Posts Tagged ‘Principles’

We’ve mentioned our nervousness about the idea of ‘principles’ before. But I’m returning to the theme, prompted by an excellent article by Brian Brock, “On generating categories in theological ethics” (Tyndale Bulletin, 61.1), to add a couple more points:

  1. Principles tend to ignore the specificity of the biblical commands. Brock shows how there has been a movement in Christian ethics, since the Enlightenment, to focus on one or two big principles – especially ‘love’, with the greatest commandment and the golden rule being pointed to most often – while ignoring the huge amount of very specific instruction in the OT and NT on exactly how we should love. A ‘principle’ is (in modern thought) something that you have to ‘apply’ in concrete situations. As long as you are guided by the principle you are relatively free to work out the application in your context, taking into account all the particularities of culture, time, geography, temperament etc. Doesn’t that sound very familiar? We might say, all marriages are different, all children are different, all workplaces are different, you just need to be guided by the principle of love and work out what is right in your situation. But the Bible doesn’t seem to work like that. There are a lot of detailed commandments. At the great commission the disciples aren’t send out to “teach them to love” or “teach them the top 10 principles” but to “teach them… everything I have commanded”. God doesn’t leave it all up to us to work out the details. In marriage, for example, the Bible doesn’t just say, love (whoever, however, whenever). It says that the marriage must be between a man and a woman, that believers should only marry believers, that the love should take place within a secure public covenant which should only be dissolved by death, that the love of a husband for a wife must be expressed in Christlike sacrificial servant leadership and the love of a wife for her husband should resemble the submission of the church to Christ. It is not left to us to figure all that out. It is not dependent on context and temperament and orientation what sort of marriage we come up with. As Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
  2. Principles tend to sound optional. The Bible’s language is not ‘principle’ but rather ‘command’ and ‘promise’ and ‘truth’. The great commission says, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded“. “Let us be clear – there are no ethical principles expressly stated in Scripture, though there are many commands, in both testaments” (Brock, Ethics, p. 51). The difference is that a principle has something of a ‘take it or leave it’ quality. It is something I can apply if I want to or need to. You can’t talk of ‘obeying’ or ‘disobeying’ a principle. But a command is a word from the King that I must obey. Likewise a promise (and Brock shows that through Christ commands are bound up with promises) is something that must be ‘believed’ and ‘clung to’. Not to receive the promises with faith is at best a foolish slowness of heart and at worst a sinful hardness of heart (Luke 24:25; John 16:9; Hebrews 3-4). And ‘truth’ (e.g. that God is Trinity, that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that men and woman are equal in status but different in role) is a reality that is there and must be revealed, known, obeyed and walked in (Gal. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 John 1:4).

A word on Hebrews 5

Admittedly, Hebrews 5:12 talks of the ‘first principles of the oracles of God’ but it may be worth noting:
a) In the context these are not a great thing to be fixed on. These are seen as ‘milk’ in contrast to the solid food of the mature. The whole point is an impatience to move on from this unsatisfactory diet which is for the ‘unskilled’, the ‘dull of hearing’. In fact the way the warning passage continues into chapter 6 it looks like sticking with the first principles and not moving on may be bound up with a sinful hardness of heart and apostasy.
b) One might counter that even if they are not a good place to stay then they are a good ‘first base’ – essential teachings that you need to get clear at the start. But from the context of the beginning of chapter 6, the first principles look like they could well be Jewish/OT rather than distinctively Christian/NT (Messiah, repentance, ceremonial washings, hope of resurrection etc.). So perhaps the use of ‘first principles’ (literally ‘first lines’) here could be a slightly scolding and sarcastic jibe that his readers seem to be stuck in Sabbath School / still in kindergarten learning their ABC.
c) What the author of Hebrews is most concerned to tell his readers about is Melchizedek and how Christ, coming as high priest in the order of Melchizedek has accomplished the perfect sacrifice and has gone ahead of us and for us into the most holy place. This is what he spends the majority of his time teaching them. Where he does need to refer to background to help them understand this he goes back not of some abstract principles but to the promises of Scripture and to the particularities of how the tabernacle was set up.

So let’s leave behind principles

Let’s talk more about commands and promises and truths and the stories of Scripture and the riches of Christ.

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