Repristination and the Plan of Salvation

The Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315, raising Adam and Eve is depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, as it always is in the East.

The Harrowing of Hell. This representation of Christ’s descent into Hell shows Him breaking down the gates of hell and restoring Adam and Eve to Paradise.

My first indication that something was seriously wrong with the various Protestant communions was when I read the Didache (aka The Teaching Of The Lord To The Gentiles By The Twelve Apostles.) This document very likely preserves the order of the church in Jerusalem; scholars now believe to be a first century document, likely before A.D. 70, placing it well within the apostolic era.[1] Here was a different expression of Christianity, one completely foreign to me, yet one the apostles did not seem to have a problem with.

One thing that struck me is that although the Didache contains a great deal of information about how to live and worship as a Christian community, it contains nothing of what I recognized as doctrine. I compared this to the Apostolic Traditions, written by Hippolytus in the third century to preserve the church order and practices in use in Alexandria; once again, it contains nothing of what we today would call doctrine. Finally, I came across the Apostolic Constitutions, a second or third century work containing fourth and fifth century interpolations, a document preserving the church order of Asia Minor. This work is more extensive than the first two, yet only the sixth book against Heresies contains any doctrine—and apart from a creedal portion in Section III entitled An Exposition of the Preaching of the Apostles, most of the work consists of a description of various errors or of the prescriptions of the apostles. What we would term the doctrinal portion of this work is surprisingly brief.

I found a similar concern in the epistles of the apostle Paul. The first two thirds are usually concerned with correcting certain matters of theology, while the latter third is concerned with matters of church order, and with prescriptions for holy living. The epistles to the Corinthian Church are even more explicit, mixing prescriptions for church order and discipline, theology, and exhortations to holy living throughout these letters. How we live as Christians mattered to the apostle. We are to live out our faith; we are to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Other New Testament authors say the same. James tells us to resist the devil (Jas 4:7). In his exhortation to holy living, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews write: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb 12:4).

I now had three different church orders from different regions: one from the apostolic era, one from the era prior to Constantine, one from after Constantine, and all saying basically the same thing. What I had was an expression of Christianity that I could not deny, yet could not explain either. These Christians were concerned with how one lived in community with each other and before the world, and with how they were organized and worshiped as church. These two were not separate areas, but were commingled together in a manner I found confusing. As I was working at Lutheran seminary at the time, I raised these issues with some of the professors. The basic answer I got was that we could not repristinate, a word that means to restore something to its state of original purity. This was an implicit admission that we no longer believed and worshiped in a manner like the early church. Somehow they were alright with that, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

The attempt to “revive the faith of a pristine church” is the functional definition of repristination. In Lutheran history, repristination was an attempt to restore historical Lutheranism over and against the Prussian Union, which attempted to unify the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany. Although the founder of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (C.F.W. Walther) is historically identified as part of this movement, today the term is generally used in a perjorative sense, for a romantic attachment to a golden age.

Interestingly, that was the same argument used to explain all the changes in Lutheran practice and worship from the time of Luther. It also became clear that neither Luther, Melanchthon, nor Chemnitz would have been welcome in most Lutheran churches, as they believed, taught, and confessed a different faith than did modern Lutherans. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.[2] Not only did Lutherans not worship the same way as the ancient church, they didn’t even worship the same way as the Lutheran Reformers. That indicated that they had a different doctrinal understanding than did the Reformers, who had a different doctrinal understanding than did the ancient fathers of the church. It became clear that the argument against repristination was a tacit admission that the Lutheran faith had changed.

Fr. Anthony McGuckin, in his book “The Orthodox Church”, brings up the issue of repristination when discussing the mystery of marriage. While the Pharisees had a contractual understanding of marriage, similar to that found in modern civil law. Jesus expressed a different understanding of marriage, one of intense, interpersonal communion. The Pharisees came to Jesus and tested him by asking if it was lawful to divorce one’s wife for any reason. Jesus answered with a reference to the orders of creation, and the covenant God made with humanity when He instituted marriage. “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt 19:5-6). Of this, Fr. McGuckin writes:

Over and against the economies that were necessary for society where hardness of heart was the common order of the day, Christ begins to set a new standard for his church, which itself goes back to the more fundamental creation covenant, which he has come to restore and repristinate in his church. The Mosaic law of contractual divorce is made to give way to a higher ‘law of one flesh’, that is communion. It is God who bonds a man and a woman in a mystical union that grows out of the union of flesh. This psycho-physical bond is a profound sacrament of the love Christ has for his church.” (McGuckin 2011)

We humans seek to justify our departure from the truth by telling ourselves that we cannot repristinate, that we cannot return to the state of original purity, that we cannot return to Eden. And yet this is countered by St. Irenaeus and his discussion of the economy of salvation as one of recapitulation, as the restoration of the natural order of things, as the reopening of the gates of paradise so that whosoever will may come.

The Protestant urge for the restoration of the early church is an admirable thing. And yet that restoration is nothing without repristination, without a return to Eden and the restoration of the state of original righteousness.

