Pagan Christianity: A failure of nerve

A new book written by two Evangelical Christians supports many of the views of Latter-day Saints about the apostacy from First Century Christianity. Frank Viola and George Barna have collaborated on an updated and expanded version of one of Viola’s earlier books, and titled it Pagan Christianity. It is published by Tyndale Press, an established Evangelical publisher. Barna is a prominent pollster and author for the Evangelical community, while Viola is a “travelling apostolic minister” in the “house church” movement that seeks to recreate the form and substance of primitive Christianity.

The thesis of Pagan Christianity is that the First Century Christian church did not have a professional clergy, did not have a single minister or priest running the meetings and giving the sermons, did not require tithes (but accepted donations), did not have a set order of worship but had songs, prayer, and exhortations as led by the Spirit, and was not in a hierarchical organization but rather had “church planters” like Paul who would aid the local churches to get going but did not administer them.

The book is exhaustively footnoted, and the footnotes are on the bottom of each page, but they in such a small typeface that I had a hard time reading them. Those I did read seemed to include a number that were not quite as authoritative for the specific points Viola and Barna were arguing.

Their argument that tithing does not apply to the Christian church is based on the notion that the Old Testament is not authoritative for Christians, sort of an odd idea since Christ seemed to think so. And of course we have Christ’s quotation of Malachi 3 and 4 to the Nephites to make clear to Latter-day Saints that it applies to Christians after his resurrection.

Viola and Barna are very specific that the organization and operation of the church changed drastically after the first century, when the “traveling apostolic ministers” were no longer in operation. They assert that having a paid specialist in rhetoric give a sermon every week is a pagan innovation borrowed from Greco-Roman culture.

In fact, they are so critical of the borrowing from Greek philosophy in the structure and operations of the church that I was anticipating that when I turned the page, they would be condemning Greek philosophy, too. But alas, it was not to be. Even though they denounce everything else that is Greek in the modern Christian church, they do not attack the Greek philosophical elements in the creeds, and in fact they rely on the creeds to keep their autonomous “house churches” from going apostate, since there is no higher authority to do it. This is a glaring logical inconsistency, but as a Mormon I can understand how it would upset Evangelicals to be told that their creeds, which they use to differentiate between non-Christians (Mormons) and Christians (everybody else) are largely a product of a pagan Greek viewpoint that intruded itself in the church after the proper organization was lost following the First Century.

The other glaring omission is the fact that real priesthood and authority were important within the First Century Church. Acts demonstrates Peter is the leading apostle. The revelation about baptizing Gentiles was given to Peter, and he and the apostles rendered a decision at the Jerusalem Council. Acts explains that the Samaritans who were baptized could not receive the Holy Ghost until Peter and John came and confirmed them with the priesthood, even explaining that one of the converts, Simon the Magician, offered Peter money for the priesthood power he exercised.

Viola admits that the “traveling apostolic ministers” were essential to the operation of the First Century Church and that it became corrupted with Greek practices after they were gone, but he wants to assert that these house churches can appoint new “traveling apostolic ministers” so he doesn’t have to deal with the fact that the original ones were ordained by Christ, and after the defection of Judas, his replacement Matthias was ordained by the remaining eleven.

In an interview about his book, Viola offers the following quote:

“I appreciate the words of A.W. Tozer on this score: ‘If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of [the twentieth] century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will not be one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom.‘”

Viola and Barna have drawn a detailed map demonstrationg that there was a rebellion in Christianity after the First Century, that de facto replaced the church with a new institution based on pagan ideas. But he is unwilling to take the next logical step and admit that the new church was really a pagan church, not a Christian one, and it lacked not only the form but also the authority and spirit of the original. They are standing on the edge of the Jordan but are not willing to let go of the Pagan creeds and step in to cross to the promised land of fully restored Christianity which they recognize is on the other side, where the religious leader is a prophet.

24 comments for “Pagan Christianity: A failure of nerve

  1. Every time I see Frank Viola’s name I think of that great left hander for the Twins, the Mets and then the Red Sox. What a fabulous curveball he had! Sweet Music indeed!

