Does Earlier = Better?

For much of my life, I have heard people argue that if we could only "get back to" the theology of the early church (or, in some cases, the theology of the 16th-century Reformers), then present-day Christians could discover how to live as faithfully as God intended. But why does earlier necessarily mean more faithful? I have had many a conversation with my Roman Catholic friends about the role of tradition in our respective churches, and I have come to better understand a Catholic point of view -- namely, that tradition is authoritative because the Holy Spirit guides the church through the centuries and the millenia, helping the church grow into all God wants it to be. This optimistic view of history is much different from the negative view of history that has been imparted to me by some of my Protestant and/or Mennonite influences and aquaintances.

What is this very Protestant, very negative view of history? An oversimplified version follows: the NT church was faithful, after which the church was corrupted and co-opted by culture (for example, by Constantine); more than a thousand years later, the Reformers returned to the pure faith of the first Christians once more. In order to remain faithful to God and to God's plan for the church, we must try to emulate the NT church and the first-generation Reformers in the way that we do church today.

You know, I've gotta say that I don't agree with this negative view of history/culture. (I particularly cringe at the way it can nurture anti-Catholic feelings/theology in those who believe it.) A few years ago I attended a lecture in which the speaker, a regarded Bible/religion professor, referred in passing to the faithfulness of both the early church and the first Anabaptists. In the Q & A period, I remember another equally-regarded professor asking him: "Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit went into hiding between the legalization of Christianity under Constantine and the onzet of the Protestant Reformation?!" (Or something to that effect.) I must say, that question is one that rings true in my own heart.

Granted, there are also dangers in adopting a strictly positive view of history/culture. If we believe that where-ever the church goes is where the Spirit is leading it, then we open ourselves up to the danger of complicity with principalities & powers that be, powers that would co-opt even our churches to serve their goals instead of the goals of the Reign of God. There's got to be a way to believe that God is leading us forward into the 21st century, while still retaining a critical stance toward the cultural shiftings of our own age. Maybe intentionally living into this tension is what it is all about.

IMHO: One way of living into this tension is by trying to balance radicial ecumenicity (recognizing the work of the Spirit in all the churches, and praying for unity among us) with faithfulness to our own faith traditions (trying to understand how the churches are called to prophetically witness to one another).

Just to clarify: I am not arguing in the above post that the first Christians/the first Reformers/the first Anabaptists are not worthy of emulation. Indeed, they are -- their faithfulness is a profound model for us all. And I am also not arguing that Constantine was a model Christian who worked wonders for the church -- as a pacifist, I decry his glorification of violence in the name of Christ. However, I am suggesting that there are models of faithfulness which are worthy of emulation other than those of the New Testament Church and the Reformers -- many of which are to be found in the Catholic tradition, in the centuries between Constantine and the Protestant Reformation.