By Ron Halbrook and Steve Wolfgang
Mission Magazine (Box 2822, Abilene, Texas 79604) has been thrashing around in search of a new basis of unity since its beginning in 1967. From the start, it has been certain of but one thing: the approach of restoring the New Testament standard as the basis of unity is anathema. In this tradition, “Six theses are nailed to the door of the restoration principle” by R. Lanny Hunter in an article entitled “Restoration Theology: A Schoolmaster,” in the June, 1974 issue. Following are a few excerpts which will be reviewed.
The Six Theses
“Although understandable, it is unfortunate that we have not critically evaluated restoration theology. For if the fundamental principle upon which we base our religious conviction is defective, it does not matter how meticulously it is followed, the result will be distortion of the Christian faith.”
“Restoration theology begins with the assumption that the Christian church is (or has been) apostate, and that it must be restored to its original form in order for the church to receive God’s approval and for Christians to be able to work and worship acceptably within it. Restoration theology proceeds on the hypothesis that the Bible’s basic purpose is to provide a pattern or blueprint on which such a restoration can be made. Thus in liturgy, organization, ritual form, and doctrinal ideology, the New Testament provides a God-ordained pattern for the church which must be meticulously followed. . . The pattern, once discovered and implemented, is the basis for religious unity.”
“Restorationists should not be faulted for failure to completely live up to an ideal if the ideal itself is flawed.”
“In my judgment the restoration principle, as an interpretive philosophy of the Bible, has several fundamental defects that make implementation impossible.”
“How can we be so confident that the Bible teaches what. we believe it teaches when many other denominations which are equally devout, equally concerned, equally intelligent, and equally scholarly fail altogether to find our kind of church in the pages of the New Testament? Are we alone right and all others wrong?”
“We shall undertake to analyze restoration theology by focusing on six of its major defects (Footnote: The author would like to acknowledge his debt to Morrison’s The Unfinished Reformation for helping crystalize his thinking at this point.):
(1) Restoration Theology regards the church as given by God in the New Testament, rather than given by God in history. “
Restoration “is not a divine directive…. There are many different philosophical approaches to biblical interpretation. There is no method which has God’s imprimatur, nor is there any method which is inherent in the scriptures themselves.”
“We may proceed by observing that the conviction that the Christian faith requires restoration of the structure of the primitive Church is without foundation, in either the spirit or the letter of the New Testament.”
“(2) The spirit of Restoration Theology is in irreconcilable conflict with the spirit of unity.”
“. . . it is a practical impossibility for men to understand the Bible alike in the precise detail necessary to develop the uniformity required for unity in a pattern church.”
“Thus, in the latter half of the twentieth century, instead of being a force for religious unity we have become one of the major obstacles to its achievement. We are part of the problem, not part of the solution. As we contemplate this fissiparous process, we might be driven to the conclusion that our basic theological premise is faulty. In reality, the restoration principle is the mother-concept of sectarian division.”
“(3) Restoration Theology makes the authority of Christ subordinate to the authority of the Bible.”
“For all of the importance of the Bible, it should not be the true focus of the Christian’s loyalty. Christ alone claims ‘the undivided loyalty of the Christian and he alone is the sole authority in the church.”
“Those who would restore New Testament Christianity should begin by restoring Christ to the place he held in the primitive church and not allow the Bible to compete with him for authority.”
“(4) Restoration Theology assumes that a standardized and jealously guarded body of belief will keep the church from drifting into apostasy.”
“Instead of the church drifting into apostasy as feared, it is more securely protected against heresy by the challenging free flow of ideas.”
Romans 14 will “allow the individual Christian to hold his own opinions, follow his own convictions, and be answerable to the master alone.”
“(5) It is impossible to restore the first century church.” “In applying restoration methodology we find that custom, culture, and the Greco-Romano-Semitic ethos are so indivisibly suffused throughout the doctrine and form of the New Testament church that they cannot be separated.”
“(6) Restoration Theology produces a repository of pride at the depths of the collective spiritual life of the Church.”
“Within an open fellowship, our differences, as we freely intermingle and interact, would stimulate, guide, and enhance our spiritual life beyond anything we have known in our sectarian isolation.”
“The letter which kills will be consumed by the Spirit which gives life.”
Removing the “Nails”
Lanny Hunter laments the lack of critical evaluation of the restoration principle. We lament his lack of critical evaluation of the alternatives. “How can we be so confident that the Bible teaches what we believe it teaches when so many other denominations “who are devout, concerned, and intelligent do not “find our kind of church” to be God’s will.@ “Are we alone right and all others wrong?” Substitute “religions” for denominations and “Christ” for church; how now?
