CH101 Book Reviews

Pagan Christianity

Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
by Frank Viola and George Barna
December 18, 2022

This book has grabbed the attention of many Christians since 2012...maybe earlier. Let me say up front - I rarely read "popular" books, so I am late to this party. I had never heard of Frank Viola, but when I saw George Barna was the co-author - that got my attention.

A fellow pastor and friend told me enough about the book to get my attention. He asked me to write a critical review, so I bought the book.
A short bio
I grew up in a mainline denominational "high" church environment, but did not become a Christian until I was 17 yrs old. I did a mission for almost a year in South America, served as a university pastor for 14 years, worked in a software company for six years, have been a small church pastor for a total 9 years, earned a Ph.D. in Early Church History from St Andrews University in Scotland and was a professor for six years. Almost all of the highlights in my spiritual life have happened outside the formal "church" environment. To use Viola's jargon, my church preference is "organic." Small groups and house groups has been some of the main spiritual input in my life.

In essence, I agree with many of the concepts Viola presents and which [I think] led him to publish such a book. What pushed me to focus my attention on this book were the numerous historical errors Viola makes in his book. In my opinion, Viola misrepresents both the New Testament and the early Christian movement.

This is a short and simple version of my review. If you are interested in my FULL comments with scholarly notes and links to many of my sources, please see Critique of Viola.

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.

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.

A footnote does not make a claim true.
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.

Chapter Two
The Church Building

Viola opens this chapter stating that "Many contemporary Christians have a love affair with brick and mortar." According to Viola, many Christians "unconsciously equate" the church building with "the church." (p.10) It is difficult to take Viola seriously when he makes these kinds of statements. He could simply say "some" rather than "many" - it would have made a big difference. Throughout the book Viola overstates his case without nuance.

He goes on to say that the primitive church did not meet in "church" buildings: "Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century." (p.12) Viola cites Graydon Snyder as an authority on the matter, but Snyder's quote is historically incorrect. Snyder was a good scholar, but the volume Viola cited was written in 1985. A good deal of archeaological evidence/study has been uncovered in the last 30 years.

A quick Google search for "church buildings in the early church" yields a link to Christianity Today with an article by Everett Ferguson titled "Why and when did Christians start constructing special buildings for worship?" Ferguson is an excellent scholar and in this article he states,

"In Rome, there are indications that early Christians met in other public spaces such as warehouses or apartment buildings."
He then goes on to speak about a very important archeaological discovery of the earliest known "building certainly devoted to Christian use" [emphasis mine] in eastern Syria around 240AD. Ferguson is referring to the Dura-Europos home that was converted into a "church."  

In a footnote Viola comments on Dura-Europos, "It was simply a private home remodeled as a Christian gathering place." (p.15) Viola makes it sound like this "building" continued to be someone's private home...with a baptismal pool! Yet L. Michael White (also cited by Viola) states, "The Dura Christian building is a true [house church], insofar as it was a converted private house, which after remodeling ceased to be used for domestic functions." Viola either failed to read Michael White, decided to ignore him, or he purposed to misrepresent him. [For more on the latest archaeological discoveries, see my full review.]

It is clear that Viola's premise is wrong, but many of Viola's observations on the psychological impact church buildings can have on congregants are interesting and seem to have validity. I am no fan of the typical seating arrangements in church. I agree with Viola that staring at the backs of heads does not enhance the worship experience. (pp.34-36) When singing, I am encouraged by seeing and hearing others. I like to HEAR the voices of the saints around me! Our sound systems and worship teams can overwhelm the voices of the congregation - it becomes more like a concert than a time of worship. There are some good observations and criticisms in this chapter about the nature of the buildings we use for "church."

