VIII. Christ as Savior and Pattern (Continued)

D. Restitution of the Early Church

Christianity was an imposing figure when it stepped vigorously forth into the world and spoke its opinion, but from the moment it tried to set bounds through the pope or wanted to throw the Bible, or later the creed, at the people's head, it became like an old man who thinks that he has lived long enough in the world and wants to retire.1

Most studies of sectarianism (particularly those of Reformation Anabaptism) tend to read the ideal of restoring the early church as being a central if not the central motif of the sectarian perspective. There is a great deal of truth in this analysis but also a suggestion that is somewhat misleading. At least in S.K. and the Brethren, there was no tendency to idealize, value, or emulate the early church for its own sake, just because it was the early church and thus entitled to some sort of special authority. Rather, with both S.K. and the Brethren, the primary foci were, as we have seen, obedience, Nachfolge, and, as we shall see, adherence to the New Testament. However, because the early church was obedient to God, did follow Christ, and did adhere to the New Testament (which last is hardly surprising inasmuch as it also formulated the New Testament)---but because the early church did then things and was as it was, it is only right and proper that it be looked to as something of an ideal.

Thus, in point of fact, the concept of restitution is derived from these other emphases rather than being an independent (let alone "the central") principle in and of itself. In order to keep this relationship clear, we have chosen to treat restitution as an appendage of Nachfolge.

Neither S.K. nor the Brethren spoke at any length regarding restitution per se; in passing, they did make a great number of references to the faith and life of the early Christians, which by implication make it quite clear that restitution would be an accurate description of what they desired for modern Christianity.

By all odds the most significant statement on the subject from Brethren literature is by Mack Senior. One of the queries put to him by his Radical Pietist opponents was: "On which point, then, can the undoubted divinity of your new church be recognized before all others in the whole world?" To which Mack replied:

We have neither a new church nor any new laws. We only want to remain in simplicity and true faith in the original church which Jesus founded through His blood. We wish to obey the commandment which was in the beginning. We do not demand that undoubted divinity be recognized in our church fellowship. Rather, we would wish that undoubted divinity might indeed be recognized in Christ himself, and then in the church at Jerusalem. If this and its divinity in teaching, words, and commandments were to be acknowledged, then it could be determined whether a church has this divine teaching in it or not. If this is realized, then we think that it would be sufficient to recognize a church before all other churches in the whole world, if she is subject, as a true wife to her husband Christ, to His commands, yes, if it still strives to be even more submissive. Whoever has not known Christ in the divinity of His commandments will hardly recognize His church even if the twelve apostles were serving as its bishops and teachers.2 [Cf. Mac Junior as quoted above.]

Ultimately there is but one source and test of any church's authority, legitimacy, or value. This, of course, has nothing to do with its size, worldly power, or reputation. But neither has it to do with the antiquity of its tradition, the continuity of its government with the apostles, the "orthodoxy" of its dogma, or anything of the sort. Indeed, the ground of a church's validity is such that even having the apostles as its bishops and teachers would carry no weight; and certainly it follows that the honor and respect given the early church is not occasioned by who its leaders may have been. There is one test of a church: whether "she is subject as a true wife to her husband Christ" and is striving "to be even more submissive:" Mack certainly implied--if not specifically granted--that the early church came closer to meeting that test than has any other church. However, the Brethren ideal should not be stated simply as a desire to restore the early church but as the desire to restore the sort of Christian obedience to which the early church gave demonstration. In short, the early church is not itself the goal but the prime example pointing toward the goal.

S.K. did not use such terms as "restitution" (nor did the Brethren). However, he did say enough to alert Hermann Diem to the possibility that some readers might think that S.K. advocated something of the sort. Diem himself, however, resists such an interpretation: Diem quotes S.K.: "This 1800 years of Christian history must be swept aside!" and then comments:

But we must carefully consider in what sense Kierkegaard means this. He does not wish to put the clock back in Christian history, and hence his demand has nothing to do with all those attempts to go back to an earlier stage of Christian development, primitive Christianity for example, in order to set over against modern Christianity as an ideal or critical criterion a type of Christianity which has not yet become involved in the complications of history and has developed no dogmatic positions. Kierkegaard is by no means such an unhistorical thinker. His concern is not to replace a later stage of history by an earlier on; but to insist on the presuppositions underlying the situation of contemporaneity with Christ, in which these historical differences--that cannot and ought not to be removed--lose their relevance for faith.3

But Diem's explanation will not do. He has taken a partial truth, which actually is a caricature of true sectarianism, and by disassociating S.K. from it, feels that he has satisfied the question of restitution altogether.

It is true, of course, that S.K. did not propose simply "to put the clock back in Christian history" or "to replace a later stage of history by an earlier one." Certainly not S.K., but none of the leading classical sectaries either, were such "unhistorical thinkers," such naive and unrealistic thinkers as to believe that restitution could be accomplished simply by closing one's eyes to the present and living solely in the past. Not this easily can S.K. be divorced from "all those attempts to go back"; and rather than having "nothing to do" with them, S.K.'s demand has everything to do with them. For the sophisticated interpretation given in Diem's concluding sentence simply is not adequate as exegesis of a radical demand like:

Oh, that there were someone (like the heathen who burnt the libraries of Alexandria) able to get these eighteen centuries out of the way--if no one can do that, then Christianity is abolished.4

