Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices Welcome to “Pagan Week” — this week I’m working through Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. If you want to see what you missed, you can catch up with yesterday’s prolegomena before proceeding. Today we’re going to skip past all that intro stuff and dive in at chapter two… which, so nobody has to ask why I can’t count, is item number five in the series outline.

5. The Building (Chapter Two). A brief history of church architecture is offered, from stained glass to steeples. It’s a quick overview, but I would have liked more support for the assertion that the spire is directly inspired by Egyptian obelisks, as I had the feeling that similarity and chronology was being equated with inspiration. In many of the discussion points of the architecture, I can see a number of practical or artistic reasons (thing architectural style) for what is otherwise assumed to be theological. After addressing that the reader may be thinking “So what?” (good call), the chapter gets back onto stronger ground in asserting that our buildings tend to shape our habits and practices — to shape us. So yes, we can say that they matter… though if we concede the point, I’m not so sure the origin is of such great significance.

Unfortunately, my mind kept inserting exceptions to what seemed to be presented as an absolute rule. For example, when I visited Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, they were at the time meeting in a traditional (Presbyterian) church building, but had found a way to ensure that the architecture exerted the minimum possible influence on the shape of the meeting itself. Since their prior space was much different, it might be argued that they were formed before inhabiting this particular building, but the illustration does show that it is possible (if not without some effort) to press the bounds of architecture and resist its formative impact. Of course, we might observe the same of any house church, which is also formed in part by the space in which it meets… but clearly in much different ways.

Recalling points 1 and 3 yesterday, I quote from the chapter on church buildings:

There does not exist a shred of biblical support for the church building. Yet scores of Christians pay good money each year to sanctify their brick and stone. By doing so, they have supported an artificial setting where they are lulled into passivity and prevented from being natural or intimate with other believers. (p.42)

While I may agree that building maintenance is often not the best use of the funds of a church community, I would maintain that there are circumstances when it may be necessary or desirable, and that believers who contribute funds to this end may not be doing so in ignorance of the dire consequences here predicted, or at least are not under the illusion that money sanctifies buildings. To come to the point, following the first sentence, I expect almost every reader to ask, “What about the Old Testament temple?” At that point in the text, we find a footnote reference with the explanation, “The Temple in Jerusalem was a type and a shadow of the church of Jesus Christ, along with the sacrificial system that went with it.” Backing off a little, the footnote continues, “Paul temporarily rented a school as his apostolic base while he was in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-10). Consequently, buildings are by no means inherently wrong or bad. They can be used for God’s glory.” The clarification is helpful, if unfortunately hidden in a footnote. I was not very keen on finding a passing reference to “types and shadows” hermeneutics at this juncture though. Although the subject of a post of its own, this type of biblical interpretation generally takes understandings from the New Testament and projects them upon the Old Testament to render a new or “hidden” meaning, often one of which the original author would have been unaware. I am not at all comfortable with this hermeneutic, as it does violence to the principle that the text “cannot mean now what it never meant then.” The footnote dismissal of the temple is therefore unconvining, and the case at this point is not made well, if at all. More convincing would have been the proposal that the tabernacle/temple of the Old Testament was constructed as the dwelling-place of God, who in and since Christ now dwells among his people in a different way than he did during the temple period.

The remainder of the chapter is more circumstantial than substantive, and the discussion of stained glass may leave one with the impression that forms of art (including architectural expression) are being dismissed as invalid. The chapter wraps up with a non sequiter leaped at from a quote by John Newton:

John Newton rightly said, “Let not him who worships under a steeple condemn him who worships under a chimney.” With that in mind, what biblical, spiritual, or historical authority does any Christian have to gather under a steeple in the first place?

Despite the difficulties I have with this chapter, there are many points of theory with which I would agree. The early church did not have a building specifically for the purpose of holding its meetings until the third century — at least we have no evidence of such. If we concede the point about our buildings influencing our form and the point that money can often be better used in other ways, much of the material leaves me scratching my head. Architectural styles have changed much over two millennia, with a variety of influences have from many sources. Although a case can be made against the building, doing so by branding it as pagan seems like the more difficult way to go about it.

