A Balanced Review of Pagan Christianity

Dr. Ben Witherington has received permission from Howard Snyder to publish the full text of Snyder’s review of Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna. It is not a long or meticulous review, but addresses what I think is the most important problem with PC. Viola and Barna have a serious paradigm problem, one that the Stone-Campbell tradition has been struggling with for 200 years.

Snyder discusses three paradigms for “understanding the development of the church over history”:

  1. Traditional Orthodox –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.”
  2. Secret History of the Faithful Remnant – 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.”
  3. Renewal/Revitalization –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.”

I think that much of the discussion of PC can be related very well to the struggles of the American Restoration Movement. Let me know what you think!

in HIS love,



About Nick Gill

orphan-poet-adoptee-soldier-prodigal-servant-husband- counselor-desperate seeker after my Father's face "I feel my body weakened by the years as people turn to gods of cruel design. Is it that they fear the pain of death, or is it that they fear the joy of life?" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Posted on 14 July, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. To me, the problem is not the development of traditions or rituals. The problem is the elevation of those things to be on a par with what the Bible says. Where the “Traditional Orthodox” fails, in my view, is in failing to distinguish between what the Bible says and what men have said based on the Bible. I have much more sympathy with the second view, particularly because I do consider Constantinianism as a tragedy. However, I see those second groups as constantly running the risk of (1) becoming “Traditional Orthodox” within a new definition of orthodoxy; and (2) placing themselves as judges over the acceptability of those in “Traditional Orthodox.” Like Pagan Christianity it’s easy to throw out the baby with the bath water, rejecting everything that the other group is doing because it is “traditional.” Humans can’t exist without some routine, some tradition. Can you imagine a church that had to decide every week exactly how they were going to do things? In the end, their assemblies would focus more on decision-making about the assembly than they would in worshiping God.

    More and more I feel called to worry less about the global church and more about doing what I can to worship God better and help those around me do the same. If I can teach in a way that edifies the church on a larger scale, great. I just think that if we all would fix our own part of the world, the whole world would get fixed.

    OK, I’m rambling. Thanks for the stimulating read.

    Grace and peace,

  2. LOL YW. You’ve given me so many great reads, it is about time I started returning the favor.

    Research and torture have both proven that people can be driven insane by long-term forced removal of routine. It is basic interrogational strategy to break down a person’s strength and mental stability.

    AMEN to your last paragraph, although where my focus is changing is in the middle rather than at the global level. I still pray for the unity of the global church, and I wouldn’t be blogging this way if I wasn’t interested in its health. But I’m also praying for God’s help to get myself out of the business of worrying how the church down the way is doing things. To paraphrase Patrick Mead, “I don’t have time for that anymore. I’m trying to convert Frankfort. I’m busy.”

    in HIS love,

  3. If those churches who had the original pattern were somehow better, more spiritual etc. it might work but since they were not it seems that while we must be aware of the purpose of community, following Christ, etc. no system will insure that.

    If a system was all that was needed God could have gave it to Moses and moved on.

  4. At first glance I liked the book. The more I read into it the less appreciation I had for what looked like too much of an attempt to recreate history rather than help form the future.

  5. Darin,

    We live under a different covenant, and I really think that the verses in 2 Cor, Galatians, and Hebrews that speak of this are very much swept under the rug in our tradition.

    Thw writers of PC fall head-long into the same trap in which we have languished for over 100 years.


    I appreciate their spirit, but I think they even skew the past in their obsession with the ME ecclesiology. The assembly of believers in Scripture always has a worship aspect, and the ME school adamantly asserts that ‘assembly for worship’ is an artifact of older covenants.

    In their desire to restore ancient forms, they miss the communal, other-centered nature of the with-God life.

  6. All have had left their mark deep into the history of Christianity. The challenge is which one has made the greatest impact and which is most active today if any?

    still pondering……….

  7. PC? left a bad aftertaste in my mouth. It was so heavily documented, and yet … how much of it actually referred to scripture, for a tome so dedicated to retrieving a “pattern” from it?

    The Restoration paradigm, for me, is best phrased in a re-telling of the old preacher’s story about the boy and the makeshift puzzle his grandfather cut from a magazine page, then challenged him to re-assemble a complicated, detailed picture of a church. The boy amazed grandpa by doing so in seconds. He had turned it over and found a much simpler picture of Jesus there. “How did you do it so quickly?” grandfather asked. “When I got Jesus right, the church was right.”

  8. I saw that problem, too, Keith. At least CoC pattern papers quote Scripture! Out of context, usually, but at least it is there!

    The joy AND struggle of grappling with Jesus as the pattern is that it regrounds Christianity as a historical religion. The things that we cling to are things that actually HAPPENED. “Christianity appeals to history, and to history it must go.” — George Caird

  9. The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org. It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://frankviola.wordpress.com/

  10. Thank you, Jill! I will borrow a copy of Reimagining Church once it becomes available through inter-library loan.

    Until then, I will reserve my right to say that God’s people have ALWAYS assembled to worship, and it is simply ludicrous to think that we are called to conclude that the NT assembly is NOT about worship based solely on inference.

    I recognize and sympathize with many of Viola’s complaints, although I would wish that in a book that calls us back to Scripture, he might have quoted more Scripture. You seem to be laboring under the idea that no one has ever tried what he is talking about. The American Restoration Movement (Churches if Christ, Christian Church, Disciples of Christ) exists because some Baptist and Presbyterian ministers in the 18th and 19th centuries became incredibly dissatisfied with the divisions within and man-made innovations to God’s church. We’ve spent 200 years trying to work out how this would go, and it just doesn’t work. Not with the pattern ecclesiology Viola is pursuing.

    Further, I fear that until the weak and individualistic theology of worship as taught by the Mutual Edification Only movement is reshaped by the biblical theme of communal worship, any further writing will only be more calculating on a broken equation. As CS Lewis wrote, “Sometimes going back is the best way forward.”

  11. I really liked reading Jon Zens’s response to Witherington’s review. The whole thing is posted here

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