Restoring Authentic Christianity 1

Introduction

The information age has opened up incredible opportunities to understand Christianity better.  With unprecedented and unrestricted access to facts and opinions from disparate religious perspectives, sincere Bible students have been increasingly questioning the typical doctrinal packages offered by many Christian groups today.  No longer can the church (Roman Catholic or Protestant) control what people think by limiting access to alternative viewpoints or executing those who disagree with tradition.  We’ve returned to the sort of milieu that characterized Christianity for its first three centuries, when believers holding to competing ideologies coexisted and competed for adherents using persuasion rather than coercion.

 

In addition to information access, prominent philosopher Charles Taylor has labeled our cultural moment, “the Age of Authenticity.”[1]  Many of us feel jaded in the aftermath of the repeated scandals of priests and pastors that have invalidated their claims to absolute authority.  The great cry of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and the humanists, “ad fontes” (to the sources), once again resonates in the hearts of many.   Believers are returning to the Bible and early Christian history for guidance.  We are entering an age of open and honest investigation of biblical truth like never before.  Instead of defending statements of faith like the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Westminster Confession (1646), or the Nicene Creed (325), people are coming to the Bible to seek answers.  We live in a time ripe for restorationism—recovering authentic New Testament Christianity and living it out today.

 

Although precursors existed like the Lollards (14th c.) and Waldensians (12th c.), the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century marked the largest wholescale reconsideration of Christian faith and practice in history.   The reformers wanted to get back to the sources—the Scriptures and the church fathers—even if that contradicted church tradition or endangered their lives.  They wanted to peel away the layers of scholasticism and medieval theology to reform Christianity back to its original shape.  However, even if they made great strides, they didn’t get all the way back to New Testament Christianity.  They discarded the mass, celibate priesthood, prayers to saints, transubstantiation, and papal infallibility, scraping away layer after layer of dust that had accumulated on top of the Bible.  However, they settled for a fifth-century form of Christianity, essentially returning to Augustine of Hippo (354-430) rather than Paul of Tarsus (5-67).  That’s a 350 year gap!  Why did Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-1564), along with their successors, stop where they did?  They must have had their reasons, but today most of us are no longer in danger of getting burned at the stake, beheaded, or drowned for our beliefs.  Today, we have unprecedented access to the Bible both in translations and the original languages.  Now, half a millennium later, we are poised to take the next step, leaving behind allegorical hermeneutics, Neo-Platonism, asceticism, and divisive councils to recover authentic Christian faith and practice.  Simply put, our goal is to evaluate our beliefs and practices in light of Scripture, interpreted within its original context and applied to our own situations today.

 

Restorationist Values

It’s important to begin by making plain a number of key values or assumptions that undergird how we can go about restoring authentic Christianity.  Here are six prerequisites to our approach.

  1. We believe in biblical primacy.
  2. We believe that Scripture is intelligible.
  3. We believe in biblical cohesion.
  4. We deny that an idea’s popularity guarantees its veracity.
  5. We accept that restoring one doctrine or practice may disrupt others.
  6. We believe that truth is better arrived at in community than alone.

 

1 Biblical Primacy

By virtue of God’s inspiration, the Scriptures have priority and authority over church leaders, creeds, councils, and confessions.  Although God has worked with the Church over the years, it’s not always clear when a particular movement is of God and when it is erroneous.  Consequently, the Scriptures must be our guide to evaluating what popes, priests, bishops, pastors, and scholars have said.  This was Martin Luther’s central point at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of scriptures or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of pope or of councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word.[2]

Therefore, if the Bible and a particular tenet come into conflict, Scripture always wins.  John Wycliffe (c. 1324-1384) likewise thought, “On all domains, of doctrine and in life, the authority of scripture is to be placed higher than all human understanding, for it is God’s word and as such the highest authority.”[3]  We must allow the Bible to challenge our doctrines, creeds, traditions, and practices.

 

2 Scripture Is Intelligible

The Bible is sufficiently clear as to make correct interpretation possible, even by untrained readers.  We must remember that God chose shepherds, farmers, and fishermen to write Scripture.  Furthermore, a majority of the Bible contains historical narrative, making it accessible to people of all education levels.  Even so, there are some portions that are more difficult to comprehend.  Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) put this position well when he wrote:

For all things [in the Scriptures] are not equally perspicuous,[4] nor is everything alike perspicuous to all persons; but in the epistles of St. Paul, some things occur which “are hard to be understood;” and “the gospel is hid, or concealed, to them who are lost, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them who believe not.”  But those senses or meanings, the knowledge and belief of which are simply necessary to salvation, are revealed in the scriptures with such plainness, that they can be perceived even by the most simple of mankind, provided they be able to duly exercise their reason.  But they are perspicuous to those alone who, being illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit, have eyes to see, and a mind to understand and discern.[5]

Therefore, the Bible is God’s book for all people, not solely educated specialists.  God has so inspired Scripture that the common person can understand it, at least to such a degree that makes salvation possible.  But, even if anyone can grasp the rudiments of Scripture, education in the fields of textual criticism, philology, exegesis, hermeneutics, and theology can greatly enhance and nuance our understanding.  Scholars are often a great help in understanding Scripture, but they are fallible.

 

3 Biblical Cohesion

The Bible has a harmony to it because the same God speaks throughout it.  The God of Ezekiel is not different than the God of Paul.  There is only one God inspiring Scripture, so we presume he is self-consistent.  This means we can chase a doctrine throughout the canon and arrive at a cohesive perspective.  This does not mean a doctrine or practice must remain fixed throughout the history of redemption, but it does assume that the Bible will not contradict itself along the way.  Contrary to agnostic Bible scholars and those who reject the Scriptures’ inspiration and authority, we believe God has spoken throughout.  Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), one of the fathers of biblical theology, wrote:

Thus, in harmony with the agnostic character of the philosophy of evolution, which claims that man can know phenomena only, the treatment of the science [of biblical theology] has been entirely subjectivized, so that our modern biblical theologians professedly deal, not with the progress of supernatural revelation, in which they do no longer believe, but with the development of subjective religion in biblical times, and devote their labors to the discovery and reproduction of a number of diminutive doctrinal systems, often contradictory among themselves, which they profess to find in the Bible. [6]

This tendency among many biblical scholars around the world is at odds with our approach to Scripture.  We do not believe there are as many theologies as there are authors of Scripture.  Because there is one God speaking throughout Scripture, doctrinal synthesis is possible, whether systematic theology or biblical theology.

 

4 Truth’s Popularity

Just because an idea or behavior is in the majority does not determine its veracity.  For example, the Reformation could never have gained ground if the size of the movement determined its legitimacy.  Already in the fifth century, Christian thinkers found the variety of interpretations troubling.  In order to deal with this, Vincent of Lérins articulated his famous principle of catholicity, the Vincentian Canon in the year 434:

[W]e hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.[7]  For that is truly and in the strictest sense “catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. [8]

This is quite an ideal, probably rooted in the assumption that God would not let his church go astray en masse.  However, even Vincent recognized the possibility that “some novel contagion [might] seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole.”  His advice is to “cleave to antiquity” and “prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient general council to the rashness and ignorance of a few.” [9]  However, what if a novelty infected the body of Christ prior to the councils?  Or, to sharpen the question, what if the early councils themselves contained contaminants?  Vincent is not prepared to consider this possibility, and neither were the reformers of the sixteenth century.  However, as restorationists we cannot stop with conciliar Christianity, we feel compelled to go all the way back to Jesus and the apostles, regardless of what was popular then or what holds sway now.

 

5 Disruption

Unless we already hold all truth accurately, we should expect to face the possibility that a cherished idea is wrong and in need of refining or dismissal.  Openness to accepting our errors is a prerequisite to the restorationist enterprise.  Furthermore, since biblical doctrines often intertwine, adjusting what we believe about one may disrupt and challenge what we believe about others.  For example, if a study group discovers that the Bible contradicts the doctrine of eternal security, they may also need to reevaluate their belief in unconditional election.[10]  The restorationist accepts the disruptive nature of recovering authentic Christianity, even if it is a painful and disorienting process.  Furthermore, we do not insist on having every belief perfectly figured out; instead, we prefer ambiguity to false certainty.

 

6 Community

Although it’s certainly possible to investigate and arrive at biblical truth on one’s own, it’s also much easier to veer into error.  The Scripture encourages cooperation in maturing together:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

We are all finite and blind in some areas.  Consequently, we need to challenge and correct one another with humility and grace.  If an idea is correct, it will withstand scrutiny.  After all, truth has nothing to fear.

 

In the next article, we’ll consider how we can go about restoring authentic Christianity through Bible study, doctrinal synthesis, and evaluating different doctrines to see which is better.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 473.

[2] Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 214.

[3] John Wycliffe, De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, trans. Rudolf Buddensieg, vol. 1, (London: Trübner & Co., 1905), pp. xxviii-xxix.

[4] “Perspicuous” means intelligible or clear.

[5] Jacobus Arminius, Disputation 8: On the Perspicuity of the Scriptures, paragraphs 3-5, The Works of James Arminius, vol. 2, trans. James Nichols (Buffalo: Derby, Orton, and Mulligan, 1853), pp. 20-21.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology,” The Union Seminary Magazine 13/3 (February-March 1902): 194-199.  R.C. Sproul heartedly agrees with Vos when he writes: “The presupposition is that Paul was not inspired by God when he wrote Galatians and Ephesians, so there is no overarching unity, no coherence, to the Word of God…That is a negative view of the coherence of scripture, and it is the danger when one focuses only on a narrow piece of the Bible without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical revelation.”  R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2014), p. 11.

[7] quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est

[8] Vincent of Lérins, The Commonitory, chapter 2, trans. C. A. Heurtley, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, vol. 11, ed. Philip Schaff (NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007), p. 132.

[9] ibid., chapter 3.

[10] Unconditional election is the belief that God predestines a select group of chosen people for salvation solely on the basis of His sovereign will.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

X