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Showing posts with label restorationism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label restorationism. Show all posts

Monday 27 December 2021

Baconianism and the Intellectual Origins of the Christadelphian Movement

One cannot properly evaluate a religious movement without understanding its intellectual pedigree. The purpose of this article is to delve into a philosophical and hermeneutical school of thought called Baconianism that rose to prominence in early 19th-century America—especially among restorationists such as Alexander Campbell—and undoubtedly influenced John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians. At a descriptive level this will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of Christadelphian origins (for Christadelphians and anyone else interested in the movement). At a prescriptive level, the article also offers a critique of Baconianism.

Restorationism was a religious ideal that rose to prominence in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Although the ideal took many forms, one of the most influential was that of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I have written on this movement elsewhere, but briefly, it was founded by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), and his son Alexander (1788-1866). The two other most influential leaders in the movement were Barton W. Stone (whose movement merged with the Campbells') and Walter Scott. This movement eventually gave rise to several denominations or groups that still exist today, including the Disciples of Christ, Christian churches, Church of Christ, and Christadelphians (whose founder, John Thomas, broke with Campbell and established his own sect in the late 1840s).

The key premises of the "restoration" spearheaded by Alexander Campbell were that (a) the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations of the day were all apostate, and (b) the antidote was to restore and spread what Campbell called the "ancient gospel and order of things," by attending to the plain truths of the Bible. This would "result in the unity of Christians and the conversion of the world."1

The focus of this article is on the method by which Campbell and his fellow restorationists sought to arrive at true doctrine. This has been called the Baconian hermeneutical2 method because of its conscious indebtedness to Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English lawyer and philosopher who is regarded as the father of the scientific method. Before we describe the Baconian theological method, however, we need to provide background on Bacon's philosophy.

Bacon's main contributions on natural philosophy—what might today be called the philosophy of science—came toward the end of his life. He was a kind of scientific restorationist, in that he called for a "Great Instauration," which aimed at a "total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations."3 This restoration was necessitated by deficiencies in the level of knowledge available in his day, in which words often counted more than facts, and superstition and error could easily be perpetuated. If only people used the right methods, Bacon believed, nature could be understood and controlled much better.

Bacon's work Novum Organum was intended to supplant Aristotle's Organum, which represented the traditional account of reasoning in science. The main features of Bacon's method were that it was inductive and experimental.4 It was inductive in the sense that it entailed inferring a general conclusion from particular facts, and experimental in the sense that these facts were to be ascertained from real, practical, systematic experiments. Indeed, Bacon called for new "experimental histories" to be written on almost every area of science as he understood it, creating catalogues of observed phenomena that could then serve as a basis for inductive reasoning. These histories had to be created anew because, in Bacon's judgment, experiments had been undertaken haphazardly in the past, without a view to inducing general principles.

Scottish Common Sense Realism was a philosophy founded by Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Presbyterian minister and professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, where both Thomas and Alexander Campbell studied.5 As Foster explains,
Central to this philosophy was the belief that the data collected by the human senses, when confirmed by the testimony of others, was a reliable source of knowledge. Against the skeptical philosophy of David Hume, Reid insisted that the things humans perceive are the real external objects themselves, not images created by the mind. Through a careful, slow, painstaking process of experimentation and observation, of collecting data and inducing patterns, one could arrive at the facts—theoretically about anything.6
Reid's philosophy revitalised both realism and the inductive method of reasoning. It entailed a radically optimistic view of the observer's objectivity and a favourable view of the inductive approach to learning and science championed by Sir Francis Bacon.7 Baconianism, as articulated by the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (SCSP), entailed a scrupulous empiricism grounded in confidence in the senses, and inductive control of generalisations by constant reference to "facts".8 As a corollary, "Abstract concepts not immediately forged from observed data have no place in scientific explanation."9

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of SCSP, and Baconianism in particular, on some parts of American Protestantism during the antebellum period.10  As Noll writes,
the Common Sense philosophy has been the sole intellectual tradition for some evangelicals... for these evangelicals most of the functions normally fulfilled by a world view—habits of inquiry, assumptions about the construction and accessibility of truth, attitudes toward certainty and self-reflection—are the product almost exclusively of the Common Sense tradition.11
Allen concurs:
For significant sectors of American Protestantism during this period, Baconianism was held up as the true method for study of both the natural world and the Bible.12

Noll notes that, "As a general rule, when a group professes to live by 'no creed but the Bible,' it is a good indication that it relies consistently, if not necessarily self-consciously, on the Common Sense tradition."13 And this was one of Alexander Campbell's most cherished slogans. "Let the Bible be substituted for all human creeds," he wrote;14 and "We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words."15 Waers argues that Campbell's appropriation of Scottish Common Sense philosophy was one of the major factors in his rejection of certain Reformed doctrines.16 Equally, Campbell was an enthusiastic admirer of Bacon and his inductive method. He grouped Bacon with Locke and Newton as the three great thinkers of modernity,17 and his movement's first higher education institution was named Bacon College.

