Concerning foundational truths.
It used to be that just about every English speaking person in Great Britain and the U.S. had a pretty good idea of what is in the Bible. Even if they lived their lives along totally different lines, they still had a general knowledge of Bible stories, commands, ethics and principles. So, when Wodehouse wrote, “I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head – not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.” (Code of the Woosters) Or, that so and so was, “A bit like Balaam’s ass... If you recall, it too dug in its feet and refused to play ball.” (Much Obliged Jeeves) Or, when Mark Twain observed a comb which “...had come down from Esau and Samson, and had been accumulating hair ever since...” (Roughing It) it was a safe bet that everybody understood what they were getting at. It ain’t that way any more.
It’s been my observation that more and more people know less and less about the Bible. That’s really ironic since the Bible is still, supposedly, the best-selling book of all time. I can’t help wonder what people actually do with all those Bibles they’re purchasing. Apparently, something besides read them. Even kids who grow up in Christian homes and go to church regularly don’t seem to know much about the Bible. I'm finding that I have to teach a lot of things that I used to be able to take for granted. That speaks volumes, not only about spiritual breakdown in the home but, about what isn’t being emphasized and taught at church. There may be more Bibles sold in more translations than at any time in history; there may be more church buildings being built than ever; there may be an explosion in the number of mega-churches; biblical information may be more readily available to a larger number of people than ever before via the Internet but, somehow, it doesn’t seem to translate into Bible literacy.
Even worse than biblical illiteracy among the general populous, however, is that sometimes it isn’t much better among those who are supposed to be teachers. I’ve heard several whose knowledge was neither broad nor deep.
But what is really disturbing is those teachers who promote unsound doctrine. Some do so through conviction, but others blindly follow something they’ve heard without studying it out for themselves. I question whether some even know how to check things out before they pass them on. Whether somebody has a sheepskin from seminary or Bible college seems to have little bearing on the issue.
To a large extent, biblical illiteracy among teachers reflects a failure of leadership as a whole. If teachers are incompetent it is because we in leadership have, ourselves, failed to instruct in sound doctrine and to supervise what is taught. We simply have to do a better job of teaching and enforcing the basics: those key doctrines, principles and beliefs which constitute the core of the Christian faith. To give credit where it’s due, this is one issue which the “driven” people try to address. If you’re familiar with the baseball-diamond metaphor promoted by the mega-church whose name begins with an S, you already know that they try to get people to sign onto their core beliefs through what they call the 101 class.
Aside from playing fast and loose with Scripture, which seems to be one of the hallmarks of the “driven” philosophy, there are at least two shortcomings with the 101 approach. The first is that they try to cram it all into one marathon session. There is hardly time to even state what the core beliefs are, let alone consider and reflect upon them. There certainly isn’t much attempt to show how the core beliefs and values are derived from Scripture.
The second difficulty with the 101 approach is that it is largely a one-way, passive process. People are asked to sign a document, but are not asked to state what they, themselves, believe. Because there isn’t much, if any, two-way communication or discussion of what is presented, it is more than likely that the 101 process will not uncover areas of significant difference between what the church states and the people actually believe.
Defining core beliefs
But before we can look at a better model, we have to answer a critical question: “Just what are those foundational beliefs which it is essential for everyone agree on and hold fast to?” An even more fundamental question is, “From where should we derive our beliefs?”
These days the concepts of absolute truth, and even reason, are under attack. But it seems to me that Post Modern relativism suffers from a fatal flaw. If everything is relative, as the proponents of this philosophy would have us believe, then the philosophy of relativism is, itself, relative. If everyone makes their own truth, then relativism is proven false for those who do not accept it. If reason itself is invalid, then its invalidity cannot be demonstrated by reason. In other words, relativism is self-contradictory. There really are absolutes.
Now if an absolute exists, it follows that our core or foundational beliefs should be derived from that absolute. I submit that the absolute from which we should derive our core beliefs is the Bible. When you stop and think about it, the Bible is the only constant we have. Everything else, whether it be church tradition, popular consensus, culture or authoritarian edict, is subject to change. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matthew 24:35 NIV)
The Bible contains a great many doctrines and teachings. Which ones should we consider core or foundational? If you’ve ever tried your hand at writing a statement of faith, you know how tricky it can be to decide what beliefs are essential and non-negotiable, and where you can allow divergent views. Fortunately, the Bible itself tells us what the foundational beliefs are.
In chapter 5, verse 12, the writer of Hebrews chides his readers for their biblical illiteracy. “...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (NIV) Then, in chapter 6, he goes on to explain what the elementary or foundational truths are. “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.” (Hebrews 6:1-3 NIV)
Nine foundational areas
In this passage there is one implied, and eight stated components of basic or foundational belief. They are as follows:
1) The Bible
Though the Bible is not mentioned explicitly in Hebrews 6:1-2, our beliefs about it are certainly implied in such phrases as “teachings about Christ” (6:1). It is the Bible which teaches us about Him. In fact, the entire book of Hebrews presupposes a knowledge and acceptance of the Scriptures. Our view of the Bible will not only have a direct impact on what we believe about Christ, but also on all other areas of belief.
