Saturday, August 2, 2014

The term "Primitive Christianity" and its connection to Deism & Unitarianism (and Mormonism & JWism)

If you look closely at the historical record, many of America's Founders speak positively of something known as "Primitive Christianity." I won't provide the quotations (just yet). You can either trust me or look it up yourself.

But what does that term mean? American Creation's Tom Van Dyke might answer Christianity "adulterated by man, i.e., the papists...." There certainly is a strong kernel of truth there, but also a larger picture as I explain below.

I've observed when certain figures -- some of America's Founders and their influences over whose proper religious categorization we argue -- refer positively to something known as "primitive Christianity," they mean they believe Christianity was corrupted by the "church" early on.

Now that's something in which a good evangelical or reformed Protestant can believe? Corruption in the church necessitated the Reformation. Well, not exactly as I will explain below.  Back then "primitive Christianity" was very often (though perhaps not always) a code word for Christian-Deism, Christian-Unitarianism, and today is something a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness would feel comfortable with.

You see, for many, perhaps most of these folks who valued "primitive Christianity," the Church at Nicea was already corrupted. And indeed, these folks think of the Nicene Church as a "Papist" one (and therefore illegitimate). The problem is Anglicans, capital O Orthodox Christians and most reformed and evangelical Protestants wish to claim and feel in communion with the Church at Nicea and the Nicene Creed.

Folks like certain Baptists who believe both in the Trinity but think the Nicene Church was already Roman Catholic are the oddball outliers among Protestant Trintarians. (See the fourth paragraph in this piece written by American Creation's Brian Tubbs, himself a Baptist pastor, on why Baptists might have such disproportionate oddball theology.) The Quakers who believe in the Trinity, but not creeds, likewise qualify as Trinitarians who might endorse the notion that the Nicene Church was corrupt and "real Christianity" was the "primitive" one of the ante-Nicene era.

But it's mainly those who reject the Trinity that are interested in attacking the Council of Nicea. Indeed, notable unitarians blame the doctrine of the Trinity on the "Papism" of Nicea. For instance, John Adams:

"The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage."

 -- To Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.

And since the Church around the time of Nicea was the one who selected and finalized the books of the canon (i.e., "the Bible") some of the professors of "primitive Christianity" disregard entire books of "the Bible" and blame it on "Papism," i.e. the Church who wrote the Nicene Creed. (And not just "books" of the Catholic Bible, but of the Protestant Bible as well like the Revelation of St. John.)

It was this same mindset that led Christian-Deists and Unitarians like John Adams to both 1. reject the Trinity, and 2. think "the Bible" was an errant, corrupted book, that nonetheless contained "the Word of God" underneath the error and corruption.

In today's day and age, folks who believe in sacred scripture as the "Word of God," but not the Trinity (i.e., the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses) are ones likely to 1. have an affinity for the "primitive Christianity" of the ante-Nicene era and 2. seek to "restore" the faith to what it was before it got corrupted.


Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, how many books have you read on primitive Christianity that were written prior to 1850?

Jonathan Rowe said...

That's not a relevant question. The question is how many times have I seen the term "primitive Christianity" used by figures of America's Founding era and their theological-philosophical influences. And the answer to that is "many." And it's from that "many" on which I base my post.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me ask you a question Mr. F: You seem to believe Bolingbroke a "Christian" according to the way you define and understand "Christian" minimums.

As I understand him, Bolingbroke both 1. believed certain ante-Nicene Fathers had access to "revelation," but also 2. attacked certain ante-Nicene Fathers as the source of the "corruptions" of Christianity. (This is a reason why I think "primitive Christianity" is not synonymous with ante-Nicene Christianity, as some may use the term.)

How does this square with your understanding of 1. "Primitive Christianity" in general, and 2. Bolingbroke's understanding of "Christianity" in particular?