Bacon's natural philosophy was at the heart of Campbell's reformation movement. While Bacon had sought a scientific restoration, Campbell sought to employ Bacon's methods in a religious restoration. Having outlined "Lord Bacon's philosophy" of science, Campbell declared, "Now all that we want is to carry the same lesson and the same principle to theology."18 As recent Campbell biographer Douglas Foster puts it, "Campbell would come to rely entirely on the Baconian method to arrive at Christian doctrine".19 In Campbell's theological method, the plain testimony of Scripture provided the "facts" (the data set) from which doctrines (generalisations) could be induced.20 In Allen's words,
In order to bring about 'a restoration of the ancient order of things,' systematic theology was to be rejected and religious discussion confined to the 'plain declarations recorded in the Bible'... In the same way that Bacon wanted to abolish the medieval scholastic theories of science and place science upon an inductive basis, so Campbell wanted to abolish the dogmatic creeds and systems of religion and place Christianity upon an inductive basis.21
Allen notes that the most explicit articulation of this Baconian hermeneutic is found in James S. Lamar's 1860 book The Organon of Scripture.22 Lamar was a graduate of Bacon College and his book received a glowing endorsement from the aged Campbell. For Lamar, the conflict of opposing creeds and doctrines in Christianity was due to "the uncertainty of biblical interpretation," which however was not due either to the ambiguity of the Bible or the depravity or incompetence of its interpreters, but to the use of flawed methods of interpretation.23 What is required, therefore, is "the establishment of an all-comprehensive and pervading method" of biblical interpretation (or "hermeneutical science").24 This is none other than the Baconian method, which he proceeds to explain in great detail. Lamar touts the success of the Baconian method as implemented within the Stone-Campbell reformation:
Their movement, in its incipiency, was a grand and determined effort to burst the bonds of ecclesiastical authority, to separate the Bible from its unholy and unnatural alliance with philosophy, to bring it to bear upon the minds and hearts of men responsible for the reception given to it, and to determine its meaning from its own words, without respect to recognized and consecrated dogmata. Their success is known and read of all... Their sturdy and manly blows battered down the walls which shut out the light of scientific truth, at the same time that they forced the corrupters of the faith to retire from the contest, and leave the Bible in the hands of responsible men in the exercise of common sense.25

 5.1. Hints of Indebtedness to Baconianism

John Thomas (1805-71) was a British medical doctor who emigrated to the United States in 1832. Within a few weeks he had taken up with the Campbells' restoration movement and was baptised by one of its leaders, Walter Scott. By 1834, Thomas had become a protégé of Alexander Campbell and launched his own periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, however, Thomas and Campbell fell out over two issues: Thomas' practice of (re-)baptising Baptists who joined the movement, and Thomas' teaching that death annihilates the human person. The two reconciled but soon fell out again, and by the early 1840s Thomas was persona non grata in many of the movement's churches (though he retained some loyal sympathisers, especially in Virginia). Thomas launched a new periodical, Herald of the Future Age, where in 1847 he published a "Confession and Abjuration," renouncing many of his previous beliefs. Now convinced that Campbell's movement was teaching heresy, he had himself re-baptised and began to enthusiastically spread the gospel as he understood it, both in North America and Great Britain. The result was what would (from 1864 onwards) be known as the Christadelphian community. Thomas continued itinerant preaching, editing the Herald (until 1860),26 and writing books and pamphlets until his death in 1871.

At the beginning of his career as a religious writer, Thomas refers to Bacon when outlining his approach to interpreting the Book of Revelation:
Be it observed, however, that there is not a single speculation in the religion or doctrine of Christ. In my investigation, therefore, I have renounced speculation and substituted, according to the suggestion of lord Bacon, the simple narration of historical facts.27
This is a Baconian statement worthy of Campbell, and suggests that Thomas was basically on board with the movement's SCSP-influenced Baconian hermeneutical programme. Further support for this can be found in Thomas' later writings,28 and he nowhere renounces the programme's basic principles of common-sense interpretation and constructing doctrine inductively.

 5.2. De-Emphasis on Baconian (and all other) Hermeneutics

Despite Thomas' apparent acceptance of Baconianism, his writings differ sharply from Campbell's in the degree of importance assigned to the method. For Campbell, the Baconian method of biblical interpretation was the key to the whole reformation, and if implemented consistently would unlock the door of doctrinal unity among Christians. Therefore he discusses the method frequently and in detail. Thomas seems to have adopted Baconianism, but he very rarely mentions it, or the methodology of biblical interpretation in general. Why is this?

At least three reasons (which are not mutually exclusive) may be suggested. First, the beginning of the restoration movement is usually dated to 1809, when Thomas Campbell published his Declaration and Address. By the time John Thomas joined the movement in 1832, its Baconian hermeneutic was well-established and would have been assumed by most of Thomas' subsequent readers. Moreover, if this hermeneutic were self-evident "common sense," there was no need to defend it or theorise about it; one could just get on with practicing it. Hence, Thomas' relative silence on Baconianism could be attributed to his taking the method for granted.

