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Sunday, 23 September 2018

Almsgiving in Tobit, Sirach, and the Sermon on the Mount

One of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is personal righteousness. Jesus warns the crowds that "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). While some Protestant readers may be inclined to read "righteousness" here through a Pauline-Lutheran lens as something imputed on the basis of faith (i.e. belief) alone, the context suggests otherwise.1 After offering the great Antitheses (Matt. 5:21-48), themselves full of moral profundity, Jesus returns explicitly to the theme of "your righteousness" (tēn dikaiosunēn humōn) in 6:1. In the following section of the discourse (6:2-18), Jesus' main point is that personal righteousness is only rewarded by the Father when practiced discreetly, not when practiced openly to gain the respect of other people. The structure of the section shows that Jesus understands "your righteousness" to subdivide into three categories: alms (eleēmosunē, 6:2-4), prayer (proseuchē, 6:5-15), and fasting (nēsteia, 6:16-18). Notably, the way Jesus introduces each category assumes that his audience shares his belief that this threefold division captures the essence of personal righteousness: "When you do alms...when you pray...when you fast". At issue is not whether righteousness consists of these deeds—this is simply assumed. At issue is only how these deeds ought to be practiced (i.e., whether openly or secretly).

The word eleēmosunē (usually translated "alms" and from which the English word "alms" derives) occurs ten times in the New Testament outside of Matt. 6:2-4, all of them in Luke-Acts. In Luke 11:41, having scolded the Pharisees for their superficial notion of purity, Jesus advises them, "But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you." In Luke 12:33, Jesus commands his "little flock" to "Sell your belongings and give alms" and thereby "Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy." The importance of alms is further underscored in several accounts in Acts, most notably in Acts 10, where an angel tells Cornelius in a vision, "Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial before God" (10:4; cf. Acts 3:2-10; 9:36-42; 24:17). Among early Christian texts outside the New Testament, eleēmosunē is mentioned prominently in the Didache (1.6; 15.4) and 2 Clement (16.4). Evidently, almsgiving played an important role in early Christian piety, following on the teachings of the Master. However, this observation leaves unanswered the question of how Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, was able to assume his audience's familiarity with the concept of "alms" as a central aspect of personal righteousness.

Conceptually, of course, the notion of concern and care for the poor and needy pervades the entire Old Testament. The specific term "alms," however, seldom appears. The Hebrew equivalent of the Greek eleēmosunē is tzedakah (צדקה). This word occurs over 150 times in the Hebrew Bible, but usually in the general sense of "righteousness" rather than specifically "alms" (i.e., charitable acts directed toward the needy). For instance, in the psalms tzedakah is an attribute of God (e.g., Ps. 11:7; 31:1). In a couple of passages in Proverbs, however, a more specifically "economic" sense of tzedakah seems to be in view. These include Prov. 10:2 (where tzedakah contrasts with "ill-gotten gains"), and 11:4 (where tzedakah contrasts with "riches"). The Septuagint translator(s) of Proverbs translated tzedakah with eleēmosunē in 21:21. In Daniel's oracle to King Nebuchadnezzar foretelling that he would become like a beast, Daniel counsels the king to "break off your sins by practicing righteousness (tzedakah), and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed" (Dan. 4:27). Here too, the Greek translation of Daniel (Theodotion) translated tzedakah with eleēmosunē; and the sense of tzedakah seems to anticipate the technical sense of "almsgiving" that the word would take on in rabbinic Judaism.

Despite the above evidence, the usage of tzedakah in the Hebrew Bible (and eleēmosunē in its ancient Greek translations) is not pervasive or developed enough to explain how Jesus could assume that his first-century Jewish audience shared with him a concept of "almsgiving" that was as fundamental to piety as prayer was. Whence then this development? Two of the deuterocanonical books—those considered Scripture by the patristic church (and still by Catholic and Orthodox Christians) but not by Protestants—are helpful here. These books are Tobit and Sirach, both written in the second century B.C. Together, they account for 28 instances of the word eleēmosunē—more than the rest of the Septuagint combined. Surviving Hebrew fragments of Sirach and Tobit demonstrate that eleēmosunē in the Greek versions typically translate tzedakah (e.g., Sir. 3:14, 3:30, 7:10, Tob. 4:8-9 [4Q200 2[bc]:9], etc.).

Sirach and Tobit share in common the bold teaching that almsgiving atones for sins and saves one from evil or death (Sir. 3:30; Tob. 12:8-9).2 This idea is echoed in early Christian literature. The mid-second century Christian text 2 Clement teaches that "charitable giving (eleēmosunē) relieves the burden of sin" (2 Clem. 16.4), while the Didache, a first-century Christian text, declares, "If you earned something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins" (Did. 4.6; cf. Barnabas 19.10).

Both Sirach and Tobit also conceive of almsgiving as storing up treasure (Sir. 29:8-12; Tob. 4:7-11), a metaphor also used by Jesus at the conclusion of the section of the Sermon on the Mount that discussed almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:19-21), and a metaphor directly linked with almsgiving by Jesus in Luke 12:33. As we have already seen, the redemptive power of alms is highlighted also in the story of Cornelius' conversion in Acts 10. A recent study by Anthony Giambrone notes how there developed in early Christianity the tendency to refer to almsgiving as the commandment par excellence, thus giving "forceful expression to its archetypal status."3 According to Giambrone, the roots of this expression are found in Sirach ("Because of the commandment, help the poor," 29:9) and further development is seen in the Didache (1.5; 13.4-7).

The early church, following Jesus, understood almsgiving to have a very prominent—indeed, redemptive—role in the divine economy. This coheres well with the notion of the "treasury of merit" in Catholic theology. However, it is difficult to reconcile with a Protestant sola fide doctrine in which almsgiving has no redemptive role whatsoever (indeed, to teach otherwise is considered by many Protestants to subvert the doctrine of salvation by grace). Regrettably, the portions of the Old Testament that are most helpful for filling in the Jewish context of the early Christian teaching on almsgiving—Sirach and Tobit—were removed from the biblical canon by the Reformers.

To make these points is not merely to revive a tired, sixteenth-century doctrinal debate. Consider the current controversy among American Evangelicals over "the social gospel." A statement authored by John MacArthur and other prominent Evangelicals asserts that "the obligation to live justly in the world" is an implication and application of the gospel but not a "definitional component...of the gospel." Almsgiving is an archetypal way of living justly in the world, and for Jesus and the early church it absolutely was definitive. In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), Jesus ordered the apostles to "Go and make disciples of all nations". The subordinate clauses specify how disciples are to be made: "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit," and "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Almsgiving is one of the primary observances commanded by Jesus; it is as central to the mission of the Church as prayer is.


Footnotes

  • 1 Of course, a comprehensive doctrine of righteousness and of salvation requires us to systematise these teachings of Jesus with those of Paul concerning salvation by grace through faith. This cannot detain us here, but such a systematisation can be found in the Catholic response to the Reformers' doctrines in the canons of the Council of Trent.
  • 2 Indeed, the whole of the Book of Tobit could be described as a theodicy of prayer and almsgiving. After Tobit suffers blindness despite having lived a life of almsgiving, his wife (in like fashion to Job's wife) taunts him, "Where are your charitable deeds (eleēmosunai) now?" (Tob. 2:14) Tobit nonetheless instructs his son on the virtue of almsgiving (Tob. 4:7-11), and is eventually vindicated when God heals his blindness.
  • 3 Anthony Giambrone, "‘According to the Commandment’ (Did. 1.5): Lexical Reflections on Almsgiving as ‘The Commandment’", New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 448-465.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Why the Trinity Just Doesn’t Make Sense to Christadelphians

Guest Article by Matthew J. Farrar

Introduction

The denial of the Trinity doctrine is arguably one of the strongest identity markers of Christadelphians.1   Christadelphian arguments against the Trinity typically follow one of three lines:2
  1. Jesus is not the Father and is therefore not God.
  2. Jesus is a man and is therefore not God.
  3. The Trinity is inconsistent with the Scriptures' absolute insistence on monotheism.
The first objection is actually based on an erroneous conflation of Modalism3—a doctrine holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of operation of a single divine person—with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that there are three distinct, eternal persons who share a Divine nature. The second objection similarly conflates the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity with a denial of His humanity, whereas orthodox Christology emphatically affirms Christ’s humanity.4

However, in conversations with Christadelphians—and indeed my own experience as a former Christadelphian—by far the most compelling arguments against the Trinity are based on the third issue of monotheism. Undoubtedly, the Scriptures insist on an uncompromising monotheism.5 It therefore appears that the Trinity doctrine is a violation of basic common sense: if God is one, then God cannot be three, and if He is three, He cannot be one. An answer in The Christadelphian Advocate's Question Box feature succinctly exemplifies this objection:
The Bible is so clear on this matter it is a puzzle as to how anyone can conclude anything about a godhead consisting of three beings, acting independently of each other yet still together, as one single being. The idea that the three were co-existent as well as co-equal and each a part of the Supreme Being destroys the beauty of the Father/Son relationship that is so emphatically detailed in the Scriptures.
The objection is clear enough: to say that three beings are actually one being is a contradiction, and a rather obvious one at that. So why is it that orthodox Christians hold to this doctrine when it seems to be at odds with basic common sense?

An Important Assumption

What is tacitly assumed but not acknowledged in the Christadelphian line of reasoning is that the God of the Bible is rightly understood to be a being. That is to say, there are many beings (e.g. angels, humans, animals), and God is regarded as another being, albeit a unique and supreme Being who exceeds all other beings in power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, etc. It is precisely under this assumption that the Christadelphian argument against the Trinity are so compelling: 
  1. A "being" is the broadest classification possible.
  2. Therefore, distinct persons are beings.
  3. "God" is a being.
  4. Therefore "God" is either one person and one being or three persons and three beings. He cannot be three persons but one being.
  5. Since the Scriptures affirm that God is One (being), the Trinity is false.
So how is it that the Church came to affirm the Trinity doctrine despite this glaring problem? The answer lies in that the Church does not consider God to be a being, but rather, being itself.

Nominalism: The Roots of a Theological Revolution

Believe it or not, the roots of this issue go back to the 14th century, a time prior to but very influential on the Reformation. This era ushered in a new philosophical position known as nominalism, a philosophy that is widely held—though seldom explicitly recognized—today. At its core, nominalism denies the real existence of universals. To understand what a universal is, consider the drawing below.


We would all quickly identify this drawing as a triangle, but on what basis? There are two basic answers to this question. The first is that there is a universal triangle, of which this particular triangle is a manifestation or instantiation. In other words, something is a triangle in the measure that it conforms to the universal triangle. The second answer—that of nominalism—is that there are simply a collection of objects which we call “triangles”, and this happens to be one of them. However, nominalists would claim that this classification is more or less one of convenience and therefore there is no such thing as the essential nature of a triangle.

To see the impact of this thinking in our own day, consider two hot-button issues: marriage and gender. Those who believe that universals are real—called realists—hold that heterosexual marriage and gender (male and female) are real universals. As such, a particular marriage is an actual marriage in the measure that it conforms to this universal and is a particular instantiation of it. Similarly, realists hold that a man is a man on the basis that he is an instantiation of a particular universal, namely, a male nature (and similarly for a woman).

In contrast, the nominalist perspective asserts that there are merely a collection of relationships called “marriages.” Therefore, to redefine marriage beyond monogamous heterosexual marriage is simply to broaden the usage of the word “marriage”. Similarly, “man” and “woman” are mere labels applied to groups of persons, and so the labels can be applied differently or new labels may be created as needed.

Now since nominalists deny the existence of universals, and natures are universals, it follows that nominalists deny the existence of natures. Thus, under this rubric there is no universal human nature (i.e. humanity) of which all human beings are instantiations; there are simply a collection of beings that we call “humans” just as there are three-sided objects that we call triangles. More to the point, if there is no such real thing as a nature, then there is also no such thing as a real divine nature: only a being we call “God,”6 and the phrase “the divine nature” simply becomes a shorthand for His personal attributes. Consequently, to acknowledge three divine persons is necessarily to acknowledge three divine beings, since “divine” and “persons” are again merely labels and “being” is simply the least restrictive classification possible.

Since Christadelphians—like most of the Western World—tend to be involuntary nominalists with respect to their conception of God,7 8 the Trinity doctrine appears to present an insurmountable contradiction. Nominalist Trinitarians attempt to circumvent a contradiction by false appeals to the mystery of the doctrine,9 while Christadelphians deny the mystery of the doctrine by appeals to the contradiction.

But what if we reject nominalism in the first place?

God is Being itself, not one being among many

Since nominalism was an innovation of the 14th century, it follows that the formulators of the Trinity doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church were not and could not have been nominalists. For example, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is “one in substance/essence/nature with the Father.” Of course, this formulation necessarily assumes that natures are real! Even the Arians of the 4th Century—those opposing the divinity of Christ at the First Council of Nicea—did not dispute the real existence of natures, but instead argued that Christ was of a different, inferior nature from that of the Father. Semi-Arianism, a subsequent attempt at a compromise position, declared the Son to be of “like nature” (homoiousios) to the Father rather than of the same nature (homoousios) as the Nicene Creed affirmed.10 Thus, opponents of Christ's true divinity in the fourth century were not raising the so-called “common sense” objections outlined above.

Moreover, if nominalism is rejected, then we may also reasonably deny that God is one being among other beings.11 Instead, following the revelation of the divine name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), the Church teaches that God is "the act of to be" itself.12 Thus, while I am a being, God is being itself. If this sounds unfathomable, perhaps we have not taken God’s transcendence seriously enough. God is not merely greater than us by degree but is utterly beyond us, of a different order. If the notion that “God is being itself” seems too abstract to grasp, consider by analogy the assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Biblical claim is not merely that “God is extremely loving” or “God has a lot of love”; love is not merely an abstract attribute that exists apart from God and that God has more of than anyone else. Love is essential to God’s nature, and does not exist apart from God. We are capable of love only because God has shared his love with us (1 John 4:19). The same is true of being, of existence. God is not merely a supreme being, i.e. one who has the attribute of existence (and other dependent attributes such as power, wisdom and love) in greater quality or quantity than others. Rather, God is existence; nothing exists except from him and through him and for him (Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10).

Given this understanding of God, the “common sense” rejection of the Trinity no longer holds for the following reasons. 

First, monotheism is actually a consequence of this understanding, not a condition imposed upon it. While we cannot truly comprehend what it means for God to be “to be itself”, it’s simply impossible to have more than one sheer act of being itself. Thus, it is rigorously consistent with Scriptural affirmations of monotheism.

Second, the key tenets of the Trinity doctrine—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal in nature—also follow directly from this understanding of God. It would be a contradiction in terms to say, for example, that the Son is the sheer act of being but not co-eternal with the Father, who is also the sheer act of being. Nor would it be possible to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father but not the sheer act of being, since that would mean that a being exists always with being itself, which is also a contradiction. Thus, the doctrine that God is “to be itself” and the joint doctrines of consubstantiality (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature) and co-eternality are logical consequences, not additionally imposed doctrines.

Finally—and most importantly for the present discussion—the existence of distinct divine persons is no longer equated with the existence of distinct divine beings. Rather, within the divine nature (i.e. the sheer act of to be) we can discern three distinct persons, but at no point are there any beings involved, only the act of to be itself. Do we really comprehend what that means? No, and that is why the doctrine is truly and properly called a mystery. However, the contradiction suggested by the original argument is dissolved.

Concluding Remarks

The philosophical system of nominalism developed in the late Middle Ages, long after the creedal statements surrounding the Trinity doctrine were constructed, but its popularity—especially amongst the Reformers—was widespread. Not surprisingly then, Christadelphian objections to the Trinity doctrine on the basis of “common sense” appeals to Scriptural statements of absolute monotheism tacitly—if not unwittingly—assume an underlying nominalist philosophy, namely that God is one being amongst many other beings. This is an important observation since some Christadelphians (perhaps relying on Col. 2:8)13 view “philosophy” as a by-word, a distraction to be avoided. What this article has shown, however, is that all of us—Christadelphians included—engage in philosophy and what we may prefer to call “common sense” actually rests on our own philosophical presuppositions. My hope is that a greater awareness of this philosophical framework will open channels of future discourse.

Footnotes

  • 1 Though not entirely unique. Biblical Unitarians essentially agree entirely with Christadelphians on this point, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals share in the denial of the Trinity doctrine but do not share in Christadelphian theology and/or Christology. The Christadelphian doctrine of God underwent considerable evolution in the early period of the movement. The founder of the sect, Dr. John Thomas, held a somewhat ineffable doctrine of God that he thought was captured by the Greek word phanerōsis. While Dr. Thomas's ideas still have currency with some Christadelphians, the main stream of the movement has long since moved toward something closer to Socinianism or (biblical) Unitarianism—doctrines that Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated!
  • 2 For example, see here.
  • 3 This view is also known as Sabellianism because it was taught by Sabellius, a 3rd-century priest. He was excommunicated for his teaching by Pope Callixtus I.
  • 4 Refer to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed defined at the fourth-century ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and the Christological Definition reached at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
  • 5 Historians of religion debate exactly when monotheism developed in Israelite religion; some earlier texts may suggest a belief closer to henotheism (allegiance to only one God, without necessarily denying the existence of others—see, e.g., Psalm 95:3). In any case, strong exclusive claims about “one God” that are synonymous with monotheism are present in Second Temple Jewish texts and in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:32).
  • 6 Granted, a very impressive being, even a Supreme Being. However, this being differs from us only in degree (e.g. we have limited power, while God has unlimited power) not by nature, since nominalists deny the existence of natures.
  • 7 As evidenced by the quotation above which starts from the use of the word “beings.”
  • 8 I wish to be clear that I do not mean this disparagingly. My point is merely that certain philosophical presuppositions are present in all arguments.
  • 9 This was blatantly the case in the writings of William of Ockham.
  • 10 Semi-Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., but by that time the three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa) had succeeded through theological dialogue in persuading most of the Semi-Arians to return to the catholic faith.
  • 11 To be precise, while other beings have a real nature, we rightly say that God is His nature. In other words, I, as a human being, am a particular instantiation of a human nature. God, on the other hand, is not an instantiation of a divine nature, but rather, He is the divine nature.
  • 12 Ipsum esse subsistens, in the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 13 Of course, Paul does not here condemn philosophy itself, but only philosophy that is contrary to Christ and therefore false. Paul’s own willingness to enter into philosophical discourse is on vivid display in the account of his speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). For a defense of the use of Greek philosophy by the early Church, see here.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

A Tale of Two Cities: The Bride and the Whore in the Book of Revelation

The Apocalypse of John contains some of the most striking feminine imagery in the Bible and indeed in all of ancient literature. Two female figures, in particular, stand out as dualistic counterparts: the Bride and the Whore. This article explores these two figures against their biblical and early Christian background, with a view to correctly interpreting them.

