11 November 2012

Answering Questions #20- Restorationism (5) The Anabaptists and The Constantinian Shift

The Church of Christ represents one aspect of Restorationism that I at least in principle would seek to emulate... a commitment to Biblicism and more specifically a New Testament oriented Biblicism.
With this comes a certain posturing toward history and doctrine that on some level I do appreciate, though in many cases I do not come to the same conclusions they do.
Another grouping to consider would be that of the Anabaptists. This would include the various Brethren groups in addition to the better known Mennonites.[i]

Like the much later Stone-Campbell Restorationists the Mennonites were also absolutely committed to a New Testament focused Biblicism.
When I mention specifically the focus or priority of the New Testament, to be fair I mean something different. I do believe the New Testament is the revelatory capstone of Scripture. I believe the New Testament takes precedent and priority over the Old. The New Testament interprets the Old and helps us to rightly understand it. The New Testament is technically the canon of the Church in a way the Old Testament is not. I am in no way suggesting the Old Testament isn't Scripture, but in terms of chronology, it has been superseded and thus has lost its place of priority.
This touches on the massive question of the relationship between the Covenants/Testaments.  Are they in opposition? Is there total disunity? Is there absolute unity? Or do we need to understand the relationship in a different way? This is a tangled and difficult question and often differences can be found even within the same tradition or school of thought.
For example within the Reformed world you have everything from the Klineans who would hold to a position quite similar to my own...seeing both unity and radical discontinuity, all the way to the Theonomists who have constructed a Mono-covenantal system that recognizes almost no difference or discontinuity between the Testaments.
Dispensationalists have always emphasized disunity. In fact in the old system presented within the Scofield Bible, the two Testaments presented absolutely different methods of Salvation. The Old Testament saints were saved by the Levitical system, they came to the Father by a road that did not include Christ. This would also be true of the Jews during the so-called Tribulational period occurring after the pre-tribulational Rapture.
The Churches of Christ as well as the Anabaptists in no way discount or dismiss the Old Testament, but their orientation is specifically focused on the New Testament. This is better than what we might find in the Judaizing tendencies of Rome or its cousin Theonomy, yet...in many ways it is also deficient.
At this point I don't wish to expand on all these issues because I've done so elsewhere but I will summarize by saying a right understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testament helps us to understand the role of typology and symbolism. It helps us to formulate and understand a doctrine of the Covenant and how the Covenant can represent both a temporal category as well as an Eschatological one.
This type of dialectical thinking or as it has been expressed in history a theory of forms, allows us to grasp something of the two sided or dynamic interplay between temporal forms (what is often called Means) and eternal realities.
While this may seem to stray into the realm of philosophical speculation, or even sound Platonic, I would argue the Bible and more specifically the New Testament is rife with examples of this. From Paul's declarations in Romans concerning the nature of Judaism and the duality of the definition of Israel to the dynamics so apparent in the book of Hebrews. Elsewhere we find the many pairings in John's Epistles and Gospel, expressions of the dynamic between temporal and eternal, or to put it another way, time and space versus eschatology.
All Mono-Covenantal constructs will fail to grasp this. This is true of Rome's theology[ii], Theonomic schools of thought[iii] as well as the groups that exclusively focus on the New Testament.
The same theological and epistemological issues are present in all these groups. They just manifest themselves in different ways because they have chosen to 'anchor' at a specific point. For whatever reason (and it varies from group to group) one particular principle takes precedent and then using what is in actuality the same type of reason they construct a system....one that to my mind will undoubtedly contain some truth but in the end will not only miss much but because of the deficient method will fall into other theological tangles and traps.
Today within the Evangelical world, a too-heavy focus on the New Testament is generally not the problem. Instead the Evangelical world (and I'm not including those completely outside the realm of historic Christianity)[iv] has due to Sacralistic impulses and Culture War has employed a hermeneutic that is often looking to the Old Testament. The New Testament does not provide what they're looking for in terms of culture, law, politics etc...
This is not employed with any kind of consistency and rarely with any sort of principles to back it. Old Testament Israel is often appealed to when it comes to the needs of the Christian Right to justify a particular political issue. This can range from economic principles, vindicating various social and/or geopolitical concepts[v], or to locate narratives to draw from and apply to the contemporary situation that America finds herself in.
In terms of the Culture War, they'll turn to the Old Testament in order to know how to deal with idolaters and homosexuals, or in a more general way seek vindication for various other exclusionary or behaviour-shaping laws. The Culture War is also raging within the Church as congregations fight over issues concerning worship and the Christian life. Once again the Old Testament can be appealed to in order to vindicate rock music (as in loud music as per the Old Testament), liturgical dance, a focus on architecture, beauty in the Church building etc...
These all represent terrible abuses of the Old Testament. This is a failure to rightly understand what the Old Testament was actually about. They're reading it in a non-Christocentric fashion because they have not understood the message of the New Testament. Paul's identification of the Jewish order as 'weak and beggarly' is something they have not grasped.
Though the Anabaptists (in my opinion) got much wrong, on this point their New Testament primacy helped them to rightly understand a very key doctrine....that of the Kingdom of God.
In the post-Reformation period the Anabaptists almost alone seemed to grasp the Spiritual nature of the Kingdom. They understood it to be a Holy Kingdom of Peace and Love, a Kingdom of forgiveness and mercy, one which rejects the values and aspirations, the pride and lusts of this world.
Only by reading the Old in light of the New can we understand the Judgment so prevalent in the Old Testament, the violence and the warfare. Only then can we grasp the nature of Old Testament Israel and the task of the law, the office of king.
The New Testament helps us to rightly understand Christ is both Saviour and Judge. He is the Way and if He is rejected He will break their teeth, put their peoples to the sword that comes from his mouth...the Word-Judgment.[vi]
We understand that the Kingdom of the New Testament is  Heaven itself in its Already-Not Yet form. In Christ, we are already seated in the heavenlies. The Kingdom we are part of is not a type-Kingdom, not a shadow/form Kingdom. We possess the real and actual, the True. This Kingdom is not built with sword, defined by political boundaries, nor is it subject to cultural disputes. It is a Holy and Spiritual Kingdom accessed only by those who have been given eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand.
The Anabaptists seemed to understand this. I wish they might have understood a bit more and instead of focusing just on the very important Already....they would have also grasped something of the Not Yet.
That said, their understanding of the Kingdom led them to rightly identify Christian Sacralism or as it came to be known in the West...Constantinianism as a pernicious and perilous error....the theological foundation for what we often call Antichrist...the merging of the Whore (Apostate) Church with the Self-Deified State, also known as the Beast.[vii]
At this point, in the Reformation period, they alone continued the Medieval protest legacy found in so many communions and movements. Sadly the children of the Lollards and most of the Waldenses succumbed to the temptations and in some cases the pragmatics of the new Protestant Sacralism. Some of the Hussite remnants continued[viii] and later groups would arise[ix] but in the 16th century the Anabaptists stand almost alone and it would seem in our present day they are one of the very few groups maintaining the heritage and testimony.
This is a view of the Kingdom that guides the reading of history and takes the Church back to the times of the Roman persecution. This way of thinking about the Kingdom does not celebrate the Constantinian Shift and in fact rightly identifies it as one of the most calamitous events in the history of the Church. For 250 years (60-313) the forces of Satan had attempted to physically destroy the Church through bloodshed. When this failed within a very short time it's as if Satan's victory was complete. The Church was not defeated by arms but subverted from within and betrayed. Even today Christians fail to grasp this theological and historical point....the Church's greatest threats are always internal. The World can only affect us as much as we let it and there is a real danger in allowing worldly thought and values into the Church. But the direct danger is not the world, but false Christians within the body synthesizing the world's ideas and values with the theology of Scripture. We're not fooled by the overtly anti-Christian ideologies (Darwinism, Marxism etc...), but we are often fooled when worldly thought is blended with Biblical teaching.[x]
These concepts are fundamental to Restorationism.  
For many years this was generally understood if not consistently applied in thought and action. For American Christians in particular, America as the New Christian Rome did not seem inconsistent with also rejecting Constantine and his legacy. The Roman Emperor and the Medieval Church were rejected and seemed historically, geographically and theologically very far away.
Yet, America set down the same road, embarked on the same path in just a different form. And today amidst the Culture War many apologists have gone back to the precedents and the philosophical arguments that justified the Medieval Sacralism. It is once more being celebrated and championed. While this is lamentable it is bringing about a situation akin to what the Church faced before. The lines of delineation are becoming more clear, the issues are more polarized. Unless you are 'with' them in this pseudo-Kingdom task, you almost certainly cannot function within their circles. Once your eyes are opened to the error, suddenly wrong thinking and idolatry surround you and it's a crushing burden on your soul and dashes fellowship. Ideologically there is a great gulf and practically speaking it becomes almost easier to engage pagans than those infected with the virus of Sacralism.
Go To Part 6

