The Fundamental Doctrine of Christ
When we think of first principles, we talk about fundamental things to our faith and religion. So, what is the most basic of all first principles, the foundation on which everything else gets built? The question answers itself.
Paul wrote, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11), and Jesus himself likened listening and following his teachings to a house built on a rock (Luke 6:47-49).
We call ourselves Christadelphians—that’s our identity. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We remember Christ week by week in the bread and cup. It truly is second nature to understand that Christ is the rock on which the ecclesia and our faith are built.
However, one of the subtleties of false religion is how we can replace Christ with something else. It is easy to balk at such a statement and say, “I would never do that; Christ is at the center of my religion and life!” But let’s think about how easily we can let Christ slip away and how we might call ourselves Christadelphian without truly having Christ as our foundation.
Christ is the rock on which the ecclesia and our faith are built.
In my last article, we looked at how the children of Israel replaced their mediator at that time, Moses, with the golden calf. We considered how that points forward to replacing Christ with what Paul terms “another Jesus.” (2 Cor. 11:4). But the replacement of the true Biblical Jesus with an invented one like the Trinitarian Jesus is just one way we can lose sight of Christ.
Think about the New Testament from a holistic point of view. The four gospels are all about Christ and his teachings, and the rest of the books follow suit. But they don’t just talk about Christ. Many of the writings in the New Testament also speak about how the infant ecclesias were losing their grip on Christ and wanting to return to things like the ritualism of the Law of Moses.
In Galatians, for example, Paul addresses the problem that faith in Christ was being replaced by dependence on the law. He likens a law-based religion to going back to slavery in Egypt. It wasn’t just that they were slightly astray in their comprehension of first principle teachings; they had turned one hundred and eighty degrees and marched right back into the darkness. In essence, they had replaced Christ.
Likewise, the Book of Hebrews isn’t about nudging the ecclesia back to a more balanced understanding. They had left Christ and had to be reminded of the superiority of Christ over the rituals of the Old Covenant and its priesthood. The writer terms their rejection of Christ as “diverse and strange teachings.” (Heb. 13:9). He’s not talking about the Trinity or immortal souls here; he’s talking about ritualism as a religious mindset that pushes Christ out of our hearts.
We might look at the problems in Galatia and those addressed in Hebrews as irrelevant to us. We never were under the Old Covenant, so we aren’t attracted to its rituals. We could look at these books from the angle of more generalized ritualism and apply the lessons to our twenty-first-century attraction to formal religion. Instead, we will look at the topic Paul delves into in his epistle to the Colossians. It’s a helpful letter because not only does Paul allude to the same ritualistic mindset mentioned in Galatians and Hebrews, but he widens the net for us, so we don’t have to go down the route of spiritualizing the Old Covenant to apply it to our own lives.
One of the elements of the Book of Colossians that expositors wrestle with is what exactly was it that Paul was tackling? For instance, he seems to be talking about ritualism in chapter 2, but there are also all kinds of connections with the ideas found in Gnosticism. However, Gnosticism didn’t fully manifest itself as a formal movement until the 2nd century. Its seeds may have been sown when Paul wrote the epistle, but it is unlikely he was tackling the movement per se. It is more likely he was dealing with several ideas, including the roots of gnostic thinking, Jewish mysticism, and other philosophies, all of which had one thing in common: they threatened to lead the Colossian brothers and sisters away from Christ.
As you read through Colossians, notice how much emphasis Paul places on Christ. For instance, at the end of the first chapter, Paul talks about “the mystery hidden for ages and generations.” (v26). To the Colossian reader, getting mixed up in things like Jewish mysticism, the idea of mystery was attractive. But Paul explains what he’s talking about in the next verse, “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That’s it! That’s the mystery, Christ in us.
Ignoring the chapter division, Paul carries on with the same theme. He wants his readers “to reach all the riches of the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (v2). Notice the emphasis and the all-encompassing nature of the doctrine of Christ. He leaves no room for the various ideas that had attracted them. Instead, in Christ, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (v3), so that some of the treasures can be mixed and matched with other ideas. Christ is everything.
He then goes on to tell his readers that he writes these things “that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” (v4) and “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (v8). Whatever philosophies and human traditions were extant when Paul wrote, they all had to be dismissed in favor of Christ.
So foundational is the doctrine of Christ that Paul goes right back to the beginning of the Bible to make his point. The teaching of Christ wasn’t a new thing—it was a mystery hidden away in the Old Testament and now revealed in the New. Look at Paul’s language in chapter 1, where he describes Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (v15). The allusions to Genesis 1 are evident. When God caused perhaps the most fundamental of all verses in the Bible, Genesis 1:26, to be written, he was thinking about his son, the Christ.
