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Posted: 06/13/2005 at 10:18am
A Review of Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity
By Steve Eastman
Pagan Christianity is a scary book if you are interested in reading something that verifies the traditions you hold dear, unless those traditions, of course are Biblical and fact-based. Once you read it, you are left with the choice of responding to its contents or pretending it had never been written. Frank Viola backs up assertions with footnotes citing such impeccable sources as Christian History magazine and historian Will Durant. Most of his sources have been available in larger libraries for the last 50 to 100 years, but some go much further back. If I were to make up a list of 10 books that have changed by life, Pagan Christianity would be near the top.
One of the first topics Viola addresses is the sermon, the mainstay of Protestant worship services. The good news, according to Viola, is that sermons can be Biblical. The bad news is many of them owe more to the art of Greek rhetoricians than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Viola characterizes Biblical sermons as sporadic, extemporaneous and open to dialog (two-way communication). “In like manner, the NT letters show that the ministry of God’s Word came from the entire church in the regular gatherings. This ‘every member functioning’ was also conversational and marked by interruptions.” Viola traces the non-Biblical style of sermon to the fifth century BC. That was when sophists invented rhetoric (the art of creative speaking) which used “… emotional appeals, physical appearance and clever language to ‘sell’ their arguments.” They would quote the poet Homer and make three-point speeches. Around the third century AD, the sophists were still around and some of them joined the church. Many of those who did are known as the Church Fathers. They called their speeches homilies, a term still in use today.
Another topic Viola covers is the evolution of church leadership. In the first century, if a church had elders they were co-equal. The term elder (presbuteros) was synonymous with bishop (episcopos) and they were charged by Paul with shepherding (pasturing) the flock. In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch, championed the concept of a head elder, which he differentiated by the term bishop, changing its original meaning. In the mid-third century Cyprian of Carthage, one of those converted orators, began to apply the term priest (sacerdos) to bishops. It was later applied to the elders as well. Once Christianity was recognized and encouraged by the Roman emperors, starting with Constantine, church officials were “ordained” through ceremonies similar to those used to set Roman officials into office. By contrast, when the early apostles “ordained” elders they simply recognized the people who were already serving a local church. After the Protestant Reformation, pastors assumed many of the duties of priests plus some additional ones.
Although Viola is squarely in the camp of verbal inspiration of the scriptures, he questions the way the New Testament books are laid out in our Bibles. Some may assume that Paul’s letters are included in the order of their writing, but this is not the case. The compilers of canon followed the pagan practice of ordering the books from longest (Romans) to shortest (Philemon) except that they miscounted in the case of Ephesians. Trying to understand the epistles outside the historical context of the book of Acts is like trying to understand one side of a phone conversation. One may have little idea of the issues Paul is responding to. Viola is also upset with the way the Bible was divided into chapters and verses, which he says encourages a cut and paste approach to building doctrines on scriptures taken without regard to context. For those who think the dividing into verses was inspired, he cites authorities showing printer Robert Stephanus versified the entire New Testament in 1551 while riding between Paris and Lyons on horseback.
I do not expect everyone to readily agree with all Frank Viola says in Pagan Christianity, but there are enough provable historical facts to justify a revolution in how we do church.
Read Steve Eastman's interview with Frank Viola
Read Steve Eastman's review of the revised and updated Pagan Christianity.
Purchase a copy of Pagan Christianity.
Edited by Steve Eastman on 04/16/2008 at 2:25pm