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.


  1. I thought I'd put my email reply to Mark here as a comment:

    Thanks Mark! Thanks much for your thoughtful response to Viola. I'm hoping in our Monday night discussions we can ask what this all means for our ongoing "reformation" of our life as church. How do we acknowledge when we've departed from the "primary script" of the Scriptures and how do we embody the life of Jesus in our current community? This, it seems to me, is crucial to our experience as members of the body and I acknowledge that we're not what we could be or maybe even what we're called to be. It comes down again to allowing the Spirit to breathe into us a qualitatively different kind of life than into that which our culture seems to want to squeeze us. Your point of the early church fathers thoughtfully "Christianizing" hellenistic culture is something we don't seem to be doing now. Rather than thoughtfully Christianizing, too often, we seem to be adopting metrics and approaches of our own culture that diminish the power and thrust of the Spirit's life in our midst. But that's for further conversation. Thanks again.

  2. Rather than being "in but not of" a lost and dying world that we're supposed to reach with Christ's gospel, we church folk position ourselves as "out of" and "against" it. Hence the media's perception that there are "culture wars" being waged by evangelicals.