The Greeks rejected bodily resurrection and their thinking prevailed throughout their society. The members of the church at Corinth were under the influence of Greek philosophy. Saying that you believed in bodily resurrection would make you a laughing stock in the trade unions, threatening your employment, so the Corinthian church members were denying the resurrection. Paul wrote to correct this error in 1 Corinthians 15 and the key verse of the chapter is v. 12:
Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
This verse comes at the end of the first three arguments against the Corinthian denial of bodily resurrection and restates the theme of those arguments. Why were they denying bodily resurrection when they all believed that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead, that the Old Testament said it ("Scripture"), and that there was proof that He had in fact risen bodily? And they had to believe that or Paul wouldn't be writing to them, because they wouldn't be saved, and, therefore, members of the church there. He was writing to people who had believed in bodily resurrection when he was in Corinth earlier for eighteen months. The first thing he preached to them, and they all believed, was the bodily resurrection, as Paul expresses in vv. 1-4:
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; 2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures
The first thing that Paul preached to them was that Christ died, was buried, and that He rose bodily. The very first thing when he came into Corinth!
OK. That's how the words "first of all" fit into the context of chapter 15. For hundreds of years, the English speaking people read "first of all," and thought, "first in order." That's the normal meaning of the Greek word protois. It can also mean "first in importance," but that is a much rarer meaning and it doesn't fit naturally into this context. The way it fits into the context is that the first thing they believed was the bodily resurrection. They all had to believe that in order to be saved, so why is it such a big deal to believe in your own bodily resurrection, since you already believed that first?!?
That's how Calvin himself took it in his commentary, that it came first of all, "as it is wont to be with a foundation in the erecting of a house." The foundation goes down first in order, as would the gospel message to people who were not yet saved. Lange says that "his meaning is. . . . that gospel which I preached unto you at the beginning." He references Chrysostom as saying, "in the order of time." If there is a sense of importance at all, it is explained as foundational teaching. The two words en protois, translated, "first of all," can mean "among the first," that is, "among the first things that I delivered unto you." Spurgeon wrote in his exposition:
That is the whole of the gospel. He who perfectly understands that, understands the first principles; he has commenced aright. This is the starting point if we wish to learn the truth.
Exactly. Thomas Charles Edwards in 1886 wrote concerning en protois ("first of all"):
[N]ot "among' the chief doctrines," nor "from the first," but "among the things to be stated first." The facts are the foundation, the " prima fidei capita."
Tyndale in the first English translation of the New Testament, started verse 3 with "So first of all." In Plato's Republic, which preceded chronologically the New Testament, he used these exact two words, en protois, to speak of the psyche as being among the first things that came into being. His theology was wrong, but he showed that en protois was used as "first in order," not "in importance." Chrysostom, who penned a commentary on Corinthians in his lifetime (347-407), wrote the following:
But what is this, "For I delivered unto you first of all? " for that is his word. "In the beginning, not now."
Alright. "First of all" doesn't read "first importance." It isn't how Plato used it. It isn't how Tyndale translated it. It isn't how the earliest commentary reference reads it. It isn't how a majority of Christians read it for hundreds of years from the King James Version.
Today's evangelicals and fundamentalists have taken en protois and this new meaning of "of first importance" and used it as a basis for ranking doctrines. They changed the translation and meaning of en protois in the modern versions. I read it recently used in a discussion, to defend a doctrinal reductionism as a basis for separating only over very minimal beliefs, certain fundamentals. In my opinion, the one with the most influence over this thinking is the author of Exegetical Fallacies himself, D. A. Carson, who as a head of the Gospel Coalition asserts en protois as a basis for making the gospel the essential for fellowship. Paul meant nothing of the kind with what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3.
A new philosophy, an unscriptural one, uses 1 Corinthians 15:3 as to justify it. Here Paul was wanting to stop the denial of bodily resurrection and instead he's pushed into teaching doctrinal minimalism. "First importance" has become the cry of the alliances, the coalitions, the ecumenists, all those who wish to disregard everything but a few doctrines in order to get together and get along.