But the actual distance between S.K. and Diem's interpretation of him becomes apparent when we realize that the factors out of church history which Diem is sure S.K. would have insisted on preserving (thus making it impossible that he truly desired the elimination of the 1800 years) are precisely those that S.K. wanted to eliminate by cancelling out the 1800 years. Diem names it as a defect of primitive Christianity that it had not yet "become involved in the complications of history." But that all depends upon how one understands "the complications of history." S.K. read the matter thus:

Witnesses for the truth [i.e. the early Christians] ... did not live on the doctrine, along with a family [as do modern clerics], but lived and died for the doctrine. Thereby Christianity became a power, the power which mastered and transformed the world. Thus it was served for wellnigh three hundred years; thereby Christianity became 'the power' in the world.... Alas, by this time there had already begun the retrogression, the illusion; instead of transforming the world, they began to transform Christianity. Worldly shrewdness hit upon the idea of turning the life of these witnesses, their sufferings, their blood, of turning it into money, or into honor and prestige.5

The period of the church which Diem accuses of not being involved in history S.K. understood as the period when the church actually was a power transforming the world. S.K. saw true involvement to be the church's standing out against the world, transforming it by acting as a fixed point against which the turbinations of history could be broken up. Apparently, what Diem understands as involvement in history is the church's getting into the worldly power struggle as one institution among others--precisely that which Sic. characterized as the world in process of transforming Christianity. Rather plainly, Diem and S.K. are talking past one another, and there is here no grounds for denying S.K. a doctrine of restitution.

The second defect Diem identifies in the early church is that it had "developed no dogmatic positions." But S.K. said:

And verily the eighteen centuries, which have not contributed an iota to prove the truth of Christianity [and if the purpose of dogma is not absolutely to "prove," it is certainly to "explain" or "make rationally comprehensible" the truth of Christianity], have on the contrary contributed with steadily increasing power to do away with Christianity. It is by no means true, as one might consistently suppose when one acclaims the proof of the eighteen centuries, that now in the nineteenth century people are far more thoroughly convinced of the truth of Christianity than they were in the first and second generations--it is rather true (though it certainly sounds rather like a satire on the worshippers and adorers of this proof) that just in proportion as the proof supposedly has increased in cogency ... fewer and fewer persons are convinced.6 [Cf. S.K.'s words quoted above and above.

Diem, plainly enough, wants nothing to do with a restitutionist ideal, but he has not made the case that S.K. was of the same mind.

There is good evidence that S.K. died in 1855 and stopped writing about the same time, but when one reads statements like the following he has cause to wonder.

Once New Testament Christianity was reduced to the simply historical, and men imagined next that Christianity was perfectible, it was a quite straightforward discovery that there were various epochs. The epoch of the Son was New Testament Christianity, and now the epoch of the Spirit is at hand. No, no: Christianity in the New Testament is Christianity. And Christianity is life's examination.... In Christian terms there is absolutely no meaning in speaking of progress from generation to generation. Every generation begins at the beginning, the examination is the same.7 We laugh when we see a man looking for his spectacles when they are on his nose.
But the striving of "Christendom" is in its way even more ridiculous.
The truth about the Christian ideal is that it has existed, Christ has lived, the Model has been given. And this ideal is related to the single person [den Enkelte]. Only as a single person can there be any talk of striving for it. And if the single person is to strive for it he must as a matter of course turn in the direction of the existence of the ideal, he must turn back to it, if he really is to strive for it. Christendom has turned the matter thus: the ideal for being a Christian is a goal lying infinitely distant in the future, and this is what we must strive for. So Christendom turns its back on the true ideal, which has existed, and (in the name of striving for it) strives away from it.8

It is possible that S.K. did not have in mind Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton of the death-of-God school or even Harvey Cox, J. A. T. Robinson, and such conservatives among the "new theologians," but if he did, his words would not need to be changed in the slightest. For S.K. has spotted what is the basic presupposition of all our "radical theology" so-called, namely, that the course of the world (which, unfortunately, S.K. was so ill-advised as to characterize as "the constant advance of nonsense" [see above]) has in our day produced a man come of age who, in turn, requires a new, twentieth century Christianity (or at least a new essence of Christianity).

For the sake of honesty it should be kept very plain that, even though S.K. shows a critical temper, an iconoclasm, a religionlessness, that sounds quite similar to what we are hearing today, nevertheless the entire course and movement of his religious thought is oriented in a direction diametrically opposed to that of our present-day radicals. No matter how much they choose to quote him, they have some obligation to recognize this fact.

And strictly speaking, if the word "radical" is to retain any connection with its etymological derivation, then it is S.K.'s theology that deserves the adjective and not this other. "Radical" means "to drive toward the root, to go back to origins." This precisely is the principle delineated by S.K. in the statements above and precisely the opposite of a theology that is avant-garde, "far out," and driving toward the periphery.

It should be noted that S.K.'s insistence that only den Enkelte can make this radical effort does in no way preclude the idea of a Geimeinde; obviously a caravan can move only by its members making their individual movements. But S.K.'s point is that this caravan, these individuals, move according to the daily instructions they receive from the head-quarters located in the first-century revelation and not by taking a vote as to where the company thinks they might like to go next.

S.K.'s statements make it rather apparent that he did in fact desire a situation which with accuracy could be typified as restitution, the ideal of a church ready to "go it alone" with just the New Testament and without the "help" of 1800 years of creed, dogma, tradition, and theology. There would seem to be no convincing reason why we should not read S.K.'s "elimination of the 1800 years," his references to "the Christianity of the New Testament and the primitive age"10 and to testing modern Christianity "by the measure of primitive Christianity,"11 as meaning essentially what classic Protestant sectarianism has meant by "restitution of the early church."

Copyright (c) 1968