Bibliography

McGuckin, John Anthony. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

 


[1] There are differences of opinion about this. Some date the Didache as early as 50 A.D., while others date it as late as the 4th century. The reason for an early date rests on a number of pieces of evidence. First, the Didache uses the ‘Two Ways’ description of Christianity; the Way was an early way of referring to Christianity (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22). Second, the Didache does not reference the different factions surrounding different apostles, suggesting an early date. Third, the Didache does not reference the growth of heresies, also suggesting an early date. Fourth, the Didache refers to itinerant apostles, prophets and teachers, and ways of determining their legitimacy. This was a problem in the earliest church, suggesting an early date. Fifth, it appears that Bishops and Deacons were, at this time, chosen by their congregations rather than the later tradition of election, then ordination by the bishops. Sixth, there is no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Seventh, after the martyrdom of St. James in 63 A.D., the historian Eusebius writes that the Jerusalem Christians were warned to leave Jerusalem due to its imminent destruction. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that this flight of Christians occurred in 64 A.D. (Jewish War 2, 20, 1) This flight from Jerusalem is not referenced in the Didache.

[2] Lex Orandi – the law of prayer; Lex Credendi – the law of belief. Loosely translated, this states that the law of prayer is the law of belief. The way you prayer (and worship) is the way you believe. This is transitive, in that the way you believe is reflected in the way you prayer. Thus a change in the way you pray and worship reflects a change in your beliefs, while a change in beliefs is reflected in the way you worship.

Book cover for "The Orthodox Church" by John Anthony McGuckin

The Orthodox Church

4 thoughts on “Repristination and the Plan of Salvation

  1. When I ask Christians, what is the need that God becomes a man and dies for our sins? The answer I always receive is: because God is just, He made an atonement for people to repent in the OT so forgiving people’s sins without an atonement is against His justice.

    God has the right to forgive those who sinned against him as I have the right forgive anyone who insulted me, that has nothing with me being just or not, but actually people consider this as something good I do, so it has nothing to do with God’s justice, but it actually poses a couple of questions.

    Christians cite this point of Jesus’ death with the atonements in the OT. According to Christian belief, who put the rule that there must be an atonement for blood so that the sins are forgiven, who put this rule? Isn’t He God? So how can this be a sacrifice? What Jesus did is not a sacrifice, but he just gave a solution to the problem God of Christianity caused? He is the one who put the rule and it was found to be impractical, he did what he did to solve the problem. So either God of Christianity didn’t know the consequences of this rule, so he found a problem and solved it, which is against God’s omniscience, or that he actually knew and did what he did to make a show that he loves you.

    The second thing, what I know is that people are accounted for their intention, if you do something and this deed gives consequences other than who you intended it to be, then you are actually accounted for your intention not for the consequences, for example if I robbed a guy walking in the street and gave what I stole as a present to a friend of mine, then I discovered that the guy I robbed actually stole this stuff from my friend, am I a thief or a noble guy who wanted to help my friend? For sure a thief, as my intention was just to rob a guy and I didn’t know the other part of the story. That’s exactly what the death of Jesus was about, it wasn’t intended by the Jews to make a sacrifice or atonement so that Jesus takes away their sins, they were just looking to him as someone who shall destroy their leadership and positions and they wanted to get rid of him. So the whole action can be accounted as an atonement, but as murder crime, and this has nothing with what Jesus himself intended, because he is not the one who implemented the action, otherwise he would kill himself.

    • It is too bad that your experience with Christians is solely from the West. Christianity, like Islam, began in the east. Eastern Orthodoxy, along with the Oriental Orthodox and the Coptic Orthodox, has a distinctly different approach to the death of Christ. In the Latin West, it was Augustine who first came up with idea of Original Sin as being different than the sins you actually commit. In other words, Augustine is the source for the notion that humans are guilty of the sin of Adam (the first man, who represents all men), as well as being guilty of their own personal sins. This was filtered through Roman law and medieval concepts of honor, leading to Anselm of Canterbury’s notion of an infinite God’s offended honor requiring an infinite satisfaction, which is where the idea of the substitutionary atonement comes from.

      In the east, the Orthodox Christians do not see God first as a judge. In the Christian scriptures, God refers to himself as Father. Yes, there is an element of judgement of sin, but that comes at the end of days after God has exhausted all other avenues of turning the hearts of humanity to himself. Orthodoxy sees the sin nature more as a disease that needs healing. Thus the death of Jesus, as the God-man, breaks the chains of sin and death, opening the gates of hell. Now, in Orthodox thought, the only people who wind up in hell are the people who want to be there. And there is a sense in Orthodox thought that Heaven and Hell are different ways of experiencing the love of God. Our God is a consuming fire, the bible tells us; some will experience God as torment, while others will experience God as bliss.

      If you take the western concept of God to its logical conclusion, then God is a monster. The Western Christian God is more to be feared than loved; in fact, love is an obligation, not an act of the will, and therefore not love at all.

      If you want a fuller understanding of Christianity, one that has more in common with Islamic thought (for they derived from the same general Semitic culture), I’d take a look at Orthodoxy. If nothing else, it will broaden your horizons.