The second reason is a rhetorical one. Consider the following tension in Campbell's writings. On the one hand, he blames the schisms and parties that have abounded since the Reformation on "philosophy" and "opinions," and calls for "human philosophy" to "be thrown overboard into the sea," substituted by "the Bible only, in word and deed, in profession and practice."29 On the other hand, he is clearly operating within a Scottish Common Sense philosophical framework, and acknowledges his debt to Bacon, Locke, and other philosophers.30 Waers suggests that Campbell did not, or was unable to, see Baconianism as a philosophical theory.31 While Campbell may have missed the irony of using Enlightenment-era philosophy to "restore" ancient Christianity, Thomas may have perceived it. To successfully argue that one is a true "Bible-only" Protestant, one must downplay one's indebtedness to any post-biblical philosophy or hermeneutic. Therefore, by straightforwardly identifying his own interpretations with the "common-sense" or "natural" meaning of the Bible, Thomas could present himself as an independent, objective witness to Christian truth.

The third reason stems from Thomas' schism with Campbell and other schisms in the restoration movement. If all were using the same (Baconian) method of interpretation, and yet were arriving at conflicting doctrines, the method itself must be insufficient. That Thomas thought in such terms is evident from his criticism of disparagement of the hermeneutical training of others, including Alexander Campbell. In assailing Bishop Robert Lowth's translation of Isaiah 18, he writes sarcastically of both Lowth and Campbell,
Yet [Lowth] was profoundly skilled in 'hermeneutics,' at least as much so as any 'bible unionists' of our time, who are making so broad their phylacteries in new translationism, and the laws of exegesis! ... [Campbell] is of course well-skilled in all the settled canons of translation and interpretation sanctioned by the Protestant educated world... [but] what obscurity has he not deepened by his hermeneutics? Pshaw! What are 'canons' worth that reduce prophetic writings to a level with 'an old Jewish almanac?' ... A man may be profoundly skilled in hermeneutics, and yet profoundly incompetent to translate and interpret the Scriptures correctly. He is like one who can name his tools, but knows not how to use them.32
Indeed, Thomas elsewhere dismisses the very term "hermeneutics" as part of a campaign of subterfuge! Commenting on the false knowledge mentioned in 1 Timothy 6:20, he states,
The same thing is styled in our day 'theological science,' 'divinity,' 'ethics,' 'hermeneutics,' and so forth; terms invented to amaze the ignorant, and to impress them with the necessity of schools and colleges for the indoctrination of pious youth in the mysteries they learnedly conceal.33
Elsewhere, Thomas cites biblical passages about the need to be child-like, and about God using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,34 to argue that hermeneutics and philosophy hinder rather than help the theologian. Indeed, he scolds his former mentor Walter Scott for taking too much interest in Bacon:
Though a very amiable gentleman, Mr. Scott has not yet become 'a little child;' and without this, the Great Teacher saith, we 'cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens.' Mr. Scott must empty himself of his modern reformers, and the jargon of the schools; he must forget Bacon, Locke, and Logic... his brains are bewildered with analytic and synthetic synopsed until he can see no more; this must all be abandoned. A head under the pressure of all this learned lumber is unfit for the study of 'the word.' The heads of babes and sucklings out of whose mouths the Deity perfecteth praise, are not befuddled with such speculative twaddle. Mr. Scott must cease to ape 'the wise and prudent,' and become as a little child. So skilled in analytic, let him analyze the mentality of a child; and then let him synthesize the elements into a proposition, and conform thereto.35
 5.3. A Common Sense Antihermeneutic

If "hermeneutics" and even "logic" ought to be forgotten, it is clear that for Thomas, neither the Baconian method nor any other method is the way to restore the apostolic order. This reading of Thomas' thought seems to be confirmed by the introduction to Elpis Israel—his evangelistic manifesto, first published in 1848. Thomas does provide information about his approach to the Bible, but he does not lay out his hermeneutic, or even admit to having one. Given this, together with his attacks on "hermeneutics" elsewhere, his hermeneutic would be best described as an antimethodology—defined by Wiktionary as "An approach to study or analysis that eschews the usual methodology, or methodologies in general"36—or antihermeneutic. But how does Thomas propose to interpret the Bible if "hermeneutics" are off the table?

Elpis Israel makes clear that, for Thomas, the only way to arrive at religious truth is to know "the true meaning of the Bible."37 However, there is an evil conspiracy at work: "the human mind has developed the organisation of a system of things impiously hostile to the institutions and wisdom of Jehovah"38; its name is "MYSTERY" and it is none other than Catholic and Protestant Christendom. To arrive at biblical truth, therefore, one must 
Cast away to the owls and to the bats the traditions of men, and the prejudices indoctrinated into thy mind by their means; make a whole burnt offering of their creeds, confessions, catechisms, and articles of religion... Let us repudiate their dogmatisms; let us renounce their mysteries; and let us declare our independence of all human authority in matters of faith and practice extra the word of God.39
Having jettisoned all ecclesiastical dogma and tradition and begun anew with a blank slate, the individual must "Search the scriptures with the teachableness of a little child," believing nothing but what can be "demonstrated by the grammatical sense of the scriptures."40 The virtues that maximise the chances of correctly interpreting the Bible are "humility, teachableness, and independence of mind," and diligent seeking.41 In his other major work, Eureka, Thomas asks a rhetorical question that captures his common-sense antihermeneutic succinctly: "Suppose a man of common sense...study only the sacred books, is it not conceivable that he may acquire a competent, nay, even an eminent knowledge of the scriptures?"42 