It’s worth returning to the previous series of articles where we discussed the Trinitarian Jesus with the true Biblical one. This passage in Colossians is a favorite of Trinitarians, especially the next verse, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” It sounds very much like Jesus is the creator mentioned in Genesis.
However, what we have here is an example of how the Biblical Jesus gets replaced with the philosophies and traditions of men. A mistake Trinitarian expositors make is misunderstanding how the New Testament uses the Old. Who is the “man” made in God’s image in Genesis 1:26? We know the answer because the next couple of chapters tells his story—it’s talking about Adam and Eve.
Nobody will ever say that Adam really was Christ. In fact, in passages like Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, the New Testament goes out of its way to contrast Christ with the Adam of Genesis. We have an example of what the New Testament repeatedly does, using the Old Testament typologically. Yes, Genesis 1:26 is ultimately about Christ, as Paul says in Colossians. But initially, it wasn’t about Christ at all—it was about Adam and Eve. It was only about Christ typologically.
And in the same way that Jesus isn’t the one being created in Genesis 1, neither is he the creator of Genesis 1. Colossians isn’t even talking about the Genesis creation in any case because instead of animals, the created things are “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” Paul’s concern is the New Creation in Christ, but he typologically uses the fundamental passage in Genesis 1 to get his point’s importance across to his readers.
There is some irony in how Trinitarian expositors treat references to Christ in the Old Testament. We’re talking in this article about how we can replace Christ with different ideas, something that the early church fathers did by looking at their concept of Christ through the lens of classical philosophy. But, to fit their Christ back into the Bible in a great feat of eisegesis, they end up replacing the Biblical Christ with a version of their own, but they replace the teaching of the Old Testament too in the process. Manifestations of God, like the angel in the burning bush, now become “Christophanies,” and the point of the Bible is missed.
Leaving aside Trinitarian dogma, let’s apply the lesson to ourselves. We haven’t replaced Christ in a theological sense, but can we replace him in other ways?
Later in Colossians 2, Paul writes:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—”Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? (Col 2:20-22).
That passage is readily identifiable with the legalism of Jewish ritualism mentioned in places like Galatians and Hebrews. But I don’t think we should limit it to Jewish Christians and their first-century concerns. That’s especially the case because Paul was writing to a Gentile ecclesia. While there may be other hints at Jewish rituals (he mentions circumcision in the same chapter, for example), his spectrum is broader, as mentioned earlier.
But we can lose Christ in our zeal to defend what we call “The Truth”
Notice what Paul says in the passage just cited. In Christ, they should have died to the “elemental spirits of the world,” which he says are regulations like banning people from handling, tasting, and touching certain things. He says that sort of thing is nothing more than human precepts and teachings. He then acknowledges that they “have indeed an appearance of wisdom.” (v23). We can see his point. Having rules and regulations like that will help people with their moral living. But then Paul says, “but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (v23). Notice the strength of the language used by Paul. He doesn’t leave the door ajar for these ideas. They were of no value and should have died when they embraced Christ.
Why are they of no value? Because they’re the kind of thing that replaces Christ. Can we do the same thing? Most assuredly, yes. It could be how we tend to overregulate our religion, emphasizing form, dress codes, and doing everything “decently and in order.” Hence, while we might proclaim Christ, he is an afterthought because we’re determined to get Sunday morning “right.” Or it might be something more subtle like the very concept of first principle doctrines. What could be more right than making sure we understand doctrine correctly and reject teachings that come from the philosophies of man? Isn’t that what Paul is talking about in Colossians, in any case? But we can lose Christ in our zeal to defend what we call “The Truth” and point the finger at Christendom astray.
But coming back to the regulations mentioned by Paul in Colossians, it seems that the fundamental problem we have in replacing Christ with other philosophies comes down to the question of faith. Faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). We can’t see Christ just like the children of Israel couldn’t see Moses. But they could see the golden calf. And we can see things like a well-oiled Breaking of Bread service, our statement of faith, and regulations to live by. We can quantify and measure our righteousness by these things, but we negate faith and replace Christ. Faith tells us that having Christ in the center of our lives works. All these other things don’t work even though they have a show of wisdom about them. So, whether it’s ritualism or Reiki, conformity or crystals, Neoplatonism or Gnosticism, or any other tangible ideas and philosophies we use to regulate our thinking and behavior, let’s remember that these things tend to remove Christ from our lives.
The doctrine of Christ is the most foundational of all. He’s the reason why we call ourselves Christadelphians. And the power of a Christ-centered life is the only answer to life’s most fundamental questions.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA