Protestants and Primitivism

Protestants and Primitivism May 17, 2008

One of the underlying foundations of the Protestant movement in the church has been Primitivism and Restorationism. Primitivism is the assumption that the early church was purer and closer to the essential gospel than that which accumulated over the centuries. Restorationism is the belief that Christians should attempt to restore the church to its original, primitive purity and power.

This is a very attractive ideal. When faced with the complex and often corrupt  church–a church that was certainly in need of reform in many ways–the desire to dash it all and return to a simple, primitive and basic form of Christianity was understandable. The Protestant sects who did effect such reforms accomplished much that is admirable. They sought to bring a simple, heartfelt religion to the ordinary people. They attempted to simplify the complex theological and hierarchical structures of the Catholic Church.
Primitivism and Restorationism are actually noble ideals, and ones which drove all the reforming orders within the Catholic Church. The early monastic movement, the first Benedictines, the Franciscans and Dominicans, then the Jesuits–all of these had an element of the Primitive and Restorationist ideal driving their great endeavors.
Primitivism and Restorationism are therefore not wrong ideals in themselves. The problem (as in all heresy) is when a principle which is right in itself becomes the sole guiding principle, and excludes all others and eventually destroys everything that does not fit with its particular ideology. 
When Primitivism and Restorationism become the sole guiding forces of a movement, then the movement cannot help but become sectarian and exclusive. Those who feel drawn to the Primitivist/Restorationist  position need to stop and ask themselves some very probing questions:
First, if we are returning to a primitive Church, where will we discover just how that primitive church worshipped, what they believed and how they lived? We turn to the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. But even within the pages of the New Testament we find differences of opinion and practice between the early churches. The Church in Corinth, for example, had problems with sin and speaking in tongues that the churches of Ephesus and Phillipi don’t seem troubled with. Furthermore, the church in the New Testament is already growing and developing in its understanding of the Church and the gospel.
Secondly, can the New Testament be the sole guide to what is primitive? If so, why do all the different Protestant sects come up with a different version of what is primitive? The Seventh Day Adventists say it is primitive to worship on Saturday. The other Protestants groups disagree. The Baptists say baptism by immersion is primitive and mandatory. Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists disagree. Some Mennonites and Amish demand communitarianism, others disagree. Pentecostals say speaking in tongues, signs, wonders and healings are a mandatory part of the package. Others say not. Who is to say just what is primitive and what is not?
Thirdly, where do we make the cut off point for what is Primitive and what is not? Do we stick only to the New Testament, or do we allow the witness of those Christians who wrote in the next generation after the Apostles? Is the church of the late first century the only primitive church we may emulate, or may we look to the church of the second, third or fourth centuries as well? If so, who makes such a decision and why?
If we allow Christianity of the fourth century to be primitive, shall we allow the fifth, the sixth and the seventh? Any attempt to devise a cut off date as to what is primitive and what is not is artificial and arbitrary. Furthermore, those Christians who wish to go furthest back and not, let’s say, allow anything from the fourth century cannot do so, for they rely on the Christians of the fourth century for their definition of orthodox Christian belief, the canon of Scripture and the proper understanding of the incarnation.
The fourth major problem with Protestant Primitivism/Restorationism is that too many of them are either ignorant of, or willfully ignore the witness of the early church that we do have. In addition to the New Testament, we have historical records of what early Christians believed, how they worshipped and how they behaved. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the description of Christian belief and practice from the Didache and Justin Martyr all signal a type of Christianity that is far more congruent with Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) as it has always been lived and practiced, than the worship and lifestyle of modern day Protestantism. If our friends are really interested in restoring the Primitive Church why don’t they study the evidence that shows what that primitive Church was really like? If they did, perhaps they would not like what they find.
Fifth, assuming that we could have a full picture of the primitive church in, say, the early second century, why would it necessarily be desirable to replicate it? Why should the worship, life and beliefs of Christians in second century Roman empire be applicable to Christians in America in the 21st century? If it is applicable, to what degree is it? Shall we replicate the early Christians’ sincerity of preaching and zeal for evangelism, but ignore that they had bishops and priests, prohibited masses unauthorized by the bishop, and celebrated the Mass every Sunday? Shall we endorse their speaking in tongues and healing people, but ignore the fact that they prayed for the dead, venerated the Mother of God and kept relics of their saints for veneration? Once we discover what they did, how shall we choose which bits to keep and which to reject?
In fact, every Primitive/Restorationist movement has really only re-created a Christian Church according to their own tastes. They have seen what they liked and either imagined that it was part of the Primitive Church, or chose that strand of the primitive church that suited them, and focused on it to the exclusion of all else.
The Catholic position is that Primitivism and Restorationism (other than part of an authentic reform movement) is a false endeavor. Instead of trying to re-create the past, the Holy Spirit always guides the Church into the future. The present Pope’s ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ instructs us that the past informs the present and directs us into the future. True Catholics lament all in the past which was counter to the gospel, and value all in the past that was true to the gospel in every age. We do not try to go back to some fondly imagined golden age, but move forward into the future God has for us, instructed and guided by the wisdom of 2000 years of living the gospel.
Any group that claims to be ‘living the life of the Holy Spirit just like the early church’ may be sincere, but they are sincerely misguided.
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