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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.