What Are the First Principles?
How do we divide essential beliefs from non-essential beliefs? Is such a task impossible? Is there no Scriptural guide to follow?
This article is a continuation from the October Special Issue “When We Disagree: Ensuring Love Prevails”
When we search out the true fundamentals which constitute the gospel, we find that they are characterized by their simplicity—what Paul called “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor 11:3, KJV).
These simple truths for beginners are compared by Peter to “the pure [sincere: KJV] milk of the word” (1 Pet 2:2)1, which can nourish the “little ones” (Matt 10:42; 18:6-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2), whom Christ has called to follow him.
The question has often been asked: “How do we define first principles?” The contrast between “milk” and “solid food” (or strong meat: KJV) (Heb 5:12,13; cp. 1 Cor 3:2) helps here. When it comes to food, there is a definite contrast between what is good for babies, and what is useful for adults, and so it is in spiritual matters.
It is good to grow up in Christ and be able to “digest” more solid food, but it is not good to expect newly baptized believers to partake of the same food as the grown-ups—certainly not for a while.
When it comes to fundamentals, our motto should be: “Keep it simple.” And here is the dilemma: On the one hand, the Bible plainly speaks of those who are “newborn babes,” still “unskillful in the word of righteousness,” still in need of “milk” rather than strong meat. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that—despite their inexperience—these new converts are still “in Christ,” “brothers and sisters,” and “partakers of the heavenly calling” (see 1 Cor 3:1; Heb 3:1; 5:13).
On the other hand, fellowship matters are invariably decided by ecclesial elders, who have 30 or 40 or 50 years of learning, accompanied perhaps by the desire to display that learning. At the same time, it is quite possible that these respected elders may have given very little thought as to what infants or babes in Christ need.
Somewhere in the middle, between “the simplicity in Christ” and the “strong meat,” right-thinking leaders should be able to draw lines to divide essential beliefs from non-essential. Is such a task impossible? Is there no Scriptural guide to follow?
In one of his last articles, Bro. Robert Roberts lamented this difficulty of discerning between essential and nonessential Bible teachings. He wrote: “It is possible to go too far in our demands on fellow believers. How far we ought to go and where to stop, is at one time or other a perplexing problem to most earnest minds.”2
Have we as a community of believers been able to rightly divide the Word of God, and determine where this seemingly mysterious boundary lies? Our long history of one division after another seems to offer the answer, loud and clear: “No!” Is it really that difficult? Or have we not really tried to find the answer to the question? “How far to go? Where to stop?”
RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF GOD
I will start with something which is indisputable. The Bible proves, and it is unanimously believed by Christadelphians (as far I know), that true belief of the gospel must precede true baptism (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:36-42; 8:4-12, 26-39; 16:13-15, 23-34; 18:4-11; etc.).
Therefore, we can conclude that the teachings essential for salvation— what we call “first principles”—are the same teachings which are essential for Scriptural baptism, no more and no less. Furthermore, we shall assume that the purpose of what we call a “statement of faith” should not be to define everything that might possibly be believed, but rather to define only what should be believed as a prerequisite for baptism and admission to fellowship.
Ideally, these three items should be perfectly equivalent:
- teachings essential to salvation,
- teachings to be believed before baptism, and
- a Bible-based “statement of faith.”
To continue: If we can find in the Bible either a “statement of faith” (in the words of Scripture), or if we can determine the doctrines that were required to be believed before being baptized, then we shall have found a Biblical answer (not merely an intuitive or subjective or traditional answer) to the question: “How should we define first principles?” Then we will have solid evidence with which to compare any “statement of faith.”
In other words, does the statement in question go too far, or not far enough, or is it “just right”? In his previously mentioned article, Bro. Roberts wrote: “[Men of God] are afraid on the one hand of compromising the truth in fellowship; and on the other, of sinning against the weaker members of the body of Christ. The only end there can be to this embarrassment is found in the discrimination between true principles and uncertain details that do not overthrow them.”
Bro. Roberts then proceeds, in his lengthy article, to give some examples both of what he considers “true principles” and what he considers “uncertain details.” He accomplishes this, to good effect—insofar as he goes. His article, cited above, is still well worth reading.
But he does not attempt to describe any characteristics which would prove a doctrine essential for salvation (or fellowship, for that matter). It may well be that he intended to develop this idea further when he had the opportunity. But sadly, he was unable to do so because he died in 1898, very shortly after this article appeared in The Christadelphian. If we are to take his idea further, then we must start where he had to leave off.
DEFINING FIRST PRINCIPLES
What are the first principles? And how can we identify them as such? My book (under the same title as this article,) is a serious effort to answer both questions, by allowing the Bible itself to provide the answers.