Thus, for Thomas, the ingredients for sound doctrine are nothing more than the Bible itself and common sense, exercised with independence, humility, and diligence. One should not fail to notice the Baconian flavour of this antihermeneutic: dumping creeds and dogmas and limiting oneself to what is demonstrable from the grammatical sense of Scripture as adjudicated by common sense are axiomatic in Baconianism. However, Thomas does not place any emphasis or trust in a method. The locus of common sense interpretation is not the method (as with Lamar) but the interpreter. Common sense is a high virtue, and one that ironically—as Thomas writes elsewhere—"is common only to the few."43

Before concluding, we will offer a critique of the Baconian hermeneutic, as espoused by the restoration movement and as practiced (more as an antihermeneutic) by John Thomas. The critique of Baconianism consists of three main points. First, it failed to deliver on its promise of producing doctrinal uniformity among Christians. Second, it failed to recognise important differences between natural science and textual hermeneutics. Third, it is fundamentally anachronistic and foreign to the theological method of the early church.

 6.1. Failure to Deliver Doctrinal Unity

While the young Alexander Campbell was optimistic that application of the Baconian method to biblical interpretation would usher in a golden age of Christian unity, his life's work was in fact beset by "constant and unrelenting conflicts with opponents and colleagues alike".44 Instead of putting an end to denominational sectarianism in Christianity, the restoration simply added more denominations to the list: "in a movement long marked by theological and cultural rifts, the outcome finally was a bitter fundamentalist/modernist controversy and permanent division."45 Foster's biography of Campbell devotes an eight-chapter section to "Defense and Conflict," describing bitter doctrinal disagreements between Campbell and others both inside and outside of his movement.46

Similarly, the young James Lamar was almost triumphal in his book The Organon of Scripture about the Baconian hermeneutic's potential to put an end to doctrinal disagreement. However, 
The intellectual and spiritual odyssey of James S. Lamar from the 1850s to 1900 reflects his increasing disillusionment with the Baconian method as a tool to bring about Alexander Campbell's goal of unity through restoration of the 'ancient order.'47
Lamar would live to see the definitive split of the Stone-Campbell Movement into two denominations, the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, in 1906. Thus, Baconianism failed to deliver the uniformity of doctrine that its proponents sought. And the reason for this probably lies in our next criticism of the method: its downplaying of subjectivity. 

 6.2. (Mis-)Application of a Scientific Method to Biblical Interpretation

Bacon developed his inductive method for the natural sciences, and in this discipline there is some plausibility in the idea of assembling a set of experimental "facts" and reasoning inductively to a conclusion.48 However, when Campbell and others argued for using the same method to construct Christian doctrine, they were overlooking the vast differences between natural sciences and biblical hermeneutics. Notwithstanding the best efforts of Joseph Smith,49 the biblical "data set" is static and cannot be augmented through experimentation. Moreover, "the facts" in the case of a scientific data set typically involve precise measurement of numerical quantities (e.g., temperature, volume, etc.) With good instrumentation, measurement error will be negligible. Assembling "the facts" from the Bible is a far thornier affair: it entails translating and interpreting ancient texts. Translation is not just a matter of "common sense"; it is a complex, multi-faceted task. It requires, inter alia, reconstructing the original text as closely as possible (textual criticism), choosing the degree of formal or dynamic equivalence desired, resolving syntactic and semantic ambiguities, and adding punctuation. Translation already entails a degree of interpretation, but even exegetes who agree on the translation of a text may differ radically on its meaning and theological significance. In short, Scripture is nothing like a simple set of "facts" on which induction can be performed. Hence, the Baconian hermeneutic greatly exaggerates interpreters' objectivity and tempts them to equate their own disputable opinions with "the facts." As Allen summarises:
[James Lamar] seems never to have been struck by the deep irony that marked the movement almost from its inception—the irony of claiming to overturn all human traditions and interpretive schemes while at the same time being wedded to an empirical theological method drawn from early Enlightenment thought. By virtually denying the necessity of human interpretation and the inevitable impact of extra-biblical ideas and traditions, the Disciples allowed their interpretive traditions to become all the more entrenched for being unrecognized.50
 6.3. The Irony of "Restoring" Ancient Christianity Using Enlightenment-Era Philosophy

The third problem is even more fundamental. Baconianism is rooted in the philosophy of Bacon in the 17th century and Reid in the 18th. How could modern philosophy restore primitive Christianity? Or how could the apostolic order be recovered using a hermeneutic that post-dates the apostles by over 1500 years?51 The question answers itself. And if the Baconian approach entails "calling Bible things by Bible names," what is the Bible's name for the Baconian method? Is it not an extrabiblical imposition from human philosophy—the very sort of thing that "Bible only" Protestants seek to abolish from theology?

A defender of Baconianism might respond that the method need not be explained in Scripture because it is accessible to all by common sense. However, if that were the case, we should expect it to have been used in the early church (unless common sense is a modern invention!) Let us look at the thought of Irenaeus of Lyons (writing c. 180 A.D.) as a test case. Irenaeus is a good example because he is one of the Church's earliest "biblical theologians." Notably, he is the earliest extant writer to use the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" to refer to portions of the biblical canon and to defend four as the complete number of canonical gospels.

