One particularly disheartening consequences of Modernism has been a disdain for history. History is either ignored or skewed. This is especially true of Christian history and how it has been presented in and to the Churches of Christ. I recall the shock I had as I began to read works by Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli and many other heroes of faith and learned how serious they were about following God and obeying his word. I had been given the impression (often told outright) these men were not as serious about obeying God as we are and the reason they did what they did not get it "right" was they were not concerned for “biblical authority.” One person I read said "Luther had no more concern for the Bible than for an almanac!" These men, however, were just as zealous in their quest for the "pattern" as we ever hope to be. I think we can learn some vital lessons from them.
What follows is a brief overview of the quest for the pattern among various Christians and what that pattern looked like to them. I think it is instructive to ask the specific questions of how and why the pattern they perceived has been different from what we have claimed the pattern to be. The Christians that follow were all "primitivists" or "restorationists," who sought with fervor the divine pattern for the church. The question remains though . . . why do they differ on so many details?
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)
Zwingli was the great Swiss Reformer. As a devotee of Christian humanism he sought to return to the purity of apostolic Christianity. Beginning in 1519, as the minister of the church in
Zwingli introduced a hermeneutical principle that has had far reaching effects: the Regulative Principle. As used by Zwingli this principle simply states that whatever Scripture does not explicitly command is forbidden. To illustrate how serious Zwingli was about this we need only look at his views on singing in worship. According to Zwingli the divine pattern only explicitly directs three acts of worship: preaching, prayer and the Lord¹s Supper. But what of singing? Audible singing was to be rejected in worship on the same principle instrumental music was rejected, there was no authority in the divine pattern for it. After all, Zwingli argued, Paul commanded us to admonish one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" but he specified that the only music was to be "in your hearts." Zwingli felt that the pattern forbade public singing, why is it that most would think Zwingli¹s views were just quaint?
The New England Puritans were on a restorationist crusade. John Cotton (1584-1652) a leading figure in Colonial American history was an ardent pattern seeker. His quest for the divine pattern was as strict as any in history. His thirst for pure times should sound familiar to us. He writes:
"[N]o new traditions must be thrust upon us . . . but that which we have had from the beginning . . . True Antiquity. . . is that which fetches its original from the beginning. True Antiquity is twofold. 1. From the first institution . . . 2. That which fetches its beginning from God . . . as he is the ancient of days, so is that good; as Baptism and the Lord¹s Supper, though they were not in the world before Christ's coming in the flesh, yet being from God they have true Antiquity . . . if they have no higher rise than the patristic Fathers, it is too young a device, no other writings besides the Scriptures can plead true Antiquity . . . All errors are aberrations from the first . . . Live ancient lives; your obedience must be swayed by an old rule, walk in the old ways." (John Cotton, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Meter, 1640).
Cotton was committed to finding and reproducing the biblical pattern. So great was his quest for doing it exactly as they did it in "true Antiquity" that he agonized over whether Christians were to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the morning or in the evening. In 1611 he published, "A Short Discourse of Mr. John Cotton touchinge the time when the Lordes day beginneth whether at the Eveninge or in the Morninge." In this volume Cotton argues that evening is the truest observance for the Lord’s Day and the Supper because it had been set forth in "the first institution of time" and thus was the "old and good way." Moving to a morning observance was to innovate and to depart from the "practice and judgment of the primitive Church." Cotton finally states, "I see no footstep of Christ or his disciples . . . that goe [sic] before us in this path." That is the path of morning to morning rather than evening to evening. Cotton's views were accepted in
It is clear that Cotton was a devoted restorationist in an honest quest for the pattern of the church. We can see that he was interested in even the finest detail of that pattern. The question to be asked is, what did his (he would not say it was "his" but "God's") pattern look like? In Cotton's pattern a group of men would test each other for doctrinal soundness and relate their conversions before starting a local church. Then they entered a covenant pledging to uphold the laws of God and the purity of the congregation. The gathered church selected a teaching pastor; ruling elders and deacons. Future members would be examined by the ruling elders then asked to profess their faith publicly and sign the church covenant. This was all clearly according to "³true Antiquity" according to Cotton.
One more example of Cotton¹s understanding of the pattern is his understanding of singing. Cotton, like Zwingli, rejected instrumental music though not congregational singing as did Zwingli. Instead Cotton rejected any song written in post-biblical times. The only "authorized" singing in worship was that of the Davidic Psalter (the Book of Psalms). Man had no authority to lift up his own tainted and unholy words to the throne, for Paul had commanded that we sing Psalms. To go beyond what was written was dangerous indeed . . . it was to depart from the pattern.
John Cotton was convinced that the churches formed under his leadership in
The Baptists grew out of the Puritan movement because they felt the Puritans did not go far enough in the quest for God’s pattern. The New England Puritans still accepted infant baptism but the Baptists rejected this as against the pattern. Two Baptist theologians wrote treatises to demonstrate the true marks of the true church: Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) and James R. Graves (1822-1893). Edwards book was entitled "Customs of Primitive Churches" outlining what he viewed as the unassailable Baptist position as being the true New Testament church. His list has thirteen marks:
1) Baptism of believing adults by immersion
2) Lord’s Supper (to be taken in the evening because the word "supper" demands the evening lest it be the "Lord's Breakfast rather than Lord's Dinner")
3) Laying on hands
4) Right hand of fellowship
5) Foot washing
6) Holy kiss
7) Love feasts
8) Anointing the sick with oil
9) Collecting money for the poor saints
James R. Graves was the leader of a Baptist movement known as Landmarkism because he sought "the ancient landmarks." He, like Zwingli, Cotton and Edwards, was a staunch restorationist.
"The Church which Christ himself organized in Jerusalem is an authoritative model to be patterned after until the end of time . . . The Catholic and various Protestant sects were originated and set up many ages after the ascension of Christ . . . They are therefore not divine -- but human institutions."
1) The church was a divine institution and could contain nothing not ordained by God
2) It was a visible organization with specific officers, laws and ordinances
3) It was on earth
4) The primitive model was a single congregation, independent of all others
5) The primitive and apostolic church was constituted only of those who had an experience of the
Holy Spirit in regeneration
6) Baptism can only be immersion and for those who had experienced the Holy Spirit
7) The Lord's Supper was not observed as a sacrament but strictly as a local church ordinance.
Intercommunion with other congregations was forbidden.
8) The church that Christ designed will never cease until Christ returns for it.
What Can We Learn?
Now what can we learn from this brief survey of believers who have sought the divine pattern using the same hermeneutical presuppositions? How do we account for the, sometimes, radical differences? How do we evaluate one reconstructed pattern against the other? Shall we dogmatize like Cotton and
Perhaps this story of the hermeneutic . . . the quest for the pattern should teach us that we have focused on the wrong issue. Perhaps the pattern does not concern the organization of the church but rather following the way of the cross in discipleship. Perhaps (just perhaps) we should learn that often the pattern we recognize is more a mirror of the person reconstructing it than Scripture itself. One sure lesson is the quest for the pattern should teach us is the virtue of humility. The quest for the pattern has often resulted in harsh judgementalism rather than the love of Christ, which is one pattern we must follow.