THE FORMAL PRINCIPLE OF

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

A Study By

Gary Ray Branscome


  "Then said Jesus… If ye continue in my Word then are ye my disciples indeed"

(John 8:31)

   Every theology has a formal principle, and that principle has to do with the authority behind the theology and thus with the source of the information it contains. Consequently, the formal principle of a Roman Catholic theology will include tradition and the authority of that Church in addition to Scripture. The formal principle of a “liberal” theology will place the mind of man over the Bible as a judge of what it says. And, the formal principle of various cult theologies will include any “new revelations” provided by the cult's founder or leaders. However, because addition to the Word of God always obscures the gospel, the Evangelical theology of Luther and Tyndale excludes all other authorities, making Scripture alone its formal principle.

    For that reason, a truly Evangelical theology will consist of what the Bible actually teaches, not reason, not tradition, and not new revelations. Or, to put it another way, since the doctrine that God has given us consists of what the words of Scripture actually say (not what we think), the Evangelical doctrine consists of those truths that are clearly stated in Scripture, “line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). [John 8:31, 2Peter 1:20, 2Corinthians 1:13, Galatians 1:6-9, Colossians 2:8, Mark 7:9, Isaiah 8:20, Proverbs 30:6.]

    While many churches claim to base their doctrine on Scripture, there is a difference between “basing” doctrine on Scripture, and allowing Scripture to speak for itself. When it comes right down to it, most churches read unscriptural ideas into some passages while explaining away others. However, because they all claim to be following Scripture, yet are unable to agree as to what the Bible says, many have concluded that a theology consisting only of what the Bible teaches is idealistic and impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, they are wrong!
    What they fail to see, is that the root of division does not lie with the Bible, but with the unscriptural ideas that are being read into the text. In fact, many who call themselves “Evangelical” actually follow a formal principle that includes not only Scripture, but also numerous man made explanations of Scripture [i.e. Scofield etc.]. However, since the Bible calls such man made explanations “tradition,” they are an adding to God’s Word, and those who add too God’s Word are not true disciples of Christ (John 8:31) — (see Matthew 15:3-6, Mark 7:5-9, Proverbs 30:6).

    One difficulty in adhering to Scripture Alone lies in the fact that the carnal mind continually seeks to dethrone God (by explaining away some passages of Scripture), while enthroning man in His place (by elevating man's explanation of God's Word to the status of divine doctrine). Another difficulty lies in the fact that many Christians think of doctrine as an explanation of Scripture, or as an abstract of what is said, instead of what is actually said (2Corinthians 1:13). Consequently, those who study the Bible often wind up fabricating explanations instead of sticking to what God has revealed, “Line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). Once they have accepted man made explanations as doctrine, Satan then leads them to explain away any statements of Scripture that contradict those explanations, often making them adamant in their defense of false doctrine.

TRUE HUMILITY

    Since one key factor in understanding God’s Word is humility, if we are to receive the doctrine that God has given us in His Word we must be willing to accept every word of Scripture in childlike faith, simply because it is the Word of God (Luke 10:21). We are not to teach our own ideas as doctrine, or contradict what the Bible says. [Revelation 22:18-19, Proverbs 30:6, Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32, John 8:31, Isaiah 8:20, 2 Peter 1:20.]
 
    Martin Luther's encounter with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli illustrates the kind of humility that I have in mind. In 1529, Luther and Zwingli met in the German city of Marburg. At that meeting, fourteen points of doctrine were discussed, and they could agree on all but one, the meaning of Christ's words, “Take eat this is my body” (1Corinthians 11:24). While those who read about that meeting usually assume that Luther and Zwingli could not agree because they each had a different interpretation, that was not really the case at all. Although Zwingi did have an interpretation, Luther freely admitted that he did not know what Christ meant. Therefore, what Luther objected to was not Zwingli’s interpretation, but the fact that Zwingli was contradicting Christ.
    Since Luther was convinced that God wanted him to teach exactly what Christ said (whether he understood it or not) he believed that if Christ said “Take eat, this is my body,” we should teach “Take eat, this is Christ’s body.” And, that is exactly what Zwingli was unwilling to do! Instead, Zwingli openly contradicted Christ by saying, “It isn’t really Christ’s body, it just represents His body.” And, by contradicting Christ he was making the words of Christ "of no effect" (Mark 7:13)