What are the first principles? And how can we identify them as such?
My book also compares the results with the most common Christadelphian statement of faith, the BASF (and with its closest variation, the BUSF)—so that we can answer the vexing question: “Does our statement go too far, or not far enough, in defining essential doctrine?”
The Apostle Paul’s “summary of faith” is the nearest thing in the Bible to a true statement of faith. It is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian believers, in which he appeals for unity of mind and fellowship among believers there based on their mutual acceptance of seven “ones”:
These seven “ones” do indeed provide an outline of what RR called “true principles”, which guided me to consider, in turn, each of the seven items—basing my inquiry on what else the Apostle Paul had written elsewhere about each one, from “one body” all the way through to “one God”. But there is more to be found in the Bible, along the same lines…
THE APOSTLES’ “FIRST PRINCIPLES” LECTURES
By far the most fruitful of these investigations is what I designated by the subtitle above. I found that there are nine such “lectures” in the Book of Acts. Each one is characterized by the preacher’s intent to present the gospel, and thereby to convince his listeners to believe, repent, and be baptized. Of these nine lectures, there are:
- three by Peter: in Jerusalem (Acts 2:22-42), in Jerusalem again (Acts 3:12-26), and to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:34-48);
- one by Stephen: in Jerusalem, just before he was executed (Acts 7:2- 56);
- one by Philip: to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:30-39); and
- four by Paul: in Antioch (Acts 13:15-39), in Athens (Acts 17:22- 31), to Felix (Acts 24:14-21), and to Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:2-27).
In most of these cases, the “first principles” lecture is supplemented by direct quotations from Old Testament passages, and these passages are of course taken into consideration in this study.
THE APOSTOLIC STATEMENT OF FAITH
We now have the raw materials with which to construct an apostolic statement of faith, using the approaches outlined above to determine which Bible teachings are essential for salvation. The following statement leans heavily on the “Acts statement of faith” as well as Paul’s Ephesians 4 summary. (I have omitted the Bible references to save space, although the most relevant passages are included in the book itself.)
- The Bible: The Bible is the Word of God, directly inspired by Him in all its parts. It is powerful to instruct man in righteousness, and to accomplish God’s purpose in those who believe.
- God: There is only one God, the Father, who created all things. He is the Eternal King, all-wise and all-powerful. He has a definite plan which He will bring to pass by His mighty power. He desires that man might seek Him and be saved.
- The Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit is the power of God, the means by which He carries out His will. It is not a distinct “god” or “person” but is part of the Father Himself.
- Jesus, the Son of God: God—in accordance with His eternal plan, and in His goodness and kindness and grace—manifested Himself through a Son. Jesus of Nazareth is that unique and holy Son of God, begotten of the virgin Mary by the power of God, without a human father. He is not the second person of a “trinity” of “gods”, and he had no pre-human existence except in the mind and purpose of his Father.
- Jesus, the Man: Although he was the Son of God, Jesus was also truly and altogether a man; he shared our mortal nature, with all its sorrows and griefs.
- Sin and Death: The first man was Adam, who disobeyed God and was condemned by Him. Adam was responsible for bringing sin and death into the world.
- The “Soul”: There is no consciousness or other existence in death. The “soul” simply means the body, mind, or life; it is not immortal. Souls die.
- “Hell”: “Hell” means the grave, or absolute destruction. There is no eternal torture for the wicked. The wages of sin is death.
- The Sacrifice of Christ: Although he was of our weak and sinful nature, Jesus was enabled, through faith in and love for his Father, to overcome all temptation and to live a righteous and sinless life. His crucifixion—accomplished by wicked men but according to God’s plan—was the means by which he was saved, and by which those who believe in him may be saved, from sin and death. God was working in the sacrifice of His Son to express His love and grace and forbearance toward all men—not His wrath against them.
- The Resurrection of Christ: Because of his perfect righteousness, it was not possible for Jesus to be held by death. God raised him from the dead and glorified him. Later Jesus ascended to heaven.
- The Mediatorship of Christ: Being exalted to God’s right hand in heaven, Jesus is the only priest and mediator between God and men.
- The Second Coming of Christ: Christ will remain in heaven until the time for restoring all things, including the kingdom to Israel. Then he will return to the earth in glory—personally and visibly—to fulfill the hope of all true believers.
- Resurrection: After his return, Jesus will raise many of the dead, the faithful and the unfaithful. He will also send forth his angels to gather them together with the living to the great judgment.
- Judgment and Reward: The unfaithful will be punished with a second, eternal death. The faithful will be rewarded, by God’s grace, with everlasting life on the earth, receiving glorified and immortal bodies.