If Irenaeus were Baconian in his hermeneutic, we would expect him to construct his theology by assembling "facts"—various statements in Scripture—and combining them inductively into doctrines. To use John Thomas' language, we would expect him to be independent of any dogmatic traditions or ecclesiastical authority and to rely only on what is demonstrable directly from Scripture.

Instead, Irenaeus introduces his famous summary of Christian doctrine, the rule of faith, thus: "The church, dispersed throughout the world to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith" (Against Heresies 1.10.1).52 Similarly, in his other surviving work, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, he introduces the Christian faith with the words, "So, faith procures this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us."53 Thus Irenaeus regards "the elders, disciples of the apostles" as an authoritative source of doctrine.

Opposing the Gnostic heretics, Irenaeus explains in what the true Gnosis (knowledge) consists:
This is true Gnosis: the teaching of the apostles, and the ancient institution of the church, spread throughout the entire world, and the distinctive mark of the body of Christ in accordance with the succession of bishops, to whom the apostles entrusted each local church, and the unfeigned preservation, coming down to us, of the scriptures, with a complete collection allowing for neither addition nor subtraction; a reading without falsification and, in conformity with the scriptures, an interpretation that is legitimate, careful, without danger or blasphemy. (Against Heresies, 4.33.8)
Notice that Irenaeus stresses the importance of the Scriptures and their correct interpretation, but in the same breath acknowledges the importance of apostolic succession for preserving the teaching of the apostles in the Church. Hence, once can recognise heretics precisely by their independence from ecclesiastical authority:
This is why one must hear the presbyters who are in the church, those who have the succession from the apostles, as we have shown, and with the succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. As for all the others who are separate from the original succession, in whatever place they gather, they are suspect. They are heretics with false doctrine or schismatics full of pride and audacity and self-willed or, again, hypocrites looking only for gain and vainglory. (Against Heresies, 4.26.2)
These few quotations suffice to show that the Baconian hermeneutic is at odds with the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons. One might argue that Irenaeus had already apostatised from biblical truth, despite being only two degrees separated from the apostles (in his youth he heard Polycarp teach, who was taught by John).54 But if this were the case, what evidence can be brought forth to show that other early Christian writers sought to practice a Baconian theological method?

 6.4. Other Problems with John Thomas' Antihermeneutic

The above criticisms apply to John Thomas to the extent that he, too, applied the Baconian method. Thomas, however, merits further criticism for what we have termed his antihermeneutic. Thomas scoffed at "hermeneutics" and "logic" and conflated his own philosophical and methodological presuppositions with "common sense." In his optimism for common sense, Thomas was a man of his times. It was nonetheless breathtakingly naïve for Thomas to dismiss logic and hermeneutics, as though he were not using them himself. Here is a certainty: every theologian uses logic and hermeneutics, which are simply the theory and method of reasoning and interpretation respectively. The one who denies using them merely surrenders much of his capacity for intellectual self-examination and correction. Forthrightness about one's methods and presuppositions is far better than hiding behind the nebulous rule of "common sense."

One person's common sense differs from her neighbour's; Thomas himself wrote (cited earlier) that common sense was "common only to the few." He adds other virtues that enhance the interpreter's chances of success, such as independence, humility, teachableness, and diligence. As correct interpretation is made a function of personal virtues rather than methods and rules of interpretation, objectivity recedes further. Are we sinful human beings well qualified to judge the humility, teachableness, and diligence of ourselves and others? It is no surprise that subsequent Christadelphian writers extolled John Thomas' intellectual virtues and suggested that a restoration of apostolic truth probably would not have happened but for his remarkable attributes.55

The notion that "independence" is a virtue in theologians is, as noted above, totally at odds with the worldview of early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, being instead a characteristic Irenaeus assigns to the heretics he opposes. Indeed, independence and humility seem to be self-contradictory, since the virtue of humility entails submission to legitimate authority, including ecclesiastical (see, e.g., Heb. 13:17). As parents, if our children disregard our rules and make up their own, do we reward them for "independence" or discipline them for disobedience?