The Bride

On the one hand, we have "the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." This woman appears in the latter visions of the book (chs. 19 and 20-21), where the bridal imagery is part of a broader picture of the consummation of all things as the Lamb's marriage feast. She is also identified as a city, "the holy city, new Jerusalem" (21:2, 9-10).1 The people of God have already been depicted as a woman in Revelation 12, using imagery that draws heavily on Genesis 3 ("the seed of the woman"). The metaphor of the Church as the betrothed or the bride of Christ is found elsewhere in the New Testament, in the "great mystery" expounded in Ephesians 5:22-32 (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2). Such imagery is undoubtedly rooted in the language of the Hebrew prophets, who depict Yahweh as a bridegroom or husband and Israel as his bride or wife.2 The New Testament's recasting of Jesus in the role of bridegroom, possibly based on Jesus' own words,3 has profound Christological implications, but our focus in this article is on the bride. Besides using feminine imagery for Israel as a whole, the Hebrew Bible also uses feminine imagery for cities. In Ezekiel 16 and 23, for instance, the cities of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Sodom are depicted as sisters whose misdeeds bring shame on their family.4 The holy city of Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the prophets as the "daughter of Zion" or "daughter of Jerusalem,"5 and this name for the city is echoed in the Gospels (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). Meanwhile, the identification of the Church with a transcendent Jerusalem is also found elsewhere in the New Testament.6 Thus, when the author of Revelation depicted the Church both as a woman and as a transcendent city, he built on rich biblical foundations, and was not the only New Testament writer to use such imagery.

The Whore

The other woman in the Apocalypse is the "Great Whore," who is described in a lurid vision in Revelation 17:1-6. A whore or prostitute is of course a radically different image from a bride. The Bride is clothed in "fine linen, bright and pure," symbolising "the righteous deeds of the saints" (Rev. 19:8), the Whore also wears "fine linen," but of a different colour, "purple and scarlet," which undoubtedly correspond to her "abominations and impurities" (Rev. 17:4), her violence and sensuous luxury. The Whore holds in her hand a "golden cup" full of abominations. While Revelation does not explicitly associate the Bride with a cup, the Eucharistic connotations of the "marriage supper of the Lamb" for which the Bride has prepared herself are obvious.7 Furthermore, the Whore, like the Bride, is identified with a city, namely "Babylon," "the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth"(Rev. 17:5, 18). Earlier in the book, "the great city" is said to have "the symbolic names 'Sodom' and 'Egypt'" and is identified with the place "where their Lord was crucified," i.e. Jerusalem (Rev. 11:8). The Whore Babylon is mentioned briefly in Rev. 14:8 and 16:19, described in lurid detail in chapter 17, and is the subject of a judgment woe in chapter 18. As with the Bride, much of the language used for the Whore draws on the biblical prophets. The antithesis between Jerusalem and Babylon is exemplified by the imprecations of Psalm 137. The exact name "Babylon the Great" (Greek: Babulōn hē megalē) used in Revelation 17:5 is taken verbatim from Nebuchadnezzar's boast in Daniel 4:30 LXX. The phrase "the/this great city" in the prophets is used of Nineveh (Jonah 3:2-3) and of ungodly Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:8). The phrase "Fallen, fallen is Babylon!" (Revelation 14:8; 18:2) is taken from Isaiah 21:9. Much of the imagery used of the Whore in Revelation 17-18 is borrowed from oracles against Babylon in Isaiah 13-14 and Jeremiah 25 and 50-51. The Hebrew Bible never explicitly calls Babylon a whore or prostitute, but the oracle of Isaiah 47 implicitly does. There, the "virgin daughter of Babylon," "daughter of the Chaldeans," is told, "Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen...you shall no more be called the mistress of the kingdoms" (Isa. 47:3-5). This same oracle accuses Babylon of "sorceries" (Isa. 47:9, 12), a charge that is leveled at the Whore in Revelation 18:23. The metaphor of a prostitute is applied explicitly to Nineveh in Nahum 3:4-78 and to Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-18.9 Israel and Judah, Samaria and Jerusalem are also frequently labelled as a whore in the Hebrew prophets.10 The Bride in Revelation is an aggregation of biblical prophetic language about the people of God and the holy city Jerusalem, while the Whore in Revelation is an aggregation of biblical prophetic language about various ungodly nations and cities, both Gentile and Israelite. The Whore is thus a composite figure,11 which militates against interpreting her as corresponding to any one historical city or entity.

The Bride and the Whore as an instance of the Two Cities Motif

Although Revelation never mentions the Bride and the Whore together, there is clearly an implicit comparison between the two, an apocalyptic subplot that we might call, in Dickensian fashion, "a tale of two cities." These two entities share much in common: they are both women with symbolic apparel and cities with symbolic names. The Whore is the Bride's evil antithesis, her ugly stepsister. The Bride is the wife of the Lamb, the singular King of Kings who receives authority from God (Rev. 2:27), who loves the Bride and ransomed her with his blood (Rev. 5:9). The Whore sits astride a Beast (who receives authority from the Dragon, Satan; Rev. 13:2-4) whose many heads and horns represent numerous kings. She fornicates with these kings and dominates them, but they and the Beast hate her and make her desolate (Rev. 17:2, 16, 18).

This ecclesiological antithesis between two women or two cities is not unique to Revelation in early Christian literature. It is found in Paul's allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:22-31, where the apostle contrasts "the present Jerusalem" who is "in slavery with her children" with "the Jerusalem above" who "is free, and...is our mother." The two Jerusalems recur in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the author describes "the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God...a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:10, 16). The readers are told that they have "come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (12:22). Subsequently, referring to the earthly Jerusalem (specifically "outside the gate" where Jesus suffered), he emphasises, "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (13:14). This "two cities" contrast appears again in The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century apocalypse that is surely relevant to the interpretation of Revelation inasmuch as it is "the other major work of early Christian prophecy which has survived."12 The Similitudes or Parables portion of the book contains the following passage:
1 He said to me, 'You know that you slaves of God are living in a foreign land. For your own city is a long way from this one. If then,' he said, 'you know your own city, where you are about to live, why are you preparing fields, expensive furnishings, buildings, and pointless rooms for yourselves here? 2 Anyone who prepares these things in this city, therefore, cannot return to his own city. 3. You foolish, double-minded, and miserable person! do you now understand that all these things belong to another and are under someone else's control? For the ruler of this city will say, 'I do not want you living in my city; leave it, because you are not living by my laws.' 4. And so, you who have fields and houses and many other possessions—when he casts you out, what will you do with your field and house and whatever else you have prepared for yourself? For the ruler of this country rightly says to you, 'Either live by my laws or leave my country.' 5. And so what will you do, you who have a law from your own city? Will you completely renounce your own law for the sake of your fields and whatever else you own, and follow the law of the city you are in now? Take care, because renouncing your law may be against your own interests. For if you want to return to your own city, you will not be welcomed, because you have renounced its law; and you will be shut out of it. 6. And so take care. Since you are living in a foreign land, fix nothing up for yourself except what is absolutely necessary; and be ready, so that when the master of this city wants to banish you for not adhering to his law, you can leave his city and go to your own, and live according to your own law gladly, suffering no mistreatment. 7. Take care, then, you who are enslaved to the Lord and have him in your heart. Do the works of God, remembering his commandments and the promises he made; and trust in him, because he will do these things, if his commandments are guarded. 8. Instead of fields, then, purchase souls that have been afflicted, insofar as you can, and take care of widows and orphans and do not neglect them; spend your wealth and all your furnishings for such fields and houses as you have received from God. 9. For this is why the Master made you rich, that you may carry out these ministries for him. It is much better to purchase the fields, goods, and houses you find in your own city when you return to it...' (Hermas, Similitudes 1.1-9)13
The parallels between this parable and the New Testament texts we have mentioned are impressive. Hermas's two cities correspond to two laws, just as Paul's two Jerusalems correspond to two covenants (Gal. 4:24-26). Hermas emphasises detachment from the goods of the present city in favour of the goods of the future city, just as Hebrews does (11:9-16; 13:12-14). Hermas teaches that failure to obey God's commandments will result in exclusion from the future city, just as Revelation does (21:27; 22:14-15). Also, Hermas notes that the respective cities have rulers (God and the Devil),14 just as Revelation identifies one city as that of God and the Lamb, and the other as that of the Beast (who is empowered by the Dragon, i.e. the Devil).

Noting that both Hebrews and Hermas use "city" interchangeably with "country," and contrast the two cities temporally as present and future, we may be justified in linking the "two cities" motif with the "two worlds" or "two ages" motif that is a prominent feature of Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature.15

The foregoing parallels represent, in this writer's view, compelling evidence that the Bride and the Whore in Revelation correspond to the two cities motif found elsewhere in early Christian literature, which basically contrasts the moral, spiritual, and economic life of those who belong to God (the Church) and those who do not, together with the conflict between the two communities and their diverging eternal destinies.