John Leland, as far as I understand him, sees Bolingbroke's attack on certain ante-Nicene Fathers as an attack on "primitive Christianity." I see this as Leland erroneously equating ante-Nicene Christianity with "primitive Christianity." The two are related, but not identical concepts. Ante-Nicene Christianity is a descriptive concept; Primitive Christianity is a prescriptive concept.

Bill Fortenberry said...

That's what I suspected. Perhaps you should invest some time in reading William Cave's book Primitive Christianity. Cave was considered the foremost authority on church history for at least 200 years (from c. 1650 - 1850). Nearly every author that I've read who wrote on this topic during those 200 years used the same criterion for defining "primitive Christianity" that Cave used. Thus, if you want to know what the writers of the founding era were referring to when they spoke of primitive Chrisitanity, it would be wise to consult Cave's book.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Haha. Nice try Mr. F. What I suspected of you. No, you aren't allowed to punt to Mr. Cave unless you can demonstrate that when Jefferson, Bolingbroke or any other "relevant" figure used the term "primitive Christianity" it had anything to do with "William Cave."

As far as I am concerned a more important ACTUAL authority on "primitive Christianity" from that era was William Whiston whose book, "Primitive Christianity reviv'd : in four volumes ..." is the ACTUAL standard bearer authority. This is the book, not Mr. Cave's, that is to be consulted for authoritative purposes for this discussion. Mr. Cave's book is relevant only insofar as it agrees with Mr. Whiston's.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I don't think that you really understand Leland's view of primitive Christianity. Here is the way he defined it in his Reflections on the Late Lord Bolingbroke's Letters on the Study and Use of History:

It appears then, that the foundation, on which his formidable dilemma is built, will not bear, There is at this time a standard for Christianity; even the doctrines and laws of our Saviour and his Apostles, as contained in the holy Scriptures. It must be and is acknowledged by all that profess themselves Christians, that whatever is revealed in those sacred books is true and certain, and whatever can be shewn to be contrary to what is there revealed is false. The Romanists as well as Protestants own the divinity and authenticity of the sacred text, though for particular views they would join unwritten traditions with it; and are for giving the church alone the authority to interpret the Scriptures. The reason of their conduct is evident. It is not because they look upon the sacred text to be so obscure and ambiguous, that it cannot be understood by the people; but because they think the people, if left to themselves, will understand it so far as to see the inconsistency there is between true primitive Christianity as laid down in the New Testament, and the Papal system, and because their corrupt additions to Christianity cannot be proved by Scripture authority.

I have alread taken notice of what he saith concerning the fatal blow that Christianity received by the resurrection of letters. I suppose we are to take his word as a decisive proof of this; for no other proof of it is offered. But it may be affirmed on the contrary, that true primitive Christianity, that is, Christianity as laid down in the New Testament, had then a glorious revival. Many corrupt additions that had been made to it were thrown off. It hath never been better understood, nor its evidences set in a clearer light, than since that time.

As you can see, Leland defined primitive Christianity as "Christianity as laid down in the New Testament" and he would have been greatly offended if you had accused him of using that term as "a code word for Christian-Deism."

Have you read Whiston's book?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Nope, you are actually the one who misunderstands Leland's view of "primitive Christianity." Or at least you are wrong that I misunderstand Leland's point.

The actual context of the quotation you referenced shows Leland defending the ante-Nicene Fathers against Bolingbroke's attacks on a few of them.

Both Bolingbroke and Leland would admit to believing in something termed "primitive Christianity."

For Leland, whatever he thought of the Nicene Creed, the ante-Nicene Fathers were in communion with the orthodox Trinitarian elements of the Nicene Fathers and on wards and so on.

But not so for Bolingbroke.

The problem between Bolingbroke and Leland is that Bolingbroke attacked certain ante-Nicene Fathers as corrupting Christianity, Fathers whom Leland defended. This is what took Bolingbroke outside of the realm of "orthodox Christianity" and made him a "Christian-Deist." (Just barely, I might add; he rejected so much of the Bible/orthodox Christianity that he teeters between "non-Christian-Deist" and "Christian-Deist.")