[i] Which would include the Amish who technically are a breakaway group from the Mennonite movement.

[ii] Which focuses almost strictly on the temporal forms and declares them to be reality.

[iii] I do not just refer to Theonomy proper, Rushdoony's  movement which arose in the late 1960's. I would include much of the Reformed tradition and certainly include the New England Puritans and many of the similar elements within Scottish Presbyterianism.

[iv] Like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and others who are Christian only in name, people who employ a Christian veneer for what is really an entirely different religion.

[v] In 2003 I heard many so-called Christians appealing to the Old Testament in order to justify civilian deaths in Iraq. The Old Testament (to their way of thinking) provided them a cover for the murderous war they wished to not only justify but celebrate.

[vi] The Conquest of Canaan was a typological picture of the coming Day of Judgment, but even today great and terrible events, catastrophes and disasters can remind of us of the Coming Judgment we all deserve...and for those in Christ, have been delivered from.

[vii] This labeling is technically not correct. The Bible uses the term 'man of sin' to denote the ecclesiastical force at work within the New Covenant Temple/Church that claims the authority God alone possesses. John identifies those who deny the Incarnation as antichrists and the book of Revelation speaks of the Whore and the Beast. Often we amalgamate these concepts together under the appellation of Antichrist. Undoubtedly the Medieval Papacy (not the Popes specifically or in particular) fulfilled this role. Today, we would probably have to look to another 'Christian' empire to find a contemporary fulfillment.

[viii] The Unitas Fratrum and ultimately the Moravians. Sadly they came under the influence of Zinzendorf and Pietism in the 18th century and today are theologically liberal.

[ix] While not orthodox in a Biblical sense, the Quakers also represent an anti-Sacralist theology.

[x] There are too many examples to list here. Just War Theory, Democracy, various Economic theories etc.... are the types of things I'm referring to. This is not to say that we have to entirely reject all these concepts, but it is imperative that we do not confuse them with Biblical Truth. For example I might say Democracy is valid option for the fallen world. It's flawed (as every political model will be) but it's better than some of the alternatives. This is far different from claiming that Democracy is somehow Christian or that Democracy is somehow tied to Providence or the advance of the Kingdom.

No comments: