13 October 2012

Answering Questions #20- Restorationism (3) The Kingdom In History

I recently heard a Reformed podcast in which the host and guest caricatured the whole idea of returning to the first century. Look at all the problems in the New Testament era, why would we want to return to that?

They also proceeded to attack the whole notion that the past is somehow more pure. This is a key point reflecting very different concepts of history and the nature of truth. In fact on this point Restorationism has more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy than Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
Orthodoxy has been less interested in development and progress and more keen to retain what they already had. Unfortunately Orthodoxy represents a theology that stopped about the 8th century. From my standpoint it was already deeply corrupted.
The Western tradition represented by Catholicism and Protestantism was always about development, progress, and speculation. This has also been pointed to in order to explain fundamental differences between the East and West. In the West these ideas of progress extended beyond the Church and certainly beyond the age of unified Roman Christendom into the era of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the modern age.
This difference in mindset continues to this day in the divide between East and West. Although that's only true in part. The West basically extended itself over the globe during the 19th and 20th centuries and all the world's foundationally different cultures have been forced to interact and change, affected by Westernism.[i] Nevertheless old feelings, intuitions and biases remain.[ii]
Western ideas concerning economics and progress have a deep moral element that many Westerners do not give enough consideration. Others outside the Western sphere have felt the effects and have experienced firsthand, and in often a short span of time, the change in morality and social fabric produced by this interaction. Traditional cultural systems are being turned on their heads and in some cases this as much as any specific religious or theological element is spurring on reactionary violence.
The Reformed men in the podcast believe in progressive history. We all believe history is progressing, moving toward the moment when Christ returns to the Earth. But these men have tied the concept of the Kingdom of God to intellectual and thus cultural and theological development and advancement.
To be sure the 'Parable of the Wheat and Tares' in Matthew 13 presents an idea of progressive maturation, viz., the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Enemy grow together on this earth. Neither one is completely victorious prior to the Parousia of Christ. When the 'harvest' comes, the wheat and tares will be separated. This is often used to refute Postmillennialism's expectation of a pre-Eschaton 'Golden Age'.
So, these Reformed men might argue, you see there's progress. Yes, but how is that progress gauged? How is it measured? How does the Kingdom of God progress in terms of time and space on Earth?
To answer this we have to go back to defining the Kingdom and once again I will revert to the host of New Testament passages that define it as Spiritual, not able to be seen by the lost, a Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. I would argue the Old Testament passages speaking of glorious political and cultural triumph are interpreted by the New. The Apostolic Hermeneutic enables us to understand the passages in the Old Testament that speak of a universal worldwide Kingdom. We understand this to be fulfilled spiritually in the present, in that the Gospel goes out to all nations of the Earth and is not restricted merely to Israel. And that it will only find its ultimate fulfillment in the Consummated Kingdom when indeed all of the New Heavens and the New Earth will be Holy and without corruption. In the New Heavens and New Earth then truly the worldwide culture will be Holy and Christian...because all sin will be removed.
So I don't think the Kingdom can be defined in terms of cultural advancement. I don't think the Kingdom expands through civilizational endeavour. But what about in the realm of knowledge? Are the Scriptures an a priori starting point, a foundation upon which the Church builds and applies the Kingdom to the world through various forms of theology?[iii]
This question must also be answered and I have made an initial attempt to answer it elsewhere.
Do we find greater purity the nearer we approach the time of the Apostles? Those committed to historical narratives and notions of theological development and progress will be inclined to say, "No."
I would answer that it's not a 'yes or no' question. It's more complicated than that. In some ways in terms of simplicity the closer we approach to Apostolic times then indeed we find a more 'pure' Church and a more 'pure' time. However, I am unwilling to suggest there is absolutely no room for theological development. Reading the Fathers it is apparent there were many doctrines not yet developed or 'worked out'.
So while I would argue some development (done with a certain understanding) to be a good thing, not all development nor the impetus and commitments behind it have proved good. In fact in many cases the development has led to unnecessary strife and trouble and certainly division. I am in no way advocating an anti-doctrinal (Doctrine Divides) stance. Far from it, but doctrine indeed can divide...sometimes out of necessity, but often due to other reasons. If Restorationism is being employed to divide, to 'write-off' Christian history and disregard claims from large portions of the Church than this too would be an error. Many Restorationists and Fundamentalists have not wrestled with Church History and they often do this in ignorance of their own origins.
I have heard many a Fundamentalist express confidence that their beliefs and practices are nothing more than 'old time' Christianity, when in reality they reflect nothing older than 19th century innovations. And likewise I've heard many Restorationists speak of 'merely following the Bible' but have given little thought to hermeneutics and the epistemological and philosophical commitments which underpin them. While they seek to simply read and follow the Bible as the early Church did, they do so with Enlightenment and Americanist eyes and it shows in the end result.
I do not operate under the fiction that we can somehow 'return' to the first or second century. The Dissenters in the Middle Ages couldn't either. Too much had happened, too many things had changed, there were too many new issues. It's only worse today and far more complicated.
But I do believe we can re-assess much of Church history. I don't mean to suggest we come at it in novel terms. There's nothing I'm suggesting that is completely out of accord with historic Christianity. I'm patently disagreeing with large portions of the 'Church' and rejecting many ideas. I want to go further and reject the ideas that spawned those ideas in the first place. I do strongly believe the Truth is in the minority, and I believe the theme of the Remnant is something that pervades Scripture. I believe the majority will always reject the Truth and these beliefs also inform how we think about theological development and Church history. These beliefs place me squarely at odds with the Reformed men I mentioned who worked to destroy the Restorationist straw-man they had constructed.

