Monday, October 19, 2009

Witherington's Withering Critique of Pagan Christianity

This past year I read Viola and Barna's Pagan Christianity. I know I read this book a lot later than most who were taken or not taken by it. Now, truly ex post facto, I read Ben Witherington's thorough and scholarly critique of PC, found here. Here's a few juicy quotes to get the juices flowing.

Ben writes: "Frank Viola is a sharp person, but neither he nor George Barna really interact in this book with the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses. They are arguing a particular case, and so they largely cite sources that support their case, for example Robert Banks’ work on Pauline house churches comes in for heavy usage. Their claim to present us with bare historical fact and to stand always on the Biblical high ground needs to be seen for what it is from the outset--- good and powerful rhetoric meant to warm the cockles of the hearts of all who affirm Sola Scriptura, but when one actually examines some of the major claims closely, they will not stand close and critical scrutiny."

For Witherington V & B are just flat-out wrong when it comes to their understanding of the early church and its "paganization." "It is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries--- wrong, and wrong."

And: "One thing about these folks--- Barna and Viola are very sure of themselves. They warn the reader early on (p. 7) that you will be confronted by unshakeable historical fact which will rock your world. If however it’s like the ‘facts’ on pp. 6-7 about the rise of pagan Christianity, we are not dealing with ‘facts’, unfortunately. We are dealing with a misreading of early Christian history."

What about the big V & B trumpet call for the church to meet in homes? Witherington writes: "We are given the usual litany about Christians meeting in homes, and how they did not have church buildings. This is of course partially true, so far as we can tell, but frankly they didn’t just meet in homes, nor were there any mandates for them to do so saying “in order to be truly Christian thou shalt meet in cramped quarters.” They also met in Solomon’s Portico, which is to say in the Temple precincts as the early chapters of Acts informs us, and furthermore they went to synagogue services in purpose built buildings, and furthermore they occasionally rented halls, like the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus, and later in the first century, as the archaeological evidence makes clear, they met in caves, namely the catacombs in Rome, as well. I don’t see much of a movement in the church today to go back to cave dwelling... there is absolutely nothing in the NT which either suggests or requires that Christians should only meet in homes. And furthermore, the major problem with these sorts of arguments are that they ignore the differences in social setting, then and now."
Ben writes a lot more about this. He's one person I find myself listening to over and over again. If I'm concerned at all about him, it's that he's an uber-blogger who seemingly does not have a life apart from his computer. Some of his posts are book-length, even rivalling the notorious 20-60 page mini-font footnotes by Karl Barth in Barth's Church Dogmatics. (Stop and bow before Barth here, who had no computer...) I hope he's spending time with his wife and kids...