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