By Steve Wolfgang
A fundamental tenet of those who advocate “unity in diversity” (actually, a unity of belief based on conforming views of several issues which are uniformly considered paramount by these individuals) is the repudiation of the so-called “Restoration Principle.”(1) This is by no means a novel idea or new position in the “Restoration Movement;” those well informed in its history recognize it as a familiar way-station in the pilgrimage from the “old paths” to a belated religious “relevance”.(2)
A favorite ploy of those who attempt such a repudiation is to ask, baitingly and often sarcastically, “Which New Testament church are you trying to restore? Corinth with its immorality and factiousness or lukewarm Laodicea?”(3) This approach has given others sufficient grounds upon which to question their intellectual honesty.(4) Others seem to labor under the delusion that the “New Testament church” is not an ideal, or at least that the ideal is incapable of being restored in any recognizable fashion.(5) In view of the commonplace occurrence of such articles, it is indeed refreshing to read from the pen of a man who, while not consistently applying the principle in all particulars, at least recognized its validity and was willing to defend it unambiguously and without the equivocation which characterizes many today.
The article, which is reproduced below, first appeared under the caption at the head of this introduction in the Christian-Evangelist of July 4, 1929, sub-headed “Hard to Explain.” As I think on these things was the regular weekly column of Frederick D. Kershner, former editor of that journal.
Kershner was an intriguing and perplexing figure in Restoration history. Born in Maryland nearly a century ago (August 28, 1875). he was educated at the feet of J. W. McGarvey in Transylvania (or Kentucky University), from which he graduated in 1899.(6) He then attended Princeton University, from which institution he received his M. A. in 1900. Intending to complete his Ph.D at Harvard University, Kershner instead interrupted his formal academic career with an extensive trip to Europe, and then returned to the United States to accept a succession of teaching positions. In 1908, at the age of 33, he accepted the presidency of Milligan College; three years later he was named to the same position at Texas Christian University. He served there until 1915, when he became Editor of the ChristianEvangelist, a by then “moderate” Disciples paper long associated with James H. Garrison. In 1917, in an attempt to conciliate a feud between it and the Christian Standard, Kershner resigned and took a place as Book Editor of the Standard. In 1920 he accepted a professorship at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa; in 1924 he became Dean of the new College of Religion of Butler University in Indianapolis, where he remained until his death in 1953. He served as the president of the International Convention of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Denver in 1938.
During the late 1920’s and 1930’s, Kershner was a prime mover in arranging Butler’s annual Mid-Summer Institutes, the precursors of the Witty-Murch “Unity Meetings” of the late 1930’s and 1940’s. The forums included a diversity of speakers, ranging from the psychologist Arthur Holmes to linguist A. T. Robertson and including a variety of “Restoration” speakers from Daniel Sommer and Ira C. Moore to P. H. Welshimer and John B. Cowden.
Widely read, a man of catholic interests ranging from parapsychology to medieval art, from ancient Christian historiography to Reformation theology, and including, of course, Restoration thought (each of the afore mentioned topics being the subject of at least one of his more than a dozen books), Kershner was neither an ignoramus nor a “country bumpkin.” Yet, despite his learning, he was able to see in the plea to “speak where the Bible speaks” the powerful message of God’s scheme for man’s redemption. One can only wish that some of our present-day pseudo-sophisticates might partake, if not of Kershner’s spiritual cognition of a valid principle, at least of the intellectual humility of the truly educated! Following is Kershner’s article.
“Hard To Explain”
“Ever so often one of our advanced thinkers’ pours out a deluge of sarcastic references to the crassness and absurdity of advocating the restoration of the New Testament Church. He points with high glee to the delinquencies of the Corinthian and other congregations and tells us that `restoration’ means the reproduction of the exact conditions which prevailed in these primitive communities. Of course, all this amounts to nothing more than setting up a man of straw for the express purpose of demolishing it. Nobody in his senses, so far as we know, ever advocated the restoration of the Corinthian church, or the church of Antioch, or any other congregation of the New Testament period. The plea for the restoration of the New Testament Church means, and always has meant, the restoration ‘ in our thinking of the New Testament ideal or form of the Church of Jesus Christ. When Paul and Peter and the other New Testament evangelists founded churches, they did not do so at random. They had some definite conception of the structure and nature of the Church. All that the restoration plea advocates is that we shall strive, as far as we can, to recover their conception of what the Church should be. Doubtless some of our radical thinkers believe that they can improve upon the ideal of the Church which the Apostles possessed. The majority of us will have some hesitancy upon this point until these latter-day prophets make their pretentious good by actual demonstration.
“It is hard to understand why men who claim to be intelligent should deliberately misrepresent the restoration plea. There can be no objection to their arguing against the position in question, if they correctly state what that position is. To do otherwise is both unfair and illogical. Arguments of this kind always create a prejudice in the minds of thoughtful people against a cause which apparently needs misstatements and misrepresentations in order to support its conclusions.”
1. This is a descriptive term for the idea that we can duplicate the “ancient order” of the church in our own times. For examples of recent articles which repudiate this concept, see William H. Davis, “Is the Restoration Movement on the Wrong Track (I & II)?” Mission, VII: 3 & 4 (September & October, 1973); Don Haymes, “The Restoration Illusion,” Integrity, V:5 (October, 1973); and R. Lanny Hunter, “Restoration Theology: A Schoolmaster,” Mission, VII:12 (June, 1974).
2. See, for example, Cecil Willis’ excellent series, “‘The Taproot of Digression (I-IV),” Truth Magazine, XVI: 31-34 (June 8-29, 1972); and, more recently, Mike Willis, “Is the Restoration Principle Valid?” Truth Magazine, XVIII: 37 (July 25, 1974).
3. For an example of this type of expression, see W. Carl Ketcherside, “The Body of Christ,” Mission Messenger, XXXIV:10 (October, 1972). I have heard Carl Ketcherside and others of his persuasion make this statement repeatedly at numerous unity forums around the country.
5. For examples of this type of thought, see Elmer Prout, “Corinth-A New Testament Church;” Firm Foundation, XCI:50 (December 10, 1974); and Edward Fudge, “What Makes a Church of God?” Gospel Guardian, XXIIIA2 (May 2, 1972-reproduced from his bulletin at Kirkwood, Missouri, March 3, 1972), and “Emphasis: Christ,” Firm Foundation, LXXIV:45 (November 7, 1967). In fairness to Brother Fudge, it should be pointed out that while these articles cited do indeed cast doubt on the possibility of recovering a fixed or normative pattern for the church, he has, in his. usual ambiguous and ambivalent style, recognized (elsewhere) that an ideal does at least exist. See “Give the Church a Chance,” Mission, 11:12 (June, 1969).
6. All information on Kershner is the result of the author’s research into Kershner’s relationship with Daniel Sommer for a biography of Sommer. For a good survey of Kershner’s career, see David C. Rogers, “Frederick D. Kershner: Educator, Editor, and Ecumenist” (unpublished B. D. thesis, Butler University, 1952).
Truth Magazine XIX: 17, pp. 267-268
March 6, 1975