Renaissance humanism advocated the idea ad fontes or “to the sources.” The Protestant Reformation would pick up on this idea, focusing on returning to the Bible as the Christian’s primary source. The evangelical church seems to be advocating its own version of ad fontes: we are increasingly looking to return to being the early church.
When I think about what the ideal church will look like, I immediately think in terms of Acts 2:42 where Luke records what the first believers did when they got together. This perspective has been cultured and nourished in me by many talks about the nature of the church that relied heavily on this verse. Indeed, there’s a lot of merit in looking at the early church and what was normative for them.
Looking back is a central part of the Christian tradition. Throughout the Old Testament, the Exodus event acted as the definitive marker indicating that God had chose Israel to be his people. They were to continually look back on that event and be inspired to faith. The New Testament calls us repeatedly to reflect on the work of Christ and its salvific work in our lives.
However, when we consider who we are to hope to be, the Bible points us forward. While the Exodus event was the foundation on which the Israelites could hope, they looked forward to a day in which they would be restored as God’s people. While Christ’s work is the basis for the Church’s hope, the Church still looks forward to the end of days when Christ comes to judge and glorify the Church.
The danger comes when we confuse the two, when we begin to place our hope in the very thing that allows us to look forward. When our understanding of what the Church should be like is limited to the first century, we run the risk of robbing ourselves of the richness of the eschatological Bride of Christ. After all, what we are becoming is what we have to look forward to, not what we’ve been.
Christ is ever pointing us forward. His defeat of death invites us into a life that looks forward to his return and not simply back at his sacrifice 2000 odd years ago. He invites and will invite the Church to become what they will be at the end of all things. This may be more difficult than being able to pick out a four-fold definition of the Church from Acts 2:42, but there are also great riches to be discovered.
While we appropriately look back at the first century and admire, are inspired by and reflect on what the Church was and was doing, may we also look forward and be drawn to hope and stretch for what we will become, the spotless Bride of Christ.