Saturday, September 10, 2005

First Principles

Using an analogy of a building to describe the kingdom of God (as the Bible frequently does, in particular the analogy of a Temple) the foundations of the building or Temple are the fundamental principles which I outlined in earlier messages:

1. God is love
2. We are saved by grace
3. God forgives
4. God grants repentance
5. God reigns

Much of Jesus' teaching concerns the ethics of the kingdom - how we live in the kingdom of God, and the characteristics God is developing in us for the work He has planned for us in the future when the kingdom is consummated. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament also concentrate on what Jack Hayford and others have appropriately called kingdom dynamics - the principles which, when applied, enable us to be successful in preaching the Gospel and advancing the work of the kingdom.

So Christianity - the application of the teachings of Jesus (the gospel of the kingdom) - consists primarily of:

- the foundation principles of the kingdom
- the ethics of the kingdom
- kingdom dynamics

This is the "gospel" or good news which Jesus and His disciples taught.

To Christadelphians the starting point, or foundations, are what they call "the first principles". Where do these first principles fit in with this? The first principles are defined in the various statements of faith: the most common being the Birmingham Statement of Faith or the Birmingham amended Statement of Faith (the very fact that the Birmingham Statement of Faith has been amended more than once illustrates that to some Christadelphians the first principles changed or weren't properly defined in the first place).

The first principles defined in the statements of faith include the following:

1. God is one. There is only one "person" in the Godhead.

2. Jesus is the Son of God, but did not pre-exist before His birth and is not the second person of the Godhead.

3. the Holy Spirit is the power of God, but is not a person in the Godhead.

4. as a result of Adam's sin all mankind was sentenced to die and to live a life under the curse of sin and with a human nature "prone to sin".

5. Jesus' death provided a way for God to forgive people for their sins, provided they live a life of obedience thereafter, by condemning sinful nature and declaring God to be righteous in sentencing mankind to death.

6. at death both body and soul die, awaiting the resurrection. There is no conscious existence in death.

7. the devil is within each human being, and is not a supernatural being or fallen angel. Jesus destroyed the devil in Himself when He died.

8. Jesus will return to the earth and establish the kingdom of God on earth in the land promised to Abraham (Israel), with Jerusalem as its capital, and will eventually subdue the whole earth (including the use of force to bring the whole into subjection).

9. the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

10. by understanding the "first principles" (although in a lot more detail to what I have outlined here), and by then being baptised by full immersion in water, a person can move from being "in Adam" to being "in Christ". Provided they then live a life of obedience to the commandments of Christ they may be acceptable at the Judgment and granted a place in the Kingdom of God at the second coming of Christ.

11. obedience to the commandments of Christ includes refusing to participate in war or joining a police force, refusing to take part in politics (including refusing to vote in elections) and, in some countries (such as Australia, but not in Canada or the UK), refusing to sit on a jury.

The emphasis is on "correct doctrine" (although number 11 above are core "ethics" which have made it on to the list of first principles), and salvation is possible only for those people who understand and agree with these first principles. "That the way to obtain this salvation is to believe the Gospel they preached, and to take on the Name and service of Christ, by being thereupon immersed in water, and continuing patiently in the observance of all things he has commanded, none being recognized as his friends except those who do what he has commanded" (BaSF clause 16).

The statements of faith say little, or nothing, about the foundation principles upon which Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom or Paul's Gospel of Grace are based. The closest the Birmingham SoF gets to referring to God's love is a statement "That God, in his kindness, conceived a plan of restoration which, without setting aside His just and necessary law of sin and death, should ultimately rescue the race from destruction, and people the earth with sinless immortals" (clause 6, my emphasis).

Grace gets a mention only in passing: "That at the close of the thousand years, there will be a general resurrection and judgment, resulting in the final extinction of the wicked, and the immortalization of those who shall have established their title (under the grace of God) to eternal life during the thousand years" (cluse 29, my emphasis). However, the statement that the saints have "established their title (under the grace of God)" is an oxymoron. If they have "established their title" then it is no longer by grace!

Forgiveness does get a mention (clause 12: "All who approach God through this crucified, but risen, representative of Adam's disobedient race, are forgiven").

Repentance also gets a mention (clause 11: "That the message he delivered from God to his kinsmen, the Jews, was a call to repentance from every evil work ... ").

The majority of clauses in the Birmingham SoF deal with "the kingdom of God" (clauses 17 to 30 - 14 clauses out of 30). As I've mentioned before, it's good that Christadelphians emphasise the kingdom of God, because this is the good news that Jesus preached. But in emphasising only the future aspects of the kingdom and ignoring the present reality which was the main content of Jesus' teachings, Christadelphians are really teaching only a "half Gospel".

While the Christadelphian statements of faith, in my opinion, are correct in endorsing orthodox Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead on the third day, they have the wrong emphasis and because they were born out of doctrinal controversy the language is largely defensive or argumentative. Consequently they are generally considered to be useless as documents for teaching or explaining the Gospel (which is presumably why preaching and missionary organisations rarely use them as preaching tools). They are, however, regarded as authoritative in determining who will be admitted to membership and communion.

So what place should the "first principles" take in teaching and explaining the Good News, and how important are they really? Stay tuned.

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