    I suppose he didn’t turn to evangelical Christianity after his baseball career ended–so this is probably a different guy.

  2. This is a nice review. Just a few notes. Our notion of apostasy derives from a well-known Protestant notion, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find similarities. Also, the notion of “priesthood” is highly ambiguous in the NT, especially in Acts. It is only our interpretation that the priesthood is at work, for which these evangelical authors can be excused for this “glaring omission.”

  3. The modern preachers who would oppose a legitimate and new prophet-type leader would therefore be on similar footing to the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of the NT.

  4. #3 – The theological and doctrinal similarities between modern Protestantism and Judaism in Jesus’ time are myriad and striking.

  5. Ray (#4), I agree. Unfortunately, too, the perspectives of mainstream Christianity (reflecting our natural tendency toward dogmatism) too often influence our perspectives as Mormons. We (and I’ll include myself in the charge) are sometimes Pharisees.

  6. I wish I had the energy to construct a more eloquent response…but I don’t, so here is my half-crazed response:

    Has anyone else ever had that friend who was searching so hard for the truth that as a last resort they approached you with questions? Naturally you had the answers, and in response was told something to the effect of ‘You Mormons have all the answers’, but at the same brushing you off because they can’t believe the right answers could actually be coming from some crazy Mormon.

    Seriously, does Viola (an obviously intelligent, if not brilliant man) even realize that we exist, or is he just like my friend, refusing to believe that what he is seeking is so easily found? What’s missing? Where is the gap that he is obviously unable to cross? He couldn’t be a hair closer! Someone just needs to push him into the font…

  7. #6: I spent about 1/2 hr. reading the links provided. I think Volia sees Mormonism as just another “Pagan Christianity”.
    There is no way he didn’t look closely at Joseph Smith as that possible Prophet. But he seems to reject any institution, or authoritarian (Priesthood) leadership(?)

  8. I keep hearing this accusation from Mormons – that traditional Christian theology is largely a product of Greek philosophy. But when I talk to such Christians who actually have degrees in philosophy and theology, they all claim that actually there is very little Greek philosophy in Christian thought. They claim that they are actually a rejection of Greek philosophical ideas in the following ways:

    -They insist on God being human – something Plato and Aristotle would have opposed
    -They reject the common notion among Greek philosophers that all material is evil and assert instead that the material world is good – having proceeded from God. This is also linked to the Christian rejection of the gnostic claim that the material world was created by some demiurge or something like that.

    So why do we continue to assert that traditional Christianity is a Greek invention when they themselves seem to have some good arguments to the contrary? How is mainline Christian theology a Greek heritage?

  9. In fact, they are so critical of the borrowing from Greek philosophy in the structure and operations of the church that I was anticipating that when I turned the page, they would be condemning Greek philosophy, too. But alas, it was not to be. Even though they denounce everything else that is Greek in the modern Christian church, they do not attack the Greek philosophical elements in the creeds, and in fact they rely on the creeds to keep their autonomous “house churches” from going apostate, since there is no higher authority to do it. This is a glaring logical inconsistency,

    I think the Greek aspects of the creeds is vastly overstated. Indeed one of the main differences between Mormons and other Christians is creation ex nihilo and that is an innovation that puts a huge divide between Christianity and the philosophical traditions of Rome and Greece.

    The one place where I think one can point to Greek influence is in thinking about things ontologically at all rather than in terms of politics or sculpting. That is there is a focus on absolutes. But one should note that this is hardly just the late Christians doing. It was part and parcel of Judaism and had been from before Christ was born. Likewise if one condemns the influence of Greek ways of talking too much one is left with a problem given Paul’s use of Stoic references and arguments and then the Gospel of John.

  10. Seth R.,
    I have no idea who your are talking to, but they are wack. Of course, there are serious tensions b/t early Christian philosophy and traditional Greek and Roman philosophy as it developed in the second-century, including some “rejections” of traditional ideas. Nevertheless, to disagree with philosophical tenents is what it means to do philosophy.
    Part of this problem is that we think that there is something which is “Judaism” and something which is “Greek philosophy” that have some essences that we can identity. Obviously, the world is much more complicated and we are all engaged in discursive strategies to identify ourselves. Ultimately, the question of whether or not Christians used Greek philosophy is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how they used it.

  11. In his book, Mr. Viola explicitly states he is not the pro baseball player.

    Certain Evangelical theologians who are advocates of what they call the “open view” of God go beyond Viola in challenging some of the Greek, non-Biblical elements in traditional creeds, specifically the lack of emotion or “passion” that is a deduction, namely, the definition of God is perfection, and perfection cannot change except to imperfection, and to feel emotion is to be affected and to change, and therefore God cannot feel emotion (love, anger, etc.), and what we call “love” describes how God acts and thinks, not how He “feels.” The “open God” theologians argue that the essence of God’s character in the bible is His love, and that the philosophical embellishment that rejects the substance of God’s love has actually alienated Christians from God. They have also argued that the Trinity is more social than substantive, such that the relationship between Father and Son is precisely the same love that God wishes to share with mankind, whom God created for that purpose of amplifying the love that already exists between the members of the Trinity.

    One of the leaders of thise movement is Professor Clark Pinnock, who has written a short introduction to their views ( and written and coathored several books (e.g. C. Pinnock and others, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God [InterVarsity, 1994]; C. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness [Baker, 2001]).

    In his introduction, Pinnock states:

    “The open view, on the other hand, sees God as a relational and triune God who exists as a community (Father, Son, and Spirit) and seeks loving relationships with creatures. In order for such relationships to be possible, God imparts genuine (or “libertarian”) freedom to human beings. This freedom allows them the possibility of loving God or of acting in ways unconstrained by God’s will. God chooses to achieve his goals by means of collaboration with humans rather than by predetermination. . .

    “Although the intellectual roots of contemporary relational theism lie in the Wesleyan-Arminian traditions, in reality, they go back in their emphasis on divine responsiveness to the church fathers prior to Augustine (Cf. R. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform [InterVarsity, 1999] ch. 17). . .

    “It is a divine perfection, not only to rule, but to be vulnerable for love’s sake. God is not an impassible Buddha, untouched by the troubles of mortal existence. We do not endorse the Aristotelian ideal of a self-sufficient God, who devotes his time to contemplating his own existence. We worship a God who became one of us and shares in our condition. The open view of God is an ongoing research project in evangelical theology and everyone is invited to contribute.”

    For obvious reasons, some of their fellow Evangelicals have accused Pinnock, et al, of being Mormons in sheep’s clothing. In my mind, their experience demonstrates how much the Greek or Pagan elements of the creeds have overwritten the plain testimony of the Bible and made it impossible for most Christian theologians and philosophers to fully understand the scriptures, precisely fulfilling Nephi’s vision of how the truth of the Bible would be lost over time.

    Note that Pinnock, et al, are not, so far as I know, advocates of Viola’s thesis that the forms and practices of modern Protestant worship are pagan and need reform. Apparently they have each taken steps that are radical in their communities, and are not ready to combine their respective insights in order to return to a more First Century church organization and theology. They already get plenty of opposition from their fellow Evangelicals as it is, something which Viola obviously thinks is a sign that he is on the right track, and that he has assumed a prophetic mantle (the reason for his quotation of Tozer in the interview).

    The notion that many people in the Christian world are piecemeal searching out and finding truths taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith was the topic of an article in BYU Studies a couple of years ago. I will try to dredge up the citation unless one of you has it at hand.

  12. The item I was looking for is an article in BYU Studies, Volume 45, Issue 1 (2006) by David Paulsen: Are Christians Mormon? Reassessing Joseph Smith’s Theology in His Bicentennial

    “Harold Bloom, the self-proclaimed “unbelieving Jew” and distin-
    guished scholar, recently characterized Joseph Smith as “a religious genius,” stating that the religion Smith founded “is truly a biblical religion.” More recently, Carl Mosser has written concerning the doctrine of that religion: “Mormonism’s heresies are legion; they are also very interesting and often unique in the history of heresy.” Biblical or heretical? Of these two reactions, the charge of heresy has been far more common, especially among conservative Christian critics, who consistently draw a circle that leaves Joseph’s Mormonism out.

    “No wonder, then, the interest in 1974 when Truman Madsen published an article in BYU Studies with the half-jesting title “Are Christians Mormon?” The title was an obvious play on the often repeated and too familiar question “Are Mormons Christian?” It was only a half-jest because, as Madsen puts it, “In our time there are renowned and influential spokesmen and writers in all the major wings of Christendom—and they are not on the periphery but at the center—who are defending and teaching what, a century ago, Joseph Smith almost alone taught.”

    “Now that Latter-day Saints and others have commemorated the two-hundredth birthday of Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is time to reassess how far Christian thinkers have come in appropriating theological insights once owned uniquely, or nearly so, by Smith and his followers.”

    It is available for download at

  13. >>The other glaring omission is the fact that real priesthood and authority were important within the First Century Church…Acts explains that the Samaritans who were baptized could not receive the Holy Ghost until Peter and John came and confirmed them with the priesthood, even explaining that one of the converts, Simon the Magician, offered Peter money for the priesthood power he exercised.

    I hate to break it to you, but there’s no ministerial priesthood in the New Testament. Nor is there any in the first two centuries of Christian history. Take a look at Ray Robert Noll’s Christian Ministerial Priesthood for more info.

    >>they denounce everything else that is Greek in the modern Christian church

    Do they denounce the doctrine of Logos in John 1?

  14. #13 (Chris)–I guess I don’t know where you are coming from. We Latter-day Saints have a process of priesthood ordination for all worthy male members that starts at age 12, and involves ascending levels of responsibility into adulthood. For us, those who are apostles (including the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) are ordained to an additional office, and bestowed specific keys of authority to direct the Church. We believe these priesthood authorities were held by John the Baptist and by Peter and the other apostles of Christ, were lost with the death of the apostles, and were restored to mankind by the visitation of John and Peter as resurrected beings to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829.

    Holding specific priesthood ordinations is a prerequisite to certain offices in the Church of Jesus Christ, and the person continues to hold that priesthood ordination even when released from the office. The leadership of each congregation, and over local groups of congregations and congregations within nations or regions, are “amateur”, part time, unpaid volunteers, who spend upwards of 20 to 30 hours a week outside their time with work and family to serve the other members of the Church. They receive callings to these positions–they do not ask for them–and are generally released on a regular rotation every five years or so in order to spread both the burden, blessings and experience of leadership among the members.

    When we Latter-day Saints read the New Testament, we see a Church organization that functions much like ours, with direction of the entire Church by apostles like Peter and Paul, and local leaders like Ananias in Damascus (who healed Paul’s blindness and baptized him), who have been ordained with priesthood authority to receive specific revelation and lead the Church in an inspired way.

    The example I cited is one among others of what we see as the exercise of priesthood authority, in graduated levels among the members of the Church in the First Century.

    Now obviously, the Catholic Church believes there was such a thing as priesthood ordination and authority that has historically descended from the apostles. The same is true in other churches.

    With the Reformation, the break from the Catholic Church also raised the question of the break from this chain of authorized ordinations. The solution that Luther and others came up with was to assert that priesthood was something that accompanied belief in the gospel of Christ, a “priesthood of believers”. Frank Viola criticizes the pattern of having professional clergy function in Protestant churches as the only fully functional member of the congregation in terms of spiritaul blessings or performance. He offers the house church as an environment where the “priesthood of all believers” can operate among all participants, orchestrated by the Spirit of Christ rather than the pastor as Master of Ceremonies. I think it is a logical deduction from the “priesthood of all believers” ideal as understood in Protestant churches.

    On the other hand, we Latter-day Saints see a hierarchy of authority operating in the New Testament, in which revelation and direction is given by God to Peter and the other apostles and communicated to the rest of the Saints. That was the example of Peter’s vision in Joppa and his leadership of the Jerusalem Council, his leadership on the Day of Pentecost, and the promise of Christ to give him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Christ tells the apostles he has chosen and ordained them, and they have specific authority to act in Christ’s name and do the things he does, as in Peter’s raising of a girl from the dead and his healing of the beggar at the gate of the temple.