Chapter Three
The Order of Worship

Overall I agree with many things Viola says in this chapter, but his certainty is difficult to endure. My argument with Viola is that the NT does NOT give us a clear picture of exactly what a Sunday gathering looked like. He uses 1 Corinthians as a guide for the order of worship - this is not a good idea. The Corinthian church is not a good model. There was plenty of freedom and spontaneity! Viola wants less structure, yet the Apostle Paul tells this church at the end of the passage, "everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way."
(1 Cor 14:40)  

Viola continues..."the first century church meeting was not patterned after the Jewish synagogue..." (p.51) How does he know this? Which first century church is he talking about? The Pauline circle or the Judean churches that continued to be more Jewish until 70AD? Does he know what the first century church looked like in Egypt? No, he doesn't...because nobody does. Yet Apollos showed up from Egypt already a trained Christian (Acts 18:24-26).

Chapter Four
The Sermon

This is Viola's opinion on the Sunday sermon:

"There is nothing in Scripture to indicate it's existence [the contemporary sermon] in the early Christian gatherings." (p.88)
Viola continues by saying "Spirit-inspired" preaching was "sporadic, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure." In this chapter Viola states that "sermons" are not biblical. He does not like regular, structured and prepared teachings.

First I want to say that sermons have such a wide is easy for criticism to find a target. Practically speaking, I agree with many of Viola's criticisms. I have mostly sat under very good teachers and have been enriched by these men and women throughout my Christian life. By the time I had been a Christian for six years I had read the entire Bible several times, but without easy access to commentaries many of these pulpit teachers were the only way I could learn historical context and nuance. Having said that, I have endured countless sermons that went an hour or longer.

Just THINK about this claim for a minute. Paul was in Corinth for around 18 months (Acts 18:11) and he was in Ephesus for around three years (Acts 19:10). Does Viola really think that Paul would only speak sporadically to those congregations? IF he thinks this, he has NO evidence to support his position. It would not surprise me if Paul had others share from time to time, but I would be greatly surprised to find out that he only spoke "sporadically." Do I think Paul's speaking was always structured? No, but Viola has NO evidence that Paul's sharing while in Corinth or Ephesus was ONLY extemporaneous. How about "rhetorical structure?" Does he think Paul would just "wing-it" every time he spoke? His letters certainly contain rhetorical structure. Paul was a trained scholar in his day. Viola has NO real evidence that Paul (or anyone else who may have shared at a house church) did not use planned messages or rhetorical structure.

Viola's callout quote to open the chapter is 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV):
"My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words..."
While Paul certainly says this in the opening of his highly structured and rhetorical letter, Viola never comments on WHY Paul says this.  

Some of the Corinthians were comparing Paul to Apollos and finding Paul lacking. Some had declared an allegiance to Apollos (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4) and Paul does not want to engage in this competition. Look it up in any decent commentary.

Viola lays out his theory (pp.89-93) with 32 footnotes claiming that rhetoric is "pagan," part of the "polluted stream" flowing from Greek philosophy. I would point the truly interested person to read a bit from Ben Witherington, a leading NT scholar of our day. One of his most profound contributions has been writing NT commentaries which are subtitled as "Socio-Rhetorical" commentaries:

"Paul lived in a rhetoric-saturated environment with only limited literacy. The failure to come to grips with this fact is serious...Paul was following all kinds of rhetorical conventions in his proclamations and his letters." (p.22, see Withington's commentary on Philippians on Google books.)
The fact is that MOST of our NT evidence from the primitive church comes from well-educated men who spoke fairly good Greek and were literate. Did extemporaneous messages happen in the apostolic era? Certainly. Was it the norm for presentation in the house church? There is NO solid evidence to prove this. What did happen in the typical house church was one of the few literate persons read from the Greek OT, or from copies of notes handed down of Jesus sayings, or from a Pauline letter. Viola says nothing about limited literacy and the need in the home church to have someone simply read to the church. Most of the "sermon" material would have been reading a text out loud and then answering questions to make sure the members understood what had been read.

Viola's comments about "paganism" and the Greek philosophical tradition is wrong and ignorant. It is clear to me that he has no idea of the positive presence of the philosophical tradition in his New Testament. There are clear philosophical markers in Paul's letters; NT Hebrews has shades of Platonic thought and indications of sharing ideas from Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and theologian. (To see ALL my citations on this topic, see my full review.)