[i] This generated some interesting and terrible cultural hybrids...Communism is a Western idea but put into Eastern contexts produced different results, none of them actually in accord with Marxist Orthodoxy.  The Marxist-Leninist origins of the Soviet Union, the Maoism of China, and the Khmer variation in Cambodia all devolved into Nationalist forms of Totalitarianism, akin to Fascism...not because Fascism and Communism are the same thing. Far from it. But because Communism never did actually work or get its feet off the ground.

It can debated whether or not Mao's ideas were even Marxist at all. Peasant Communism was rooted in very different ideas than the industrialized context/worker-based ideas of Marx.

[ii] Those who believe Democracy is some kind of universal value are ignorant of history, but likewise the adherents of the Huntington 'Clash' thesis are equally ignorant in oversimplifying the world's cultures and failing to recognize the hybridization taking place as technological society is fundamentally overthrowing traditional cultural norms and attitudes in places like Russia, Turkey, and China.

[iii] Systematic, Speculative, Historical, and Dogmatic


Anonymous said...

I'm so grateful for this series. You're helping me to more thoroughly think through my convictions and hunches--their origins, their validity in light of Scripture and history, and their consequences.

Reformationists do operate on an assumption of progressivism and economic development. I think they do not even see that about themselves. I think it has caused much conflict from the get-go with me because they cannot back up to a point before those assumptions when I try to dialogue. And I am convinced that the hebraic "eastern" "ancient" mindset and understanding, which was historical and had huge impact on theology and approach to Truth, is necessary for rightly dividing the Word of Truth. At least an acknowledgement of the "eastern" mindset of the Apostolic age with attempt to filter westernism's assumptions out of our view somewhat. The Hellenizing of the Judaic world and subsequent theology like from Augustine "changed" biblical understanding. Know what I mean?

I've felt chaffed (OK--I admit I've felt outright offended) by the arrogance of the Western mindset Reform apologists as if it is all there is or all that's ever been.

About that "purity" issue: My thought is that you are correct that the past was not necessarily more "pure" in its theology. What we ought to look for and emulate is not purity of intellectual understanding nor copying of outward form and function of early Christians. But look for how they applied their conversion and faith in whatever cultures and governments they found themselves. What characterized early Christianity was the radical apostolic conversion that lived out its witness thereafter to turn the world upside down. Greek humanism impacted the church and moved radical conversion to a more creedal and intellectual norm, losing power in the Spirit. Sure, there were serious problems in the churches; Corinth being the most obvious example, but "problems" are not the criteria upon which we are to evaluate the faith or the church. That noting of problems is itself a sympton of the western utilitarian expediency-obsessed value system.

Proto, you and I agree that constantiniamism was a great and lamentable turning point in the visible "western" church. If I would call myself a Restorationist, it would be that I would like to restore a pre-constantine mindset and jettison all the junk that's been built as a result of the constantinian shift. Nothing wrong with restoring Paul's apostolic revelation and doctrine. That's the remnant--which I believe is a true doctrine.

Thanks, Victoria

Cal said...