    And yet the priesthood authority was not kept back from the members, just as it is widely distributed in the Church today. I would argue (and have at this blog) that the Latter-day Saints have achieved a wider distribution of functional priesthood, of real leadership authority, than almost all other Christian denominations.

    Did Peter and the apostles have real authority? I think the best argument for that is that it was the apostles and those intimately connected with them who wrote the New Testament canonical books, and with the passing of the apostles, any new works were not considered authoritative. It was the authority of the apostles that made the books authoritative. The apostles preceded the books. What they taught was authoritative, therefore what they wrote was accepted as authoritative. The fact that the canon is considered closed in Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions is an admission that not just anybody could write a canonical scripture. It had to originate from one of the apostles. The books were written over a long stretch of time, up to as late as 90 AD or later (in the case of John’s writings), so the canon was open from the death and resurrection of Christ up until John’s departure, over 60 years. And only writings authorized or written by apostles were accepted into the canon.

    Frank Viola is adamant that we need to read the books of the New Testament more holistically, rather than assembling arguments that are only one step advanced from piecing together words out of a magazine to create a ransom note. But he also recognizes the canon as authoritative. He does not suggest that any “believer” using his generic “priesthood” could write a canonical scripture. He does not think that, even though he calls himself a “traveling apostolic minister” on a par with Paul, that his book or any other writings he has produced have or could have the status of scripture. He implicitly recognizes that the apostles had some kind of authority that later people and ministers in the various churches lacked, the authority to write a new book and have it accepted as the word of God.

    The Latter-day Saints assert that precisely that authority of Peter has been returned to mankind. It was under that authority that Joseph Smith prepared and published the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine & Covenants as additions to the canon of scripture. They are authoritative and canonical because Joseph was ordained with the authority of an apostle by Peter. They are not the writings of mere men, but were created under the direction and inspiration of God. People in traditional Christian churches reject the authority of those books, but they do so partly because they understand that to accept them is to accept Smith’s claim to be a lawful successor to Peter’s authority to constitute new scripture, just as he and the apostles did from 33 to 99 AD.

    I am not familiar with Ray Robert Noll or his writings, but my first question would be, what is Mr. Noll’s authority to pronounce on the existence or nonexistence of priesthood in the primitive Church? Does he claim to have it? Does he claim to have direct experience with it, so he can define precisely what it is and is not? If he says he does not have it, and has no direct experience with it, how can he be sure he can even recognize it in operation? If he defines priesthood as the clerical authority and practices of modern traditional Christian churches, Viola would say that those did not exist within the Church at least in the First Century, but were forms and practices adopted from the surrounding Hellenic culture. So that kind of “priesthood” would not, I agree, have existed in the primitive church.

    On the other hand, is Noll an advocate of the “priesthood of all believers”? If so, he can only deny the presence of priesthood if he denies the presence of believers in the First Century Church, which is sort of self-contradictory, and contradicts both Viola’s notion of priesthood and that of the Catholic Church.

    So whether Noll’s assertion (as you depict it) means anything or not depends on how he defines “priesthood.” You can compare what the LDS believe what priesthood is and Noll’s and see if he is even talking about the same thing.

    When you refer to “the doctrine of logos in John 1,” are you asserting that simply the fact that the manuscripts we have of the Gospel of John are written in Greek makes every word written in them a Greek “idea”, instead of a translation into the Greek language of ideas that were originally taught and spoken of in Aramaic and Hebrew?

    With respect to Viola and Barna, yes, it is my impression that they quite generally identify the pagan ideas they are criticizing as external to original and authentic Christianity, as ones originating in Hellenic culture and philosophy. You are invited to read the book and make your own evaluation of what they say.

  15. The following is the Amazon summary of Noll’s book. It is quite instructive as to his approach:

    “At a time when the issue of priestly mission and gender is undergoing crucial debate within and without the Catholic Church, Noll’s study provides a ground breaking introduction to critical historical sources. How did the Old Testament and pagan nomenclature for the priestly class find its way into the Church, and along with it the sacral-cultic conception of priesthood and of Christianity? Noll looks to the first body of authentic Christian literature after the New Testament, to uncover and discuss the historico-theological foundations of priesthood. Focusing on I Clement, The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, The Letter of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache, this study is a major contribution to the current theological debate.”

