Not Traditional, Original

A Major Objection to the Restoration Movement Is That Christianity Has Not Changed Substantially Over Time

I have heard a number of arguments over time against the need for any kind of restoration in the church. Often the remark will just focus on a particular element of Christianity like the status of the bible, what the core beliefs are, and so forth. For example, as far as the Bible is concerned, a sentence that I’ve heard goes something like, “in spite of an admitted large number of insignificant errors in the Bible, and even a few more critical ones, no major doctrine is affected by any of the errors.”  In fact, Christian churches sometimes advertise themselves as first-century churches in the 21st century, as if there were no significant differences at all or whatsoever differences can be justifiably explained by things such as cessation doctrine.

However, I recently found a book on the Internet that encapsulated a mainline Christian argument against the need for restoration by arguing on a number of points and in a way that appears much more sophisticated.  Now the Restoration Movement argues that Christianity has been affected by things such as Hellenization, the influence of pagan religions, and the movement away from Scripture over time. (The Restoration movement was different from the Reformation in that the Reformation maintained the church just needed to fix some things while the Restoration Movement held that there was much more work to be done because the Church had strayed from the original vision of its founding.)  So, look at this quote by Shirley Jackson Case.

“In the course of subsequent history popular pagan religion may have affected somewhat the church’s rites and ceremonies, and Greek philosophy may have had some influence upon the development of doctrine, but it is a gross error, according to the Catholic view, to think of these outside forces as introducing anything in the least alien to the original substance of the Christian revelation. Historical growth is but the further unfolding of the heavenly robe brought to earth by Jesus, passed on by him to the apostles, and intrusted by them to the divinely established and officered church.

The garment never needs to be altered or repaired, but only to be further unfolded.’ The older Protestant estimate of Christianity’s nature rested upon the same basic principle. The new religion as revealed by Jesus and perpetuated by the apostles was a purely divine deposit, essentially complete from the first. The fundamental divergence between Protestantism and Catholicism lay in their different theories about the preservation of the deposit. According to the latter the infallible church was its perpetual guardian and interpreter, consequently the whole ecclesiastical development within orthodox Romanism was the continuation of genuinely original Christianity. The Protestant Reformers, on the other hand, took the Scriptures rather than the church as their ultimate authority, and so found original Christianity in the Canon. It could be recovered only by a return to the age of the apostles, its divine character being assured by an infallible Scripture.

Yet Christianity was a significant historical quantum, more especially on its doctrinal side. While Scripture was the ultimate norm for faith, much genuine Christianity was to be recognized in the doctrinal development of post-apostolic times. This position has been stated more recently by Orr. He believes ‘the labor spent by myriads of minds on the fashioning of dogma has not, as so many in our day seem to think, been utterly fatuous, and the mere forging of fetters for the human spirit.’ This work of doctrinal elaboration has not been a merely human affair, but has been pursued in agreement with the divine character and intention of Christianity. The general tendency of this type of interpretation is to define Christianity’s essential content in terms of a divinely directed type of metaphysical speculation guaranteed in the first instance by the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The exposition of sound doctrine never goes beyond this original revelation, nor are the intellectual attainments of a later age ever able to import anything essentially new into its content. If a contribution is new it must in the nature of the case be untrue. The function of interpretation is only to expound in greater detail the perfect original.

These various opinions of both Catholics and Protestants are in fundamental agreement on the question of Christianity’s nature. It is a quantity of divine instruction, supernaturally given and designed to cover all the essentials of true religion. Whether it is more perfectly preserved in an ecclesiastical organization, in a canon of Scripture, in a system of metaphysical speculation, or in some combination of these is only a subsidiary question. In any case it has a truly other-worldly origin and maintains its unique originality in every legitimate stage of its career. Human experience and historical circumstances contribute nothing to its making; they merely provide channels for its spread, in so far as they do not obscure or retard its progress.[i]

Shirley Jackson Case makes the following points in the paragraphs above:

  • Hellenization and pagan religions did not introduce a single foreign thing to Christianity
  • the process of doctrinal development over the ages is simply an “unfolding” of the original revelation
  • while the Roman Catholic Church considered the core of Christianity to be the church itself, and the Protestant church considered the core of Christianity to be found in the Scriptures, the essential character of Christianity has never fluctuated from the beginning
  • the process of doctrinal development has really been a process of doctrinal “elaboration”
  • varying aspects within Christianity’s history including “ecclesiastical organization”, Canon of Scripture, metaphysical speculations, human experience, and historical circumstances have had no impact on Christianity’s essential character, rather they “merely provide channels for its spread, insofar as they do not obscure or retard its progress”

These arguments present an “infallible church”.  An infallible church is one that has never erred nor ever will err in any doctrine.

But, when you read about how the church developed into the Middle Ages to the point where it was sometimes against the law not to be a Christian, where grand inquisitions were held that resulted in the torture and sometimes death of people who challenged simple tenets like infant baptism, where the practice of selling Bishoprics and indulgences were commonplace tools to raise money,  where the church and state were inextricably entangled, where the church used military might instead of spiritual power to spread Christianity (for example sending its armies in the Crusades,   where the attraction of  Christianity became magnificent cathedrals and material wealth instead of things of the spirit,  it becomes hard to believe that these developments represented the natural unfolding of the essential core beliefs of Christianity, let alone an infallible church.

The fact that the church killed Christians for not believing in infant baptism, or on account of any other disagreement, for that matter, flies in the face of the statement that the church has been infallible.

And when you read today that there are churches that represent opposing viewpoints on baptism,  biblical infallibility, and inerrancy, the model for church government, covenantism and dispensationalism, dietary laws, drinking alcohol, eschatology, eternal security, evolution, giving vs. tithing, homosexuality, abortion, predestination, prophecy, the acceptability of Christian counseling, the nature of the sacraments, the “in the name of Jesus” vs. the Trinitarian formula debate, the availability and meaning of receiving the holy spirit, whether tongues and other gifts and manifestations have ceased, the role of women in the church, war, the tenets of the word of faith movement, just to name some of the many issues in the church, it is very hard to believe that none of these things have been the result of the increasing Hellenization in the church, the influences of pagan religions and/or secular cultures.

Yet that appears to be the viewpoint of many.  As I said, it’s hard to believe, but many do.  According to them there is no elephant in the room, and the church was, is, and always will be infallible.

I say, “Not so fast.” There are many arguments here, but simply, to say anything else dishonors those who have died standing on their principles at the hands of the church who regularly over the centuries has used forceful coercion as a tool. Forceful coercion including torture and imprisonment was not any part of the original Christianity that Christ and the Apostles started some two thousand years ago, and that alone powerfully contradicts any argument that the church has been infallible. And in spite of the Reformation, or maybe because of it, the fact that there are now tens of thousands of denominations cannot in any way be reflective of the “divine character of Christianity” in its origin, and thus there is a need for major correction before today’s church can be viewed as a continuation of the simple powerful spread of the word of God in the first century.

[i] THE EVOLUTION OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY, a genetic study of first-century Christianity in relation to its religious environment, Shirley Jackson Case, The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1914, p. 4-7

© copyright 2011-2020 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

April 13th, 2011 Posted by | Objections to Restoring New Testament Christianity | no comments

15.2.6 Objections to the Anabaptist Call to Return to Primitive Christianity

Obviously, if the majority of Christians wanted to return to primitive Christianity they would have done so a long time ago. Franklin Hamlin Littell, in his book, The Anabaptist View of the Church, discusses the Anabaptist call to return to primitive Christianity as well as reasons why it was not accepted by more believers.

A brief overview of the situation is this. The Anabaptists believed:

  • The apostles doctrine, as seen in the New Testament, was to be followed above all else.
  • The Anabaptist stand was that, in following the model of the New Testament, the church must be a voluntary organization as opposed to one mandated by the state. This was a radical departure from the status quo and was considered treasonous in some places.
  • Political punishment for errors in faith were unbiblical, the proper discipline was the “ban”, to exile the person from the fellowship.
  • The church had been corrupt since the changes made by Constantine (although some believed the corruption started much earlier).
  • Changes included changing your ideas on ownership (communism), church government (voluntary congregational churches), citizenship (no oaths, pacifism, no military service.) and more.
  • Additionally some believed (Littell calls these the spiritualizers of the movement) the leading of the spirit, including possibly prophecy and other manifestations is crucial to the leading of the Church.

Littell specifies that the Anabaptist stand was not well received because it was seen as just another form of primitivism. Primitivism is a philosophy that can be summed up by the phrase, “the good old days.” Primitivism says that at one time there was a utopian society, a Garden of Eden, that can be re-obtained by restoring the culture and environment that existed at the time of this utopian society. In other words, the good old days would be back again.

Inherent in this argument about restitution is the idea of a fallen church. If we must restore something, it can only be because what we have now is inferior and corrupted. And, in fact, throughout history there have been numerous proponents of this idea that the church did not get better as it developed, but in fact strayed from its powerful beginnings.

One such proponent was the Abbot Joachim of Fiore. Living in the end of the 12th century Joachim actually predicted that there would be a prophet of the last times who would be a “spiritual Constantine freeing the church from the trammels with which the imperial Constantine had bound her. For with Constantine all heathen had streamed into the church, polluting and compromising her. The fall of the church which followed the time of the apostles would soon be ended…”[1]

A more modern proponent of the fall of the church was Walter Hobhouse who in 1909 wrote,

“Long ago I came to believe that the great change in the relation between the church and the world which began with the conversion of Constantine is not only the decisive turning point in church history, but is also the key to many of the practical difficulties of the present day; and the church of the future is destined more and more to return to a condition of things somewhat like that which prevailed in the anti-Nicene church; that is to say, that instead of pretending to be coextensive with the world, it will accept a position involving a more conscience antagonism with the world, and will, in return, regain in some measure its former coherence.” [2]

Hobhouse here is clearly referring to a fallen church and a restored one. He is also dating the fall of the church with the influence of Constantine.

The impact of these ideas on a person’s life is huge both then and now. Consider the person who works for someone or perhaps has a small business. That person’s very life is it intertwined with coworkers, customers, neighbors, and in fact, many members of society. In order to adopt such a radical philosophy requires a great deal of change in such a person’s life. When that person makes the declaration that they now believe that their church is a fallen church, that many aspects of their life in general need to change, all the above relationships, friends, neighbors, coworkers, customers, are at risk.

It is one thing to follow the policy, as Luther and reformers did, that the church system is basically good, but it needs to have a few things fixed. The state run church system is the way to go, there are some sacraments that are acceptable, and life as you know it will be pretty much the same, only under some new state run church management, with some appropriate doctrinal and practical changes.

It is a totally different thing to say that the church is fallen, that it has been veering off the mark for most of its existence, and fixing it requires changing the way we live as we know things to be. But that is the Anabaptist stand. Look at these radical components of the Anabaptist stand.

Communism was promoted by these Anabaptists! In the gospels we have examples like the widow who gave all she had and in Acts we have references to the early church believers who had all things common. These ideas are so radically different from the capitalism of the realm. Pacifism, not going to war, not taking oaths; how can these things have any practicality for citizens?[3]

Interestingly, the Polish brethren dated the beginning of the fall of the church with the death of Simeon, about 111A.D. At that time there was no disputing of doctrine, or defining of heresy on Christian doctrine. There was no empire enforced trinitarianism. The fall came into full force with the Council of Nicaea where the Trinitarian formula was raised to ultimate importance while charismatic leadership and inspired congregational life were de-emphasized.[4]

It is my opinion that history teaches us that for most of the people that call themselves Christians, these radical steps, whether right or wrong, are too overwhelming. Look at how many people followed Christ when he was alive, yet abandoned him when he was taken by the authorities. People do not easily make radical changes.

Littell’s criticism of religious primitivism is that it focuses on a past that never truly existed. Littell rejects primitivism because he views it as a pie in the sky thinking by the masses who really do not understand the issues, and do not fully understand the real state of the primitive culture.

This is a legitimate concern. If people think that they need to get back to the original state, and have unrealistic expectations of what those origins are they are deluding themselves. Primitive Christianity was not the Garden of Eden. Yes there were miracles, great fellowship, great sharing, and powerful manifestations of the spirit. But all this happened in a world of persecution. Believers were killed, run out of town, tortured, lost their jobs and income, and had a host of other problems because of their faith in that day and time.

There are other major problems in the call to return to primitive Christianity. One is that people cannot agree on all of the aspects of New Testament doctrine. In our day and time the question becomes very complicated because of the number of differing views of Christian doctrine, with many claiming to be the New Testament standard yet being inconsistent with each other. How do you filter through the myriad combinations of doctrinal views presented to be the truth? (For more insight go to the Table of Contents page and look at the Divisions section.) The sheer volume of debates on the issues that divided churches becomes overwhelming and confusing to many.

The second problem in the return to primitive Christianity is that there are differing opinions on when the fall of the church happened. For example, some claim the church was powerfully led through the third century, and the fall didn’t start until Constantine. Others claim the fall started within decades after Paul. Look at how the Polish Brethren differed from the other Anabaptist groups. Restoring the New Testament Church sounds simple but these questions make restoring that church more problematic.

Still, for the individual the question comes down to this; supposing you do see the error in the church as presented in an Anabaptist view, how much of your world, your job, your friends, your family, your co-workers your income, your lifestyle would you give up to follow Jesus? Consider these words;

In the same way, none of you can be my disciples unless you give up everything. [The words of Jesus in Luke 14:33]

[1] THE ANABAPTIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH, Franklin Hamlin Littell, Star King Press, Boston, 1958, p. 52
[2] ibid. p.55-56
[3] ibid. p.59
[4] ibid. p.63

March 25th, 2010 Posted by | Movements, Objections to Restoring New Testament Christianity | no comments