Saturday Book Review: Michael J. Svigel

Retro-Christianity by Michael J. Svigel, and this review is by David Moore. Dave is the founder of Two Cities Ministries ( and the author of forthcoming, Pooping Elephants, Mowing Weeds: What Some Business Failed to Tell You.

I have read many “critique” books of evangelicalism.  Authors such as David Wells, Mark Noll, James Davison Hunter, George Marsden, and Os Guinness, along with many others, have provided me with extremely helpful insight.

Svigel’s book is also a critique of evangelicalism, but it differs from the authors above.  Svigel’s book is challenging without being a jeremiad.  To be sure, Svigel has some pointed things to say, but there is a grace and generosity of spirit which shines through.  To chase to the end of the book first, Svigel offers some wise and gentle applications for those who want to see the evangelical church reformed.

Instead of doing your typical review, here are several things which I greatly appreciated about the book:

*Chapter one is a terrific sketch of modern evangelicalism.  Svigel uses a helpful “infancy to midlife crisis” scheme to describe how evangelicalism has developed in the twentieth century.  Crossway ought to consider making this and chapter eight stand-alone booklets.

*Retro-Christianity is a well-written book which contains several clever illustrations and analogies.  Though Retro-Christianity is full of church history, especially from the Patristic era, the illustrations and analogies nicely anchor the ancient stuff to what the church faces today.

*The emphasis on remembering to keep primary doctrines, primary, is spelled out extremely well.  I have read Tom Oden and others on this very issue, but Svigel provides a fresh perspective.

*As mentioned above, chapter eight could also be a terrific booklet.  There is much in it which spells out a way forward in truly having qualified pastors and elders.  Furthermore, the lunacy that you find in too many evangelical churches where not all pastors are elders out of fear that the pastors become too powerful is wisely and courageously addressed.

On this very issue, I offer a few more personal observations made over the years.  First, check out evangelical church web sites.  You will notice two dominant and disturbing matters.  Too many of the web sites only list the “staff,” but not the elders.  If the elders are listed, check how many of the pastors are part of the elder board.  I have had many conversations with pastors and NT scholars on how Paul assumed all pastors would also be serving as elders.  So what is the problem?  In a word, fear…fear that having all the pastors on the elder board will result in the pastors being a powerful voting bloc.  What does this tell us about the lack of trust among church leaders?

I do have a few quibbles and what would even a non-traditional book review be without them?:

*Svigel seems to believe that only Protestants can be evangelicals.  I don’t necessarily disagree, but would have liked to see some discussion as to whether you can be an evangelical Catholic (see Keith Fournier’s book, Evangelical Catholics).

*Svigel seeks to make a historic and biblical case for having a “head pastor.”  I may not so much be in disagreement with his reasoning, but would have liked to see some discussion of the problem with the modern CEO model of pastor.  This is an important issue and it deserves some ink.  Several years back, Dallas Seminary sent out their alumni newsletter with a lead article on the “pastor as CEO.”

*Tertullian’s classic question of “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is mentioned to set up a brief discussion of the relationship between philosophy and theology.  It would have been good for Svigel to mention that even Tertullian used philosophy!   Among others, Nicholas Wolterstorff has addressed the popular myth that Tertullian was completely opposed to using insights garnered from philosophy.

*Svigel rightly uses Mt. 18:20 to make the case that two or three Christians gathered together do not equal a church.  It would have been good to add that this commonly misapplied verse is dealing with a small group of believers going to confront another believer.

I trust this book gets the wide read it deserves, and that this younger author has many more years of fruitful, literary service.



"Yes, Wade Burleson had a "mental picture". He didn't mention it just because he thought ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"Thanks for your response SalvatoreWe are now exegeting Wade’s post (what fun). Note that Wade ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"I know that some people have remarkable experiences with Christ both before they believe in ..."

“Personal” Experiential Faith In A Secular ..."
"I am a Southern Baptist and the last paragraph of this post is correct and ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I am so glad you mention Svigel’s book. I have it on order by Amazon along with Philip Jenkin’s “Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses” along with Paul Louis Metzger’s promising looking book, “Connecting Christ: How to discuss Jesus in a world of diverse paths” (I like his more relational approach contra the standard Christian polemical apologetical approaches).

    You are ahead of me Scot since all I have read so far is what Amazon let’s you look at but his book looks very interesting to me (especially since if someone wants to pin-me-down, I am one of those ancient-future Evangelicals).

    In response to the Pastor as a CEO model, one very good book I have read on this topic is within Rubel Shelly’s provocative titled book “I knew Jesus before he was a Christian . . . and I liked him better then.”

    Lastly, some other promising looking upcoming books coming out within the next 6 months or less are as follows:

    1. Randolph Richards “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible.”

    2. Jeffrey Burton Russell “Exposing Myths about Christianity: a guide to answering 145 viral lies and legends.”

    3. Gregory Boyd “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God” (I think this will be a great book but I am not even sure Boyd has even started this project yet?).


  • Patrick

    I’d add in every book Kenneth Bailey has had published to compliment book #1 above. He’s awesome in bringing the cultural millieu to bear on interpreting the scriptures.

  • Matt Blackmon

    Mike is a good friend, and I agree there is much to commend to this book. At the same time, I wish it would not have been with Crossway. Please forgive the snarkiness: How are first year Calculus and Crossway similar? They are both hopelessly fundamentally derivative. This book’s audience will be smaller than it deserves, regrettably.

  • DRT

    Michael, if you are reading, we all deserve a comment to clarify Pooping Elephants, Mowing Weeds: What Some Business Failed to Tell You thank you 🙂

  • DRT,

    That is my book and it should be out fairly soon.

    Here is the web site for it:


  • DRT

    So sorry Dave, I read that incorrectly.

    Looks interesting, thanks.

  • CGC

    Hey Scot,
    I don’t know if this is too old or not but I have been reading Michael Svigel “Retro-Christianity” and I hope many read this and pursue similar books dealing with this important area. Svigel is trying to give a more nuanced and balanced approach to paleo-orthodoxy (Thomas Oden) and ancient-future church (Robert Webber) as well as those seeking the ancient faith in Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. He tries to show all sides of the discussion of what is beneficial and what needs to be discarded.

    One other point, Svigel speaks highly of Paul Hartog’s edited book and his excellent article. But Paul seems to do what Svigel says we should not do, pick and choose what we like and leave the rest approach to the church fathers. For example, Hartog says there are some great treasures to take from the early church fathers without taking their sacramentalism. But there is no way of taking their “orthodoxy” without taking their sacramental view of reality. Until Evangelicals are willing to take some exceptinal radical steps out of their confort zones, then we will continue to do things half-way and half-baked . . .

    This has been a major interest of mine so here are a few thoughts:

    1. First, read his book and interact with it (I certainly think he is pointing Christians in the right direction, especially getting to know church history and the fathers, but I really don’t see him taking it much further than pointing). He correctly says we need to be careful of hijacking the ancient tradition for own purposes but I am not sure how Svigel’s general proposal actually shows Christians how to interact and really resource the ancient tradition? We need some real work done in actually showing people how to do this, not just point in a general direction.

    2. Svigel’s bibilography at the end of the book is almost worth the price of the book from my perspective. He has really done some good work and is commended. After saying that, there are some glaring ommissions from my perspective.

    a) What about the Anglican scholars like R. R. Reno (who has now coverted to Catholicism) and Ephraim Radner for examples who are trying to do something similar in dealing with ecclesiology in a broken church (or as Svigel shows, a broken Evangelicalism).

    b) What about William Abraham’s proposal of Canonical theism? It seems like Abraham is doing a similar project at Svigel and I believe Abraham bypasses some of the problems that Svigel is concerned about. Svigel or others need to seriously deal with Abraham’s proposal in all this.

    3. Lastly, I think Svigel is way too dismissive of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. I would even say it is here that these two groups have a better history in some respects (better than pop-evangelicals) when it comes to resourcing the ancient tradition for the modern church. Roman Catholics keep the traditon alive throughout all of church history as Svigel wants to support and Eastern Orthodox have resourced the ancient tradition better than anyone else as far as I know to date (especially of living it out and following a way of life, not just propositional doctrines).

    Anyway, I hope you bring more of Svigel up in the future Scot. Shalom!