Chapter Five
The Pastor (Church Hierarchy)

This chapter on the role of pastors is possibly one of the most important chapters in the book and Viola offers some good observations. I have felt for many years that we are not doing a great job of training pastors. In agreement with Viola, I do think most churches are far too dependent on the pastor. Some pastors do not trust anyone else to preach, to lead the large Sunday School class, or even to pray in service. ALL of this flows from a lack of seeing the "organic" nature of the community of believers. Over many centuries this mentality has led a majority of believers to think visiting the sick or praying for people who are struggling is ONLY the job of the pastor. This is not good. I believe this is part of the thinking that motivated Viola to write this book.

Unfortunately Viola has to be a bomb-thrower and make provocative statements without solid evidence to back his opinions. The overall thrust of this chapter is that the primitive church did not have a leadership hierarchy: "Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership." (p.109)

This is simply an ignorant statement with NO historical evidence.  

Before the "church" was birthed Jesus selected 12 men to be His apostles. He had more than 500 fairly close followers by the time He ascended (1 Cor 15:6), yet the twelve had a special place. Jesus established hierarchy.

If there is "no official leadership" then why in 1 Timothy and Titus does Paul give lists of things he expects in a bishop, elder or presbyter? The obvious implication is that these men and women are being singled out from the rest. When Paul is on his way to Jerusalem why does he call for the "Ephesian elders" in Acts 20?" Why didn't he just ask for a random sample of people?..."just send the ones you doesn't matter...everyone is equal." (See my full review for solid evidence presented by NT scholars)

Viola's position on "nonhierarchical leadership..." (p.xxiii) is not supported by a simple reading of the New Testament and cannot stand up to sound reasoning. His picture of the apostolic church is skewed towards the good; his vision of the church AFTER the apostles is skewed towards the bad.

Chapters 6-12

The rest of the book is less controversial in my opinion. I will make some quick comments. The chapter on dress code is simply a critique of being pressured to "wear your Sunday best" to church. I am thankful for the current move around the church in the USA in support of casual dress. I have felt for years that some people were intimidated by the idea of having to "dress up" for church. "Come as you are" is a good long as you are not immodest.

The chapter on worship and singing has some good criticisms. However, I have been in home church worship where an aggressive person leads out too much and dominates. I have also been in such meetings where people bring a "new" song and nobody knows it - it's a solo. And what if most of the fellowship doesn't really like the song? I only bring these examples up because Viola paints such a wonderful and perfect picture. We all know that when people are involved, things will go wrong.

He makes some good observations about pastors serving with the pressure of their income on the line. I like having my own job, an income stream not dependent on the church where I serve. There is a sense that I cannot be pressured with money. Having said this, many pastors would tell you that they live on faith. There is something very good about that.

The chapter on Christian Education is also interesting. I have much to say about this, but this is not the venue. Once again, I agree with some of Viola's criticisms in this chapter. It is, however, interesting how he attempted to use "scholars" and footnotes to prove his claims even though all the real scholars were trained in a system of classical education that Viola calls "pagan." Viola misrepresents a study of seminary graduates in this chapter - read the full review if you are interested.

The chapter on the sacraments was unfortunate. Viola feels the need to critique specific aspects that have developed in church history. He throws accusations as if they are wrong because they "developed over time." I can only assume that he is not a trinitarian since that doctrine basically developed over time as well. His main problem with the typical observance of the Lord's Supper is that it has become a "ritual." I basically agree with Viola's critique on this point, but not HOW he presents his views.  

Conclusions: the GOOD, the BAD and the UGLY
I have stated around 8-10 times that I agree with some of Viola's criticisms. He has voiced in this book many of the problems that others have seen and talked about through the years. I like the general description of smaller churches where there is more intimacy...more openness...more spontaneity...more of a team atmosphere rather than a top-down organization. That has been the overall tone of my spiritual life.

