The Problem with Primitivism

One of the basic assumptions of Protestantism is Primitivism. This is the idea that the Catholic Church became corrupt at some point and that the Reformers need to ‘restore’ the simple, primitive faith of the early Christians.

Primitivist movements have been around since the beginning of the church, the Protestant Reformation threw up a good number of Primitivist sects like the Amish and Mennonite, but no part of church history is more replete with Primitivist Restorationist movements than 19th century revivalist-mad America. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints with its ideas that the Native Americans are a lost Jewish race and golden tablets written in Reformed Egyptian etc etc. is just one of many such Primitivist sects. You can add in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Landmark Baptists not to mention the Biblical interpretation system called Dispensationalism which still influences the vast majority of Baptists in this country.

Well, if people want to think it through they can read this longer article of mine called The Problem with Primitivism. It examines the faulty assumptions of the Primitivist movements and their even worse solutions. This comes from my Archived Articles section–which I am regularly updating.

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  • Ron

    As always a good posting Father. I notice you left out one of the well known 19th century reformist groups known as the Stone-Campbell movement originally called the Disciples of Christ. They later split into three groups (no suprise there). I was raised in that tradition and while I long ago turned away from it and am now happily Catholic, I appreciated what they gave me: a strong local church and a love for the Bible. Little did I realize how that would serve me later in life.

  • John

    Dare I say, Father, that you are pulling no punches as of late. Your forthrightness is always appreciated.

    I regret that I’ll miss seeing you here in Atlanta on Saturday night. Best wishes for a successful event.

  • Alice C. Linsley

    I’m glad to read a Priest who tells the truth. : )

    I lived for 4 years in a Mennonite commmunity in Pennsylvania. The ladies taught me skills I had never learned from my own mother. Those were hard days financially, but I learned to be resourceful, to find uses for eveything and to garden and preserve produce. I disagree with the Anabaptists and other primitivist groups on ecclessiology, the sacraments, and their literalist interpretations of the Bible, but their stewardship of resources is praise worthy.

  • Joe

    Father do you have anything on Orthodoxy and the East/West schism in your archives? The arguments contrasting Catholic and Protestant thinking & history are clear and make a lot of sense. However, I haven’t read anything quite so clear contrasting (and exalting) Catholicism over Orthodoxy.

  • Matthew the Wayfarer

    Father, where does Anglicanism fit into this ‘primitivist scheme? Their continued acceptance of Reformed Catholicism as via media seems to indicate fuzzy thinking. I now believe their attempt at Catholic Primitivism, to return the Church to the Catholicism of the first two councils is what makes them protestant. What say you?

  • Michael Fraley

    Just to toss my two cents’ worth in … dispensationalism doesn’t just influence Baptists – almost every non-Catholic Christian I’ve ever known (and quite a few Catholic ones) swallow dispensationalism to the point that any other point of view isn’t just unacceptable – it’s unthinkable.

  • Christian

    Going back to the acorn doesn’t improve the oaktree.

  • The Ubiquitous

    … and yet primitivism is a catch-all defense for everything for the priest standing on the wrong side of the altar and reception in the hand to EHMCs.

  • Bernie

    I hope and pray that we never go back to all latin masses and the priests back.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    No it isn’t. If you had read the article you would see that primitivism is the belief that the earliest version of a belief or practice is best.

  • John

    I pray that we do.

  • Bernie


  • John

    Why do you pray that we do not?

  • Everett

    About the year 190, Pope Victor I became the first bishop in Church history to try to assert his authority in a church other than his own. The Greek church celebrated the resurrection of
    Christ, commonly and blasphemously called Easter, on a different day than the Latin church. Victor demanded they follow Rome’s custom. The Greek church was older, much larger, and far more influential than than the Latin and wasn’t about to submit to the bishop in Rome. Victor excommunicated the Orthodox church. Victor’s hubris raised an outcry throughout the Church, East and West. Iranaeus, the bishop of Lyon (France), went to Rome and rebuked Victor for his arrogance. Victor backed off and stayed in communion with the oldest member of the Body of Christ.

    It is significant that it was Iraneaus who rebuked the pope. Iranaeus was the first, as far as I know, to assert that Peter and Paul founded the church in Rome. His assertion cannot be proven from history or Scripture. On the contrary, from what we read in Scripture, it is extremely unlikely that Peter had a part in the founding of that church and impossible that Paul did. And yet believing that the Roman church was founded by the two greatest apostles, he still didn’t believe Rome had authority over the Church.

    In 1054, Leo IX excommunicated the entire Orthodox church because the Greek Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, would not submit to the primacy of Rome. Leo’s demand was largely based on the Donation of Constantine, in which the emperor gave spiritual authority over ehe entire church and civil authority over the western portion of the empire. The Donation was later proven to be a forgery. Leo IX rent asunder the Church of God because the patriarch would not
    submit to a lie. Leo was later cannonized.

    When Catholic historian, Lord Acton, wrote “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was refering to the papacy. Historically , the papacy has been more concerned about than truth. Nothing has changed.

  • Everett

    It is written, “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength;’ but you would not.” (Isaiah 30:15)

    And again, ” Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not.’ ” (Jeremiah 6:16)

    With several exceptions, the message of the prophets was repent and return to the Lord your God. Go back to the beginning. We find the same thing with the apostles. Paul rebuked the Galatians for quickly departing from the gospel preached to thkem and embracing another teaching. They hadn’t rejected.Christ; they added to Him. Paul repeatedly told them , ” We are justified by faith.” The Galatians said, ” We are justified by faith plus the works of the Law. Paul said that was “anathama.” The Galatians needed to go back to the beginning.

    In I Corinthians 4:6 we are told “not to exceed what is written.” In Jude 3, we are admonished to ” contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

    You seem to think that what was taught at the beginning is not necessarily the best. If that is so, then how can you use Scripture to support anything; Scripture came at the beginning. Or, and I say this without sarcasm or disrespect, are you a Cafeteria Christian and choose the things you like from the beginning and ignore the things you don’t like, and then add tradition? Tradition is evolved doctrine that exceeds what is written and is not a part of the faith that was once delivered to the saints for which we are to contend.

    Those you call “primatists”, I believe God would call faithful. Those who are called “literalists”, I believe God would call obedient. If I’ve misunderstood you, please correct me.

  • Everett

    An oak tree does’t have a heart, soul, mind, or will. I t can’t lie or be a hypocrite. It can’t teach others false doctrine or lead them astray. It can’t be disobedient or rebellious. It can’t sin, so it doesn’t need forgiveness. It can’t choose life or death. It’s life doesn’t end in heaven or hell. I’m sure you can multiply reasons why the oak tree can’t be compared to the Church of God or its members.

  • Bob

    If you as a Catholic hear an Evangelical say he or she goes to a “non-denominational” church — tell them you go to a “pre-denominational” one. Father, you are so right. Non-denominational really means “non-dimensional.”