Restorationism: Why We Can Never Return to the Book of Acts

This afternoon in my blog-scouting I ran across the website of a priest named Fr. Longenecker: he was raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, ordained as an Anglican priest, and converted to Catholicism (while still being married!) when Benedict made his generous offer of amnesty a few years back.

He’s written a series of posts on the roots of the Restorationist movement—the extremely persuasive (and pervasive) idea that we just need to forget the last 2,000 years of Christian history and “go back to the church of the apostles.” In the first one, he wonders who has the authority to tell the snake handlers they shouldn’t be handling snakes? “Who is to say that the snake handlers are wrong and shouldn’t pass rattlesnakes around on a Sunday morning? For that matter, who is to say that the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong for having extra scriptures that are dictated by angels or prophets or that the Episcopalians are wrong for having gay marriage or that Baptists are wrong for believing in [all] that weird Dispensationalist rapture stuff, or that Presbyterians are wrong for believing in Calvinism or the Fundamentalists are wrong for believing that the world was created on Tuesday morning, March 22, 4006 BC at 11:37am.”

In the second post, he examines the flowering of Restorationism in the history of American religion, and its culmination in the Dispensationalist movement. This post provides some necessary context for the seductive milieu of utopian apocalypticism which is always threatening to overrun Christianity in America:

            What many people consider to be “mainstream” American Christianity is actually a hodge potch of heretical, sectarian beliefs–a weird mixture of conspiracy theories, arcane revelations . . . visions of angels, predictions of doomsday and all gathered up with bizarre and unique theories and theologies and moral teachings. You’ll find rejection of modern technology, acceptance of polygamy, weird theories about the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation tumbled together with prophecies about the end times, American exceptionalism and paranoid ideas about foreigners, other religions and all outsiders.

What is most troubling about this motley crew is that they are actually the face of American Christianity. They do seem to be the “mainstream”. Within world Christianity they are a crazy [minority]. In terms of the numbers of Christians in the world today–not to mention the billions who have lived and followed Christ for the last two thousand years–they are a wild eyed bunch of heretical nut cases. Yet they (and not the Catholics or the liberal mainstream Protestants) represent “American Christianity.”

The third post examines in some detail the historical and psychological and sociological underpinnings of Restorationism. Fr. Longenecker takes pains to point out that what we call “the Restorationist movement” is really thousands of different movements, all of which seem to think that they—and no other movement!—have returned to the original vision of the founders. He traces the history of these movements from the second-century Montanists (who emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit and prophecy, but rejected the organized church) through the restoration movements of the late Middle Ages, and the Reformation, all the way down to the charismatic and community movements of the present-day church in America.

Along the way, he lists what he considers ten problems with the Restorationist movement and its underlying theological assumption, primitivism (“the belief that some earlier, simpler and more basic civilization is better than the present one”). Some of his arguments are more convincing than others. In spite of the fact that these movements are normally just reactions against the age in which they begin, they tend to build upon all the previous Restorationist movements to the point where today virtually all congregations, movements, and churches that claim to be returning to the book of Acts are actually “returning to the book of Acts” as defined and understood by 500 years of anti-establishmentarianism. “For all their rejection of tradition, it seems the restorationists follow their own well-established traditions.” In my opinion, though, his best argument is also his most basic: “Why should it necessarily be a good thing to re-create the primitive church at all?  We live in the twenty first century, not the first. Any attempt at recovery can never be anything more than an artificial reproduction.”

This is all really helpful. But I would have liked it if he had written a bit more about the interplay of Restorationism and Apocalypticism. Robin Cook, the famous novelist, wrote a pretty terrifying article in Foreign Policy a few years back about what would happen if avian flu and swine flu somehow intermixed and made a deadly super-virus. It seems to me that Restorationism is one mighty strand within the long tradition of Christian utopian movements, and Apocalypticism is another. But only on very rare occasions have the two movements converged, and I think if it ever happens again, the consequences would be pretty historic. Traditional (non-apocalyptic) Restorationists are unable to answer the question, “Why are you so special? What makes you think that you’re restoring the original church, when in 2,000 years no one has been able to do that?” Millennarians—people who believe that the end of the world is indisputably upon us—have a ready-made answer: “Because we have been called by God to lead the Church into the last days. We have been chosen from before eternity for such a time as this. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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