6. Liturgy (Chapter Three) & The Sermon (Chapter Four). The order of service is traced back and critiqued for being unchanging… but it does not follow that the liturgy lacks meaning because it has changed little. It seems a little odd that a liturgy would be faulted for not changing in 500 years, with the prescription being a return to a 2000-year-old model, but the proposed model is more fluid. It is asserted (p.50-51) that the form of the first century church service was not patterned after any prior service, but was unique to its culture. Despite the influence of first century culture on the service, the influence of medieval culture on the church service of that day is criticized, as Gregory the Great “embodied the medieval mind.” A theme begins to emerge that the Reformers simply didn’t go far enough, as they are faulted for not returning to the first century church (p.55).

Chairs, carpets, and the calendar are all pointed out as having pagan origins, but these are not criticized as is the Sunday order of service. The reasons given for the distinction essentially outline the ineffectiveness of the order of service… which begs the question why the pains to make the connection to paganism if the strongest argument against it is simply its ineffectiveness. Of that charge, I would suggest many would offer counter-points, and indeed I find the liturgy to be quite effective. The charge of ineffectiveness is not defended here though, only that of pagan origin. The material presented does prompt us to ask if the order of service ought not to be reconsidered in light of our present culture. Is it the best presentation, or should we consider forms similar to others we might find today? Here we wonder if contextualizing is too close to the charge of drawing from pagan sources. (This topic comes up in my discussion with Frank, to appear on Friday.)

Concerning the sermon, “In short, the contemporary sermon delivered for Christian consumption is foreign to both Old and New Testaments. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence in the early Christian gatherings.” (p.88) I believe this statement is simply overreaching. The sermon is portrayed as prepared dialectic one-way communication that was foreign to the New Testament church… though in the back of my mind I’m imagining someone reading Paul’s letter to the church at Rome in one of their meetings. A three-point oratory with alliteration, illustration, and application may not have been common, but the sermon itself certainly existed, as evidenced by the preaching and teaching of the apostles in Acts. Even more to the point, drawing a conclusion from a lack of mention in scripture is, in logical terms, an argument from silence… not a basis for an important conclusion.

(p.91-92) Gifted orators becoming Christians began to preach in the style that they knew, which was popular in the culture. This is portrayed negatively, leaving the question of whether orators should have been barred from exercising their gift (or talent, if you prefer) post-conversion, and the question of whether the style which was popular in the culture should have been avoided despite the readiness with which a connection might be made to the hearers. It seems to me that the problem should be less the source and more the continuation of the model once the culture had changed. The sermon is characterized as biblical in content but Greek in style (p.94), leaving the impression that the style in some way undermines the content. The following pages are critical of the style of preaching we would call expository, despite the fact that the Bible does in fact comment upon (i.e., exposits) itself at certain points. The efficacy of the sermon is challenged with a number of generalizations, concluding with the restatement that the sermon has not “a shred of biblical merit to support its existence.” (p.101) “How can a man preach a sermon on being faithful to the Word of God while he is preaching a sermon?” (p.102) Again, this seems a little over the top… would the same be said of a book written about being faithful to the Word of God? And again, the book of Romans is a model of logical argument which may have been read aloud to the church at Rome.

Nonetheless, the sermon is granted a bit of a reprieve when preaching is stated to be part of an apostolic call (p.102), which has not yet been defined… though something begins to nag, knowing that the next chapter will begin to address ecclesiastical offices. For the moment, it seems that only apostles are to preach sermons.

Conclusions on Buildings & Practices: I find the case of pagan origins in these chapters is not particularly strong at several points. While some valid concerns are raised that bear discussion, in most of these cases I’m not convinced that some of these practices are essentially pagan, or that it matters. A few of these points come up in my conversation with Frank Viola (to appear on Friday).