Interpreting the Bride and the Whore in Revelation

The Bride is the easier symbol to interpret, both in the original literary-historical context and for today: the Bride is the Church who, speaking together with the Spirit, ever awaits Jesus' promised coming (Rev. 22:17). The majority of biblical scholars identify the Whore of Revelation with ancient Rome; a minority interpretation identifies the Whore instead with Jerusalem.16 The reference to the woman sitting on seven mountains (Rev. 17:9) and her description as "the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17:18) both point to Rome, the city of seven hills. "Babylon" is used as a cipher for Rome in other post-70 A.D. Jewish literature (and probably also in 1 Peter 5:13), probably because Rome had, like ancient Babylon, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.17 However, "whore" imagery in the prophets is most commonly linked with Judah and Jerusalem, and "the great city" is described in Rev. 11:8 as "where their Lord was crucified." The apocalyptic Babylon thus cannot be limited to the physical city of Rome. It is a composite reality that transcends any particular earthly city,18 which was exemplified in John's day by Rome. To interpret the symbol for today, we need to look for the locus of moral, spiritual, and economic corruption in today's world. That locus cannot be identified with any one contemporary city or system. Babylon's footprint can be seen wherever idolatry, greed, injustice, sexual immorality and other abominations flourish. This is not to deny the possibility that a more concrete manifestation of Babylon (like imperial Rome) could occur before the Lord's Second Coming. However, we should exercise the same hermeneutical restraint as Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in a sermon of 1935 (at the height of Nazi pomp) preached the following:
Who is Babylon? Was it Rome? Where is it today? Today, we dare not yet say–not because we fear the world! Rather because the Christian community does not know yet–but we see terrible things and revelations drawing near.

Footnotes

  • 1 See also Rev. 3:12; 11:1-2; 14:1.
  • 2 See, e.g., Isaiah 54:5-6; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2, 32; 3:20; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2:16-20.
  • 3 See Mark 2:19-20; Matthew 25:1-13; cf. John 3:29.
  • 4 See also Isaiah 1:21; Lamenations 1:1ff.
  • 5 See, e.g., 2 Kings 19:21; Psalm 9:14; Isaiah 10:32; 62:11; Jeremiah 4:31; Lamentations 2:13-15; Micah 4:8-10; Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 9:9.
  • 6 See, e.g., Matthew 5:14 (cp. v. 35); Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14.
  • 7 The Lord's Supper in early Christianity is where the cup of blessing, the cup of the Lord's blood, is drunk (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:20-25). The psalmist declares that his response to the Lord's goodness is to "raise the cup of salvation" (Ps. 116:13). St. Athansius of Alexandria, in his Festal Letters 5.3, interprets the "cup of salvation" to refer to the Eucharistic cup. Two earlier writers, Origen (Exhortation to Martyrdom 28-29) and St. Cyprian of Carthage (Epistles 76.4), take the cup of salvation to refer to martyrdom, probably in light of Ps. 116:15 and the metaphor of martyrdom as a "cup" in the Gospels (cf. Mark 10:38-39; 14:36). Elsewhere in Revelation, the "cup" functions as a metaphor for God's wrath, directed at Babylon the Great (Rev. 16:19; 18:6; cf. 14:10). In Rev. 18:6, "repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed" suggests that the punishment she inflicted on others will be inflicted on her, so probably the "abominations" in the Whore's golden cup in 17:4 include the blood of the martyrs, with which she is "drunk" (17:6).
  • 8 Nineveh is also described in unflattering feminine terms in Zephaniah 2:13-15, which closely parallels oracles against Babylon in Isaiah 13 and 47.
  • 9 Language from the same oracle against Tyre (Isa. 23:8) is borrowed in Rev. 18:23. Tyre is also depicted as a female figure in Ezekiel 26:17.
  • 10 See, e.g., Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:1-8; Ezekiel 16; Ezekiel 23; Hosea 2-4; 9:1.
  • 11 "the Babylon of Revelation 17-18 combines in itself the evils of the two great evil cities of the Old Testament prophetic oracles: Babylon and Tyre. Of the two, Babylon is the city whose name John uses as a cipher for Rome" (Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation [London: T&T Clark, 1993], 345).
  • 12 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 144.
  • 13 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:307, 309).
  • 14 The identity of the ruler of this city is discussed in note 42 of my forthcoming study The Intimate and Ultimate Adversary: Satanology in Early Second-Century Christian Literature.
  • 15 For the writer of Hebrews, "the city that is to come" (13:14) is also "the world to come" (2:5) and "the age to come" (6:5). The Pauline letters contrast "this present time," "the present life," "this present darkness, "this present age," "this present world," which is "passing away," with "the glory that is to be revealed," "the life to come," the age to come (Rom. 8:18; Eph. 1:21; 6:12; 1 Tim. 6:17; 1 Tim. 4:8; 2 Tim. 4:10; 1 Cor. 7:31). The Synoptic Gospels likewise contrast "this age" with "the age to come" (e.g., Mark 10:30; Matt. 12:32; Luke 20:34-35). Similar antitheses are probably presupposed in statements about the/this world in the Gospel and Letters of John (see, e.g., John 12:25-31; 18:36; 1 John 2:15-17) and in James 4:4. The temporal contrast is also present in Revelation: the Whore is presently active (as is evident from 17:9-10), while the vision of the Bride is first mentioned (19:7) only after the vision of the Whore's judgment concludes.
  • 16 "Most commentators agree that ‘Babylon’ in the Apocalypse is a symbolic name for Rome" (Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse [Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 57). Commenting on "the great city" in Rev. 17:18, George Elton Ladd wrote, "In the first century, this stood for Rome; but in the end time, it will stand for eschatological Babylon" (George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 234). "The identity of this woman leaves no room for doubt: v. 5 gives her name; it is Babylon, about which we know since Rev 14:8 that the name designates with veiled language, but without ambiguity, Rome, the capital of the empire" (Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John, trans. Wendy Pradels [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 485). A detailed argument for the Jerusalem interpretation is offered by D. Ragan Ewing, The Identification Of Babylon The Harlot In The Book Of Revelation (Th.M Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2002). Further discussion and a refutation of the Jerusalem view can be found in G. Biguzzi, "Is the Babylon of Revelation Rome or Jerusalem?" Biblica 87 (2006): 371-386. See also the summary of arguments for the Babylon and Jerusalem interpretations respectively in A. J. Beagley, “Babylon,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development (ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 111-12.
  • 17 "Just as Babylon destroyed the first temple and sent Israel into exile, so Rome came to be called ‘Babylon’ in some sectors of Judaism because it also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and exiled Israel (so Midr. Rab. Num. 7.10; Midr. Pss. 137.1, 8; cf. Targ. Lam. 1:19)" (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 755). "Most of the occurrences of Babylon as a symbolic name for Rome in Jewish literature are in the Apocalypse of Ezra (4 Ezra = 2 Esdras 3-14), the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Apoc. Bar.), and the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles. In each case where it occurs in these three works, the context makes it abundantly clear why the name Babylon was chosen. Rome is called Babylon because her forces, like those of Babylon at an earlier time, destroyed the temple and Jerusalem. It is probable that John learned this symbolic name from his fellow Jews and that it quickly became traditional" (Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, 57-58).
  • 18 "As a symbol, Babylon embraces more than the empire, city, and culture of Rome. It is the sphere of idolatry and worldliness under the temporary control of Satan, a worldliness in opposition to the people and work of God, a worldliness epitomized first by Babylon and then by Rome. Babylon as the mother of harlots and abominations in opposition to God (17:5) is the antithesis of the Church as the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of God" (Duane F. Watson, “Babylon,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:566). Beale refers to the city of Revelation 11:8, which he identifies with Babylon, as "the ungodly world-city" (The Book of Revelation, 593). Later, he avers, "The ungodly social, political, and economic system dominated by the Roman Empire placed believers in the same position as Israel was in under Babylon...Therefore, here in the Apocalypse Rome and all wicked world systems take on the symbolic name ‘Babylon the Great’ (op. cit., 755). He summarises his view: "‘The great city’ has been identified as Jerusalem, Rome, or the ungodly world system, which would include Jerusalem, Rome, and all other wicked people groups. The third view is preferable" (op. cit., 843). "Any institution or facet of culture that is characterized by pride (see on v 5), economic overabundance, persecution, and idolatry is part of Babylon" (op. cit., 856).

Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Use of the Deuterocanonical Books in Early Christian Literature

1. Introduction
2. Some References to the Deuterocanonical Books in Ante-Nicene Christian Literature
2.1. Judith
2.2. Tobit
2.3. Baruch
2.4. 1 Maccabees
2.5. 2 Maccabees
2.6. Wisdom of Solomon
2.7. Sirach
2.8. Greek Additions to Esther
2.9. Greek Additions to Daniel
3. Conclusion


One of the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants concerns the boundaries of the biblical canon.1 The Catholic Bible contains 73 books, while the Protestant Bible contains 66. The respective New Testaments are identical, but seven books found in the Catholic Old Testament are not found in the Protestant Old Testament: Judith, Tobit, Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, and Wisdom of Sirach. These books are known to Catholics as the deuterocanonical books and to Protestants as apocrypha. Additionally, the books of Esther and Daniel in the Catholic Bible contain material not found in the Protestant versions of these books. 

