global movement.
- Finally, Viola is very inconsistent with his views on pagan practices that have crept into the church. When I picked up the book, for example, I assumed that he would certainly touch upon the issue of Sabbath/Sunday worship, seeing how it is very well documented that the NT church continued worshiping on Saturday, and it wasn’t until the second century when Sunday-sacredness starting creeping in (ultimately culminating in Constantine’s decree in the 4th century that Sunday would be the day of worship). But there was no mention of this at all. In fact, on his website, someone asked him why he did not address this subject in the book, and he answered by saying that there was “no evidence whatsoever that the early church gathered for their meetings on the Sabbath.” This, of course, is a very faulty use of logic, since the burden of proof would rest upon the Sunday worshiper to demonstrate that the NT Church worshipped on a different day than was practiced by Moses, Ezekiel, and Jesus – to name a few. Instead, Viola violates his own disdain for proof-texting and taking verses out of context by citing Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 16:2 as examples that the NT believers worshiped on Sunday. But this is just plain fallacious. Paul simply says in 1 Cor 16:2, for example, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” I’m not sure how anyone could make the case for Sunday-sacredness from this, though, especially in light of the fact that the word “day” is supplied in our English versions, and the Greek actually literally reads, “On the first Sabbath, each of you should lay something aside.” Talk about lifting a verse out of context!