Monday, June 21, 2010

Witherington on Viola

Jeremy emailed me with the following link.  For those of you interested in other reviews of Viola's book, check out the extensive comments by Ben Witherington III, NT professor at Asbury Seminary

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mark on Viola

I'm trying to post a comment by Mark but there seems to be some I'm trying it as a post.  Again this is from Mark:

Here is what I would say to Viola, via my (sometimes not sufficiently) humble opinion. Putting aside for the sake of charity his opening claim to have been motivated by boredom to pursue this reimagining of the church, and putting aside his claim, which seems incredibly arrogant, that people in the “institutional church” were not being spiritually transformed (a claim that, it seems, would have to entail extensive knowledge not only of the spiritual lives and pasts of all of those church members, but, infinitely more problematic, of how God is acting in the church), I believe that he is well-motivated. He ultimately seems to aim for the church to consider carefully its priorities and its character, to think long and hard about the ground of the church’s existence, which is its Lord, and the saving action of God through God the Son. So far I’m happy as can be.

But here is where the difficulties begin. He starts and bases his whole project on a, to put it delicately, highly contestable assumption, sort of along the lines of Adolf Von Harnack’s late 19th century argument: you have the pristine, ideal church and Gospel in the first century, and then you have everything else. The latter being purely human creations, additions, modifications, and so forth, beginning in the second century. You’ve got the Bible, and then you have Greek culture (among others), which is not only a later addition to and co-opting of the Bible and early Christian faith, but is also neatly detachable from the two (being motivated to do this sort of surgery precisely because of the claim that such cultural “additions” are human creations and harmful distortions of the text).

I would say this is a vast and deep misreading of the history and of the Bible itself (that same Greek culture was in place and at work long before any of the books of the New Testament were written. And early Christian writers, including New Testament writers like Paul, Luke, and John, made plain their awareness of their intellectual surroundings, and wisely deployed a variety of those philosophical tools and concepts to their own evangelical advantage. This wasn’t the Hellenization of Christianity, but a thoughtful Christianization of certain aspects of Hellenism). But, for argument’s sake, let’s give him all of this anyway.

The real, fundamental problem that results from his approach, so it seems to me, is that ultimately he loses the very thing that he wishes to place at the heart of his program: the Bible. I would point out to him that first century Christians did not have the Bible as we have it. The canon of Scripture was not formed until a couple of centuries later, and it was formed (though I may be sitting by myself at the next Church of Christ potluck for saying this) it was formed in conjunction with the early creeds and the apostolic faith that was passed down to those church leaders. They were explicit about this. They had 3-4 criteria for figuring out which of the myriad texts should be seen as falling within the “measuring rod” and which should not: the use of these particular texts in worship and catechesis, their commonality among the churches, and their fit with the apostolic faith (a criterion which emerges from what came to be the New Testament itself, in the book of Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.”) Finally, some also saw antiquity as a fourth criterion for the legitimacy of these texts. And when these early church fathers elaborate on this set of conversations involving legitimate and healthy teaching, they also point to those summary statements or creeds, which were not meant to supplant or “add” to the text, but to articulate it in a healthy way. After all, even when the basic canon was as established as it would get, prior to the Reformation, the church leaders could not simply say, “all we need to do to avoid heresy and remain of one mind, is read the Bible.” This is because (a) not everyone had or could read the Bible, and (perhaps more importantly) if they did (b) those on both sides of the various debates were still coming away from their reading of the text with heretical doctrines (Arius, for example, wasn’t advocating that the church stop reading the Gospels. He thought that the best way to read the New Testament in conjunction with the Old Testament portrayal of God was to say that Jesus was a mere creature). The church’s response had to include a description of how rightly and healthily to read that Gospel. This was what motivated the early baptismal and liturgical creeds, and this was what motivated the early church councils. The church was threatened by division and heresy, and the church leaders had to say something. So they ask themselves, what is the best, the healthiest way to read these texts?

All this to say not only that they were not adding to or standing over the text, but were precisely placing these texts, which witnessed to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, at the heart of their speech about this revelation in Christ (how one could come away from reading any of the church fathers and assume that they were arrogantly and ignorantly giving in to the pressures of Hellenistic philosophy, I must say I do not know). Moreover, by my dim lights, it seems clear that we have to say that if we trust that the Holy Spirit was working through and using these same figures to make choices about the boundaries of the canon, i.e., from within that same cultural milieu out of which we gain the creeds and the statements of the councils concerning the nature of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity, and so on—which I think we rightly do (and which Viola seems himself to do from time to time)—and if we are to look to these texts, i.e. the Bible, first, as we have been taught by those same ancestors in the faith, we cannot simply discard the other things they said and did. (I apologize for that unending sentence). They made these decisions, with the guidance of the Spirit, by looking to their experience in worship and in the church community, the very stuff that Viola seems simply to discard whole-cloth.

Conversely, if we simply throw out everything from the first century onwards, not only are we failing to see that we have only come to our present position, and to these texts, through God’s preservation of His church down through the ages (i.e., we have come to these texts because we trust God and our parents in the faith who have told us about God), but also that, if we were simply to discard all of this, we would also have to discard the precise collection of texts that was gained through the work of Holy Spirit in that same cultural and historical framework. Of course, this is not to say that we must uncritically agree with everything we’re told, or keep in place every aspect of the church’s historical teaching or ordering of the church (this would, after all, be impossible, as there have been so many disagreements about so many things), or put what we’ve been told on a par with the reading of Scripture. On the other hand, I think Brian Leftow puts it well when he says something along the lines of the following: “Historic Christian orthodoxy represents the best efforts of nearly 2,000 years of Christian minds to plumb the depths of God’s nature. It is possible that they were all mistaken, even fundamentally so. But it would be hubris for a 21st century thinker to conclude this before any orthodox approach has been exhausted.”