To briefly rehearse the history, some regional—not ecumenical—councils in the West confirmed the 73-book canon in the late fourth century A.D. (see here for a list reflecting the decision of the Council of Carthage), as did Pope Innocent I in 405. St. Jerome, who at this time translated the Latin Vulgate, was one prominent voice holding that the books that were composed in Hebrew and considered canonical by the Jews were of first importance—though he deferred to the Church's judgment and thus included the deuterocanonical books in the Vulgate (which for many centuries became the Bible used liturgically in the West). In the East, the canon was never formalised, and to this day there is regional variation in which Scriptures are used liturgically in the Orthodox Churches (though, invariably, most or all of the seven deuterocanonical books are used, sometimes with others besides). The 73-book status quo continued unchallenged in the West for over a millennium until the Reformers rediscovered and augmented St. Jerome's position, aligning their Old Testament to the Jewish Bible and thus demoting the seven deuterocanonical books to the status of non-canonical apocrypha. The Catholic Church responded to the Reformers' move by reaffirming the long-standing 73-book canon in the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (1546).

The purpose of this article is to offer a sampling of evidence related to one aspect of this canonical debate: the status of the deuterocanonical works in the early Church. In short, I will be quoting from early Christian writers of the ante-Nicene (pre-325 A.D.) period who quote from the deuterocanonical books as Scripture or call them Scripture. This in itself does not settle the debate—for instance, even the New Testament writers sometimes treat as Scripture works that did not finally make it into the canon (e.g., 1 Enoch in Jude 14 and an unknown text, probably the Book of Eldad and Modad, in James 4:5). However, ceteris paribus, that Christian writers of the first three centuries were treating the deuterocanonical books as Scripture supports the view that the Western consensus reached at the end of the fourth century was not a late innovation, but a formalisation of the tradition.


The seven deuterocanonical books were all written by Jews living before Christ (though some scholars date the Wisdom of Solomon as late as the early first century A.D.) Some of them were composed in Hebrew (much of Sirach and fragments of Tobit were preserved in Hebrew among the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere) while others (2 Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon) were unquestionably composed in Greek. At some point—it is difficult to say precisely when—these writings began to be transmitted together with the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures created in the third and second centuries B.C. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early Church throughout the Gentile (and Hellenistic Jewish) mission, where most of the faithful did not understand Hebrew or Aramaic. The Septuagint's importance is evident from New Testament writers' frequent reliance on it in their quotations of Scripture—even favouring it in some instances where its rendering diverges from the extant Hebrew text. The compilation of the deuterocanonical books with the Septuagint cannot be strictly equated with canonisation, since other books were, at least on occasion, so compiled (e.g., 3 & 4 Maccabees; the Prayer of Manasseh). Nevertheless, the transmission of the deuterocanonical books within the Septuagint meant that these books were part of the Scriptures used liturgically in churches throughout the ancient world (at least outside Syria-Palestine), which explains how they came to be regarded by Christians as Scripture.

We will now survey a couple of early Christian citations of each of the deuterocanonical books along with the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther. This survey is by no means comprehensive. St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen cite nearly all of the books, but I did not want to focus solely on them because this might give the incorrect impression that the use of the deuterocanonical books was a localised phenomenon in Alexandria (where the Septuagint had been created).


In 1 Clement, composed in the late first century A.D., the writer exhorts his readers with biblical examples of humility and faith in a section beginning, "For you know the sacred Scriptures, loved ones—and know them quite well—and you have gazed into the sayings of God. And so we write these things simply as a reminder" (1 Clem. 53.1).2 Thus the writer is appealing to a body of "sacred Scriptures" that he assumes is shared by his own congregation in Rome and his readers in Corinth. Within this extended reminder is the following passage:
Many women were empowered by the gracious gift of God to perform numerous 'manly' deeds. The blessed Judith, when her city lay under siege, asked the elders for permission to go out to the foreigners' camp. And so she handed herself over to danger, going out because she loved her homeland and the people under siege. And the Lord handed Holofernes over to the hand of a female. (1 Clem. 55.4-5)3
This story about Judith is taken from the Book of Judith chapter 8. It follows that the Book of Judith was part of the "sacred Scriptures" known to the churches of Rome and Corinth in the late first century.

A century later, around 200 A.D. Tertullian of Carthage mentions Judith in his work On Monogamy:
They will have plainly a specious privilege to plead before Christ — the everlasting infirmity of the flesh! But upon this (infirmity) will sit in judgment no longer an Isaac, our monogamist father; or a John, a noted voluntary celibate of Christ's; or a Judith, daughter of Merari; or so many other examples of saints. (On Monogamy 17.1)4
For Tertullian, then, Judith is one more of the many examples of saints down through the ages—a conviction he could scarcely have reached without regarding the Book of Judith as Scripture.


There is a possible, though not certain, allusion to Tobit in 2 Clement, a Christian work from the mid-second century. In 2 Clement 16.4, the writer states:
Giving to charity, therefore, is good as a repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but giving to charity is better than both. Love covers a multitude of sins, and prayer from a good conscience will rescue a person from death. How fortunate is everyone found to be full of these things. For giving to charity lightens the load of sin.5
Tobit 12:8-10 reads thus:
Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with injustice. It is better to give alms than to store up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who practice almsgiving will have fullness of life, but those who sin are enemies of their own life. (NETS)6
The three terms "prayer," "fasting," and "charity/almsgiving" are identical in the Greek. The confluence of these three virtues, the main emphasis on almsgiving, and the concern with deliverance from death combine to make literary dependence likely.

At the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria paraphrases the same passage of Tobit and calls it "Scripture":
And first he will ask forgiveness of sins; and after, that he may sin no more; and further, the power of well-doing and of comprehending the whole creation and administration by the Lord, that, becoming pure in heart through the knowledge, which is by the Son of God, he may be initiated into the beatific vision face to face, having heard the Scripture which says, ‘Fasting with prayer is a good thing.’ (Stromateis 2.12)7
Earlier in the same book, St. Clement mentions Tobit by name and summarises the book's narrative (Stromateis 1.21).

At the beginning of the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome alludes to Tobit 3:16-17 in his commentary on Daniel, making no distinction between the quality and authority of this material and that of the Book of Daniel (which is his main focus).
In which manner also happened to Tobit and Sarah. For they, after praying, in the same hour and the same day the entreaty of the two was heard and the angel Raphael was sent out to cure the two. (Commentary on Daniel 29.6-7)8

St. Clement of Alexandria, again writing at the end of the second century, quotes Baruch 3:16-19 and calls it "Divine Scripture":
Excellently, therefore, the Divine Scripture, addressing boasters and lovers of their own selves, says, ‘Where are the rulers of the nations, and the lords of the wild beasts of the earth, who sport among the birds of heaven, who treasured up silver and gold, in whom men trusted, and there was no end of their substance, who fashioned silver and gold, and were full of care? There is no finding of their works. They have vanished, and gone down to Hades.’ (Paedagogus 2.36)
A decade or so later, Tertullian quotes from Baruch 6:4-6 and refers to the material as "the words of Jeremiah." Chapter 6 of Baruch is an originally independent text that is known as the Letter of Jeremiah.
For they remembered also the words of Jeremias writing to those over whom that captivity was impending: ‘And now ye shall see borne upon (men's) shoulders the gods of the Babylonians, of gold and silver and wood, causing fear to the Gentiles. Beware, therefore, that ye also do not be altogether like the foreigners, and be seized with fear while ye behold crowds worshipping those gods before and behind, but say in your mind, Our duty is to worship Thee, O Lord.’ (Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting 8.5)

Tertullian, writing around 200 A.D., writes generally of the Maccabees historically:
For in the times of the Maccabees, too, they did bravely in fighting on the sabbaths, and routed their foreign foes, and recalled the law of their fathers to the primitive style of life by fighting on the sabbaths. (Adversus Judaeos 4.10)9
St. Hippolytus, a decade or so later, refers explicitly to "the first book of the Maccabees" in his commentary on Daniel, alluding specifically to 1 Macc. 1:9:
For while dying, Alexander distributed it to his companions who were of his race, four men, Seleucus, Demetrius, Ptolemy, and Philip, and these all put on crowns, just as Daniel predicts and was recorded in the first book of the Maccabees. (Commentary on Daniel 3.810
In the mid-third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage alludes to the story of Mattathias (found in 1 Macc. 2) as authoritative and normative history:
 …bold and steadfast, they maintain the honour of the divine majesty and the priestly dignity, with full observance of fear. We remember and keep in view that, although others succumbed and yielded, Mattathias boldly vindicated God's law; that Elias, when the Jews gave way and departed from the divine religion, stood and nobly contended…” (Epistle 67 § 8)

In a general sense, it is likely that Christian concepts of martyrdom in the early to mid-second century, as captured for instance in the letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, were influenced by the martyrdom account in 2 Maccabees 7. As Jefford writes:
The early church, as first witnessed in the imagery of Ignatius, was greatly influenced by the famous martyrdom sequence of 2 Maccabees, a graphic accont of the struggle and persecution of pious Jews during the time of the Greek rule of Palestine under Antiochus Epiphanes IV.11
While both 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees were attached to several LXX manuscripts, there seems to be little evidence of their influence in Jewish literature and tradition... However, there is a strong influence of the Maccabean martyr tradition upon the early Christian church in the second century and beyond. Familiarity with the Maccabean martyr tradition is seen in Shepherd of Hermas, To the Ephesians (Ignatius), Martyrdom of Polycarp, and Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom.12
Indeed, the mid-second century Roman Christian work Shepherd of Hermas—itself a work so important to the early Church that it was considered quasi-Scriptural by some—may allude specifically to 2 Macc. 7:28 in Mandates 1.1. In 2 Macc. 7:28, we read how the mother of a young man facing martyrdom exhorts him by appealing to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo:
I implore you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. (NETS)
The angelic shepherd similarly exhorts Hermas:
First of all, believe that God is one, who created and completed all things, and made everything that exists out of that which did not, who contains all things but is himself, alone, uncontained. (Mandates 1.1)13
Nowhere in the Old Testament other than 2 Maccabees 7:28 is a doctrine of creation ex nihilo explicitly articulated. This makes it likely that The Shepherd of Hermas depended on this passage.