In this writer's experience, John Thomas' antihermeneutic legacy lives on in that Christadelphians generally show little interest in, or even acknowledgment of, their movement's intellectual roots. Very little "critical history" of Christadelphian origins has emerged from within the movement;56 Christadelphian historiography has been largely hagiographical. This stands in marked contrast to the wider Stone-Campbell tradition, which has produced voluminous critical research into its own intellectual origins.
Regardless of whether one believes that the Christadelphian belief system is true or not, it does not help anyone when the philosophical presuppositions and hermeneutical methods that gave rise to it go unrecognised and continue to be conflated, in early-19th-century fashion, with "common sense." There is a sector of Christadelphians who have, in recent years, sought to bring Christadelphian theology into conversation with contemporary biblical scholarship. Hopefully, this article may inspire similar scholarly engagement in the matter of Christadelphian history. Even if not, I hope it contributes to the reader's understanding of the Christadelphian movement.
  • 1 Douglas A. Foster, Alexander Campbell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 59-60.
  • 2 The term "hermeneutics" refers to the theory and methods of interpretation of texts, especially the Bible.
  • 3 Barry Gower, Scientific Method: A Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 41. The description of Bacon's method here is largely based on Gower.
  • 4 Gower, Scientific Method, 52.
  • 5 Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1998), 20-21.
  • 6 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 36-37
  • 7 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 20-21.
  • 8 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 9 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 10 For those unfamiliar with the term, "antebellum" means "before the war" and refers here to the decades that preceded the American Civil War (1861-65).
  • 11 Mark A. Noll, "Common Sense Traditions and American Evangelical Thought," American Quarterly 37 (1985): 233.
  • 12 C. Leonard Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and 'The Organon of Scripture,'" Church History 55 (1986): 67.
  • 13 Noll, "Common Sense Traditions," 234.
  • 14 A Connected View of the Principles and Rules by which the Living Oracles May Be Intelligibly and Certainly Interpreted (Bethany, VA: M'Vay & Ewing, 1835), 106.
  • 15 The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead in the Current Reformation (Pittsburgh: Forrester & Campbell, 1840), 125.
  • 16 Stephen Waers, "Common Sense Regeneration: Alexander Campbell on Regeneration, Conversion, and the Work of the Holy Spirit," Harvard Theological Review 109 (2016): 612.
  • 17 "Their writings have done more for the world than all the rhetoricians of two thousand years" (The Millennial Harbinger 5 [1834]: 622); "History records no more illustrious names than those of Bacon, Locke, and Newton" (The Millennial Harbinger 7 [1836], 247).
  • 18 The Christian Baptist 6 (1828): 227. Similarly, "Since the days of Bacon our scientific men have adopted the practical and truly scientific mode...We plead for the same principle in the contemplation of religious truth... By inducing matter by every process to give out its qualities, and to deduce nothing from hypothesis; so religious truth is to be deduced from the revelation which the deity has been pleased to give to man" ("Speculation in Religion," The Christian Baptist 4 [1827]: 241).
  • 19 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 38. Allen concurs: "The evidence is strong that Alexander Campbell appropriated Scottish Baconianism to a considerable degree and employed it in the service of his primitivist theology" ("Baconianism and the Bible," 69).
  • 20 "The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions." (The Christian System, 18).
  • 21 "Baconianism and the Bible," 68-70.
  • 22 The Organon of Scripture, Or, The Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1860).
  • 23 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 24; cf. Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 73.
  • 24 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 25.
  • 25 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 130-31.
  • 26 The name changed to Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come from 1851. The periodical was discontinued due to the American Civil War and was not reprised thereafter.
  • 27 "Observations on the Apocalypse," The Apostolic Advocate 1 (1834): 197.
  • 28 For instance, in 1852, Thomas favourably quotes another British physician's views on the subject of "the investigation of the truth"; that physician was advocating that the Baconian inductive method be applied in biblical interpretation, as in natural science, so that the uniformity of belief enjoyed in science would also be enjoyed in religion ("The Bible Doctrine concerning the Tempter Considered, No. 1," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 2 [1852]: np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.). In 1858, Thomas includes the following "selection" in his periodical: "Our duty in reference to knowledge in general is to observe facts, rather than to form hypotheses; to go on, as Bacon teaches, in the modest accumulation of positive data, aware that there are eternal truths, whatever may come of your opinions" (Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 8 [1858]: 47).
  • 29 The Christian System, 5-6, 127.
  • 30 "When I begin to think of my debts of thought, I see an immense crowd of claimants...Euclid, and Locke, and Bacon, and Newton, and ten thousand others cast an eye upon me." ("Letter to William Jones," The Millennial Harbinger 6 [1835]: 304.)
  • 31 "It should be noted here that Campbell often inveighed against the use of any theories, philosophical or otherwise, when interpreting scripture. Campbell did not seem to lump his use of SCSP into this category of theorization. For him, the SCSP understanding of the human mind was self-evident and therefore not theoretical or speculative. Perhaps we could say that he was unable to see beyond its horizons. Campbell thought that Francis Bacon corrected the fanciful speculations into which philosophy had declined prior to his time. Because Bacon’s inductive method was so important to SCSP, it is likely that Campbell saw his adoption of SCSP as combatting speculation and theorization"("Common Sense Regeneration," 613 n. 8).
  • 32 Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 33 Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 3 vols. (Adelaide: Logos, originally published 1861), 1:198.
  • 34 For instance, at the end of his above-mentioned series on Isaiah, where he argues that it foretells contemporary political events involving Russia, he writes, "Paul gloried in his weakness; and so do we. If one so weak as our stupid self can make 'the most difficult passage of Isaiah' so intelligible and plain, how blind must they be, who with all their classical, theological, hermeneutic, erudition, and 'logic,' can give no better sense to this portion of the word than the translators so often named in this! So true is it, that 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.'" Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 35 "Scotto-Campbellism Reviewed," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 10 (1860): 60.
  • 36 This term has been used elsewhere for the hermeneutic of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), women's rights activist and author of The Woman's Bible, where she "she calls on her readers to 'be guided by their own unassisted common sense' (2:159) and to read the 'unvarnished texts' of the Scriptures 'in plain English' (1:8) and 'in harmony with science, common sense, and the experience of mankind in natural laws' (1:20)" (Carolyn A. Haynes, Divine Destiny: Gender and Race in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998], 146). Haynes comments, "Such an exegetical methodology (or antimethodology) is in keeping with the Common Sense school and with fundamentalist hermeneutical practices."
  • 37 Elpis Israel (Findon: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 3.
  • 38 Elpis Israel, 4.
  • 39 Elpis Israel, 5, 8.
  • 40 Elpis Israel, 5-6.
  • 41 Elpis Israel, 6, 8-9.
  • 42 Eureka, 1:341. The ellipsis reads, "perfectly unacquainted with all the learned lore of Ammonius." In context, Thomas is criticising Origen's reliance on the Neoplatonist philosopher Ammonius in his theological method. However, the broader question obtained by removing this ellipsis certainly characterises Thomas' approach to Scripture in general.
  • 43 "A Few First Principles of Common Sense," Apostolic Advocate 2 (1835): 229.
  • 44 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 254.
  • 45 Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 80.
  • 46 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 151-272. Conflicts of a doctrinal nature involving Campbell included the clash with John Thomas over "re-immersion" and the immortality of the soul, clashes with Barton W. Stone over the Trinity and Christology, and conflict with a minister named Jesse B. Ferguson over universalism and spiritualism. The conflicts with Thomas and Ferguson ended with schisms.
  • 47 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 48 It should be noted, however, that Baconian inductivism has been out of favour since the later 19th century even as a scientific method.
  • 49 The founder of the Latter-Day Saints movement ("Mormons").
  • 50 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 51 One might argue that the New Testament writers themselves used an anachronistic hermeneutic in that they often interpreted the Old Testament Christologically and not according to the grammatical-historical sense. However, the early church read the Scriptures Christologically because its worldview had been radically realigned by the Christ-event. Did the Bacon-event really warrant another hermeneutical revolution?.
  • 52 All translations from Against Heresies are taken from Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997).
  • 53 John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching: Translated and with an Introduction (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 42.
  • 54 A reader interested in exploring the early Church Fathers further may wish to consult works such Jimmy Akin's The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2010) or (for a more academic treatment) William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (3 vols; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1979).
  • 55 "Dr Thomas was fitted by natural qualification for the great work achieved by his hand. His intellect was a fine balance between perception and reflection, adapting him for full and accurate observation and correct reasoning, while a scientific education brought out those powers to the fullest advantage... The Doctor was a remarkable man, and was the instrument of a remarkable work, which required strongly-marked characteristics for its accomplishment... firstly, a clear, well-balanced, scientific intellect, and a non-emotional, executive nature, enabling him to reason accurately, and perceive and embrace conclusions in the teeth of prejudice and sentiment; secondly, self-reliance and an independence almost to the point of eccentricity, disposing him to think and act without reference to any second person, and if need be, in opposition to friend as well as foe; thirdly, a predominating conscientiousness impelling him in the direction of right and duty; and fourthly, great boldness and fluency of speech which qualified him for the enunciation of the truth discovered in the face of the world in arms... To a man of different characteristics, the work would probably have been impossible. Dr. Thomas possessed a combination of traits that enabled him to persevere in his course whatever difficulties had to be faced... such, in brief, is the history of that application of his mental powers to Scripture study and polemics which, in the wisdom of God, has uncovered the oracles of divine truth from the mass of ignorance and misinterpretation which for centuries overlaid and obscured them'" (Robert Roberts, Dr Thomas: His Life and Work (web version); "The peculiar mental and moral organisation of Dr. Thomas admirably fitted him for the work he accomplished. His sterling honesty, great faith, resolute will, utter disregard of human opinion, and what seemed a reckless independence of leadership of men, enabled him to do a work that would have failed under other conditions" (L. B. Welch, "The Recovered Truth in the Latter Days," The Christadelphian 31 [1894]: 144-48).
  • 56 A site search of the online archives of two Christadelphian magazines (The Christadelphian Tidings and Testimony) yields no content devoted to the influence of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy or Baconianism on Christadelphian origins.