I would go on to disagree with Viola’s claims about all hierarchy being an intrinsic evil, and the way that he uses metaphors and specific texts, but others have done so elsewhere, as has Rich, so, as I’m sure the reader is grateful, I won’t bother with all that.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Organic Church

Here we go.  It's a challenge to know how much of Viola to quote because some of you have the book and are reading it, others are just reading bits here.  Therefore, I'll experiment a little and hopefully we'll be able to come to some standard in a while.

In chapter 1 Viola is arguing for the restoration of the church to its "organic" nature as opposed to the institution it has become. 
The church we read about in the New Testament was "organic." By that I mean it was born from and sustined by spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions, controlled by human hierarchy, shaped by lifeless rituals, and held together by religious programs.
To put it in a sentence, organic church life is not a theater with a script; it's a gathered community that lives by divine life.  By contrast, the modern institutional church operates on the same organizational principles that run corporate America. (both quotes from p. 32)
You can see that when he uses the term "institutional" he is talking about a form of church "a way of doing church," as he puts it in the introduction.  He is arguing that the institution has overwhelmed the natural DNA of the church which lives by the divine life reflecting the trinitarian nature of God which is the paradigm for the church's native expression.
Look again at the triune God. And notice what's absent.  There's an absence of command-style leadership.  There's an absence of hierarchical structures.  There's an absence of passive spectatorship.  There's an absence of one-upmanship.  And there's an absence of religious rituals and programs. (p. 36)
Part of me wants to argue that things may have changed in the church since 1988 (the last time he was in what he terms an institutional church).  Later he suggests that there are certain identifiable features produced by the church's natural DNA:
Some of them are the experience of authentic community, a familial love and devotion of its members to one another, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the native instinct to gather together without static ritual, the innate desire to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings, and the loving impulse to display Jesus to a fallen world. (45-46)
In this chapter he also suggests four paradigms for church restoration: Biblical Blueprintism, Cultural Adaptability, Postchurch Christianity, and Organic Expression.  I can't go into detail here re. all of these.  He obviously is arguing for the last one. 

In his discussion about cultural adaptability, he makes a point that becomes a very important question for consideration.  "The critical question then becomes which practices of the New Testament church are solely descriptive and which are normative?  Or to put it another way, which are tied to the culture of the first century and which are reflections of the unchanging nature and identity of the church?" (39)

I think that's a great question to ask whether or not you're reading the book.  What do you think?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Summer conversations

This summer we will be hosting a series of conversations together.  As a springboard for our chats, we'll be reading & discussing the book Reimagining Church by Frank Viola.  To say that this book may provoke more than mere chats may be an understatement. 

The first sentence of his Preface reads, "After thirteen years of attending scores of churches and parachurch organizations, I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church" (p. 11).  Reasons?  He was painfully bored with Sunday-morning services and he saw no spiritual transformation in the lives of people in those services.

The purpose of his book is, "to articulate a biblical, spiritual, theological, and practical answer to the question, Is there a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience, and if so, what does it look like?" (p. 12)  He qualifies his goal by stating that since the church is actually "the people of God, the very bride of Jesus Christ," he's actually concerned with reimagining the "present practices" of the church not the church itself. 

I'm hoping to open our Monday night conversations up to others via this blog.  If you are willing, please comment on these posts, ask questions, answer questions, raise issues, etc.

So what is church?  What is your experience of church?  Let's "chat."

May e-update: Anniversaries!

It was a Friday night, May 25, 1984, I walked down the aisle on my hands. The preacher of the church there thought I was nuts (at least that was the expression on his face). He probably thought I was going to break something—in the church or myself. I made it all the way down without falling. It was my wedding rehearsal and I determined that it was going to be fun. Connie, my dear bride, was feeling under the weather. She was downright sick actually. She was sipping on 7-up trying to keep her stomach calm while we walked through the ceremony. She made it without breaking anything also.

This year we celebrate 26 years of marriage. The Lord has blessed us with many good memories (in addition to the memories we have of our beginning) and three incredible children. This July 1, we also celebrate 18 years of serving with Reach Out on Campus. Two of our children were born during our service in Athens and all three are Appalachian born and raised (Abby was born in Elizabethton, TN).

Anniversaries give us the opportunity to reflect on past years together. If we are open to seeing it, we see the hand of God involved in the writing of our stories individually, as a couple, as a family and as a community of faith. We reflect on the years that God used parents and friends to bring each of us to Himself. We see Him carefully bringing us together through different circumstances and avenues but molding our hearts in such a way that we were attracted to one another and interested in serving our Lord together. We are amazed at the way in which God so faithfully formed us (and continues to do so) and made our home a place where children are nurtured to walk with Jesus. We are blessed to see the way in which our service with ROC has also formed our family in such a way that we relish the many tongues, tribes and nations that will be present in God’s fulfilled kingdom. We are grateful and honored to be called upon to love people ever closer to Jesus and are so thankful for your partnership that sustains us in this service. Thanks for these many years together!