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Institutional Church = Pagan Christianity?


Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.

I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.

First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.

Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about  ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’  who are Christians.

Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.

For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate  authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine  and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?

The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.

In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.

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