07 October 2012

Answering Questions #20- Restorationism (2) How Far Back?

Some of this distaste for Restoration is also related to ideas of 'progress' and Primitivism (or Restoration) is by nature regressive. It does not elevate the development of ideas and consciously rejects much of history as invalid. That is to say, a Restorationist will suggest many of the claims and ideas which have come out of history are in many ways just built on bad foundations. Restorationism seeks to sweep this away and get back to the foundation and start over as it were.
As much as Reformed institutional thinkers might show hostility to this, their own movement was birthed in a similar way. The Reformation itself was a rejection of the Middle Ages and an attempt at 'restoring' the Church to its original order. They too were Restorationists of a sort.
Of course this is complicated by the fact that this tendency manifested itself in various ways and to various degrees. Luther was far less concerned with a return to Apostolic Christianity than perhaps some of the Reformed wing. He sought only to purge the grossest corruptions and to retain what he determined to be 'good' traditions.
Reformed apologists will argue the Reformed wing of the Reformation did not challenge the theological foundations established by the first four Ecumenical Councils and with pride point out that in no way did Reformation theology completely reject the Scholastic theology of the Middle Ages.
This is partly true. The Protestants retained 'portions' of the doctrine produced by the Ecumenical Councils...particularly those portions dealing with the Trinity. Aside from that they not only jettisoned the remaining decrees of the first four councils but all the councils after Chalcedon. Their restoration could be described as 'selective' but nevertheless an attempt at restoration. In my mind much of the Reformed wing of Protestantism has tried to restore the Church both in terms of doctrine and polity to where it was about the 3rd century on some issues and the 4th century on others.[i]
Why stop there? Well, they might argue the early Church had not yet developed the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines so essential to the Gospel, or rather to a correct Gospel understanding.[ii] We really don't want to go back past that point. To try and reach back into the ante-Nicene period (before 325) would be to embrace confusion.
But I don't think this stands up to examination on several points. First of all it's far more complicated and less clear than many would suppose. Anyone who delves into the controversies surrounding Arius and Nicaea and that whole period will not only become quickly confused but probably somewhat disillusioned. In addition to the scheming and manipulation all coloured by the birth of the Constantinian era, the heroes are not so heroic and the theology is less than clear and conclusive.
After Nicaea this only worsens as the controversy rages and the theology continues to develop. Eventually it could be argued the West and East ended up with very different emphases on the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of this was due to linguistics but also because the terms themselves....person, essence, substance etc... are all pregnant with philosophical ideas and cultural baggage. They were understood in different ways by different people and the monolithic historical and theological picture painted by many today is simply not accurate.
While the disagreements over the 'filioque' seem trivial and certainly were not the sole reason for the East and West splitting in 1054, they hearken back to key differences from the Nicene era that were never resolved.[iii]
From the standpoint of an argument against ante-Nicene Restorationism, the argument is not very strong.[iv] The body of doctrine produced by the Trinitarian Councils was helpful but also equally harmful and unnecessarily divisive. Did it really solve anything? I'm not in any way advocating a less than orthodox position regarding the Trinity but I am sceptical of both the theological and philosophical categories employed by the Councils and certainly what has been done since.
Am I advocating a nebulous and more generalized Trinitarian formulation? I would certainly advocate a more simple and broad doctrinal formulation, one more closely tied to the text and less dependent on obscure philosophical categories. This position actually largely resonates with what you're more likely to find when reading the Ante-Nicene fathers.
Ironically as upsetting as this supposition would be to some, I challenge you to enter your average Reformed Church and find more than one or two people who are even conversant on the topic. In fact you'll find many if not most embrace heretical ideas concerning the Trinity and Incarnation.[v] Their error is simply due to ignorance as they have often not been taught. In many denominations, tradition-adherence and submission to the authority often takes overwhelming precedence to actually teaching the people real and deep theology.[vi]
We cannot erase history, but we should be open to re-thinking all of it. To some this is unacceptable. I've noticed with many Fundamental Baptists to even question the doctrinal system is to them akin to questioning the faith itself and in a cult-like fashion many will refuse to even entertain the possibility that other doctrinal systems or traditions might have something to say.
And of course for many Protestants to antedate the Reformation is unthinkable on many levels. The Reformation affirmed what they believe should have been retained from the past and the Church sort of re-booted at that point. You can't go back and question those foundations. To do so (especially in terms of their polity and other claims) would lead to their undoing. They would become an illegitimate organization with no claim to being a 'true church'.[vii]
The only way I came out of Dispensationalism (apart from the grace of God) was due to a willingness to question everything. I had to 'go back' and consciously remove the scales from my eyes and re-read and re-examine everything. I had to be prepared to follow the road wherever it took me. And if that meant abandoning the theology of the Scofield Bible, then so be it.
Not only was the Dispensational system cast down, I felt like I had a whole new Bible. It was really quite exciting to read it again. The Sovereignty of God jumped out from the pages. The Dispensational System is built on the foundation that God has two different people with two different plans. The Jewish plan is on hold until The Rapture and as soon as the Church is gone the old Jewish system and plan are reactivated. Once I realized how profoundly this system was in error the 'whole' Bible began to come together for me, unity appeared was manifested in ways I had never seen before.
Within a short time I was discovering new difficulties. Election and Predestination had become so central to my way of thinking that now I was starting to have problems with many texts. John 3.16 and 2 Peter 3.9 presented problems because they (with many more) seemed hard to logically reconcile with the necessary inferences and conclusions flowing from a predestinarian system. Scripture was not guiding me anymore, instead I was being governed by a set of system commitments and rational presuppositions. A crisis was looming.
Thankfully I worked through many of these issues with close friends and the right books came into our hands. The authors wouldn't agree with where I've gone but without meaning to they helped me tremendously to start to embrace an adherence to the Scriptures rather than a rote adherence to a system or tradition.[viii]
What does this have to do with Restorationism? Well, there are many groups that have tried to return to the Church of the 1st century and just as many conclusions as to what it looked like. We cannot enter into these projects without first thinking about fundamental questions regarding the Bible itself. How do we read it and what are we to do with the ideas it presents and how do we shape them? These are key concepts few people think about.[ix]