    Those who assume that Luther’s doctrine was an explanation of Christ’s words, often accuse him of teaching consubstantiation. However, that is not true. Because the Bible tells us that those who partake of the Lord's Supper eat bread, not flesh, Luther actually taught that what we are eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine, not flesh and blood (1Corinthians 11:26). In fact, Luther even agreed that the bread and wine were signs of Christ’s body and blood, and taught that those “signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify” (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church). However, unlike Zwingli, he was not willing to use that opinion as an excuse to contradict Christ, and that is why I am holding him up as an example of humble submission to the Word of God.

[NOTE: Christ instituted His Supper as a way of promising those who partake that His body was “given” and His blood “shed” for them, for the remission of sins (Luke 22:19-20). However, because it is through faith in Christ that we have access to what is promised, those who believe that His body and blood were “given” and “shed” for them truly receive His body and blood, in the sense that they receive it as the atonement for their sins (2Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 3:22).
    Now this treasure is conveyed and communicated to us in no other way than through the words "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." In these [words] you receive the double assurance that it is Christ's body and blood, and that it is yours as your treasure and gift… And inasmuch as He offers and promises forgiveness of sins, there is no other way of receiving it than by faith… that which is given in and with the sacrament cannot be grasped nor appropriated by our body. This is done by faith in the heart, which discerns this treasure and desires it. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism)]

THE TESTIMONY OF THE ANCIENT CHURCH

    While the difference between Luther and Zwingli can be used to illustrate the formal principle, the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity rests on Scripture alone is a compelling testimony to the antiquity of that principle.

    In contrast to sectarian doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity does not exclude or explain away any passages of Scripture, but instead accepts each of the truths that God has revealed about Himself, without trying to make them conform to man’s limited understanding. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Trinity includes all that the Bible says on that topic, and that is important because we must take into account all that the Bible says if we are to be true to God’s Word (Isaiah 28:10).
 
    As we examine specific passages that relate to the doctrine of the Trinity, we find that some tell us that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4). Other passages tell us that the Father is God (Romans 15:6), the Son is God (1Timothy 1:1, Isaiah 9:6), and the Holy Ghost is God (Ephesians 4:30, Matthew 12:31-32). The Bible also reveals that the Father is not the Son (Matthew 3:17), the Son is not the Holy Ghost (John 14:16), and so forth. While some of those truths may seem contradictory to our limited (finite) way of thinking, the formal principle of Evangelical Christian theology requires us to accept all of those truths because they are clearly stated in the Word of God. We are not to explain away any of them! Nor are we to add our own ideas or rationalizations to what God has revealed. We are to simply accept and teach exactly what the Bible says.

    The same holds true for the doctrine of Christ. When we examine the pertinent passages, we find some that tell us that Christ is God (Jeremiah 23:5-6), while others call Him the servant of God (Zechariah 3:8, Matthew 12:18). We are told that He is both God (1John 5:20), and man (1Timothy 2:5). Here again, in order to be true to our formal principle we must accept all that the Bible says, without adding to it or explaining anything away. And, the fact that this is done in regard to both the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ, is a testimony to the fact that those doctrines are the Word of God.

    Just as we must accept everything that the Bible says in regard to God or Christ, we must accept everything that the Bible says on any topic. For example: To our limited way of thinking the passages that warn us of the danger of losing our salvation, seem to contradict the ones that assure us that God will keep us from losing it. However, what needs to be understood, is that the passages that warn us are law, while the passages that assure us of God’s grace are gospel. The law reveals our need for God's sustaining grace by warning us of the danger of losing salvation (Luke 8:13), while the gospel comforts all who trust in Christ by assuring them that God will keep them from falling (1Peter 1:5). Those who explain away one set of passages are acting like they think God was too stupid to know what He was doing when He put those passages in the Bible. However, in reality, they are the ones who are acting foolishly, for wisdom accepts everything that the Bible says (Proverbs 8:9, 1John 4:6).

