The sirens tempted unwary sailors towards the rocks with their enchanting song and alluring loveliness. They often stand for the lusts of the flesh, but their destructive allure perhaps more powerfully stands for the seductive enchantment of primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism.
When times are uncertain and the sands of society are shifting, the temptation is greater than ever to seek sources of certainty, and to pay most any price for that security. Primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism are some of the rocks on which one can be shipwrecked rather than rescued.
Primitivism is the idea that something is better simply because it is older, and closer to the source. Fundamentalism is the search for certainty rooted in a literal approach to the texts, while restorationism is the active attempt to re-create that which is older, purer, and more faithful to the original genius. Conservatives are naturally drawn to these theories, but primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism are artificial and unsatisfactory counterfeit forms of conservatism.
Ideological movements in politics, the arts, economics, or philosophy can be lured by the sirens of certainty, but religion is the realm where these lovely ladies lure more sailors than in any other enterprise. Religious commitment is, by definition, a whole-hearted affair, and it seems logical and natural for the religious person to desire to follow the original genius of the leader, to be as true to the original text as possible, and to restore the primitive life as faithfully as possible.
The first Christians to fall into this trap may have been the Montanists in the mid-second century. Like modern-day Pentecostals, the Montanists emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit and prophecy. Their opposition to the organized church and ‘loyalty’ to the Holy Spirit suggests an agenda driven by primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism.
Other ancient heretical groups had similar tendencies, but the first separatist group to be clearly driven by restorationist zeal were the Paulicians. They were founded in the mid 600s by an Armenian named Constantine, who claimed to be restoring the pure Christianity of Saint Paul. They rejected infant baptism, the clergy, monasticism, the doctrine of the real presence, and all iconography.
In Bulgaria three hundred years later, a new shoot sprang out of the Paulician sect. The Bogomils (meaning Dear Ones of God) grew in reaction to what they perceived as the corrupt established church of their time. They met in their own homes, rejected the priesthood, rejected the doctrine of the real presence, and believed that all should be taught by the simple minded. They also rejected monasticism and did not accept marriage as a sacrament. Like the Paulicians, the Bogomils were dualists—believing in equal good and evil forces in the world.
Henry the Monk and Waldes (from whom the Waldensians are descended) were wandering preachers in the twelfth century who lived simple lives and preached against the corruption of the church.
They gathered groups of disciples around them, while at the same time the Cathars carried on the dualistic and heretical teaching of the Bogomils. All these pre-Reformation groups were primitivist and fundamentalist in their beliefs and restorationist in their actions. As such they were the pre-cursors of the Protestant Reformation.
While Luther and Calvin initially wished to reform the established church, the more extreme Protestants were radical in their restorationist zeal. The Hussites and the Anabaptists were the most radical, and it is the radical restorationism of the Anabaptists that comes down to us today as the grand-daddy of all the subsequent restorationist movements.
The Anabaptist line continues through the Quakers, Shakers, and other sects to the Landmarkists, who claim a line of succession for Baptists right back to John the Baptist. The Calvinist and Wesleyan ‘Great Awakening’ in the eighteenth century was radically restorationist, followed by the similarly restorationist ‘Second Great Awakening’ in the United States, but by now the restorationists were not only reacting against the Catholic Church, but against all the other historic Protestant denominations.
Through the nineteenth century in America, wave after wave of Restorationist churches sprang up: the Christadelphians, Christian Conventions, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the same time a strong restorationist movement (the Cambellites) fostered independent groups like the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and the Christian Church.
The temptation continues today with each new wave of Protestantism reacting not only against Catholicism and liberal Protestantism, but also against the previous generation of restorationists. In the 1960s, my family attended an independent fundamental Bible Church. Then in the seventies, the charismatics, with their house churches and local communities, picked up the restorationist baton. The eighties saw the growth of charismatic mega-churches like John Wimber’s Vineyard and now a whole range of local community churches fly the restorationist flag. For all their rejection of tradition, it seems the restorationists follow their own well-established traditions.
The Protestants and proto-protestants are not the only ones to have been seduced by the lovely ladies on the rocks. Since the Reformation, Catholics have also been drawn in by primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism. The Jansenists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a kind of puritanical primitivist movement, and much of the modernist movement in Catholicism in the twentieth century was driven by resourcement—a desire to simplify the liturgy and structures of the church according to the documents and discoveries about the early church. Like other well-intentioned reformers before them, the modernists wanted to get back to the basics—and they wanted these reforms not out of a starry-eyed nostalgia, but because they believed the change would make the church more relevant to the modern world. The modernists may not have been Biblical fundamentalists, but they soon treated their own ideas and theories with a kind of fundamentalist fervor, and their iconoclastic campaigns to “simplify” church liturgy, architecture, music, doctrine, and devotions were as restorationist in their enthusiasms as any anabaptist.
