Primitivism and Progressivism

Here are two ‘isms’ that plague the church: primitivism and progressivism. They can be defined pretty simply as “Old is good and new is bad” and “New is good and old is bad”. Christian Primitivists hold the erroneous assumption that an earlier age is, by definition better because it is closer to the source. So Protestant primitivists believe that the apostolic age was best because it was closest to Jesus. They then jump to the conclusion that they must somehow re-create the apostolic age in their attitudes, their theology, the Biblical interpretation, their worship and behaviors.

There are several problems with this. First of all, they are usually ignorant of what the primitive age they venerate was actually like. They assume that they way they worship and pray and behave is actually what it was like ‘back in the Bible times’. So the believers in the little independent Bible church in which I was brought up thought that the early Christians simply met in people’s homes to study the Bible, sing hymns and witness to people. In other words, instead of replicating the apostolic age in the present day they simply projected their own type of worship back onto the apostolic age. If they had actully been transported back to a church in the first century Roman empire they would have been astounded to find worship that was liturgical, sacramental, symbolical and well, Catholic. I don’t say this because I am projecting Catholicism back onto the primitive age, but because the evidence shows that the early church worship was liturgical, sacramental and symbolical.

But the main problem with primivism is that it is a specious concept to start with. Why should an earlier age, necessarily be better than this age? To be sure, it is closer in time to Christ, but that proximity to Christ may actually cloud the vision. We see things better from a distance. It took a couple of hundred years for the church to fully understand Christ and the fullness of his mission. For Catholic doctrine develops as an acorn becomes an oak tree. We don’t say that the acorn is better than the oak or that the oak is better than the acorn. These are false categories. We acknowledge that the oak would not exist without the acorn, and that therefore the acorn is vital, but we also value the oak as it is today.

What the primitivist usually wants is simplicity, purity, authenticity and clarity. Howevere, these are conditions of the mind and heart, and are not reliant on externals.

The opposite of the primitivist is the progressivist, who assumes that “New is good and old is bad” The progressivist makes exactly the opposite error as the primitivist and rejects something simply because it is old and assumes that the ‘new’ must be better. He does this because he has swallowed a previous assumption that humanity is getting better and better every day. This false ideology is a fruit of Darwinism–which teaches the myth of the grand evolutionary upward sweep in which human beings are the zenith of the long evolutionary process and that this march onward and upward will continue inexorably forever. What has always tickled me is that this myth of progress found it strongest voice in the twentieth century–a century when morally speaking mankind has been at a shocking nadir of sophistication and moral achievement.

So the progressivists of the twentieth century claimed that mankind had reached this omega point of perfection–meanwhile we went through two horrific world wars, dropped atomic bombs, sent our fellow man to concentration camps, the Gulag, went on death marches, committed genocide on a massive scale, instituted abortion on demand and the list goes on and on…

Progressivism is just as much of a heresy as primitivism. Something is not good or bad or beautiful or ugly simply because it is old or new. There is plenty of old trash and plenty of new quality. Instead of judging something by it’s age we should judge it according to the greater criteria of whether it is beautiful, good and true.

But this is difficult. It requires thought, learning, discernment and wisdom…and these are not acquired without some hard work, prayer and submission.

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  • Gail F

    An excellent essay, Father. The funny thing about the relationship between evolution and Progressivism is that the actual theory of evolution does not and cannot posit that a later stage of evolution is somehow "better" than a previous one, because "better" implies a standard and/or a final cause. Evolution, strictly speaking, is just an explanation of how and why something changed from one thing to another. It is not "better" at either stage, or any stage in between, or any stage that might yet come. Better suited to prevailing conditions, maybe, but not intrinsically better or worse. But it is a comforting and exciting idea, so people love it. We're better! Every day in every way I'm getting better and better!

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    Granma Moses pray for us.'In the primitive church… Godly discipline… much to be wished… et al'From the 1662 BCP och aye, de nieu

  • Old Bob

    Excellent essay, Father. Thanks!!

  • shadowlands

    I have found the rosary to be an excellent time machine, in the sense that one can be transported back to the gospel events one is meditating on, with each mystery. I have never experienced anything like this consistently, with any other form of prayer. I have also found myself accompanied, on occasion, during these visits, either by Our Lady, or Jesus, or both and once or twice, others, at the cross. They are alive 'now' always, as I am too, I think? Anyway, history and fashions and thinkers of the day disappear when you are in their company. At the same time, it is very 'normal' and familiar, like remembering.Having said all that, the world still glitters attractively with it's passing pleasures, less so, but that's probably just my age, rather than any growth in goodness. Thank God for His Mercy and consolations, which I exhaust, often.

  • Jane

    Some of the famous liturgists of the mid-20th century were an odd mixture of both primitivism and progressivism. That is, they wanted to radically change some parts of the liturgy to reflect what they believed some Early Christians did, and radically change other parts of the liturgy in brand new ways. It is not a happy combination.

  • jedesto

    Excellent post, Father.I hate to "nit-pick", but "It took a couple of hundred years for the church to fully understand Christ and the fullness of his mission" is at least an overstatement, i.e., we aren't there yet!