If our beliefs about Christ, who He is, and what He came to do are incorrect, then our whole belief structure will be skewed.
There’s a huge difference between remorse over being caught and repudiating the wrong which we’ve done.
4) Acts that lead to death
Our society has redefined sin as a ‘mistake’ or an ‘alternate lifestyle choice.’
5) Faith in God
Popular concepts of God seem to alternate between a capricious, perpetually angry tyrant who is waiting for any excuse to fry the people He doesn’t like and a kindly, senile old man who is really unaware of what’s going on and would merely smile and pat you on the head if He did know.
The debate over the role of water baptism is one of the most important of our time. Since it is so closely associated with salvation, a proper understanding of baptism in water is crucial. Similarly, there is much confusion about the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
7) The laying on of hands
Personally, I would not have thought of placing the doctrine of the laying on of hands among the core or foundational beliefs. Since it is included, however, a proper understanding of it is essential.
8) The resurrection from the dead
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the central fact of Christianity. Paul goes so far as to state, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-19 NIV) Yet, the resurrection of Christ is precisely what many (for example those in the so-called ‘Jesus Seminar’) do deny.
9) Eternal judgment
It’s amazing how many people out there either deny that there will be a judgment or that the consequences of it will be eternal.
Once a church determines what it believes in the nine foundational areas defined above, how can it make sure that everyone in leadership or a teaching role speaks with the same voice in those areas? If I had my way, every leadership candidate and every prospective teacher would be required to write a personal statement of faith which includes what they believe about these basic things. At the very least they should be interviewed and questioned about these 9 areas.
Think about it. One of the benefits of requiring everyone to write out what they believe before they could lead or teach, is that differences in doctrinal positions become obvious right away. It exposes areas where candidates are mistaken, or need more teaching.
Another benefit is that it forces candidates to think about what they believe. It’s amazing how having to write something out, exposes the weak areas in our thinking. Many a time, the process of trying to explain something to someone else has forced me to re-evaluate or re-think what I thought I knew.
It’s also a good way to test someone’s ability to communicate. All of the leadership roles in the New Testament church, with the exception of the Deacon, involve teaching. If a person is unable to clearly explain his own beliefs, is he really capable of teaching in the church?
There’s another benefit, too. A written statement of faith is a great accountability tool. If, after being appointed somebody starts teaching doctrines which are contrary to the position of the church, the written statement is documentary proof that he either lied about what he believes, or has changed his position.
The passage in Hebrews not only gives us a way to evaluate candidates for teachers, it tells us what basics we should be teaching. I don’t know about you, but I think it would be an excellent idea to develop a class covering the 9 areas which would be taught to the whole church. I think it would go a long ways toward helping us be like-minded. (See 1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2:2)
PresbyterJon’s foundational beliefs
“Alright,” you may be saying. “All this is well and good. But are you willing, so to speak, to put your money where your mouth is?” Okay, I will. What follows is a summary of what I believe in regard to the basics.
about the Bible
I believe that the Scriptures we know as the Old and New Testaments were revealed by inspiration to men who wrote down the divine message. I believe that the first copies of what we call the 66 books of the Bible (the autographs) are totally without error. They are totally true and to be believed. Scripture is not only still relevant and applicable in a moral and ethical sense, the texts are accurate in historical detail. Though minor textual problems exist, I believe that the texts of those first documents have been faithfully transmitted to us. With minor exceptions, the text of the Bible has been accurately preserved. While interpretations may differ, the text is trustworthy.
The teaching of the Scriptures is also consistent. The Scriptures do not contradict themselves. The God of the Old Testament is the same as that of the New. The teachings of the Apostles agree in all points with that of Christ.
The Bible, and especially the New Testament, is our standard of faith and practice. Though we can learn much from the Old Testament, Christ has fulfilled the Mosaic Law. Therefore Christians are not bound by the rules and regulations found in the Law. Any message or practice which contradicts what God has already revealed in Scripture is not from God and is to be rejected.
Who is the Christ? He is Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, he is an historical person who really lived. He is not some myth or allegory. I believe that Jesus is “God in the flesh.” He was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus lived a perfect and sinless life. He was unjustly condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. He was crucified, buried and rose from the dead on the third day after his execution.
What is the Christ? The word Christ means “the anointed one.” In other words, God appointed Jesus to fulfill specific roles. One role which Jesus fills is that of the Prophet. To put it differently, Jesus is God’s spokesman. It is He who reveals God’s will to us. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to follow what Jesus says. I must also reject any message from any source which does not agree with what has been revealed through Jesus.
Another position which Jesus fills as the Christ is that of High Priest. One task of the High Priest is to offer sacrifices for sin. Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sins. His sacrifice is perfect and sufficient. As a result, no further sacrifice is necessary. Jesus also fulfills the High Priest’s duty of representing us before God. He is our advocate. One of the implications of this is that I must present my requests to God (pray) through Jesus, or in His name.
