In my opinion, Viola would have done far better to simply offer his ideas, observations (many of which are good) and opinions without attempting to enter the depths of "scholarship." He is not a trained scholar and does not have the breadth nor depth of reading and study to make many of the claims being advanced in this book. Several observations on the condition of the contemporary church are valid and needed, but unfortunately he has developed a predicate argument and then feels the need to "prove" the predicate. The result is that Viola comes off as a bomb-thrower, making accusations and definitive statements with very little historical/biblical context other than footnotes that cannot be trusted.
The bulk of this review is already written, but I have just stumbled onto a four-part review written by Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and an immanent scholar. His work is excellent and I cite him in this review. I was pleased to see that Witherington offers some of the same criticisms of Viola that I make, but he opens his review with these comments:
I know Frank Viola, indeed for some years he has asked me loads of good and telling questions via email...It is interesting to me that this book appears to take no notice of various of these answers which I have given, nor are any of my works found in the bibliography at the end of the book. Perhaps I have missed something in the minutiae of the truly minute footnotes at the bottom of each page, but now I am wondering why exactly I have answered all those questions over the years. It's a pity.
I am now editing my review and will be FAR more critical of Viola - he had the ear of a world-class scholar who was trying to "help" him understand primitive Christianity... and he ignored him! While I consider Viola a brother in Christ, I cannot ignore his arrogance and willful ignorance. Some will ask, "Why didn't you or Witherington approach Viola privately?" Good question. When you publish something for the world to see
, a book like "Pagan Christianity," you must be openly corrected for the world to see
. Notice Witherington's final comment above, "It's a pity." When I read Witherington's comments just yesterday I was saddened to realize that Viola made a choice: he turned his back on solid scholarship so he could throw bombs...and make some cash selling books.
There are 691 footnotes in Chapters 2-5! My first complaint is that the footnotes are in such a small font that reading them is FAR TOO difficult. Why is that important? For a man offering scathing critiques of the 21st century Christian church using arguments that include subtle psychological impact
- like how the seating affects personal interactions (and this is a point I agree with) - to then present footnotes in such a small font easily leads the average reader (who would naturally NOT want to read footnotes) to quickly ignore the notes. What's my point? I think Viola is TRYING to give the impression of rigorous research when a closer look reveals otherwise. I find his presentation of notes to be deceptive. Let me get specific.
Many of the "scholars" cited for his historical "proofs" are not trained early church historians - they are theologians making historical comments. Many of the writers cited are outdated or they are/were generalists - a mile wide and an inch deep. Viola opens Chapter Two with a "call-out" quote from Philip Schaff and lists him as a 19th century "American Church Historian and Theologian." (p.9) While this is true, Schaff's comment is about the primitive church which was NOT his primary area of expertise. Schaff's work was respected in the 1880's, but he is now outdated. I have several leading historians in ancient Christianity on my shelves: Henry Chadwick, WHC Frend, Hans Lietzmann, F.F. Bruce, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Larry Hurtado, Robin Lane Fox (I could list several more, see the Bibliography
). ONLY two of these cite Philip Schaff and/or have him in their bibliography (Frend lists Schaff in his bibliography, but does not cite him and Hurtado lists/cites him one time).
Why is Schaff missing? Because Schaff is no longer seen as an expert in ancient Christian history. He was an expert in 1860, but not now. Yet, Viola cites Schaff at least 23 times. Another example is Justo Gonzalez. Viola cites Gonzalez, "Story of Christianity" at least 5 times in Chapter Two. Gonzalez authored a Church History text, but he is formally trained as a theologian, not an historian. I was involved in pushing Gonzalez to remove two egregious errors from the second edition of his basic history text. He had made comments about Athanasius that have NO historical evidence! [See my article on the "Black Dwarf" and the Gonzalez citation.] I am sure Prof Gonzalez is a sincere Christian and a scholar, but he is not an expert in early Christianity.
A footnote does not make a claim true.
I will give an example to illustrate: Viola cites Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians at least four times in Chapter Two. Because I know Fox to be a solid scholar and because I have this volume on my shelf, I decided to audit Viola's citations. I needed to know if I could trust Viola to treat his sources accurately. On page 19 Viola writes,
"Almost to his dying day, Constantine still 'functioned as the high priest of paganism' [footnote 56, he is quoting Gonzalez, who I cannot fully trust]. In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests!" [footnote 57 points to Fox, p.666]
Just as I had anticipated, Fox gives a balanced and nuanced presentation, completely ignored by Viola (he may have others doing his "research"). On page 665 Fox states: "It is all too plain that the Emperor had inherited many more problems than he created." Fox quickly lays out many of the thorny issues that were already vexing the Church before Constantine had ever become part of the Christian world. In his zeal as a new convert, Constantine wanted to convert the Roman Empire
. Fox continued, "The prime obstacle to Christianization lay in the Christians themselves...A double standard had always been present in Christian ethics..." (p.666) Fox then proceeds to examine the difficult task for Constantine who, as Emperor, was officially Pontifex Maximus
over ALL the religions in the Roman Empire. Just as the President of the USA is expected to protect the religious freedom of ALL faiths, this was the "official" role of the Pontifex Maximus
. Fox continued, writing that Constantine "moved cautiously...he had to accept an army and a ruling class who were overwhelmingly pagan, and remained so throughout his reign. But his public language was unambiguous. Paganism was a false 'error' and sacrifice a 'foul pollution'." (p.666) Anyone who has done serious study of Constantine knows that he held religious freedom to be a very important part of the Roman Empire. He did not like how Diocletian and Galerius had attacked the Christians and he did not want to do the same thing to the pagans.
You can see how Fox, as a scholar, treats the situation with more balance, not simply blaming all the woes on Constantine. Did Viola even read the section of Fox that he uses as a citation? I seriously doubt it. And if he did, he shows that he himself is not a scholar by simply making a statement full of accusation without any attempt to give historical context.
Viola should just state his opinion without the guise of scholarship. He could have made his points without throwing bombs. As I stated above, I agree with many of his opinions, but his presentation appears meant to lead uninformed Christians into thinking his position using early Christianity is both scholarly and accurate. It is neither. That, however, does not mean that he has nothing of value to offer.