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.


  • 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.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Christmas in July: Where did this holiday come from, and should it be celebrated?

For many Christians, Christmas is the highlight of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, for some nominal Christians it is practically the only event in the liturgical calendar. Other Christians, however, reject this holiday in view of its lack of biblical warrant, alleged pagan roots, or contemporary commercialization. How did Christmas come about, and should it be observed today?

By 336 A.D., Christmas, held on December 25, marked the beginning of the festal year in Rome.1It is difficult to determine how much earlier than this the observance originated, with most scholars opting for a date in the late third century or early fourth century. A couple of earlier Christian writers speculated about the date of Christ's birth but gave no indication of a festival associated with it. In fact, the early third century Christian writer Origen decried the practice of celebrating birthdays and observed that it was something that sinners, not saints, got involved with.
“The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something only ‘pagans’ (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians.”2
What can be said with certainty is that there was no observance of Christmas in the apostolic age or for several generations thereafter. This absence is important for anyone with a restorationist vision of Christianity:
“Restorationism, or Christian primitivism, is an ideology that identifies early Christianity (variously defined) as the timeless norm for Christian doctrine and practice. Restorationism’s adherents seek to replicate this normative ‘early Christianity’ in their own times.”3
For anyone who views the doctrine and practice of the apostolic age as normative to the exclusion of later developments in the patristic church, Christmas will likely appear as an unwelcome innovation. This probably explains, at least in part, why some restorationist groups either reject Christmas (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses) or view it with some ambivalence (Christadelphians).