SPEAKING ACCORDING TO GOD'S WORD

    Before we can speak in accord with the Word of God, we must first learn what the Word of God says. And, we can only learn the truths that God wants us to learn from His Word, when we stop reading our own ideas into the text. The true doctrine is nothing other than “what you read,” to the exclusion of all “principles” or explanations not stated in the text (2Corinthians 1:13, Isaiah 28:10).

“All error in doctrine can be traced to the refusal of the teacher to continue in the wholesome words of Christ. This refusal prompted Luther’s constant warning against substituting an interpretation (gloss) for the Scripture words themselves.” [“Christian Dogmatics”, by Francis Pieper, Vol. 1, pg 323] “The whole Christian doctrine is revealed in Scripture passages that need no exegesis, but are an open book alike to the learned and the unlearned and can be so readily translated that the translator cannot go wrong unless he has made up his mind to depart from the original.” [ibid, pg 347]

    If some passages of Scripture seem unclear to us, that is because our minds are darkened by sin, not because God has not spoken clearly (2Corinthians 3:12, Proverbs 8:9). Understanding will come, if we learn those truths that are stated so clearly in Scripture that they need no interpretation, and then interpret the unclear passages to teach the same doctrine as that taught in the clear passages (Isaiah 8:20). Since all of the passages of Scripture (both clear and unclear) were intended to testify of Christ, they were intended to agree. There are no hidden doctrines  (2Corinthians 3:12 and 4:3). On the contrary, God knew from the beginning that we would not be able to understand everything right away, and, for that reason, intended for the things we learn first to clarify the things we find more difficult to understand (Isaiah 28:10, 1Corinthians 2:13).

    For example, If we interpret Hebrews 10:35 “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward,” in the light of Ephesians 2:8, “By grace are ye saved through faith,” we will conclude that the word “confidence” is a reference to “faith,” and the word “reward” is a reference to “salvation.” Furthermore, because that interpretation is explicitly stated in Ephesians 2:8, we can be certain that it is the Word of God. For, even if that was not the meaning of Hebrews 10:35, the interpretation would still be the Word of God because it is explicitly stated in Ephesians 2:8. Thus, by interpreting one passage to say the same thing as another we are able to keep error out of our theology, and that is what we must do if we are to be true disciples of Christ (John 8:31, 2 Peter 1:20).

    Since Satan is prone to attack those areas where our defense is weak, we are often forced to take a stand on matters that are not clearly addressed by Scripture. Nevertheless, in taking such a stand we must be careful not to go beyond the Word of God or contradict what it says. Yet, all too often, that is exactly what happens. Take, for example, the issue immodest clothing and skimpy bathing suits. Some churches simply ignore the issue, while others try to dictate how their members should dress. However, we can avoid such extremes by simply pointing out what the Bible does say. We might begin by taking a serious look at what the Bible says about modesty. God clearly does not want us dressing in ways that are suggestive, or that stir up lust in the opposite sex. Nor does He want men and women dressing alike. In fact, if women dress in a way that entices men, they are tempting them with a forbidden fruit, and that is clearly not the will of God. Having taught what the Bible says, a congregation should then leave its members to their own responsibility. Unless there is a clear transgression of God’s law, matters of dress are generally matters on which the older women should counsel the younger, not matters that require church discipline (1Corinthians 5:1-5, Titus 2:4-5). In dealing with such issues, we need to remember that we are not under the law, and that a repentant heart is more important than outward compliance to a set of rules.

