Monday, May 21, 2012

Back to the New Testament

Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna

The basic thesis of this book is that traditional Christianity has adopted a number of practices that are not in the New Testament, and that these practices should be eliminated. When the authors refer to "traditional" Christianity, they mean both Protestant and Catholic churches - the critiques in this book are mainly directed to American evangelical churches. Sometimes Viola and Barna talk about the "institutional church", which they contrast to "organic" churches, or "house" churches, which are evidently preferable.

So what are these pagan practices? The authors focus on church buildings, paid clergy and sermons.

Perhaps the third one causes the most surprise - isn't there a lot of preaching in the Bible? There certainly is - but Viola and Barna argue that Old Testament prophets "spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script" (p. 87), while what the New Testament apostles did is not normative for the Christian church. They planted churches and then moved on - and so the sermon is only appropriate for a church in its infancy. The biblical model for the church, our authors aver, is the full congregational participation as described in 1 Corinthians. In the same way, Viola and Barna argue that pastors simply get in the way of this every-member-ministry.

The book has a lot to say about how, particularly under Constantine, the church picked up ideas from the Graeco-Roman world. They also argue that the church carried over unhelpful things from its Jewish background. Thus, the church building is modelled on both the pagan shrine and the Jewish temple. The payment of clergy comes from both the paid Greek rhetoricians and the Levitical tithe. Clerical garments come from both Roman officials and Old Testament priestly garb. All these things, Viola and Barna argue, are not in the New Testament, and therefore do not belong in the church today.

There are two points, then - firstly, that these things are not in the New Testament, and secondly that it is wrong to practice them.

It is easy to think of New Testament verses about preaching. There is 2 Timothy 4:2 - "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season..." But Viola and Barna say that this doesn't apply, because "Timothy was an apostolic worker" (p. 102). There is 1 Corinthians 9:14 - "In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel." The authors don't deal with this verse - instead there is an annoying footnote on p. 178 that a "response to those biblical passages that some have used to defend clergy (pastor) salaries" can be found in Viola's book Reimagining Church. 

Actually, the authors reject the whole idea of "verses", and devote a whole chapter to critiquing the idea of prooftexts. They reject the idea that Acts 14:23 means that every church should have elders, since it "is referring to an event in south Galatia during the first century" (p. 235). They reject the idea that 1 Corinthians 16:2 supports a weekly offering since it's "dealing with a onetime request" (p. 236). Strangely, however, they do view 1 Corinthians 14:26 ("every one of you has a psalm") as normative (p. 166). 

The second point, then, is that it is wrong to do these things if they are not supported by the New Testament. Most Christians would agree that church buildings are not in the New Testament, but would think there is nothing wrong with them. Viola and Barna, however, argue that they "limit the involvement of and fellowship between members" (p. 44). 

This is a radically biblical approach to ecclesiology. It was strange, then, reading this as a Presbyterian. For the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that God is not to be worshipped in any way "not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (XXI.1). In this way, Viola and Barna are simply following the Regulative Principle of Worship, albeit with different emphases. For example, many proponents of the Regulative Principle use it to forbid musical instruments in worship. Viola and Barna note that "there is no evidence of musical instruments in the Christian church service until the Middle Ages" (p. 162) but they don't seem to view it as one of those evil, pagan practices. Now, the Confession distinguishes "elements" of worship, which always must be found in Scripture, and "circumstances" which "are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence" (I.6). I have always thought instrumentation was one of those elements, as, indeed, church buildings would be. So I think we need to reject the argument that unbiblical practices are necessarily wrong.

Viola and Barna insist that we need to worship as they did in the first century, while at the same time reject the idea that the Book of Acts is a model for us. This strikes me as rather inconsistent. They emphasise the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive passages, but seem to privilege 1 Corinthians over Acts, seemingly without considering that the worship in 1 Corinthians (which has everyone sharing words of exhortation) may be merely descriptive as well. The great emphasis on preaching in Acts is simply discarded.

Finally, the rejection of pastors goes hand in hand with an anti-hierarchical approach. Viola and Barna appeal to Kevin Giles to back up their ideas. Giles has argued that the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father. Yet the authors appeal to him and assert that historic orthodoxy rejects the eternal subordination of the Son (p. 264), without apparently realising the controversial nature of Giles' position, or the arguments against it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Film review: A Game of Shadows

Last week I bought the DVD of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. This is the very first time I'd bought a DVD on its release date. I was not disappointed, however - the film is a worthy sequel to the first movie.

My favourite line in the film occurs when Holmes proposes a toast to Dr Watson, and says "To my dear friend, Dr John, um, Hamish Watson." Now, this is an extraordinary nod to the most die hard fans of the Holmes canon. You see, Arthur Conan Doyle never tells us Watson's middle name. He is referred to as John H. Watson", and it was Dorothy L. Sayers who proposed that the "H" stood for "Hamish."

Let me explain.A number of prominent writers have indulged in speculation about Sherlock Holmes. Sayers notes that this has been a particularly Christian exercise - in her book Unpopular Opinions, she says, "The game of applying the methods of the 'Higher Criticism' to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible."

Conan Doyle refers to "John H. Watson" on the title page of A Study in Scarlet, but nowhere mentions his middle name. In The Man with the Twisted Lip, however, he has Watson's wife address him as "James". It would be too easy to say that the author made a mistake, so Sayers looks for a more elegant solution. She suggests that his middle name is Hamish, which is the Scottish form of James. "By playfully re-Englishing it to 'James' she found for her husband a pet-name which was his own name as well."

Obviously, Sayers wrote this with tongue in cheek. But I still find it amazing that this found its way into the movie, and the line was delivered with such subtlety as to bring delight to any fan of Sherlock Holmes, or, indeed, of Dorothy Sayers.

Rating: 3 ½ stars

Monday, May 07, 2012

Clunes Booktown

On Saturday we went to the Clunes Booktown. Clunes is a small town midway between Castlemaine and Ballarat, and every year it has a special book festival. We heard about it from Suzannah, and it had plenty of the vintage novels about which she likes to blog. We had a great time in Clunes, although the shops and stalls were not particularly pram-friendly. Here is what we bought:
  • Constantine and the Conversion of Europe by A. H. M. Jones
  • Misreadings by Umberto Eco
  • Two first editions by G. K. Chesterton - Alarms and Discursions and Tremendous Trifles
  • The Travels of Marco Polo - we were both interested in this after reading William Dalrymple's In Xanadu, which chronicles a journey that retraces Marco Polo's steps.
  • A book of stories by O. Henry
  • Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley by Marguerite Henry - Kara collects Henry's horse stories
  • The first two books of the Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope - The Warden and Barchester Towers
  • A book which Clifton Fadiman edited containing, quite simply, his favourite pieces of writing
  • The Women of Israel by Grace Aguilar - This book was published in 1889. John is writing a thesis on the women in the Book of Samuel, and while this book doesn't cover all of them, it does have the wise women of Tekoa and Abel.
  • God's Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley
  • Letters to Children by C. S. Lewis
  • The Colveneres of the Old Netherlands by C. C. Culvenor
  • The Southern States of North America by Edward King. London: Blackie & Son, 1875. Cr. 4o, 806pp.
  • Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire - winner of the 1940 Caldecott Medal.