Go to Part 3

[i] Including the area of polity. Presbyterianism is a primitive and still pluralized form of Episcopacy. Looking into the history you'll find the Episcopal system did not develop overnight. It took centuries to come to fruition. A system very much like Presbyterianism was a stepping stone to the later fully developed system of Episcopal Bishops. This was in full force by the time you reach the Council of Nicaea in 325. The move toward Episcopacy is usually identified with Ignatius of Antioch at the commencement of the 2nd Century...the very end of the Apostolic Age. In his letters he draws a distinction between Bishop and Elder (Episcopos and Presbuteros) which is not clear in the New Testament nor in other contemporary writings. The drive seems to have been to establish a 'chain of teaching' or 'succession' with the Apostles vs. the claims of the Gnostics and other heretics who also tried to claim Apostolic origins. Ignatius wasn't trying to establish Episcopacy per se but he unwittingly planted the seed which would later bear fruit, a weed which would ultimately kill the Biblical Polity.

[ii] I hope it is apparent why to say they are 'essential' to the Gospel is problematic. The Early Church did not have the Nicene formulae and yet flourished. Certainly the Church must answer error but sometimes answering error means the Church itself is forced to change.

It's kind of like a country which has an agrarian culture and is invaded by an industrial power. They can retain their values, be conquered, and thus changed. Or they can industrialise and fight, but in doing so, they've changed their values and in a sense 'lost' something. It's a no win situation.

When it comes to the theology, anti-Restitutionists shrug their shoulders or embrace the development and view it in terms of progress or advancement.

Can error provide a means for the Church to work out things, develop ideas and in that sense be considered helpful? This argument has some merits but few reflect on the dangers and pitfalls of allowing the enemy to dictate the agenda. In terms of the Culture War the Church actually chases after the culture, embraces pragmatics as a tactic and has painted itself into a corner.

[iii] The Western addition of 'and the son' regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. The East holds the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone and the West (or Latin which would include both Rome and most Protestants) contends the Spirit proceeds from the Father 'and the son' or 'filioque'. This issue percolated for centuries and it was the focal point of the deep theological and philosophical issues between East and West. There were other liturgical issues and certainly political issues (mainly surrounding the claims of the Papacy) which ultimately led to the Great Schism of 1054.

[iv] Please note that's 'ante' or before, not 'anti' which would be against.

[v]You'll quickly discover most people are either Appollinarians or Nestorian when it comes to Christology and when it comes to the Trinity, the average person is a Modalist of some form. While in the East you might find the average congregant to tend toward Tri-Theism.

[vi] This is a generalization of course but more often than not I have found it to be true. Sometimes it seems like the leadership is reticent to dive into too much. In some cases they seem to have a low view of the congregation's intellectual ability, in other cases it almost seems like they don't want to reveal too much because they know the congregation and know that certain individuals will be offended or upset if they venture into certain topics. They don't want to drive them away. This is especially true in newer congregations or church plants. Membership ends up being far more important than a general doctrinal adherence to Reformed theology and they will often obscure what they actually believe. I hope it's more than merely money but sometimes I'm sceptical of this.

I have also found this to be true with many 'ministries' and the catalogs and materials they produce. American Vision, Vision Forum and many other Dominion and Theonomic based 'ministries' do this. It's actually quite deceptive. They don't reveal what they're really all about. If they did many people would drop their catalog and walk away. They want to slowly bring you in. There's a sense in which this is necessary to argument but it's one thing to teach gently and something else to entice.

Over the years I have been to some Reformed churches that do engage in serious teaching but this seems to be a minority. Perhaps my experience is an anomaly. In many Fundamentalist Churches they are light on doctrine but very heavy handed and detailed when it comes to 'standards' regarding clothing, behaviour etc...

[vii] Since I consider their polity unbiblical and what they claim to be 'the Church' is actually what we might call a Para-Church organization, i.e. the Denomination, I don't think they have a leg to stand on anyway. Individual congregations within their polity are indeed Churches, but the denomination itself can make no such claim unless it contends to be the actual Universal Visible Church, an absurd claim which only few denominations dare to make.

[viii] They, and I'm thinking of people like Iain Murray might have wished only to add to the depth and breadth of the Reformed tradition and to resist the constrictions brought about by Hyper-Calvinism, but actually reading Murray on Spurgeon helped me to enter onto a road that led me to begin to question the Reformed Tradition itself. It's interesting seeing the tensions in his own writings. He strongly adheres to system and tradition in 'The Forgotten Spurgeon' dealing in part with Spurgeon's battles with Arminianism, but at the same time his 'Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism' granted a necessary fluidity to the whole idea of subjecting the Bible to systemic tests of coherence. The lesson I derived from the latter work was that we must submit to the text even if it cannot be reconciled with the system. Murray might suggest the system just needs to be adjusted and broadened, but his critics (and those critical of Spurgeon) are right to point out that the system itself loses coherence and begins to collapse.

I just a go a step further and suggest a change in method, one which still allows for a system, but one structured and governed by different interests resulting in more fluidity and less of a concern for the coherence so necessary to the formulation of dogma and formal confessions.

[ix] Prolegomena is the section in most theology books that is usually glossed over and yet it is really the most important. Without answering the foundational questions of method and epistemology, we flying blind. Everyone has commitments in these areas but very few have ever thought them through. They're just taken for granted.

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