Thursday, March 19, 2015

‘Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity’ (Book Review)

Opinions differ as to what fundamental beliefs and practices make someone a Christian. When someone wants to promote a particular set of them, he painstakingly shows how each item in the list is “backed by Scripture.” Yet, the final product is still a man-made construction built on the wobbly foundation of selective prooftexting. You can’t find every item on the list in one place, and certain things are made conspicuous by their absence.

So we turn to the Bible itself. Is there some sort of list provided in there that we can work with? Arguably, the best candidate is Hebrews 6:1-2 (ESV):

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Since the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews didn’t go into more detail about these basics, author D. Thomas Lancaster, a non-Jewish preacher who left the evangelical church to embrace Messianic Judaism, has done so for us. Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity (First Fruits of Zion, 2014) morphed out of an expository sermon series on this passage, from which Lancaster identifies six basic teachings that make up the foundation of Christianity: repentance from dead works, faith toward God, instructions about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (p. 9). Each teaching is summarized in the introduction, but is also explored later on in more detail.

The chapter that I appreciated most was the one on “washings.” Many Christian authors will go to great lengths to discuss Christian baptism in the New Testament without providing a context in which to understand it. Lancaster, however, discusses its origins as an ancient Jewish purification ritual and its practice by the early church as put forth in the Didache (i.e., The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).

The chapter I wasn’t too impressed with was the one about the “laying on of hands.” Lancaster starts off making a very convincing biblical argument that this was necessary for a new convert to receive the Holy Spirit, but then balks, concluding otherwise. He seems unwilling to take such an extreme position merely because it makes him uncomfortable.

Where I would’ve liked further discussion is on “faith toward God.” The author builds a case for “faith on God” over “faith in God,” but doesn’t even address the translation issue of “faith” (i.e., belief) versus “faithfulness” (i.e., fidelity). I find this extremely puzzling because the latter choice would have fit so well with his interpretation of “faith” as a matter of behavior, not belief.

Despite a few difficulties, I generally liked Elementary Principles. Lancaster takes seriously a passage that too many teachers overlook because they’re eager to get to the “good stuff” – the heavy, advanced stuff – when sometimes their students need to review the basics to make sure everything is in order. These sermons can serve as guidelines for preachers and teachers to design their own sermons and lessons on these topics. (They might face a few challenges though since, being a collection of sermons, the book lacks endnotes and a bibliography to facilitate further study.)

Something else Lancaster accomplishes is staying on topic, not getting sidetracked on tangents or bogged down in a lot of controversy. This has its pros and cons. Even though the author set out to provide some simple answers, I felt that the book inadvertently raises more serious questions than he might have anticipated. Why is this all-important list only included in a book whose canonicity was seriously disputed? And why doesn’t the Bible contain a primer for us explaining these elementary principles? These issues are clearly beyond what Lancaster intended to cover in these sermons, but I hope he endeavors to take them on some point in the future.