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Retrieval Theology and the Restoration Movement

Posted by Dr. Keith Stanglin on August 25, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Campbell_AlexanderWhat is a “restorationist?”  Am I a restorationist?  Are you one?  I don’t know how many members of Churches of Christ actually self-designate as “restorationists.”  My guess is, not many.  I generally try to avoid the term.  It’s a cumbersome word that is not self-explanatory to most Christians and, even worse, may be used to pigeon-hole and to dismiss the whole group as “primitivist” and therefore irrelevant. 

To clarify, “restorationist” objectively describes the churches spawned by the so-called “Restoration Movement” (commonly called the “Stone-Campbell Movement” these days, though I have misgivings about the historical accuracy and propriety of that term).  These churches and Christians sought to restore the faith and practice of the first-century church.

It’s a noble idea that is not unique to the American Restoration Movement.  Rather, restorationism broadly defined is part of the lifeblood of the Protestant Reformation.  Something like this idea lies at the foundation of most denominations.  Each new group justifies its existence by trying to improve the state of the church, restoring it to its pristine condition.  To take an example almost at random, the following mission statement comes from the organizational minutes of the First Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles, 1895: “We seek the simplicity and the power of the primitive New Testament church.”  There it is, in a nutshell.  Alexander Campbell couldn’t have said it better.  To be sure, this Protestant impulse is also not unique to Protestants.  Christians have always been stirred by the depiction of the church in Acts, inspired by affection for a Golden Age that was lost but is recoverable. 

Notwithstanding the common ideal of restoration shared by many, various churches, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, have emphasized different aspects of restoration and how to get there.  Among Churches of Christ, the traditional narrative has emphasized the history of Christianity after the apostolic age as the account of a sudden and precipitous fall.  This fall was not limited to small groups whom the church called heretics; the apostasy, so the story goes, encompassed the institutional church at large.

As a result, in their efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, Churches of Christ have for the most part ignored church history.  Church history is to be studied as a series of cautionary tales of what not to do.  In this understanding, the call is to restore on the basis of the New Testament alone, skipping over church history, which is at best superfluous to the task of restoration.  Again, this phenomenon is not unique, but is common among evangelical Protestants. 

This scheme of avoiding our history is unworkable.  Ignoring the past does not mean that we are not affected by it.  And acknowledging that the church developed after the apostolic era does not mean we cannot learn positive things from it.  In my article, “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” (Christian Studies 26), I provided examples of how our faith, practice, and biblical interpretation are inevitably shaped by church history, yes, right down to our use of the 27-book New Testament itself.  We are indebted to our spiritual ancestors; we should never pretend otherwise.

I stand behind the restoration vision of Thomas Campbell in his Declaration and Address (1809)the unity of all Christians by means of restoration based on Scripture.  But I must take leave of any interpretation and application of Scripture in the church that seeks to bypass nearly two millennia of church history, or that tries to read the Bible as if no one has read it before, or tries to do theology and worship as if they have not been done for the last 1,900 years.

Whatever restoration means, it should not mean ignoring and avoiding the wisdom of the past.  Of course, the voices of the historical church are not judge and jury.  Like us, they all stand under Scripture.  But they are witnesses, voices that we should not fail to hear. 

This is what is meant by the phrase “retrieval theology.”  It is not a slavish replication of the past, whether of the first, fourth, sixteenth, or any other century.  It is rather to learn from history.  It is to take the best of the past and allow it to inform our faith and practice today.  It means to value historical perspective.

Speaking for myself, I cannot read very long in church history (good primary and secondary sources) without learning something that affects my own beliefs and behaviors.  How have you been positively affected by learning church history?  How have you been inspired, encouraged, or admonished by our spiritual ancestors?  What have you learned from the past?

Leave a comment below and we’ll discuss together online.

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

Topics: Teaching Moment, Church History, Restoration Movement

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