Primitivism’s Problem Principles
The first five problems are critiques of Restorationism, which is the outworking of Christian Primitivism. They reveal deep fractures in the edifice, but the fractures are there because of deeper fault lines that run through Primitivism–the philosophical foundation of Restorationism. Like all faulty foundations, the problems lay hidden, but it is in examining the foundations that we see the deeper problems.
The first foundational problem of Christian Primitivism is the denial of the necessity for the visible church. One of the foundation assumptions is that all church institutions are provisional. They are necessary evils. They are man made institutions. As such they are to be distrusted and they are disposable. Built into this assumption is the bias that the Catholic Church ‘cannot possibly be right.’ Therefore the Catholic Church is simply ‘another denomination’ like every other, and if it seems corrupt or apostate it should be scrapped to start again.
The second problem is the naive belief that the Church should be immaculate. In other words, that it is possible that the Church should be sinless. Rightly shocked by the corruption of members of the established church, primitivists wished to return to a purer and more basic church. This is unrealistic. What they failed to see was that there is no such thing as the perfect church. They overlooked the fact that among the apostles themselves there was a traitor, one who betrayed the Lord, cowards, sinners and weaklings, and that the Lord prophesied and allowed that the wheat and the tares would grow together.
The third foundational problem of Christian Primitivism is that while the Primitivist wants an immaculate church he does not believe in an infallible Church. Along with the denial of a visible church, Primitivists also deny an infallible church. Because the Catholic church has (in their view) departed from the truth, she cannot be infallible. But this assumption is leaky, because the primitivist’s whole enterprise is an attempt to recover a church that was pristine and pure and (by inference) infallible. Either there was an ancient infallible church, in which case it has never failed because it cannot fail, or there was never an ancient infallible church, in which case, why bother to attempt a recovery of it?
The fourth foundational problem is connected with the third. Primitivism is based on the assumption that the Catholic Church is not infallible, and that there is no such thing as an infallible church, but the primitivist would have us believe that his ‘restored’ church is infallible. It is true that he does not state this belief openly, yet he heartily believes it is so, for he has given his total allegiance to this church. But if his restored church is infallible, why does it clash with all the other restored churches and why did God allow six or ten or nineteen centuries to pass before establishing it? If, on the other hand, this restored church is not infallible, why should I (or anyone else for that matter) be expected to owe allegiance to it?
The fifth underlying problem of Primitivism is the most blatant of all. Assuming that the primitive church is the church of the first century (and this assumes that there is a cut off point when the church ceases to be ‘primitive’–and who decides that?) how can anyone really know what the first century church was like? We have archeological evidence. We have Scriptural evidence. We have documentary evidence, but all we can do is the delicate and tentative work of the historian. We cannot really get back into the skin of first century Christians in the Roman Empire. We can’t really understand the culture, the assumptions and the worldview of former Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman Empire. Even if we could come up with an accurate checklist of all the attributes of the primitive church, who would decide which of the attributes we wanted to re-create and which ones we would omit? Shall we have house churches or mega churches? Shall we exclude women from ordination, but allow them to not cover their heads in church? Shall we have simple Bible preaching, but not speaking in tongues and miraculous handkerchiefs? Shall we have sacraments but not slaves; Bible studies, but not bishops?
Linked with this problem is the biggest elephant in the living room: Why it should necessarily be a good thing to re-create the primitive church at all? We live in the twenty first century, not the first. Any attempt at recovery can never be anything more than an artificial reproduction–with the same relationship to primitive Christianity as my grandmother’s dining room table has to the furniture of Versailles or Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland to Windsor Castle.
When faced with a church that is corrupt, complex and seemingly out of touch, Christian Primitivism seems like an admirable ideal. To establish a simple, down to earth form of Christianity seems laudable. If one is going to start a religion, it is a good thing to wish for that religion to be the ancient faith that comes to us from the Apostles.
Given that it is a laudable thing to want one’s church to be connected with the Church of the first century, and accepting the arguments put forward here on the intrinsic flaws of Primitivism, one has therefore to ask if any link with the primitive church exists, and if it does, where one might find it.
Catholics have always believed that the primitive church never ceased to exist. It was established by Jesus Christ himself on the rock of Peter and his divinely inspired profession that Jesus was the Son of God. This church, as Christ promised, has withstood the test of time. She has been buffeted by corruption from within and persecuted by enemies from without. Nevertheless, the gates of hell have not prevailed against her, and time and again, led by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church has been reformed, renewed and refreshed.
The primitive church may have become more complex, but she did not cease to constantly preach the simple message of Jesus Christ and his saving work on the cross. The primitive church may have adapted and changed and grown throughout two thousand years of history, but she has not become something different. Her understanding of the apostolic deposit of faith may have developed and matured, but she did not alter that faith once delivered to the saints. Members of that primitive church may have stumbled and fallen; they may have sinned and caused scandal; they may have obscured the gospel and betrayed the gospel, but in every age there have always been saints who have remained radiantly faithful.
Catholics maintain today, as we have always done, that the primitive church is alive in the world as she has always been. Just as the simple pauper’s tomb of the fisherman lies beneath the soaring dome of St Peter’s so the primitive church lies at the heart of Catholicism.
At her head is the successor of Peter and at her feet is a world more in need of her message of forgiveness and love than ever before. It is a good thing to search for the primitive church, but why embark on an empty quest to create your own when the Catholic Church stands waiting–ever ancient and ever new.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author ten books on the Catholic faith including More Christianity–a friendly explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com