A third role Jesus fills as Christ is King. God has given Jesus all authority as well as the divine name ‘Lord.’ Because Jesus is King and Lord, I must obey His commands. I am under His protection as well as His authority.
To repent literally means ‘to change one’s mind.’ In the context of the verse under consideration, it means to change one’s mind about the the things which lead to spiritual death. In other words, repentance means that if I had the chance to do things over, I would choose not to do the things which have condemned me spiritually. Repentance is far more than sorrow over getting caught. It is changing my attitude towards what is wrong. It is to repudiate my wrong. Without a true repentance, my relationship to God cannot be restored.
acts that lead to death
This is another way of saying, sin. Sin is anything which is contrary to God’s will. We are morally accountable for our sins. The penalty for violating God’s commands, which are wholly right and just, is eternal death – that is, eternal separation from God. In addition to incurring guilt, I become a debtor when I sin because I have not given God the service which is His due. Through the sacrifice of Himself, Jesus has paid sin’s debt for the whole world. In order to remove my guilt, I must die to sin, die to self and die with Christ in baptism.
faith in God
God is One. Though He is One, He exists as a three-fold Person. Within His being are the personalities of the Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. God is eternally extant. He has no beginning or end. God is absolutely holy, righteous and good. He is love. He is omnipotent and omnipresent.
God reveals Himself to mankind through three witnesses. The first witness is that of nature. The universe which He has created, displays His majesty and power. The evidence in nature for the existence of God is overwhelming. Those who deny His existence do so not because of lack of evidence, but for philosophical or moral reasons. Similarly, it is far more logical to believe that God created the universe and all of nature than to accept that the diversity of life arose from any kind of macro or emergent evolution.
The second way in which God reveals Himself is through the written word.
The third way which God reveals Himself is through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies the character and being of God. If we want to know what God is like, we can find out by looking at Jesus.
1) Christian baptism. Baptism is administered to penitent believers. It refers to total immersion in water. Several things occur at the time of, and by means of, baptism.
Baptism is the point at which the spiritual ‘new birth’ is completed.
Baptism is the point at which our sinful nature is removed through a spiritual circumcision.
We become Christ’s, and ‘put on Christ’ at baptism.
Our sins are washed away in baptism.
We are given the pledge of a clean conscience at baptism.
We participate in Christ’s death at baptism.
We enter into covenant relationship with God at baptism.
Just as Christ rose from the tomb, we are raised to a new spiritual life from the waters of baptism.
Baptism is not an option. It is a command of Christ. It is necessary for salvation. There is nothing inherently spiritual or efficacious in the water or act of immersion itself (baptismal regeneration). Nor is baptism a work of merit which buys salvation. On the contrary, baptism is the catalyst for our faith which enables Christ to provide salvation. It is only after his baptism that a penitent believer can legitimately call himself a Christian.
2) Baptism of the Holy Spirit. On two different occasions God sent a special manifestation of the Spirit. These manifestations were characterized by the recipients speaking in foreign languages unknown to them and other paranormal phenomena. The first occurrence was on the day of Pentecost. The second was at the house of Cornelius. Both of these baptisms occurred in special circumstances and demonstrated God’s approval and acceptance of the previously unthinkable. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not something which is usual or normal. Every Christian has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, but it cannot be characterized as a baptism.
the laying on of hands
1) During the apostolic age, special gifts of the Holy Spirit (such as the gifts of healing, prophecy or speaking in tongues) were given to individual Christians through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands. These gifts were important for the growth and maturing of the church before the completion of the New Testament writings. Now that the we have the New Testament, the gifts have been discontinued. Also, the gifts can no longer be imparted because the Apostles are no longer here to do so.
2) Leaders in the church are appointed (ordained) by Evangelists or Elders laying their hands on and consecrating the candidate.
3) Another practice which might be considered ‘laying on of hands’ is the Elders of the church anointing a sick person with oil. If the sick person requests it, the Elders are to anoint him with oil and pray on his behalf. When such prayers are offered in faith, illnesses will be cured and the sins, if any, which caused the illness will be forgiven.
the resurrection of the dead
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is a foretaste or firstfruits of God’s promise that one day all the dead will rise again. Both the righteous and unrighteous will rise. They will be given new bodies which will no longer be subject to physical death and decay. The doctrine of the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. If the dead do not rise, Christ has not risen either. If Christ has not risen, then our faith is useless and futile. Without the resurrection, there is also no forgiveness of sin.
Both the living and the dead will face God’s righteous judgment. Each of us will have to give account for what we have done. None of us will be justified by our own actions, for all of us have sinned. It is only those of us who have accepted the sacrifice which Christ has made on our behalf who will be found righteous. What we do in this life, and whether we accept Christ, has eternal consequences. Those who are condemned at the judgment will leave the presence of God and go to eternal punishment. Eternal punishment does not mean annihilation in the sense of being snuffed out of existence. It is an active separation from God and anything good. In contrast to this, those who are in Christ will live eternally with Him. God is preparing a new heaven and new earth in which those whom Christ has redeemed will live forever.
Well, there’s a summary of what I believe about the basics. Where do you stand on these issues?