Friday, February 22, 2008

Pagan Christianity: Preface

(This is the first in a series on the book "Pagan Christianity" by Frank Viola and George Barna. I quote the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (1943) of Pope Pius XII a fair amount here, and I expect I will quote it throughout the rest of the series.)

The book's preface presents the current state of Christianity as that of Judaism in the time of Christ: it suffers from additions (like the Pharisees added to Scripture) and subtractions (like the Sadducees removed from Scripture) that cloud and obscure the proper head-ship of Jesus Christ in His body, the Church. Could it be that the majority of practices in our Christian life come, not from the New Testament, but instead from "a pagan philosopher"? (p. xviii) The authors state that Jesus gave birth to the Church, the "body of Christ" in a post-resurrection world, by his Ascension: "That church was Himself in a different form." (ibid.) Catholics would agree: "the Mystical Body of Christ ... is the Church" (Mystici Corporis Christi [MCC], n. 1; cf. Col 1:24).

But the authors disagree that the Church is both "a spiritual organism" and "an institutional organization" (ibid., footnote 4), where as the Catholic Church recognizes both the spiritual (invisible) and institutional (visible) natures of the Church, just as Jesus himself had both a divine and a human nature:
On the contrary, as Christ, Head and Exemplar of the Church "is not complete, if only His visible human nature is considered..., or if only His divine, invisible nature..., but He is one through the union of both and one in both ... so is it with His Mystical Body" {Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum} since the Word of God took unto Himself a human nature liable to sufferings, so that He might consecrate in His blood the visible Society founded by Him and "lead man back to things invisible under a visible rule." {St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 29, a. 4, ad 9} (MCC, n. 64)
Abc... The authors call the first-century Church "an organic entity ... a living, breathing organism" that "revealed Jesus Christ on this planet through His every-member functioning body". (p. xix) Of course the Catholic Church agrees with St. Paul on this, and believes the same thing even today:
Again, as in nature a body is not formed by any haphazard grouping of members but must be constituted of organs, that is of members, that have not the same function and are arranged in due order; so for this reason above all the Church is called a body, that it is constituted by the coalescence of structurally untied parts, and that it has a variety of members reciprocally dependent. It is thus the Apostle describes the Church when he writes: "As in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office: so we being many are one body in Christ, and everyone members one of another." {Rom 12:4}

One must not think, however, that this ordered or "organic" structure of the body of the Church contains only hierarchical elements and with them is complete; or, as an opposite opinion holds, that it is composed only of those who enjoy charismatic gifts - though members gifted with miraculous powers will never be lacking in the Church. That those who exercise sacred power in this Body are its chief members must be maintained uncompromisingly. It is through them, by commission of the Divine Redeemer Himself, that Christ's apostolate as Teacher, King and Priest is to endure. At the same time, when the Fathers of the Church sing the praises of this Mystical Body of Christ, with its ministries, its variety of ranks, its officers, it conditions, its orders, its duties, they are thinking not only of those who have received Holy Orders, but of all those too, who, following the evangelical counsels, pass their lives either actively among men, or hidden in the silence of the cloister, or who aim at combining the active and contemplative life according to their Institute; as also of those who, though living in the world, consecrate themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual or corporal works of mercy, and of those in the state of holy matrimony. Indeed, let this be clearly understood, especially in our days, fathers and mothers of families, those who are godparents through Baptism, and in particular those members of the laity who collaborate with the ecclesiastical hierarchy in spreading the Kingdom of the Divine Redeemer occupy an honorable, if often a lowly, place in the Christian community, and even they under the impulse of God and with His help, can reach the heights of supreme holiness, which, Jesus Christ has promised, will never be wanting to the Church. (MCC, nn. 16-17)
The authors then go on to "argue that on theological grounds, historical grounds, and pragmatic grounds, the first-century church best represents the dream of God" (p. xix); but this seems to preclude the idea that an organic Church could mature, could "grow up" as it were: changing from the model of the first-century Church is generally bad. They describe "an organic church [as] a church that is born out of spiritual life ... characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership" (ibid.), which I think is neglecting some New Testament witness (but I'll touch on the specifics as I comment on each chapter). It also neglects the fact that Israel's worship developed (under the direction of God) over time, from Abraham to Moses to David and Solomon to Ezra (although the authors disapprove of the Temple, as I'll cover later).

The core mission of this book is to "remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church", where "debris" means those practices which are "foreign elements that God's people picked up from their pagan neighbors as far back as the fourth century". (p. xx) Here is what Pope Pius XII wrote about the functioning of Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church:
But we must not think that He rules only in a hidden {cf. Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum} or extraordinary manner. On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth. You know, Venerable Brethren, that after He had ruled the "little flock" {Luke 12:32} Himself during His mortal pilgrimage, Christ our Lord, when about to leave this world and return to the Father, entrusted to the Chief of the Apostles the visible government of the entire community He had founded. Since He was all wise He could not leave the body of the Church He had founded as a human society without a visible head. Nor against this may one argue that the primacy of jurisdiction established in the Church gives such a Mystical Body two heads. For Peter in view of his primacy is only Christ's Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth. After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. (MMC, n. 40)


Anonymous said...

I thought the book was awesome. The q and a by the authors was great too. You can read it here.


Tim A. Troutman said...

They describe "an organic church [as] a church that is born out of spiritual life ... characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership"

What terribly transparent revisionist history. This was the model not of the early Church but of the 2nd century heretic Montanus.

Barna knows nothing about Church history - he doesn't even understand the Church in perspective today how will he understand her historical development?

As you said, aside from historical documents - (Cough cough Ignatius of Antioch's letters) the NT itself speaks strongly against Barna's very limited and uneducated view.

Hierarchy existed from the very beginning - see Acts 15.

Evangelicals are scared to death of the idea of hierarchy existing so early because it means that Jesus was the One who established it. If so, they too have to submit.

Tim A. Troutman said...

I took a brief look at the link above. You know what this book sounds like to me? Disgruntled teenager ecclesiology. The only people I've ever met who have gotten ecclesiology as wrong as Barna and the other guy seem to have it are teenagers rebelling from their parents by not wanting to attend church but still wanting to convince themselves that they are spiritually ok with God.

"Jesus came preaching against organized religion". These people have no clue about God about liturgy and certainly no clue about the Christian faith.

Moonshadow said...

Raymond Brown's little book, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (backcover) goes carefully through the NT and describes the ecclesiology of each apostolic community.

Barna would probably not admit the plurality of structure Brown draws out from the NT witness. But the lack of uniformity in the sub-apostolic period shouldn't surprise us.