    Another issue not specifically addressed in Scripture has to do with the origin of souls. While today it is usually understood that the soul and body come into existence as a unit, in the past there were some who believed that each soul was created apart from the body, either on the sixth day, at the time of conception, or at the time of birth. However, even though the Bible does not specifically address this issue it is not a neutral issue, for those ideas conflict with what the Bible does say. For example: The idea that God creates each soul separate from the body ends up portraying God as corrupter of souls, for it portrays Him as the one who places those souls into sinful bodies, and into homes where they will be taught worship idols etc. Furthermore, the idea that each soul is created at birth is used to justify abortion. Therefore, while the Bible does not specifically address this issue, the fact that it nowhere says that the soul has a separate origin from the body is reason enough to reject the idea that it does. We are not to add too the Word of God, and that Word simply speaks of body and soul coming into existence as a unit, both being the product of procreation (Psalm 51:5).

    A third issue that is not specifically addressed by Scripture is the matter of infant salvation. While some passages seem to imply that the infant children of believers are saved, other passages make it clear that the infant children of unbelievers are not saved (Luke 18:15-16, 1 Samuel 12:23, Psalm 58:3, Ephesians 2:3). That being the case, we should simply point out what the Bible does say, without trying to supplement what it says with our own ideas. At the same time, we need to reject every opinion that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. For example: Nothing taught on this subject should contradict the fact that, “All have sinned” (Romans 3:10-20, Romans 5:19), the fact that all unforgiven sin damns (Romans 6:23, James 2:10), or the fact that salvation is through faith in Christ alone (Acts 4:12, Hebrews 11:6). The Bible makes it clear that if anyone (infants included) could be saved apart from Christ, God would not have sent Christ to the cross (Galatians 3:21, Acts 4:12). Therefore, the idea that infants can get into heaven on the basis of their own innocence, or because they are not accountable for their sin, is pure fantasy. Likewise, the idea that baptism will automatically convey faith to an infant is a doctrine that is not in Scripture. We must stick to what the Bible says.

    A congregation that makes “Scripture Alone” its formal principle will be uncompromising in its commitment to morality. Uncompromising, not because they are stubborn or judgmental, but because they cannot change what the Bible says. The Bible makes it clear that God intended for marriage to be a lifelong union of one man to one woman, while clearly condemning fornication. In fact, chastity prior to marriage is one thing that should set believers apart from the world (1Thessalonians 4:3). On the other hand, a church that goes strictly by what the Bible says, will not require celibacy or dictate how its members should dress, but will present the law in a way that is in full accord with the fact that we are justified by faith, not works, and with the freedom that is ours in Christ.

    The doctrine of the unity of Scripture tells us that because all Scripture is inspired by God, it only contains one theology (2peter 1:21, 2Timothy 3:16). Therefore, any attempt to interpret Scripture to teach contradictory ideas, theologies, or accounts of creation must be rejected. [Isaiah 8:20, Romans 3:4]

    The doctrine of the authority of Scripture tells us that we are to reject any thoughts or ideas that are not in accord with what the Bible says (2Corinthians 10:5, Isaiah 8:20). Therefore, any doctrine, conclusion, or interpretation that contradicts what the Bible explicitly says, must be rejected (Romans 3:4 and 12:2). [Luke 24:25, 1Corinthians 14:37, Galatians 1:8, Luke 16:29, 2Peter 1:20]

    The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture tells us that the meaning God wants us to get from His word is not hidden or mysterious, but instead is the plain meaning of the words (2Corinthians 1:13 and 3:12).  [Psalm 119:105,130, Psalm 19:7, 2Peter 1:19, Acts 17:11, 2Timothy 3:15]

    The doctrine of the purpose of Scripture tells us that God brought the Bible into existence to testify of Christ, and therefore, it ought to be interpreted in the light of that testimony (John 5:39, Acts 10:43, John 20:31). [Luke 24:27, 1John 5:13, 1Timothy 1:15, 1Corinthians 15:1-4]