    He isn’t looking to the NT, but rather the early Christian fathers, as the authorities on authority.

    Fwiw, Noll appears to be a Catholic author who is reinterpreting historic Catholic doctrines and aligning them more with Protestant beliefs. His other book listed is “Sacraments: A New Understanding for a New Generation”. Iow, he appears to be arguing directly against the Catholic Church’s claim of apostolic authority and for a more “priesthood of believers” approach – and, based on the summary of the book in question, probably arguing against apostolic authority as a way of opening the Catholic priesthood to women.

  16. #15 (Ray): Viola and Barna do cite the early Fathers, but not as authorities. Rather, they cite them as evidence of the pagan origin outside the church of the structures and practices which were in their time, the Second Century, being imposed on the church. they specifically decry the tendency among many Protestants to look to the early Fathers as authorities on the primitive church, because, they assert, it was that generation that altered christianity from its First Century base. Even Ignatius, at the opening of the Second Century, does not escapoe their critique.

    So clearly, Viola/Barna and Noll have at least somewhat opposed viewpoints.

  17. Raymond,

    I am aware of LDS beliefs regarding priesthood authority. However, if those beliefs are valid, they are also innovative; they do not appear to be a restoration of the New Testament church. As a couple examples of where the NT does not appear to support LDS priesthood concepts, there is Paul bragging in Galatians that he was not commissioned by the Jerusalem apostles and there is the book of Hebrews, which has appeared to everyone but LDS authors to quite explicitly repudiate ministerial priesthood among us mortals. The Didache, too, is a first-century document that paints a very non-LDS portrait of apostolicity: apostles are presented as itinerant, charismatic leaders rather than as ordained ones. The concepts of priesthood and of a New Testament canon evolved only over time, in order to proscribe heresy by routinizing charisma. Some Catholic authors admit that priesthood was a development, but feel that it was a valid development; that’s a viable position, IMO. But I don’t think it’s viable to read priesthood into the NT.

    The concept of ministerial priesthood is in fact absent in the second-century church fathers as well as in the New Testament. Irenaeus and a few others expressed the very Lutheran opinion that all the laity are priests. Even in the third century, Origen got quite defensive about speaking of Christian ministers as priests, because he had Hebrews to contend with. He insisted that this designation was warranted on the basis of a similarity of function.

    Much has been written on this subject and I have studied it a lot and argued with Latter-day Saints about it a lot. I don’t intend to turn this into another argument; I’ll leave well enough alone after this post. But I do think it’s important for Saints to be aware when criticizing mainline scholarship for making this kind of “glaring omission” that they are not on solid ground, from a secular academic perspective.

    As for the Logos, I suppose you might need to be familiar with how “Logos” figured in Platonic/Stoic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism to really appreciate how evident it is that John stands in continuity with this usage. If you’re interested, I can recommend a few resources on the subject. One very informative study is this one:

    Tobin, T. H. “The Prologue of John and Hellenistic Jewish Speculation.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (1990): 252-69.

    I don’t believe it’s available online, but I can email it to interested parties.



  18. Chris, thank you for your comments. I have been listening to Bart Ehrman’s lectures on the New Testament and reading his, James Tabor, Elaine Pagels and Gary Wills books on the New Testament. All of these historians and a great many more are convinced that Priesthood was a development that began after New Testament times as you point out. Your post is very clear and I appreciate you knowledge.

  19. #17 (Chris): The theories you are citing are certainly interesting, but then I would venture to guess there is far less than overwhelming consensus on it, just as there is a wide range of opinion among professional scholars of the Bible as to who Jesus was. And I am guessing that Benedict XVI would be among those who disagree.

    I personally see no need for the Epistle to the Hebrews to rule out a priesthood for the apostles and other members of the First Century Church. The focus is on the argument that the sacrifices and ordinances performed by the Aaronic high priests in the tabernacle and temples had no efficaciousness apart from foreshadowing the work of Christ, who brings us into the presence of the Father by offering himself as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. It speaks of Christ as being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, a contemporary of Abraham, who predates of course Aaron. We LDS believe that the priesthood of Melchizedek was the priesthood of the Son, that its proper name is “the priesthood after the holy order of the Son of God”, that Christ is the source of the priesthood of Melchizedek and of Abraham, Moses, and other prophets, and that it was this priesthood authority which Christ conferred on the apostles as he ordained them.

    Clearly, there is no evidence that the author of Hebrews was asserting that Jesus literally performed his work of reconciliation between God and mankind in the temple at Jerusalem, entering into the Holy of Holies, but rather was referring to the real temple in heaven, of which the temple on earth is a simulacrum, just as John’s Revelation describes the place of God’s throne in heaven as being in the form of the temple on earth (which by the time he wrote Revelation had been destroyed).

    There was clearly authority in Peter and the other apostles, which was accepted or in some cases rejected by the local church congregations. Paul and John speak of that rebellion against the apostles as already taking shape in their day. I think most LDS would agree that after John had departed, there was a lack of authoritative direction among believers in Christ, and that other forms and practices arose to fill that vacuum, the ones that Viola criticizes. But the notion that Peter, John, James and Paul had no authority recognized by the Christians or by God (as in the performance of miracles) seems to me to be wholly inconsistent with the story of the New Testament, and the authoritativeness of the epistles.

    I would suggest that the kind of speculation you are citing is another reason why the Bible needs the Book of Mormon, and other Restoration scriptures, in order to clarify what the truth is about issues such as authority in church leadership. Against the deductions of some scholars, we have the direct testimony of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery about the ordinations they received from resurrected and translated beings, and the concrete and specific manifestations of the power of that priesthood in the lives of LDS Church members from that time until now.

  20. Chris was gracious enough to say he would not turn this into an argument and would let his post stand on its own. I think his words still stand, but I can’t leave “it” alone.

    Paul’s authority was that he saw the risen Jesus, so this was charismatic. As Chris points out even catholic scholars have had to accept that the New Testament has no priesthood, there was no ordination. Seeing and knowing either the living or risen Jesus was authority enough. Charisma was authority. Signs and wonders followed those with authority. Junia, a woman, was called an apostle of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was also called an apostle, they received this because the knew Jesus or had charismatic gifts. This is not speculation this is the historical record. To conflate 19th and 20th century ideas on the 1st century is speculation.

    BTW, the New Testament does just fine, thank you very much. At least with the New Testament we actually have archaeological and historical evidence of Jesus, Paul and Jerusalem. I know of no evidence of this kind for the Book of Mormon people or Zarahemla. To suggest we need the Book of Mormon to understand the New Testament is down right arrogant. Read and appreciate the Book of Mormon as its own scripture.

  21. “To suggest we need the Book of Mormon to understand the New Testament is down right arrogant.”

    I’d retort that to suggest that we need only the Bible to understand the Bible is likewise arrogant.

    And Paul’s claims to charismatic authority were not immediately accepted by the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul operated independently for some time from Damascus without the blessing of Peter in Jerusalem and was more or less a rogue agent. Some have even gone so far as to label him as “Christianity’s first heretic.” Paul had to go to Jerusalem, hat in hand, and plead the case of the Damascus church before the Apostles before he was ever officially recognized. And Paul WAS officially endorsed and recognized.

    So your assertion that Paul’s claim to authority was purely charisma-based simply does not pass muster. There are plenty of indications of an official ecclesiarchy in the New Testament if you aren’t looking at it through a lens of Protestant prejudices.

  22. The basic problem with Viola and Barna’s book is that scholars know almost nothing almost the practice or principles of 1st century Christians. Thus, the claim that it changed in some specific ways to become modern Christianity has little or no basis.

    Our paucity of real 1st century Christian history allows even the smallest tidbits of information (or speculation) to radically alter the basis for understanding primitive Christianity. Over the past 40 years, an army of authors has arisen to exploit this paucity to advance their pet theories to an audience thirsty for the inside scoop on what “really” happened at the start of Christianity.

  23. The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at

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