At the beginning of the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome quotes from 2 Macc. 7:1-2 in his commentary on Daniel (just as he mentioned the first book of the Maccabees):
Be educated, O man, about the things which happen under Antiochus Epiphanes. While the seven brothers together with their mother were taken, they were struck with scourges and whips, but one of them answered the whips, and he said, ‘Why do you delay to ask and to learn? For we are prepared to die rather than to transgress our patriarchal laws.’” (Commentary on Daniel 20.3-4)14
Again, St. Cyprian of Carthage, in the mid-third century, quotes from 2 Macc. 7:16 and describes the words spoken by the martyr there as "animated...by the Spirit of divinity":
The fifth [brother], besides treading under foot the torments of the king, and his severe and various tortures, by the strength of faith, animated to prescience also and knowledge of future events by the Spirit of divinity, foretold to the king the wrath of God, and the vengeance that should swiftly follow. ‘Having power,’ said he, ‘among men, though you are corruptible, you do what you will. But think not that our race is forsaken of God. Abide, and see His great power, how He will torment you and your seed.’" (Treatise 11 § 11)

The Wisdom of Solomon may be alluded to already in the canonical Letter to the Hebrews. The Son is described in Heb. 1:3 as "the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being" (NABRE). This closely parallels Wisdom 7:26, which refers to Wisdom as "a reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness" (NETS). What makes literary dependence particularly likely here is that both passages use the rare Greek word apaugasma ("refulgence"), which occurs nowhere else in the Septuagint or the New Testament.

Another book with a close literary relationship with Hebrews, the late-first century 1 Clement (already discussed in connection with Judith), quotes directly from Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 as an authoritative source demonstrating that death entered the world through jealousy:
Instead, each one walks according to the desires of his evil heart, which have aroused unrighteousness and impious jealousy—through which also ‘death entered the world’ (1 Clem. 3.4)15
The Muratorian Fragment is a fragmentary list of books accepted by the catholic Church for reading in church. It is generally dated to c. 200 A.D. The surviving portion of the text begins by mentioning Luke and John and only discusses Christian (what we would call New Testament) writings, with one notable exception: the Wisdom of Solomon.
Moreover, the epistle of Jude and two of the above-mentioned (or, bearing the name of) John are counted (or, used) in the catholic [Church]; and [the book of] Wisdom, written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. (Muratorian Fragment 68-70)
The Wisdom of Solomon was thus considered canonical by the end of the second century. The oddity of this "Old Testament" book appearing in what is otherwise a discussion of "New Testament" books may be due to the date when Wisdom of Solomon was written. It is widely considered the latest of the deuterocanonical books and is dated by some to the early first century A.D.


The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus) is the longest of the deuterocanonical books, and the only one that seems to have been considered at all for the Jewish canon: some rabbinical texts emphasise that this book does not "defile the hands" (is not sacred), which may imply that some Jews thought otherwise. The translator of this work into Greek was the grandson of the original author.

There are possible allusions to Sirach in the late-first-century Christian work The Didache and the early-second-century work The Epistle of Barnabas. Sirach 4:31 reads thus:
Do not let your hand be extended to receive and withdrawn when paying back. (NETS)
The Didache and Barnabas, in their "Two Ways" catechetical material that undoubtedly reflects a common source, state:
Do not be one who reaches out your hands to receive but draws them back from giving. (Didache 4.5; Barnabas 19.9)16
Although this ethical principle is general enough to have arisen independently in Sirach and the Two Ways tradition used by Didache and Barnabas, it is equally plausible that the Two Ways material took the idea from Sirach. Barnabas's Two Ways material may also quote Sirach in Barnabas 19.2: "Love the one who made you" (agapēseis ton poiēsanta se; the identical Greek clause occurs in Sirach 7:30). 

St. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, characterises the words of Sirach 19:22 as spoken by God:
For true above all is that Psalm, ‘The just shall live to the end, for he shall not see corruption, when he beholds the wise dying.’ And whom does he call wise? Hear from the Wisdom of Jesus: ‘Wisdom is not the knowledge of evil.’ (Stromateis 1.10)
Origen, in the mid-third century, quotes from Sirach 21:27:
For if Satan is one, how can he both be crushed under the feet of the servants of God and also take action again? For if he has been crushed, and crushed by God, he certainly is no longer able to act. Therefore, perhaps there must be as many Satans as there are those who do the works of Satan. For this seems to me to be indicated also in the book of Wisdom [i.e. of Sirach], where it is said, ‘The impious who curse Satan are cursing their own soul.’ But also in a certain other little book that is called the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, although it is not considered part of the canon, we nevertheless discover the same such meaning—that individual Satans ought to be understood in individual sinners.” (Homilies on Joshua 15.6)17
By referring to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs immediately after Sirach, and offering the qualification that the latter "is not considered part of the canon," Origen implies that the former (Sirach) is considered part of the canon.


At the end of the first century, in the same passage quoted above concerning Judith, the author of 1 Clement writes:
No less did Esther, a woman perfect in faith, put herself in danger to rescue the twelve tribes of Israel who were about to perish. For through her fasting and humility she petitioned the all-seeing Master, the God of eternity, who saw the humbleness of her soul and rescued the people for whom she put herself in danger. (1 Clem. 55.6)18
Now, it is well-known that the Hebrew Book of Esther never mentions God. It is only in the Greek additions that Esther petitions God (Esth. 4:17-5:1) and that God is said to have "rescued" (Greek: rhuomai) his people (Esth. 10:3). It is therefore obvious that 1 Clement is basing his account of Esther's faith on the Septuagint version of the book that included the Greek additions. Thus the earliest Christian writer to refer to the Book of Esther understands the Greek additions to be part of the "sacred Scriptures."

Two centuries later, St. Methodius of Olympus emphasised that Esther "filled her head with ashes and dung, when she prayed to the Lord for her fellow-countrymen" (De Cibis 14.7).19 Like 1 Clement, this work refers to a detail found only in the Greek additions to Esther (4:17).


St. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, recounted the stories of the fiery furnace and the lion's den from the Book of Daniel. He describes how "Daniel was thrown into the den of lions; but being preserved through the providence of God by Habakkuk, he is restored on the seventh day" (Stromateis 1.21). The involvement of Habakkuk in the rescue of Daniel from the lions' den is a detail found only in the Greek additions to Daniel (cf. Dan. 14:33-39), which shows that the Greek additions were part of the book read by St. Clement.

The earliest surviving commentary on Daniel is that of St. Hippolytus of Rome, dating from about the first decade of the third century. Here, too, it is evident that the book commented on by St. Hippolytus included the Greek additions, since for instance he refers to the story of Susanna (cf. Commentary on Daniel 29.6-7).

One might make an argument that material added to a divinely inspired book by a different, later writer in a different language could not possibly also be divinely inspired Scripture. However, this argument only works at a superficial level. It is well known to biblical scholars today that numerous Old Testament books are composite works that went through additions and redactions by multiple authors before reaching their canonical form (Isaiah is a prime example). Moreover, the Book of Daniel itself in the Hebrew Bible contains lengthy passages in Aramaic—a sure sign that it was already a composite book before Greek material was added.


There is ample evidence from the first three centuries of Christianity—including some from the first century—that the seven deuterocanonical books and the Greek additions to Esther and Daniel were being read and revered as Scripture. This tradition culminated in the formal recognition of these books as part of the canon of Scripture at the end of the fourth century—a recognition that the Catholic Church has upheld to this day.


Footnotes

  • 1 One should not overstate the theological significance of this canonical difference. 66 books in common out of 73 is still very high. Moreover, by calling the other books deuterocanonical ("secondly canonical") Catholics acknowledge that their status is in some sense secondary, although they are affirmed to be divinely inspired, true, and authoritative, just as the rest of Scripture. Conversely, although Protestants do not consider the "apocrypha" to be divinely inspired or canonical, many Protestants still revere these books as valuable repositories of wisdom, to the point of Protestant publishers sometimes including them in printed Bibles (e.g., some printings of the KJV; NRSV). Nevertheless, the point remains that Catholics and Protestants are not using the same biblical canon and differ on the inclusion of these books.
  • 2 trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:128.
  • 3 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:133.
  • 4 trans. J. J. Thelwall, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (accessed at http://tertullian.org/anf/anf04/anf04-17.htm).
  • 5 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:191.
  • 6 This translation follows the GII text, regarded by most scholars as the older form. The GI text reads slightly differently but there are no important differences for our purposes here.
  • 7 My apologies to the reader that I have not had a chance to access some of the writings quoted herein in a recent critical text. St. Clement of Alexandria's works are quoted from the older public domain translation at NewAdvent.org.
  • 8 trans. T. C. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel (accessed at https://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/0205_hippolytus_commentary-on-daniel_2010.pdf).
  • 9 trans. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 (accessed at http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-19.htm).
  • 10 trans. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel.
  • 11 Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 19.
  • 12 Bryan R. Dyer, "The Epistle of James and the Maccabean Martyr Tradition: An Exploration of Sacred Tradition in the New Testament," in The Language and Literature of the New Testament: Essays in Honor of Stanley E. Porter's 60th Birthday (ed. Lois K. Fuller Dow and Craig A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 2017), 710.
  • 13 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:237.
  • 14 trans. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel.
  • 15 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:41 (quotation marks added).
  • 16 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:423, 425; 2:79.
  • 17 trans. Barbara J. Bruce, in Origen: Homilies on Joshua (ed. Cynthia White; Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 149.
  • 18 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:133.
  • 19 trans. Ralph Cleminson, Methodius of Olympus: On the distinction between foods (De cibis) (accessed at https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Methodius-De_Cibis_20151.pdf).

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Three Great Ironies of Restorationism




Restorationism, otherwise known as primitivism, is an ideology that "involves the attempt to recover some important belief or practice from the time of pure beginnings that believers are convinced has been lost, defiled, or corrupted."1 In a Christian context, restorationism rests on two main premises: (1) that the earliest period of the Church represents a golden age, an ideal to be replicated; (2) that following this earliest period the Church was defiled by a great apostasy (usually dated soon after the apostles died, at the beginning of the second century).

Christian restorationists have generally regarded the Roman Catholic Church, together with some or all Protestant denominations, as perpetuating the great apostasy and thus beyond hope of reform. For this reason they have tended to dissociate themselves from established Christianity, opting for a fresh start, a new religious community composed of people with a shared vision for recreating primitive Christianity and an agreed blueprint for reconstructing the long-lost beliefs, practices, and/or spirituality.

While elements of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation—especially the Radical Reformation—could be called 'restorationist' with some justification, restorationism really came into its own three centuries later in the "New World" of the United States, a nation built on the value of liberty, including religious liberty. Rapidly growing literacy rates and the onset of the Industrial Revolution meant that more people than ever before had both the ability and the time to read the Bible and other religious literature and to form and disseminate their own personal theological views. Early nineteenth-century America was also in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious fervour, and so a talented religious orator or writer could attract a considerable following. The nineteenth century was also a time of great optimism about the progress and potential of the human race, as well as of the American nation with its rapid industrial development and ever-extending frontiers. These socioeconomic factors converged to make nineteenth-century America an unparalleled breeding ground for restorationist movements, many of which survive today as denominations and sects.

The best-known American restorationist movement was the Stone-Campbell Movement, which was actually a merger of two movements led respectively by Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell (the latter building on a theological foundation laid by his father, Thomas Campbell). Several contemporary religious groups have their roots in this movement, including the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, and the Christadelphians (the sect in which I was raised).2 Other notable restorationist movements of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America include the Latter Day Saints movement (a.k.a. the Mormons), the Bible Students movement (from which arose Jehovah's Witnesses), the Adventist movement (from which arose Seventh Day Adventists), and the Pentecostal movement (with its many resulting denominations and sects). All of these movements, and many other lesser-known ones, began from the historical premises mentioned above: an idealised primitive church that had subsequently been defiled by a great apostasy and thus needed to be restored.

In this article, I want to offer a brief and broad critique of restorationism. In particular, I wish to point out three ironies in restorationist movements: (1) the irony of many conflicting restorations; (2) the irony of anti-sectarian sects and anti-denominational denominations; and (3) the irony of anti-traditionalist tradition.


Despite beginning from a common premise about the need to restore primitive Christianity due to a subsequent apostasy, restorationists have differed widely on both the methods and results of the restoration. All the restorationists proclaimed to the world that they had restored authentic Christianity in its simple purity, but they could not agree among themselves over what this simple purity should look like. In the words of Martin Marty, "They bade others come into their clearing but soon fell out with each other and fought over the boundaries and definitions of their exempla."3

For the Latter Day Saints, new revelation was required; for the Pentecostals, a "latter rain," i.e. a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Stone-Campbell movement and the Christadelphians, however, did not claim any special divine gift but believed that interpreting the Bible using common sense would enable believers to reconstruct the unadulterated beliefs and practices of the apostolic age. Perhaps more significantly than their methodological differences were the differences in results, i.e. the doctrines and practices that each restorationist movement arrived at in "restoring" primitive Christianity. These differences boiled down to hermeneutics, i.e. methods of biblical interpretation. Let us, by way of illustration, consider Alexander Campbell's monumental effort to restore primitive Christianity through common-sense biblical interpretation. As Bill J. Humble explains, Campbell's life's work was to determine in practical terms what it meant to restore the primitive church. He was "an iconoclastic, pragmatic restorer whose task was to apply the restoration principle to the practical questions of faith and life."4 Campbell's efforts are on display in a series of thirty articles he wrote from 1825-1829 entitled A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, in his periodical Christian Baptist. Campbell's articles explored various subjects, such as creeds, church organisation and discipline, worship and hymnody, the Spirit, requirements for membership, the Lord's Supper, etc. One of the pressing hermeneutical problems that he acknowledged was
the question of determining which practices of the primitive church are important for today. What does the New Testament bind on all ages? And what may be dismissed as the culture of an ancient world?5
Specific problems that Campbell or later restorationists wrestled with here included trine immersion, foot-washing, greeting with a holy kiss, sharing all goods in common, the charismatic Spirit gifts, and the simplicity of ancient life (i.e. the absence of modern technological innovations). All of the restorationist movements displayed selectivity, restoring some primitive practices but leaving others "un-restored".

A broader problem than selectively restoring ancient practices was that of disagreement over what the primitive church believed and practiced, and also how to handle such disagreements. The main idea was to restore the essential doctrines of the primitive church and permit difference of opinion on non-essential matters, but where was the line to be drawn between essential and non-essential? Restorationists disagreed with one another on doctrines as fundamental as the Trinity, and many others besides. Campbell's own movement faced ongoing controversy over the issue of infant baptism. Campbell himself "believed, after 1812, that immersion of believers was the only valid form of the ordinance,"6 and his movement contained many former Baptists who shared this position. However, Campbell believed that his movement was destined to reunite the Christians of various Protestant denominations under a common banner. In his optimism he began a new periodical called The Millennial Harbinger (implying that the Millennium itself was dawning through the restoration movement).7 Yet "to require believers' baptism as an essential ordinance would seriously impede his efforts toward unity,"8 since his ecumenical vision included denominations that practiced infant baptism. 

Campbell made some theological qualifications that allowed him, "in effect, to hold to the necessity and to the non-necessity of believers' baptism at one and the same time" and supplemented this with "a great deal of theological double-talk concerning baptism".9 As Hughes observes, baptism was a flash-point in a conflict, within Campbell's mind and within his movement, between two competing ideals: that of radical restorationism (restoring primitive Christianity—as Campbell understood it—without compromise) and that of ecumenical unity (ending denominationalism and uniting all Christians, or at least all Protestants, under a common denominator of belief and practice). As time went on, Campbell "increasingly lost faith" in the power of his restorationist movement "to produce ecclesiastical and societal unity," even as he showed greater willingness to compromise radical restorationism for the sake of unity.10

Disagreements over doctrine and practice, and disagreements over how fundamental these disagreements were, caused numerous schisms not only between restorationist movements but within them. Thus, each of the major nineteenth-century restorationist movements listed above has several descendants each claiming to be the legitimate heir of the parent movement, or the true restoration of primitive Christianity.

A convinced restorationist who surveys the landscape of restorationist movements must conclude that all such movements besides his or her own have been misguided and mistaken. This calls to mind the line from the great American humorist Mark Twain: "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." How can one be sure that one's own restorationist movement has succeeded when one is equally sure that all others have failed? Of course, in the age of postmodernism some will prefer to concede that all religious movements (including all restorationist movements) contain much subjectivity, that all—including one's own—have some merit and some demerit. However, such a position differs so radically from the ideals of the founder of any restorationist movement that it calls into question the reason for the movement's existence, and the reason for any person to continue to belong to that movement. If, for example, I am not convinced that the Christadelphians are uniquely the restoration of primitive Christianity, then what justification can I give for the Christadelphian movement to continue to exist, or for myself to continue to identify as a Christadelphian? Inertia, sentimentality, and lack of a better option are all poor reasons to belong to a religious movement.

Thus, the first great irony of restorationism is that it proffers a vision for restoring the purity and simplicity of primitive Christianity—but in reality restorationists have produced many accounts of what restored Christianity should look like, and their witness does not agree.


Wacker writes that primitivist movements are characterised by "an antistructuralist impulse: a determination to destroy the arbitrary conventions of denominational Christianity in order to replace them with a new order of primal simplicity and purity".11 When Alexander Campbell began his periodical The Millennial Harbinger in 1830, he declared it to be "devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism".12 Yet he was aware of a risk: "While endeavoring to abolish the old sects, let us be cautious that we form not a new one".13 As history would show, this is precisely what happened: Campbell's movement ultimately became just another established denomination, which later broke into several denominations.