So, for Bolingbroke, "primitive Christianity" was "Christian-Deism." For Leland and all other orthodox Christians who believed orthodox Christianity was taught from the Church Jesus established onwards, "primitive Christianity" was orthodox Trinitarian.

Most small o orthodox Christians, even though they feel in communion with them, didn't need to feel any kind of special affinity for the "primitive Christian" church of the ante-Nicene Fathers, or any kind of need to reference back to them AGAINST Nicea, because they believe in the orthodoxy that was firmly established during Nicea and remained so on wards. This was ONE thing that WASN'T in dispute among the Papists, the capital O Orthodox, the Anglicans and the evangelical and reformed Protestants!

I'm not going to bother quoting the original sources right now to prove my point. You can look it up and verify that I am right. And if not, quote them to the contrary.

Daniel said...

It seems that to Deists (who understood that they had insight into the true nature of Jesus), "primitive Christianity" meant their own flavour of Deism. But they were not alone in having the true understanding of the earliest church (or of the actual Jesus).

Jonathan Edwards preached that his vision was modelled on the primitive Christian Church. George Whitfield was confident that the primitive Christian Church was described in scripture. William Penn write 'Primitive Christianity Restored' describing the return to the "Gospel Order." Even within Anglicanism, movements such as the Religious Societies movement, the Nonjurors, and the Methodists saw primitive Christianity as their model.

"Primitive Christianity" was a bit of a Rorschach test. Focus your study on any particular movement and it is clear that 'primitive Christianity' means that movement. But at bottom, 'primitive Christianity' is simply Christianity stripped to its earliest roots.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Daniel: That's a good point. I understand why Quakers who believe in "Christianity" without any creeds, might need to appeal to the authority of "primitive Christianity."

Though I wonder what use Edwards and Whitefield would have for it.

Daniel said...

Primitive Christianity is seen as "pure Christianity", the way it was done before things got (confused/corrupted/messed up). Whitfield and Edwards tended to use the term, not so much as something entirely lost, but as an essential touchstone or reference point.

Whitfield tended to use it as an examplar of the ideal of passion for God and for holiness. Edwards pointed to it in explaining the proper view of admission to the church (where he departed radically from the norm). Both considered the primary source material for understanding the primitive church to be scripture.

There is no reason that the term should be restricted to the heterodox and the radical. It would be accurate to say that the mass is an expression of primitive Christianity; but somehow the term doesn't get used to refer to well-established practice.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Did Edwards and Whitefield feel the need to use that term often enough to make it significant to their theological projects?

Jonathan Rowe said...

To prove the point of my question, look at the results of the following searches:

1. "Jonathan Edwards" "Primitive Christianity":

2. "George Whitefield" "Primitive Christianity":

3. "Thomas Jefferson" "Primitive Christianity":

sbh said...

Here is what the royalist writer Jacques Mallet du Pan thought Benjamin Franklin meant by "christianismê primitif" in a 1793 book:

"Franklin often told his disciples in Paris, that whoever would introduce the principles of primitive Christianity, into the political state, would change the whole order of society. An absolute equality of condition; a community of goods; a Republic of the poor and of brethren; associations without a Government; enthusiasm for dogmas, and submission to chiefs to be elected from their equals,—this is the state to which the Presbyterian of Philadelphia reduced the Christian Religion."

A hostile caricature, no doubt, but still a contemporary view.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Check on this

"Do equality of conditions, community of goods, or enthusiasm for dogmas sound like doctrines of Benjamin Franklin? This material really stands or falls with how these elements are evaluated."

Daniel said...

I think you are correct that neither Whitfield nor Edwards would have used primitive Christianity as a core term of their project. But they (and other more-or-less orthodox Christians) used it enough to indicate that it had an established meaning outside of the context of Deism or Unitarianism.