Viola clearly states in his Preface that this book is NOT written for scholars. He is certainly correct. As I have mentioned, Viola makes definitive statements when there is contrary evidence, his choice of scholars is not strong, and his footnoting is sloppy. Worse, he misrepresents his sources in some footnotes or is so sloppy that it is difficult to figure out what the citation is supposed to represent.

Viola presents the "church" of the first century as ideal - it was not. This premise is what the entire "organic" movement is based upon: "we do things the way the early Christians did it." This is the thinking of exclusive sects who think they are only ones REALLY doing it correctly.

A few Specific Incorrect Claims in the Book:
- Christians did not have "church buildings" until the beginning of the fourth century
- apostolic church preaching was "sporadic, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure."
- the primitive church had no hierarchical leadership
- the Greek philosophical tradition was "pagan" and has infected the "church."

You will need to read my full review to see how both the Apostle Paul and Apollos [and more than likely Luke] had philosophical training. While Paul's training is not 100% clear, he is comfortable quoting Greek philosophers and using philosophical rhetoric in his letters.

It is clear by how Luke introduces Apollos in Acts 18 that he was formally trained in rhetoric (which implies philosophical training as well).


Comments like these:
"There is nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence [speaking of the 'sermon'] in the early Christian gatherings." p.88

"There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor!" p.106

"For this reason, we believe the present-day pastoral role hinders the fulfillment of God's eternal purpose." p.137

"...the Lord's Supper, when separated from its proper context of a full meal, turns into a strange, pagan-like rite." p.197

These kinds of arrogant and ignorant comments shows that Viola sees his brand of faith as superior to that of everyone else. Multiple times in this book he uses third person plural, "we." You see an example in the quote above from Page 137. Viola might use "we" to refer only to Barna (co-author) and himself, but I doubt it. Even if true, it "feels" like he is referring to his "organic" church tribe (read "denomination"). When he does this he sounds like many other tribal groups that hold themselves apart as "the true church." I could give examples, but you can fill in the blanks.

This is the main crux of my criticism: Viola writes with an edge of superiority and arrogance, not the grace of Christ. And some would argue that I am matching Viola in my review. For that I apologize.

On Page 217 he refers to "body life" as "rough-and-tumble, messy, raw" where "Christians live as a close-knit community and struggle." This gives me some assurance that he acknowledges that struggles and difficulties come even to those who are practicing their faith in the "organic" church movement.

I have been in 2-3 small spiritual fellowships that were good over my 40+ years, but I also personally have known of three home church fellowships that were off track. One embraced the new Jewish roots model. They joyfully live under the "Old" covenant.  

They now see Jesus as Messiah, but not as deity. Another home church I know of was good for everyone and contributed to their growth, but they sat under only one teacher and their spiritual diet was unbalanced. A third group seemed to be very good for a close friend of mine, but again, the teaching was not balanced, leaning towards the "super-spiritual."

I cannot recommend this book to anyone who is not already well-read and can quickly spot error. I think this book can be dangerous to young Christians who do not have enough knowledge of the New Testament or enough life experience to know when they are being led by rhetoric. Young men with an attitude and immaturity can easily be led to walk away from a good church seeking the "perfect" church...and take their arrogance and stubbornness into a new church body.

I bought a used copy of "Pagan Christianity" on Amazon - the statement cited above from Page 197 was highlighted with a yellow marker by the previous owner. The yellow highlight seems to confirm my suspicion that bomb-throwing is what sells Viola's books.

The first clearly highlighted sentence in my used book is the quote above from page 106: "There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor!" Viola gives some explanation of what he means, but such a declarative statement...with an exclamation point shows his rhetorical style. And it worked - the dogmatic statement has been highlighted in yellow. But Viola claims that rhetoric is bad and "pagan."

My general hypothesis is that Viola's bomb-throwing is intentional. THAT sells books...sounds very "pagan" to me.
To see ALL my citations, please read my full Critique of Viola.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History
December, 2022

I welcome comments, questions and disagreements: