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

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