Without question, the Deist and Unitarian projects made interesting use of it.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, have you ever read Samuel Langdon's book on primitive Christianity? He gave it the lengthy title of:

A Summary of Christian Faith and Practice. Being an Attempt to exhibit the Doctrines and Precepts of the New-Testament in a concise and easy view, chiefly in Scripture Language, for the Assistance of Christians of all Denominations in recollecting the main Articles of their common Profession.

In the introduction, he explained that:

Whatever variety of causes may have concurred to sink the churches into the present low state, all may be sum'd up in this one general cause, viz. -- That Christians have turned away their attention from the plain doctrines and precepts of the gospel, as they were at first preached, in their genuine simplicity, by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. Therefore they who desire to see christianity recovering it's primitive appearance and power, must wish that professors may be reminded of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and led more seriously and closely to attend to those doctrines of the gospel which constitute the faith of all believers, and those precepts of godliness which are the rules of their obedience. In order to this, every christian, in his proper sphere, may lend some assistance; and every method which hath a tendency to promote the knowledge of primitive christianity, may be of some advantage to the Church. This is the design of the following summary: (emphasis in original)

Over the course of the next sixty pages, Langdon laid out a very orthodox understanding of Christianity including an explanation of the minimum faith necessary in order for one to become a Christian:

Therefore, the distinguishing Faith which all christians profess, may be thus generally expressed, viz. -- JESUS OF NAZARETH IS THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD; who came into the world to save sinners, and was delivered up to be crucified for our offences and raised again for our justification. (emphasis in original)

Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Now, Frazer claimed on pg. 93 of his book that Langdon was a theistic rationalist rather than a Christian, but I doubt that he could identify a single statement in Langdon's Summary of Christian Faith and Practice which is inconsistent with the view that Langdon was a committed Christian.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Haven't seen that one.

I know the Quakers valued "primitive Christianity" as they eschewed creeds. They were quasi orthodox. Yes, they believed in the Trinity; but since they hated creeds they downplayed its centrality. William Penn wrote a treatise on primitive Christianity that I look forward to reading.

I am open to Daniel's critique that since orthodox Christians feel in communion with the Church Jesus established they too believe in "primitive Christianity" which makes it not a DISTINCTIVE concept.

The issue is, that term gets thrown about and lauded quite a bit during America's Founding era and its antecedent in England.

The question is, why are they using it so much?

It's MORE than just do distance themselves from Roman Catholicism, the archtypical corrupters of Christianity.

Even if certain Founders believed in the Trinity there was a strong disdain for the clerical class (at least the non-freethinking members of the clerical class) and the ecumenical Trinitarian creeds (the ones features on page 19 of Frazer's book).

So even if Frazer overstates his thesis -- and like all folks with theses, he does -- there were a lot of scripture affirming, Jesus Son of God believing "Christians" who nonetheless disregarded ALL of those ecumenical creeds.

That made them a lot like the Quakers even if they had no formal affiliation said sect (and it's also a reason the Quakers got such a pass from the Founders even though they wouldn't take up arms; the Founders loved their anti-creedal theology, sans the pacifism part).

Bill Fortenberry said...

One possible explanation for your question, Jon, could be found in the growth of the Baptists during that time period. According to every count I've been able to find, the Baptists were by far the fastest growing denomination during the mid to late 1700's. I don't have the source at the moment (I'll try to find it this afternoon), but I believe that Whitefield once complained about all of his converts becoming Baptists by saying something along the lines of "all my chicks have become ducks."

The Baptists have always claimed to have been followers of the original doctrines of Christianity and to never have been corrupted by the Catholics as those churches which began during the Protestant Reformation.

Jonathan Rowe said...

1. How do the Baptists trace their view of apostolic succession?

2. What of Frazer's claim of the "Philadelphia Confession" on page 19?

Bill Fortenberry said...

The Baptists do not claim apostolic succession in the same way that other churches do. Rather, they trace a succession of principles through history. Here is the way that Baptist historian John T. Christian put it:

The author believes that in every age since Jesus and the apostles, there have been companies of believers, churches, who have substantially held to the principles of the New Testament as now proclaimed by the Baptists. No attempt is made in these pages to trace a succession of bishops, as the Roman Catholics attempt to do, back to the apostles. Such an attempt is "laboring in the fire for mere vanity," and proceeds upon a mistaken view of the nature of the kingdom of Christ, and of the sovereignty of God, in his operations on the earth...

