Viola's basic premise is that Christianity went astray after the apostles in the early second century, led astray by "pagan" philosophy. He believes the Church should be "organic," spontaneous and without hierarchy. Basically house churches: no buildings, no formally trained clergy and no paid pastors. I agree with many of the concepts Viola presents. What pushed me to focus my attention on this book were the numerous errors. In my opinion, Viola misrepresents both the New Testament and the early Christian movement.
In my opinion, Viola would have done far better to offer his ideas, observations and opinions without attempting to engage in "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 an "axe to grind" and feels the need to "prove" his point. The result is that Viola is a bomb-thrower, making accusations and definitive statements with very little historical or biblical context other than tiny footnotes and "scholars" that cannot be trusted.
A footnote does not make a claim true.
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 imminent 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.
Viola had the ear of a world-class scholar who could have helped him understand primitive Christianity...and he ignored him! When I read Witherington's comments 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.
My attention will be on the most important parts of this book - the first few chapters. There are 691 footnotes in Chapters 2-5! My first complaint may seem "small" (pun intended), but I think it is important: The footnotes are in the smallest font I have ever seen used in a publication! The average reader does not want to read footnotes. What's my point? Viola wants to give the impression of rigorous research, but a closer look reveals otherwise. His presentation of notes is deceptive. Knowing now that he ignored the gracious input offered by Ben Witherington, I am more convinced that these tiny footnotes come with an intent to mislead. Let me give one specific example.
Many of the "scholars" cited for his historical "proofs" are not trained early church historians or New Testament scholars - they are theologians. Many of the writers cited are outdated or they are/were generalists - a mile wide and an inch deep [Witherington makes this same observation]. Viola opens Chapter Two with a "call-out" quote from Philip Schaff, listed as a 19th century "American Church Historian and Theologian." (p.9) Schaff's comment is about the primitive church which was NOT really his primary area of expertise. Schaff's work was respected in the 1880's, but he is now woefully outdated. Of the numerous leading historians in ancient Christianity on my shelves: Henry Chadwick, WHC Frend, Hans Lietzmann, F.F. Bruce, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn and Robin Lane Fox - ONLY one of these cite Philip Schaff and/or have him in their bibliography (Frend lists Schaff in his bibliography, but does not cite him). Why is Schaff missing? Because he is not seen as an expert in ancient Christian history. He was an expert in 1880, but not now. Yet, Viola cites Schaff at least 23 times as an expert.
I will give one example to illustrate how Viola misrepresents his footnoted sources: he 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, I decided to audit Viola's footnotes. On page 19 Viola writes,
"Almost to his dying day, Constantine still 'functioned as the high priest of paganism'. In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests!"
[footnote 57 points to Fox, p.666]
I opened my copy of Fox and just as anticipated, Fox gives a balanced and nuanced presentation, completely ignored by Viola. On page 665 Fox states:
"It is all too plain that the Emperor [Constantine] 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. 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 for ALL the religions in the Roman Empire and was expected to protect the religious freedom of ALL religions as 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." (p.666)
You can see how Fox, as a scholar, treats the situation with more balance. Did Viola even read the section of Fox that he uses as a citation? I seriously doubt it. And if he did, he cannot be trusted with his sources. He makes statements full of accusation when his scholarly source says quite the opposite! Viola's presentation is meant to lead uninformed lay people into thinking his position using early Christianity is both scholarly and accurate. It is neither.