DEVELOPING A BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW

    In order to bring our theology into accord with the Word of God we must begin by bringing our thinking into accord with the Word of God (Romans 12:2). And, as I have pointed out, we start by learning those truths so clearly stated in Scripture that there is no debate as to the fact that they are in the Bible. I am not saying that everyone will accept them, just that no one will be able to dispute the fact that they are in the Bible. For example: While there are many who reject what the Bible says about a six-day creation, no one can deny the fact that the Bible says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is” (Exodus 20:11). Likewise, no one can deny the fact that the words “evening” and “morning” are used in connection with each one of the creation days (Genesis 1:5,8,13,19,23,31). Those truths are beyond dispute because they can be verified by anyone willing to look up the references. And, because that is what the Bible says, that is what God wants us to teach. If our theology is to be founded on fact, rather than on the shifting sands of human opinion, every doctrine must rest on what is certain.

    Furthermore, because God has revealed Himself in history, as you learn the doctrinal truths that are explicitly stated in Scripture, you will find that they all relate to Bible history, and specifically to seven key events of that history. Those events are the creation and fall of man, and the birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ. Because each of those events has a spiritual significance for every one of us, they are central to Bible doctrine.

CREATION
    Words such as, “We are the clay, and thou our potter,” and “Hath not the potter power over the clay?” reveal the spiritual significance of creation in regard to our relationship to God (Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:21). The words, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve,” tell us the significance of creation in regard to the roles of men and women (1Timothy 2:12-13). The words, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men,” tell us the significance of creation in regard to our relationship to other races and nationalities (Acts 17:26). And, the words, “He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh… What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” tell us the significance of creation in regard to marriage and divorce (Matt 18:4-6).

    However, the fact that God created the first man and woman in His “own image,” makes it clear that God is not responsible for sin, and that He is fully justified in condemning our sins (Genesis 1:27). We are told that God “Made man upright,” that everything He created, including man, was originally, “Very good,” and that there was no sin in the world prior to Adam’s transgression (Genesis 1:31, Ecclesiastes 7:29, Romans 5:12).

THE FALL
    The spiritual significance of Adam’s fall into sin is revealed by such words as, “There is none righteous, no, not one, // The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, // By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned,” and we are “By nature the children of wrath” (Romans 3:10 and 5:12, Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 2:3). Furthermore, just as these passages relate to the fall because they reveal our fallen nature and need of a Savior, the entire law of God relates to the fall, because it too reveals our fallen nature and need of a Savior. [Romans, chapter five, contains a number of verses that deal with the spiritual significance of the fall.]

THE VIRGIN BIRTH
    The fact that Christ is called, “The mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6), “The Son of God” (Luke 1:35), and, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), all in connection with His virgin birth, reveals the intimate relationship between His birth and His deity. Therefore, everything that the Bible says about His deity relates to what it says about His birth. Furthermore, since everyone born in the normal way is a sinner, the fact that He was “without sin,” reveals the relationship of His unique birth to the sinless aspect of His nature (Romans 3:10, Hebrews 4:15). Finally, the fact that He, “Came into the world to save sinners,” reveals that the very purpose of His birth was our salvation (1Timothy 1:15).
    [NOTE: In regard to His birth, we are also told that He is, “From everlasting” (Micah 5:2), that He existed, “From the beginning” (Isaiah 48:16), and that, “All things were made by Him” (John 1:3,14).]

CHRIST’S DEATH ON THE CROSS
    The Bible reveals the spiritual significance of Christ’s death when it tells us that He was, “Wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), “Offered to bear” our sins (Hebrews 9:8), and, “Died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). It goes on to tell us that we are cleansed, “From all sin”, “justified”, and, “Made righteous”, “By His blood” (1 John 1:7, Romans 5:9&19). Moreover, the fact that His death is described as a “sacrifice,” an “atonement,” a “propitiation,” and a “redemption” further reveals the meaning of His death, while telling us what that death accomplished in regard to our own salvation (Hebrews 9:26, Romans 5:11, 1John 2:2 and 4:10, Colossians 1:14).