The footsteps of the Baptists of the ages can more easily be traced by blood than by baptism. It is a lineage of suffering rather than a succession of bishops; a martyrdom of principle, rather than a dogmatic decree of councils; a golden chord of love, rather than an iron chain of succession, which, while attempting to rattle its links back to the apostles, has been of more service in chaining some protesting Baptist to the stake than in proclaiming the truth of the New Testament. It is, nevertheless, a right royal succession, that in every age the Baptists have been advocates of liberty for all, and have held that the gospel of the Son of God makes every man a free man in Christ Jesus.

This focus on a succession of principle rather than an apostolic succession of authority could explain why the idea of primitive Christianity was discussed so often during the time when the Baptists were growing in numbers. The Baptists claimed that their denomination predated both the Catholics and the Protestants as evidenced by the fact that their principles were the same as those taught by Christ and His Apostles. In other words, the Baptists have always claimed to be the preservers of primitive Christianity. The protestants who responded to that claim could not simply say that their churches were older than the Baptists. Rather they were forced to deal with the claim directly by comparing the principles of various denominations with the principles of the first Christians.

Bill Fortenberry said...

As for Frazer's claim about the Philadelphia Confession, I dealt with that in my book The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism. Here is what I wrote there:

The creed which Mr. Frazer presents as the official Baptist creed is the Philadelphia Confession of 1720. This confession, however, was never claimed to be an official creed of all the Baptist churches in America. It was merely a common confession of faith that was shared by the small group of churches which made up the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Furthermore, this association admitted that it had no authority over the churches of its membership in a 1749 publication which stated:

“That an Association is not a superior judicature, having such superior power over the churches concerned; but that each particular church hath a complete power and authority from Jesus Christ, to administer all gospel ordinances … and to receive in and cast out, and also to try and ordain their own officers, and to exercise every part of gospel discipline and church government, independent of any other church or assembly whatever."

This independence of each local church is one of the distinctive qualities that has been associated with baptistic churches for nearly two millennia, and it is this quality of independence which belies Mr. Frazer’s attempt to identify an official creed for the fastest growing denomination of the founding era. Most of the more than 450 Baptist churches in America at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the nearly 900 Baptist churches during the ratification of the Constitution either had their own, independent confessions of faith or freely chose to adopt one of the dozen or so more popular confessions such as the Standard Confession, the Sandy Creek Confession, The Coalheaver’s Confession, John Gill’s Confession, and several others in addition to the Philadelphia Confession which Mr. Frazer references. No one who is the least bit familiar with Baptist history could ever honestly claim to have found the official creed of the Baptists.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Bill Fortenberry said...

By the way, the earliest reference I've found for the Whitefield quote is in one of the footnotes from the 1813 book, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America which can be read at:

Jonathan Rowe said...

So what I get from the Baptists is a distinguishing feature of them is the radically decentralized nature of the Church organization.

It seems that most of them did in fact hold to ecumenical Trinitarian creeds. They weren't like the Quakers (though few may have been) who had "no creeds" as a creed.

If this is true I don't think Frazer's error was that serious. It's one that could have been explained as a footnote to a footnote.

Was the Philadelphia Confession the one MOST popular among the Baptists?

Jonathan Rowe said...

After seeing you explain the history and theology, I understand why the Baptists would feel special affinity for "Primitive Christianity," and agree would place them in a box with the Quakers, Christian-Deists and Unitarians and Mormons & Jehovah's Witnesses as those wanting to appeal all the way back to before Nicea for special trumping authority against the "Churches" who wish to feel in communion with Nicene Christianity.

Leland and Backus certainly did groundbreaking work among the Founding era (walking in the path of Roger Williams).