- The Promises to Abraham: The promises made to Abraham, confirmed to Isaac and Jacob, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, require a literal inheritance in the earth for Christ and all the faithful, who are the spiritual “seed of Abraham”. The righteous do not go to heaven at death.
- The Promises to David: The promises made to David, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, require Jesus to sit on David’s throne and rule over God’s Kingdom, which is the kingdom of Israel restored. Jerusalem will be the capital of this kingdom.
- The Kingdom of God: Jesus will be assisted by his immortal brothers and sisters in ruling over the mortal peoples in the Kingdom of God. This kingdom will result in everlasting righteousness, happiness, and peace. Finally, all sin and death will be removed, and the earth will at last be filled with the glory of God. The earth will not be literally burned up or destroyed.
- The “Devil”: The “devil” is another name for sin in human nature; it is not a separate supernatural being or fallen angel. Christ overcame this “devil” in himself by defeating the tendencies to sin in his own nature. Therefore, he can provide us with a covering for our sins.
- “Satan” and “Demons”: “Satan” is a Hebrew word which means an adversary; it is used about people and circumstances which oppose God’s will. “Devils” (Greek “demons”) are not agents of any supernatural “devil” or “god” of evil. In New Testament times, people who had mental illnesses or disorders were referred to as having “demons.”
- Justification by Faith: Man can obtain justification, or righteousness, only by the grace and mercy of God, through faith in Christ. Man cannot save himself by his own works alone, no matter how good or numerous.
- Baptism: There is only one true gospel, which cannot be altered. Belief of this gospel, true repentance, and baptism (total immersion in water) are essential for salvation. In baptism we turn to God, our sins are forgiven, we become heirs of the promises to Abraham and his spiritual “seed”, we identify with Christ in his life and death, and we are born again in him. The sprinkling of babies is not true Scriptural baptism.
- The One Body: Those who believe the gospel and are baptized into Christ become “brethren in Christ”, without regard to nationality. They also become a part of the “one body,” with Christ as their head. God calls them His children, and they become partakers of His grace and love.
- The Breaking of Bread: The breaking of bread and drinking of wine, in remembrance of Jesus, was instituted by him for his true followers. It is a means of affirming their status as members of the “one body” of Christ.
- The Jews: The Jews are God’s chosen people. Though scattered because of disobedience, they will be purified (after repentance and faith), regathered, and made ready for the coming of the Messiah.
- The Commandments of Christ: All those who believe these teachings should strive also to live godly, Christ-like lives. This involves the keeping of Christ’s commandments, and separateness from the affairs of this world, including its politics and police and military service. The commandments of Christ, including those of his apostles, are therefore an important part of any Statement of Faith.
The reader will note that the above statements resemble the corresponding clauses in the BASF—so much so that we might safely say the ASF (Apostolic Statement of Faith), and the BASF are 98-99% alike. But there is still something to be learned by considering where the ASF and the BASF differ, even if only slightly. Here are a few examples:
a. The BASF does not have a clear statement about the fundamental Bible teaching of justification by faith. Corresponding to this is its failure to mention conversion or repentance in connection with baptism. These oversights may reinforce an unfortunate Christadelphian tendency—that is, to visualize, and perhaps to proclaim, salvation as a legal or mechanical process (“learn the facts, and then be baptized”) more than as a moral awakening (“change your life, and then be reborn”).
b. In not one single clause does the BASF mention “love” as a motivation of God or Jesus Christ in their work. Also, there is a complete absence of “mercy” as an attribute of the Father and the Son.
c. While omitting Bible words such as “love” and “mercy”, the BASF does use uncommon and difficult words, suitable perhaps for a legal document of the Victorian era, but not nearly so suitable in a document which we hope will be read (and understood!) by people today. These are words such as: extant, bequeath, underived, abolition, immaculate, and abrogate. Possibly, some older readers can define these words, but do our Sunday school students and our newly baptized members understand them?
d. The BASF has no real counterpart for the ASF clauses 22 and 23, concerning the One Body, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. In my opinion, this is a major shortcoming. Historically, this omission of the positive doctrine of fellowship may account for our serious preoccupation with the negative aspects of “fellowship” (that is, which believers ought to be excluded). In short, Christadelphians seem to have always been very concerned with cutting off fellowship from others who might be in error—much more concerned, that is, than seeking fellowship ties with others who believe as we do and are also part of Christ’s One Body.
I will take the liberty to editorialize for a moment: I must say, for myself, that I would much rather stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ with a record of being too lenient than with a record of being too strict. I offer six texts:
Austin Leander, TX
1 All Scriptural quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.
2 “True Principles and Uncertain Details,” The Christadelphian, May 1898, Vol. 35, No. 407, p. 182