Saturday, November 26, 2005


Occasional thoughts on my spiritual journey

"To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant."

John Henry Newman, "Essay on Development"

I came across this quotation about 3 years ago. It still resonates with me. Newman, of course, was one of the more noted 19th-Century Anglican converts to Catholicism. His sentiments bore witness to the growing sense of disquietude in my own thinking. And this serves--as good as any, I suppose--as a springboard in the telling of my own story.

For, I am one who has gone deep in history. The study, understanding, and retention of historical truth has been one of my life's passions. I enjoy nothing more than wandering off into some obscure historical nook and cranny where I can root around the detritus of history. Yet, throughout all these historical tangents, I have maintained an abiding and continuing interest in church history.

As Newman noted, church history can be a stumbling block for Protestants. For ultimately, you run up against the chasm of the Reformation. How does one cross over and maintain the Protestant mindset? You can, of course, if you first accept certain presuppositions; namely that the early church was not apostolic and that its worship was neither sacramental nor liturgical [this not absolutely applicable to Anglicans and Lutherans], and that the Reformation was a necessary correction to a faith badly out of sync. With these parameters in place, pre-Reformation Christian history becomes a mere chronicle of the on-going departures from apostolic Christianity. Yet Newman's words expressed the disconnect I sensed between my 21st century faith and the historic church. Deep down, our take on church history never really rang true with me.

My own particular religious heritage was within what is known as the American Restoration Movement. [Perhaps embarrassed by the implications of the title, current scholars of the movement have taken to calling it the Stone-Campbell Movement after early leaders Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, though the original designation is actually more truly descriptive]. In the very early years of the 19th-Century, some American frontier preachers begain proclaiming a return to primitive Christianity. In light of the sectarianism of the day, they viewed a restoration of New Testament Christianity as the only means of achieving unity. Restorationists, while appreciative of the Reformation, believed that a better approach was not in reforming the church, but in "restoring" the original church of the first century. This became the special plea of what became known as the Churches of Christ. I have much fondness for these Christians. I would not be on the path I am now on without them.

The early leaders were heavily influenced by the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. In practice, Restorationists often treated the New Testament as a book of instructions, or a blueprint, in which one could "restore" the Church at any time or any place. They approached the interpretation of scripture scientifically and rationally, believing that the clear meaning could be deciphered almost as one would conduct a scientific inquiry. Though the actual term "sola scriptura" (too Lutheran, I suppose) was never voiced in Churches of Christ, the New Testament--or rather the Restorationist interpretation of same--was seen as all authoritative.

History, as such, had little meaning for the Restorationist. The ancient church and its historical witness, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and cultural factors were of no spiritual value, for in their view they had "the word," which was all that was ever needed to restore the church. They viewed their method of scriptural interpretation as being substantially unprejudiced, free from cultural and historical influences; "rightly dividing the word of truth."

The classical Restorationist viewed himself as separate and apart from the Protestant Reformation, indeed neither Protestant nor Catholic, but simply "New Testament Christians." The normative Church of Christ stance was that they were not a denomination at all, but simply the 1st-century church restored. Conservative ones still do. While perhaps a noble sentiment, even a cursory view reveals that the Restorationists drank deeply from the well of Protestant presuppositions. And, simply put, this particular claim fails the "duck test." If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck--even though it says it is a pigeon--it is still a duck.

Even today, the validity of the Restorationist principle is not questioned within Churches of Christ. [Interestingly, many would be uneasy to learn that restorationism is not unique to Churches of Christ, but a concept shared by the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses as well.] And the study of church history, even our own Restoration Movement history, outside of a required semester at our church colleges, is generally discounted. How a life-long student of history would be a member of such an ahistorical church is not without irony. But that, of course, is another part of the story.

Today, my heritage churches find themselves in something of a pickle. Their blueprint theology has spawned division rather than unity. Even within mainstream Churches of Christ, the center does not seem to be holding. The conservative churches are in full-fledged "circle-the-wagons" mode, lashing out at anything they perceive as a departure from the "old paths," as the circle draws ever closer. Meanwhile, progressive congregations are either going the Community Church route that is all the rage these days, or advancing the same arguments and positions voiced by mainstream Protestantism 40 to 50 years earlier, with predictable results. Both sides claim that they are being true to the "Restoration ideal."

This "ideal," however, seems to me to be on shaky theological ground, and ultimately is only a 19th-Century American Restorationist take on the 16th-Century Western European rebellion against late medieval Catholicism. For a historian and a Christian who wants to find himself within the on-going story of God's people, the Restorationist principle is full of holes and the early 19th-Century just ain't old enough. While the historical witness perhaps should not be the primary factor in determining one's spiritual path, it is neverless one that is of great significance.


s-p said...

Hi John,
Nice post. I recall reading somewhere in all my studies, that one of the cohorts of Joseph Smith and JW's Russell were indeed members of the Churches of Christ. That is why their rhetoric sounds so familiar. The Mormon attraction was probably because they saw the futility of using the Bible only as a self-affirming restoration blueprint so looked outside the scriptures for a "rule of faith" or guiding authority. Russell just used the Bible and came up with early heresy because he was ignorant of Church history which the Restorationists eschew as you said.

John said...

Yeah, a number of very prominent associates of Alexander Campbell went over to the Mormons in 1830, taking hundreds of members with them as well. The most noted was Sidney Rigdon, who became Joseph Smith's right hand man, and indeed is credited with the formulation of much of what is now accepted Mormon doctrine. I don't know about any connection between early Russellites and the Church of Christ.

Jared Cramer said...

Well said.