The Quakers & Baptists get special credit as Christian groups who argued for religious liberty pre-Enlightenment.

I don't think however, there were many (?) Baptists among the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution.

As Mark David Hall has pointed out, Anglicans are disproportionately represented among the framers & ratifies, specially among the "key Founders" compared to their numbers in the population. Yet, theologically, high Church Anglicanism was everything against what these rebellious Anglican Whigs stood for.

JMS said...

Jon – a thought-provoking post (as the 25 prior comments attest), but vague references to “primitive Christianity” as “pre or ante-Nicean” are fraught with all sorts vagaries and unhelpful generalizations. I’ll provide two small examples of what I mean.

1) The 280-292 years between 33 and 313 (Constantine’s legal recognition of Christianity) or 325 (Council of Nicea) cannot be categorized as religiously pure, unadulterated or monolithic. It would be more difficult for 18th Deists than it is for us in the 21st century to fathom how much evolution and variation there really was, including the growth of an orthodox priesthood as a controlling hierarchy, and the rise of many variegated, influential “Christianities” independent of that hierarchy priesthood and often in direct competition with it, such as the Docetists, Marcionites, Montanists, Valentinians, Manich├Žans, etc. The main thrust of all these Christianities during the pre-Nicean period was to gradually define itself as a religion distinct from Judaism, in tandem with the protracted and slow development of the canonical New Testament.

2) Some early adherents of the Society of Friends (Quakers) proclaimed "primitive Christianity revived." They claimed that the Church had fallen into apostasy, and believed that their movement represented a rebirth of the first-century Church. But, in at least three important practices, the early Quaker movement diverged from the pre-Nicean Church. The early Church practiced water baptism, the Lord's Supper, and created hierarchical lines of authority spread throughout the Roman Empire. The Friends movement denied the legitimacy of a human priesthood, rejected water baptism, and eschewed the ritual of bread and wine that is so central to most Christians. The point is that there were many differences between early Quaker practices and those of the “primitive Christianity” that some felt they embodied.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well for a lot of these folks "primitive Christianity" goes all the way back to the beginning: What Jesus taught. To the extent that the ante-Nicene era starting evolving to Nicene Christianity, this was, to many of them, "corruption."

The Marcionites, these were arguably the first "Christian-Deists."

Daniel said...

Interesting points. As to the Quakers, I think it might have been Zwingli who said that they took as figurative everything that should be taken literally, and they took literally everything that it figurative.

I can't think of references to primitive Christianity that seem to include the second or third century.

Most references to "primitive Christianity" seem to refer to the era of Jesus, the book of Acts, and the canonical letters. But even there, we don't get the unadulterated Jesus of Nazareth. We have great diversity within the NT canon. Of course, our primary sources for Jesus' teaching and action are the four canonical Gospels, which present rather divergent perspectives. So I think your reference to the various movements of the 2nd and 3rd century movements is (while pre-Nicene) really outside of the period of "primitive Christianity", your point about the diversity is correct.

Probably OT, but I think your characterization of the church attempting to move away from Judaism is better characterized as trying to adapt a Jewish sect to the Greco-Roman context.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed. Didn't Jefferson reject St. Paul?

JMS said...

Jon – if it was only as simple as, “what Jesus taught,” we would not have 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world.

The issue I raised is that under the alleged banner of “pure” or “primitive” Christianity” so many individuals and sects (i.e., many Protestant faiths) claimed that they returned to the purer state of the Church before Constantine or the Council of Nicaea. But that is not the same thing as trying to return all the way back to the first-century Church. Usually they wanted to be grounded on the canonical Bible, although the canon did not exist in the first century and was not fully formed until well into the third century.

Plus, it also usually turns out that various Christian faiths also wanted to include any number of post-Constantine developments.

The result was usually a synthesis of divergent elements which cannot be accurately acknowledged as "pure" or “primitive" Christianity.

Hence my questioning of its usefulness in helping us better understand 18th century Deists or our founders.