If you haven't read Augustine, I would. Not that he's perfect or his heritage in Greek thought didn't bleed into his writing (it did), but he is a shining light of serious reflection and meditation on the Scripture. Pelagius was not a lone monk on the corner of the Empire, he represented much of the love of Greek wisdom over and against the Scripture (the fruit of Constantinian adoption of the church in the Roman Empire by Caesar).

I use to feel the same way as you about Augustine until I read his Confessions.


Anonymous said...

OK, Cal, I should work in some reading of Augustine, straight from him. Perhaps it has happened that, as with Calvin, his disciples eventually wove in their influences which essentially changed the stream of theology bearing his name. Fellowship here is a delight, no?

Protoprotestant said...

My apologies for not posting anything lately.

I am working long hours and present. It's been very good for my wallet but unfortunately it has left me exhausted and with very little free time.

Last night as I watched the 3rd Party debate online I was struggling to stay awake...not because it wasn't interesting, I'm just simply exhausted.

God willing I'll find some free time in the near future to return to writing, answering comments etc... I have literally dozens of articles ready to write...I just have to find the time to do it. I told my wife that eventually I'll come down with a bad cold or something and though it will hurt the bottom line, it will give me some time to work and spend time on the things I truly love and care about.

Renovating a commercial space on a main street in a small town in proving lucrative but to me it's a waste of time. Don't get me wrong. I'm thankful. I'm earning money and paying my bills which is great and good... but there are other things far more important.

Interestingly and obviously Providentially the numbers, the readership for this website has really dropped off lately. Not sure why. I've been less prolific this year and perhaps some of my topics are off-putting. I think perhaps I've alienated some who were of a more Reformed persuasion. I don't know.

All in God's time.

So in the meantime, I work and make money and wow do we ever need it. I am thankful.

Jim C. said...

Hey John,

I still visit the website every day but sometimes I just don't have anything to add to the discussion.

I'm curious...(and I hope you don't mind me asking) how has it been for you since you left the PCA? Have you started up your own church? Do you still keep in touch with some of the members?


Anonymous said...

I too wonder how you're doing, and what you're doing for "church." No pressure--just letting you know we love you and we remember to pray for you often. I'm glad you're getting some good income for now.


Protoprotestant said...

No we haven't started a church or anything. At the very least we want to meet with other Christians for some Word-centered fellowship.

On Sundays a our family gathers with a few other families and we read some Scripture, sing some hymns, and I've been teaching a bit through Hebrews.

We'll see what happens. The group is hardly on the same page but we've reached a point where in many parts of North America it is virtually impossible to just find a situation where the Bible is actually being taught. So for now the other families seem keen to be taught the Bible. However I'm not sure they will be entirely keen on what I'm saying. They're coming from some other backgrounds.

While not having a Church to be a part of is completely unacceptable and unsatisfactory....it may prove the sobering reality, in which case we'll just have to do the best we can.

Thanks for the encouragement and the prayer. That's a true comfort.
Everything is fine, I'm just involved in working on an office space and there's something of a deadline. The money is very good but I've got to push hard and put in some long hours. In fact next week I intend to work even a bit more. I'm exhausted but I'm getting caught up on bills, that's for sure.

So for the present, there just won't be a lot of writing. I'll have some time on the weekend and I'll keep plodding along.

Oh and do I keep in touch with the other members from the PCA? Some of them. In fact we're supposed to get together with one of the families next week for dinner. And...the families we're gathering with on Sunday, they too are from the PCA. One of the families is still attending and then coming to our study in the afternoon. I'm not spending time on the membership/confessionalism issues. That's for them to figure out. I'm just trying to teach through Hebrews...one of the great gems on the NT and one of the least understood.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me how hungry many church people are to actually get into the Scriptures, but many are quite deficient in the most basic skills, discipline, or knowledge to get started. For instance, simply finding books in the Bible, or having a basic familiarity with the timeline covered by the Bible, or understanding differing categories of biblical literature. It's wonderful that folks are hungry, but like going back to nursery school. You will be blessed by "watering" others.

cal said...


I found this quote from Augustine, made me think of you and this comment thread. Since it's pretty open, I thought I'd share. Enjoy:

"Take Aristotle, put him near to the Rock of Christ and he fades away into nothingness. Who is Aristotle? When he hears the words, “Christ said,” then he shakes in hell. “Pythagoras said this.” “Plato said that.” Put them near the Rock and compare these arrogant people with Him who was crucified."