Campbell's critical awareness that by opposing sectarianism one might end up only adding to it seems to have escaped his erstwhile protégé, John Thomas, who broke away from Campbell's movement to found his own (which became the Christadelphians). Thomas wrote of his disgust with "sectarianism" and with all "the sects," which are characterised by dissent and heterogeneity.14 In his earlier writings (before the final break with Campbell) he declared his resolute intention to maintain his "independence of all religious sects in America," opting instead for the "spirit of liberty."15 In a pre-Christadelphian periodical, he declared that he would "advocate no sectarian formula of faith," disavowing any "favor or affection of any sect, save that of the 'Nazarines' [i.e. the primitive church]".16 Again, he wrote to Campbell that he "labours for no denomination; it is for the truth as he believes it, independent of all sects or parties...The party he belongs to is a church of Christ...[who] worship God in spirit and in truth according to His word, and not according to the dogmas of this or that reformation or denomination."17 By the end of his life, after having founded a movement called the Christadelphians, Thomas straightforwardly identified his movement with the primitive church, i.e. "'the sect everywhere spoken against' [Acts 28:22], in the first century, newly revived". He contrasted this "newly-revived sect of antiquity," the Christadelphians, with "the sects of the apostasy," namely all other churches, within which "there is no salvation."18 These statements were made, ironically enough, in the context of laying out the Christadelphians' sectarian formula of faith in 24 propositions. Thomas apparently thought that he could escape the charge of sectarianism by dogmatically asserting that his sect was identical with the true church, while all others were apostate. However, such dogmatism is a feature of most, if not all, sects!

Every restorationist movement, while claiming to be unique and incomparable to other "sects" and "denominations," perhaps even claiming that they would abolish the phenomenon of sects and denominations, eventually congealed into one more sect or denomination among many. Marty states the irony succinctly: "They did not want to see denominationalism thrive and ended up creating new denominations".19 Hughes incisively observes that all the restorationist movements represented in his book "began their careers with a strong restorationist emphasis, but virtually all have now abandoned their restorationist moorings for a modern project that renders the restoration vision essentially powerless",20 i.e. by becoming part of the religious furniture, just another established denomination or sect.


Wacker defines primitivism (a term more or less synonymous with restorationism) as "any effort to deny history, or to deny the contingencies of historical existence, by returning to the time before time, to the golden age that preceded the corruptions of life in history".21 Similarly, Hill states that restorationism is concerned with the normative primitive Christian period and the present time; "It repudiates all intervening history, rarely as fact, but as holding any theological significance...such-Christianity-as-there-was is ignored (at best) in the practice of authentic church life and sometimes branded as a centuries-long aberration."22 Hughes states that "Without question, a profound 'sense of historylessness' often characterizes self-proclaimed restorationist or primitivist movements" and that this historylessness often engenders "illusions of innocence,"23 and "a rationalized self-reliance, set free from the constraints of history".24 Restorationism thus involves a "naïve attempt to avoid the power of history and culture."25

A major issue distinguishing restorationists not only from Catholics and Orthodox but from most other Protestants is "the extent of history's jurisdiction."26 For restorationists, church history between the time of the apostles and the contemporary restoration has no jurisdiction, no normative value. It is either ignored or used as a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong. Restorationists give no deference to post-biblical Christian tradition. It is not "our" history and tradition; its personalities are not "our" forefathers. They can safely be ignored or repudiated, and no debt of gratitude is owed to them.

This anti-traditionalist, historyless perspective of restorationist movements contains a great irony.27 As restorationist movements come of age, they rapidly develop their own history and tradition that the movement deems to be important and to some extent normative. Thus, for example, one finds "traditionally minded" Christadelphians exhorting one another to adhere to the teachings of their "pioneers" and to seek the "old paths"—paths that are barely 150 years old! Histories, often idealised, unscholarly and uncritical, are written of the movement's origins and founders, painting the age of restoration and the subsequent development of the movement as instructive and inspiring, even as they ignore or belittle many previous centuries of Christian history. By closely studying any restorationist movement, one could identify numerous examples of traditionalism relative to the movement's own history.

In short, the "historylessness" and aversion to tradition that characterises restorationist movements is not sustainable. It inevitably gives way to a history and a tradition that is confined to the post-restoration era. As Marty aptly puts it, "They did not want to be fallen into history, but they made history and became part of its stream."28 They were anti-traditionalist until they had their own tradition to maintain.


There is no denying that restorationism has a certain allure. It is the allure of a fresh start, of freedom from the baggage and messiness of church history. Unfortunately, it is a deceptive allure. I may think, whether out of self-reliance or misguided reliance on God, that I can start from scratch and work out the pure, unadulterated doctrines and practices of primitive Christianity for once and for all. However, many others have thought they could do so, and disagreed in their methods and results. Am I wiser, more diligent, more pious or more gifted than all of them? Disillusioned with the many dissenting sects and denominations on the Christian landscape, I may say, "Away with them all!", but if my solution is to start a new movement that restores the simplicity of primitive Christianity, it will inevitably become yet another sect or denomination with its own idiosyncrasies. Confronted with the complexity, messiness, and even horrors of Christian tradition and history, I may say, "Away with it all, give me only the Bible and its history!", but if my solution is to start a new movement, it will soon develop its own history and tradition, and may well repeat some of the mistakes of the previous Christian history that it has disowned.

Catholicism is an alternative to restorationism that I have found to be compelling. It is unique among Christian movements in that it does not trace its origins back to a schism with a parent movement; it traces its origins directly back to the apostles, both via unbroken history and via apostolic succession.29 It also has a uniquely objective claim to being the custodian and guardian of Christian doctrine, through its continued exercise of the prime ministerial office that Christ bestowed on Peter. Admittedly, it has a checkered history. However, I have written previously on why this is an asset and not a liability. 

Finally, there is great capacity for restoration and reform within the Catholic Church. St. Francis of Assisi in 1206 heard Christ telling him to rebuild His Church, which He said was in ruins. The Church also introduced many reforms that acknowledged merit in the some of the criticism brought against her by the Reformers of the sixteenth century. More recently, commentators on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) use the term "reform" frequently with reference to changes that were enacted there. The difference between this kind of restoration and "restorationism" is that Catholic restoration is not sectarian or schismatic. It does not start from scratch; it respects what has gone before and what is, and introduces necessary changes while preserving essential continuity. If one thinks of the Church as a dilapidated old manor house, the Catholic model is to undertake a painstaking restoration project, while the restorationist model is to tear it down and start fresh. Easier, yes, and therefore tempting; but the result will not be half as beautiful, and something priceless will have been lost.

Footnotes

  • 1 Richard T. Hughes, ed. The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), x-xi.
  • 2 It should be noted that the founders of some of these restorationist movements were immigrants from Great Britain, such as Alexander Campbell and John Thomas (founder of Christadelphians), and their movements were active on both sides of the Atlantic. There were also restorationist movements that were primarily British phenomena, such as the Plymouth Brethren.
  • 3 Martin E. Marty, "Primitivism and Modernization: Assessing the Relationship," in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, 7.
  • 4 Bill J. Humble, "The Restoration Ideal in the Churches of Christ," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church (ed. Richard T. Hughes; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 223.
  • 5 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226.
  • 6 Richard T. Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: The Millennial Odyssey of Alexander Campbell," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (1976): 94.
  • 7 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 224-25.
  • 8 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94.
  • 9 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94-95.
  • 10 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 95-96.
  • 11 Grant Wacker, "Playing for Keeps: The Primitivist Impulse in Early Pentecostalism," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 209-210.
  • 12 Quoted in Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 88.
  • 13 Quoted in Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226-27.
  • 14 Quoted in Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work (London: Christadelphian Book Depot, 1873), 77; cf. John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 4th edn (Adelaide: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 98, 352; cf. Peter Hemingray, John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith, 2nd edn (Christadelphian Tidings, 2008), 331.
  • 15 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 77.
  • 16 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 94.
  • 17 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 82.
  • 18 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 335-38.
  • 19 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 20 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, xiii-xiv.
  • 21 Wacker, "Playing for Keeps," 197.
  • 22 Samuel S. Hill, Jr., "Comparing Three Approaches to Restorationism: A Response," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 233-34.
  • 23 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 24 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 12.
  • 25 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 26 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 5.
  • 27 There is actually a second great irony, namely that restorationist movements are, in fact, heavily indebted to the very post-biblical Christian history and tradition that they repudiate. For instance, most restorationist movements have uncritically assumed a particular biblical canon, which was only cemented by the fourth century A.D. (and revised slightly by the Reformers in the sixteenth century). Furthermore, restorationists use the text of the New Testament as their primary resource for restoring primitive Christianity. However, they have no texts from the apostolic era but only later manuscripts, copied by scribes and monks from the "apostate" era. Similarly, most restorationist movements have assumed, as their starting point, pre-existing Protestant positions on doctrinal issues such as the Lord's Supper (a purely symbolic view) and church polity (usually, but not always, a decentralised, congregational structure). Yet restorationists did not for this reason regard earlier Protestants as their forefathers, but repudiated them along with Catholics.
  • 28 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 29 The Eastern Orthodox Church can at least plausibly make the same claim, since it is as old as the Roman Catholic Church, and which of the two is the parent movement depends on the disputed issue of papal authority that precipitated the Great Schism of 1054. However, none of the Protestant movements can plausibly claim to trace their origins directly back to the apostles.