CHRIST’S RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD
    Words such as, “If Christ, be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins,” or “Who was… raised again for our justification,” reveal the spiritual significance of Christ’s resurrection, (1Corinthians 15:17, Romans 4:25). By rising from the dead Christ revealed to the world His victory over death, and His victory is the basis of our assurance that He will raise us up. That is why Peter said, “God… hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” and why Paul devoted much of First Corinthians fifteen to the hope of the resurrection (1Peter 1:3). In short, Christ was raised from the dead that we might have faith [hope], and through faith, justification, new birth, and deliverance from our sins. [It is worthy of note that all three persons of the Trinity had a part in Christ’s resurrection (Galatians 1:1, John 10:18, 1Peter 3:18).]

CHRIST’S ASCENSION INTO HEAVEN
    The spiritual significance of Christ’s ascension into heaven consists of three things. First, it is only because Christ ascended into heaven that the Holy Spirit was sent into the world (John 16:7-13). Second, since Christ sits at the right hand of God, He is our “advocate with the Father,” and as our advocate [lawyer] makes “intercession for us” (1John 2:1, Romans 8:24, Hebrews 7:25). And third, because Christ ascended into heaven, we are assured that He will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead (John 14:3, 2 Timothy 4:1, Colossians 3:4).

CHRIST’S RETURN
    The spiritual significance of Christ’s return is revealed in the fact that all men will be judged “according to their works” (Revelation 20:12-13). However, what all too many fail to realize is that because “the blood of Jesus Christ… cleanseth us from all sin,” (1John 1:7) those who trust in Christ, “shall not come into condemnation”(John 5:24), for there is “no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus”(Romans 8:1). Therefore, for a Christian, the spiritual significance of Christ’s return is heaven and eternal life; while for an unbeliever, it is condemnation, separation from God, and eternal torment (Mark 16:16, Revelation 14:11).

    In regard to the day of Judgement, the Bible tells us that Christ will judge both the, “living and the dead” (2Timothy 4:1), both believers and unbelievers (Matthew 25:31), on the day of “His appearing” (2Timothy 4:1). We are also told that judgement shall take place on “the last day” (John 12:48), and that on that day, “all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, And shall come forth” (John 5:28-29). “The elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2Peter 3:4&12), and there will be a new heavens and a new earth (2Peter 3:13) wherein all who trust in Christ will dwell with Him in His, “everlasting kingdom” (2Peter 1:11, John 18:36, 2Timothy 4:1).

    I began this section by explaining that we must first learn those truths that are sure and certain before we can bring our thinking into accord with them. I then attempted to illustrate how Bible history provides us with a framework for understanding its doctrinal truths. Once we have learned those doctrinal truths, “line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little,” we are then able to straighten out our own thinking by judging and rejecting all of the wrong thoughts that creep into our mind (1Corinthians 11:31). As Christians, we have a responsibility, both to God and to our fellow men, to reject every interpretation, conclusion, assumption, idea, philosophy, or opinion that contradicts what the Bible clearly and explicitly says (Isaiah 28:10 and 8:20, 2Corinthians 10:5).

    While false prophets always pass their own opinions and interpretations off as the Word of God, those who are truly Christ's disciples limit their teaching to those doctrines explicitly set forth in Scripture (John 8:31).

CONCLUSION

    Scripture alone, is, and always must be, the formal principle of Evangelical theology, for it is only as we eliminate the human element from our theology, bringing our thoughts into accord with the Word of God, that the truth of the gospel shines forth unobscured by human error.
    Moreover, it should be self-evident that God wants us to teach the doctrines that He has given us to teach, not our own opinions or doctrines devised by men. And we can never hope to teach what He wants us to teach, until we learn what His Word actually says, while bringing our own thinking into accord with it. Therefore, in order to eliminate error from our doctrine we must first eliminate the human element. We must judge our own work and purge our doctrine of all assumptions, conclusions, deductions, and man made explanations that are so easily read into the Word of Truth (1Corinthians 11:31, Galatians 6:4, 2Peter 1:20). Until this is done, we have no business teaching others.


“SCRIPTURE ALONE”