Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Restoration Not Reformation

Individuals and movements become great because they existed at the right place and the right time in history. For example, events and circumstances (and Divine Providence) thrust the great men of American history into prominence. George Washington preferred the relative anonymity of Mount Vernon to the snows of Valley Forge, but it was the latter that made him "the Father of our country." Abraham Lincoln was a country lawyer until the South's secession forced him into the limelight. The Vietnam Antiwar movement was discounted until Walter Cronkite built up (and sometimes invented) military failures in Southeast Asia.

The Restoration Movement burst on the scene at just the right time in American history. Here are several factors that contributed to its success:

(1) America was a new nation. With its newness came a questioning of all things European and monarchical. Churches either severed or attempted to separate themselves from their European counterparts. The Anglican Church, for example, became the Episcopalian Church. James O'Kelly led the Republical Methodists, who later identified themselves as the Christian Church, out of the Methodist Episcopal Church because Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke insisted on establishing themselves as "bishops," a title that smacked of Old World elitism.

(2) The American governmental experiment gave rise to an interest in "primitive" democracies and republics. There was a widespread cry for going back "to the old paths". Many looked to the ancient city states of Greece for examples of pure democratic constructs. Others looked to the ancient Roman Republic as an example of a Republic. The Campbells evidenced the same kind of interest in going back to "primitive Christianity" because the church of the first century was not sullied by the divisions of the intervening years.

(3) The frontier was a place for experimentation. The American frontier saw all manner of wacky social and religous experimentation. Communitarian experiments occurred at Oneida, NY, New Harmony, IN, as well as many other places. One individual tried carving out his personal kingdom in the region that became Kentucky. Religious groups such as the Shakers, the Quakers, and eventually the Mormons established themselves on the frontier. Why not attempt to simply return to Christianity's roots through restoring the ancient faith and practice as revealed in the Bible?

(4) The guarantee of religious freedom unhampered by state supported churches. The First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to free expression of religious faith. The amendment guaranteed that no religious denomination would receive state recognition by the Federal Government. (Several states, however, had state churches. Massachusetts was the last to disestablish its state church about 1830.) Since individuals could worship as they pleased, it was possible to instigate major changes and replace longstanding traditions.

More than any of the other leaders in the Restoration Movement, Alexander Campbell pled for restoration. In his series of articles, published in The Christian Baptist, entitled "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things," Campbell pointed out that institutions can be reformed but not religion. You can reform a religious organization but you really can't do so with religion itself. Why? Because, as he said, the religion is what it is. It can be subverted, changed, or misused but when it does it becomes something different. You can add traditions, rituals, and dogmas to Christianity but it does not remain Christianity. The only thing you can do with religion is to restore its original practices.

Campbell rightly pointed out that you could reform the Catholic organization and make it a Presbyterian organization, but the attitude of the pope would remain in the hearts and minds of the leaders. The only answer was to return to the pure Word of God and simply do what it says.

That is still good advice. The problem is that the heirs of the Restoration Movement have accumulated their own traditions and adopted their own forms for "papal manipulation." Some have called for a reformation of the Restoration Movement; others for a restoration of the Restoration Movement. The Restoration Movement, hear me, does not need to be restored! It is the faith and practice of the early church that needs to be restored!

Reformation won't cut it! Restoration is a continuing effort and will never find its completion this side of glory. Why? Because we gain clearer understanding of the New Testament milieu, the New Testament text, and the early church each year. New discoveries, better biblical scholarship, and new insight added to the old gives us a better picture of what those early Christians believed and taught. Our commitment to biblical study and origins needs to continue.

With that in mind, I am going to take the time to go back over Campbell's "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things" and rethink much of what he said there. You will see the fruit of that study on this blog. In many cases, I'm sure, I will echo much of what Campbell said. In other instances, you will find (if you will compare) that I disagree with Campbell on some things. But I agree with his basic idea -- that the way to Christian unity is through a restoration of pure speech and practice of New Testament principles.