This lands us on the fundamental question: is there an exclusive faith and practice presented in the New Testament, binding upon us by divine authority? Are we required to believe and teach any certain pattern concerning Christ? or the Church? Must we adopt, exclusively, the testimony concerning Christ-his divine Sonship, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, reign, offer of salvation, example of life, authority over God’s people? And how shall the church be organized, what worship shall it engage in, what mission adopt? Is there a basis and pattern for discipline? What shall be its message and doctrine? Are the testimony, teaching, and practice of the New Testament church our exclusive pattern? If the answer is no, then we are without chart or compass, without a standard. We have no basis for confidence that God approves our faith and practice any more than that of the denominations – indeed, than that of Buddhists, Moslems, and the rest! As Boston University philosopher Edgar Sheffield Brightmen said, “Christian Science and Roman Catholicism . . . both cannot be true at the same time unless the universe is a madhouse” (An Introduction to Philosophy, N.Y., Holt, 1925, p. 56).
What about those six shiny nails driven by Lanny (more like a few old rusty straight-pins, borrowed almost verbatim from C. C. Morrison, notable liberal of the Disciples of Christ, in his book The Unfinished Reformation)? (1) The New Testament is a record of what God approves and disapproves for His people in history-a selected record (2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Pet. 1:13-15). Does the New Testament preserve a norm of church structure meant to be always remembered and observed? Yes, the written things are inspired and selected by God, normative for the affairs of the church and meant to be always remembered and obeyed (2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Tim. 3:14-15; 2 Pet. 1:14-15). Lanny says there is no approach to Scripture “which has God’s imprimatur.” Then any and every method is permissible and the author must concede there is as much “divine directive” for our “method” as for any other, including his!
(2) “The spirit of unity” must find the basis of unity. If the New Testament order is not our pattern for faith, practice, and unity, then we face the prospect of an ever-widening circle of fellowship. Morrison is remembered as editor of the ultra-liberal Christian Century, in which Ronald E. Osborn wrote, “Disciples who have repudiated restorationism have no adequate basis for justifying their congregationalism, weekly communion, immersion-baptism, . . elders and deacons … or other distinctive practices. They have even less guidance for formulating new procedures except what may be uncritically absorbed from the culture” (Sept. 25, 1963, p. 1164). This kind of expanding brotherhood (“spirit of unity”) cannot stop short of brotherhood without barriers, i.e. the brotherhood of man in the old humanitarian sense! And the moment one stops anywhere short of that, he not only has a basis of unity, but a “mother-concept” of division. When “the spirit of unity” recognizes a basis of unity, it has also recognized a basis of exclusion.
(3) The authority of Christ is revealed and expressed in the New Testament exclusively; this makes man subordinate to Christ, not Christ to the Bible. (Matt. 28:18; Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:13). He tells us to restore and emphasize Christ, not the Bible; we trust he does not offer this as a “rigid pattern.” Christ cannot be separated from his voice (the Bible). “The sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10). To follow Christ is to follow his word.
(4) There is no absolute guarantee against apostasy, but yes, God has willed that we guard the “body of belief.” Lanny’s “nail” managed to fly directly into the face of Jude 3 here (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). Rom. 14 is always the golden text for those trying to enlarge the borders of unity and fellowship; under this banner brethren have marched all the way to the humanitarian “brotherhood of man.” Any stopping place short of that can be removed by the next fellow quoting Rom. 14. We simply cannot escape the job of going to the Bible to find out what God has bound; only then can we go to Rom. 14, which allows liberty where God has not bound or loosed. We are at liberty where there is no “body of belief” revealed, but not beyond (Jude 3).
(5) We can retain the basis of faith, practice, and unity “the first century, church” had: the inspired teaching. They had it in the men; we have it in the book. But if custom and culture cannot be separated from divine revelation in the inspired writings, then perhaps the inspired teaching concerning Christ is a cultural adaptation of Buddhism or Communism! Thus the New Testament is made a haystack in which the pin of saving truth is indiscernible.
(6) Some worshiped the brass serpent; the abuse of what God commanded does not nullify God’s command. Neither the “repository of pride” Lanny has seen nor the arrogance of super-spirituality we have seen settles the real issues here.
Lanny offers “the Spirit which gives life” (i.e. elements of faith and practice for which we cannot give book, chapter, and verse!) in place of “the letter which kills” (adhering to the Bible pattern of faith and practice). The voice of Christ is still speaking in his word-God’s word-the Spirit’s word (Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16). If the voice of Christ is found anywhere outside the New Testament, then it can be found everywhere, in every religion, in every philosophy. We trust no quotation from the “letter which kills” will be cited as an objection to this point!
Students of restoration history must wonder why brethren cannot se all this is a rerun of a very old film. Those who feed on the Morrisons, DeGroots, and Osborns ought to se where this alternative position leads. When the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky took this path after J.W. McGarvey=s death, it no longer turned out men who sought to exalt Christ by exalting the word of Christ; it now turns out men who preach this Agreat message@ to a lost and dying world: AChrist is a process, not a person.@ The other side of the fence may look greener . . . until we get there. Let us be satisfied with the faith and practice presented in the New Testament to the exclusion of all else.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:46, p. 12-13
September 26, 1974