Ironically, the anti-modernist movement was also restorationist in its ideals. The imposition of scholasticism, the rise of neo-Thomism, and the Catholic traditionalist movement were all too often driven by the same primitivist, fundamentalist, and restorationist zeal, but in their case the return is not to an expression of Catholicism from the first century, but to a form of the faith ossified in the Middle Ages or the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation.
Whatever songs the sirens sing, the allure of primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism is deeply flawed, and should one listen to them and steer their way, shipwreck on the rocks will be the unfailing result. There are problems with primitivism, fundamentalism, and restorationism.
Firstly, each restorationist movement, although it seeks to return to the ancient church of some previous age, is actually produced as a reaction to the circumstances of its own age and culture. For example, the peasant movement of the Bogomils came out of a church weighed down with corruption and aristocratic influence. The radical reformers in sixteenth-century Europe and the New World were influenced by the utopianism, the rise of the nation-state, and the revolutionary spirit of their age. Similarly, the American restorationist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was determined more by the independent, anti-establishment mentality of the American frontier than by any real reference to the church of the apostolic age. Restorationists believe they are restoring something ancient. In fact, all they do is create an expression of Christianity which is a reflected reaction against the circumstances and assumptions of the age in which they live.
The second problem is that restorationists are usually ignorant of what the Church in their longed-for golden age was really like. They reproduce a replica of what they think the church in that golden age must have been like. This is a romanticized notion that either has no foundation in fact, or even worse, is supported by bogus and biased scholarship.
The third problem is the fundamentalism that invariably accompanies restorationism. Whether it is the literalistic approach to the Bible or a particular version of canon law, a carefully chosen selection of church documents or the writings of a pope, a saint, or a religious founder, the restorationist seeks certainty in an increasingly literalistic interpretation of the text. This literalism does not allow for historical vagaries or interpretative nuance. It does not allow for adaptation or the development of doctrine, and the more any of these uncertainties creep in the more they and their proponents are quashed.
This results in a fourth problem. The fundamentalist interpretation leads to an ever-increasing legalism, narrow-mindedness, and eventual absurdity. The Scriptures, the rubrics, the canon law, the foundation documents, the writings of the saintly founder become tablets of unbending and unrelenting strictures. The consequence is an absurd set of rules, regulations, documents, dogmas, and directives that enslave the devotees.
The first four problems are critiques of restorationism and fundamentalism that are the applications of primitivism. They reveal deep fractures in the edifice, but the fractures are there because of deeper fault lines that run through primitivism—which is the philosophical foundation of Restorationism. Like all faulty foundations, the problems lay hidden, but it is in examining the foundations that we see the underlying problems.
The first foundational problem of Christian Primitivism is the denial of the dynamic, supernatural authority of the church. One of the foundation assumptions (even among Catholics) is that all church institutions are provisional. They are necessary evils. They are man-made institutions. As such they are to be distrusted and they are disposable. Built into this assumption is the bias among Protestants that the Catholic Church “cannot possibly be right” and among restorationist Catholics that the church as she now stands has been irredeemably compromised and cannot be trusted.
The second problem is the naive belief that the Church should be immaculate. In other words, that the Church should be sinless. Rightly shocked by the corruption of their leadership, restorationists wished for a purer and more basic church—a church of their own creation. This is unrealistic. What they failed to see was that there is no such thing as the perfect church. They overlooked the fact that among the apostles themselves there was a traitor, one who betrayed the Lord, cowards, sinners, and weaklings, and that the Lord prophesied and allowed that the wheat and the tares would grow together.
The third foundational problem is connected with the second. Primitivism is based on the assumption that the Catholic Church is corrupt and not to be trusted, but the primitivist would have us believe that his “restored” church, sect, or religious community is worthy of trust. The blind hubris of such a claim is breathtaking.
The fourth underlying problem of Primitivism is the most blatant of all. Assuming that the right and proper church is the church of the first century or the seventh, or the sixteenth, how can anyone really know what the church of that century was like? We can’t travel back in time. Linked with this problem is the biggest elephant in the chancel: Why it should necessarily be a good thing to re-create a church from the past at all? We live in the twenty-first century, not the first, the seventh, or the sixteenth. Any attempt at recovery can never be anything more than an artificial reproduction—with the same relationship to primitive Christianity as Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland to Windsor Castle.
Whether they occur in philosophy, politics, or religion, Primitivism, Fundamentalism, and Restorationism are false forms of conservatism. The imaginative conservative sees the sirens and steers away from the rocks, espousing instead an approach to all things that sees and understands the age in which he lives.
He is aware of the dynamism of time and does not idolize a prior age. He does not use fundamentalism to create a false sense of security, but allows for some uncertainty, variables, and unpredictable aspects of reality. He doesn’t attempt a faux restoration of a romanticized past, but uses the treasures of tradition to craft a relevant, reasonable, and realistic response to the demands of his own age. Pope Benedict XVI used to speak of “the hermeneutic of continuity” in which the traditions of the past lived and breathed in a dynamic way in the present as to provide a place on which to stand and a sturdy bridge into the future.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “La Balsa de la Medusa (The Raft of Medusa)” , by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.