Does Christmas have pagan roots? There are two main hypotheses concerning how December 25 came to be the date on which Christ's birthday was celebrated: the History of Religions hypothesis and the Calculation hypothesis.4 The History of Religions hypothesis posits that Christians of the early fourth century, with their new-found legal backing under Constantine, hijacked an existing pagan holiday known as Natalis Solis Invicti. This holiday was a commemoration of the unconquered sun-god which coincided with the winter solstice. With biblical backing for the use of sun imagery in relation to Christ (Malachi 4:2), and a festal vacuum left by the increasing conversion of pagans to Christianity, it is argued that Christians appropriated Natalis Solis Invicti to mark Christ's birth.

The Calculation hypothesis holds that early Christians held a highly symbolic view of time in which God only worked in whole numbers and not fractions. Persons regarded as great in God's eyes would die on the same day as they were born. Christ was regarded to have died on March 25, based on calculations between the Jewish and Julian calendars. Thus his conception (i.e. the Annunciation, regarded as more theologically significant than his actual birth) was also dated to March 25, from which it was inferred that he was born on December 25.

These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive,5 so the symbolic calculations may have provided the impetus for the Christian takeover of Natalis Solis Invicti. Importantly, neither one lends any credibility to the view that Christ was actually born on December 25, which must be regarded as extremely unlikely. If the History of Religions hypothesis is correct, then Christmas does indeed have its roots in paganism. However, it represents a reaction against paganism. While it may also suggest a willingness to accommodate former pagans, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as “the early Christians had little choice but to adapt to the surrounding Hellenized-Roman culture if they had any pretensions to universality.”6

Neither of these hypotheses fully explains why the church began to celebrate Christmas. It is unlikely that the need to replace former pagan holidays in the calendar with some Christian analogue can entirely account for the invention of Christmas. Some scholars have tentatively suggested that the Arian controversy played a role in the spread of Christmas observance. Since Arians placed less emphasis on the incarnation than proponents of Nicene orthodoxy, Christmas may have been promoted in line with anti-Arian polemic.7. Kochenash has argued in an unpublished work that the origin of Christmas coincided with the development of a belief that certain spaces and times were inherently sacred, which had not been part of Christian belief in prior centuries in which house churches were the main place of worship.8

What is the significance of Christmas today? From a secular standpoint it has been heavily commercialized:
“The massive production, advertising and marketing essential to the stability and health of the retail sector of the economy in developed countries serves as the secular form of the feast, the content of which derives not only from the incarnation in the salvation history of Christian belief, but even beyond Christianity in a complex of folklore, custom, art, familial bonding, common values and personal and collective memories. The Gospel story of the birth of Christ secures the base, the original core, sometimes amounting to only a barely-detectible pretext, for the feast in its contemporary manifestation; yet the story is not in itself determinative of what Christmas is.”9
Forbes observes that many of the cultural features of Christmas observance in the contemporary West derive from pre-Christian winter solstice festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia or the Yule/Jul of northern Europe.10

Nevertheless, in Christian communities today which emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas observance, the liturgical context depends largely on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. In such situations, the historical event of Christ's birth, which is portrayed in Scripture as a joyous occasion, is the focal point of the celebration. For me this suggests that, although the origins of Christmas are somewhat dubious and although this holiday is heavily exploited by commercial interests today, there exists a potential to rehabilitate Christmas into an observance that glorifies God. This is my vision. However, I believe there is a warrant for freedom in Christ with respect to the observance or non-observance of Christmas. As Paul says, 
"5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God...13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer." (Romans 14:5-6, 13)
From a restorationist point of view, the observance of Christmas can be legitimately called an un-biblical corruption of the purity of apostolic worship. However, for those communities which allow for a sense of history within the church,11 Christmas can be viewed as a tradition which, in spite of its shaky origins, rightly encourages celebration of the birth of the Saviour.

1 Roll, S.K. (1995). Toward the Origins of Christmas. Peeters Publishers, p. 174.
2 Forbes, B.D. (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, p. 18.
3 Dunnavant, A.L. (2012). Restorationism. In B.J. & J.Y. Crainshaw (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO.
4 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 50.
5 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 108.
6 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 69.
7 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 174.
8 Kochenash, M. (n.d.) The Origin of Christmas in Early Christian Sacred Space. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5226888/The_Origin_of_Christmas_in_Early_Christian_Sacred_Space.
9 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 269.
10 Forbes, B.D. op. cit., pp. 3-11.
11 It has been said that one of the central themes of primitivism (a term roughly synonymous with restorationism) is “a rejection of any sense of history.” (Hughes, R.T. (1995). The Meaning of the Restoration Vision. In R.T. Hughes (Ed.), The Primitive Church in the Modern World (ix-xviii). University of Illinois Press, p. x).