George Booker
What Are The First Principles?

3. The Two Extremes, and Why They Must Be Rejected

How should we define first principles? The possible answers to such a question range from the grossly simplistic (and therefore unworkable) to the far-too-detailed (and also therefore unworkable).

On the one hand, it might be suggested that John 3:16, for example, is sufficient as to belief:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

But such a response tells us only that belief in Christ is essential; it does not define or limit that belief in any practical way. All who profess to be Christians can — and do — accept John 3:16.

On the other hand, the statement that ‘all the Bible must be believed’, while commendable in one respect, proves totally impractical in application, and means essentially: ‘One must believe all that I believe — nothing more and nothing less — in order to be saved!’ Along this road lie the cults, with their dictatorial leaders.

Along this road also lies a perpetual restlessness of mind — in which satisfaction and comfort can never be attained, because they are tied to constantly changing goals.

A variation on one “extreme”

A variation on this second “extreme” is the idea — not so often stated in words as taken for granted in fellowship discussions — that the degree of knowledge possessed by the “fathers” should somehow be a standard for all. It is as if some of our elders were to say to themselves, ‘It is a pity to let all this learning...30 or 40 or 50 years worth...go to waste. Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll use our advanced knowledge [and whatever we can find in the “pioneer” writings, whether relevant to first principles or not!] to dictate fellowship policy to all those who know less or have less experience in the Truth than we!’

But the Bible plainly speaks of those who are “newborn babes”, still “unskilled in the word of righteousness”, still in need of “milk” rather than strong meat — but for all this nonetheless “in Christ”, “holy brethren”, and “partakers of the heavenly calling” (cf. esp. 1 Cor. 3; Heb. 3; 5; 1 Pet. 1). Some such “babes” were baptized after less than 24 hours of instruction in the faith, e.g., the jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:32,33) and at least some of the 3,000 Pentecost converts (2:38-41) and the Samaritans (8:12). So, clearly, applying a “Statement of Faith” or a “test of fellowship” that would effectively exclude some such “babes” is going too far in our demands upon believers. (For this point, as well as others, the present writer is indebted to A.H. Zilmer, author in 1925 of a privately circulated manuscript entitled “What is Fundamental?”)

Finding middle ground

Either extreme, therefore, would be chaotic in its application to any fellowship situation. Somewhere in the middle, between “almost nothing” and “almost everything”, right-thinking believers must draw lines to divide essential beliefs from non-essential. Is such a task impossible? Is there no Scriptural guide to follow? Can we not, in Robert Roberts’ words, know “how far we ought to go and where we ought to our demands on fellow-believers”?

He continues:

“[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.” (“True Principles and Uncertain Details”, The Christadelphian, May 1898, Vol. 35, No. 407, p. 182)

Brother Roberts then proceeds with some examples both of what he calls “general principles” and what he calls “uncertain details”, to good effect. And the article cited above is still well worth reading. But he does not attempt to describe any characteristics or give any evidence which would make a doctrine essential for salvation or fellowship, or to describe any process of differentiation between essentials and non-essentials. And, so far as can be determined, this task has never been properly undertaken in the 100 years since.

So what are the first principles? And how can we identify them as such? This study will attempt to answer both questions, insofar as the Bible provides the answers. And it will also compare the results with the most common Christadelphian statement of faith, the BASF (and with its closest variant, specifically, the BUSF), and answer a further question: “Does our statement go too far, or not far enough, in defining essential doctrine?”

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