The Problem with Primitivism

As a boy I attended a church that was founded in 1962. It grew from a group of Christians meeting together in their homes for Bible study. They were disenchanted with the liberal drift of the mainstream Protestant denominations and decided to get back to basics. They did not believe they were doing anything new. Instead they were returning to the simple principles of the early church.

From their reading of the New Testament, they concluded that the first Christians met in homes to sing hymns, study the Bible and pray  together. Eventually the founders of our church wrote a constitution, bought land and built a church building and school. They did not regard this as anything more than a natural outgrowth of their first, simple communal meetings in their homes.

The idea that a new church or denomination is really a return to the simple, early days of Christianity is called Restorationism. It is the active result of an underlying assumption called Christian Primitivism, which is the Christian expression of a more general philosophical position called ‘Primitivism’–the belief that some earlier, simpler and more basic civilization is better than the present one.

Christian Primitivism and its active expression, Restorationism is written into the genetic code of Protestantism. It is an seductive ideal, but it provides a fatally flawed foundation for Protestant churches. Before we examine the problems of Restorationism (and it’s foundation, Primitivism), it is worth looking at it’s history.


Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

The urge to shed accumulated ‘traditions of men’ and return to the simple gospel message is nothing new. The first  Christians to fall into this trap may have been the Montanists in the mid second century. Like modern-day Pentecostals, the Montanists emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit and prophecy. Their opposition to the organized church and ‘loyalty’ to the Holy Spirit suggests a restorationist agenda.

Other ancient heretical groups had primitivist tendencies, but the first separatist group to be clearly driven by restorationist zeal, were the Paulicians. They were founded in the mid 600s by an Armenian named Constantine, who claimed to be restoring the pure Christianity of St Paul. The Paulicians were Adoptionists (believing that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism). Influenced by Manichaeism, they rejected infant baptism, the clergy, monasticism, the doctrine of the real presence, and all iconography. [Read More]