Tuesday, June 24, 2014

1 Corinthians 15:3: En Protois, First in Order or First in Importance, and Ranking Doctrines

A major proof text invented for the new doctrine of essentials and non-essentials is 1 Corinthians 15:3:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

The King James translators translated en protois, "first of all"---so did Tyndale and so do the New King James translators.  The NASV, however, translates it, "as of first importance."

For the sake of argument, let's say en protois means "as of first importance," which is ambiguous at best, and I'll explain why (again, and here).  The translation of that one word doesn't call for a doctrine of essentials and non-essentials, nor does it say anything about only separating over the essentials. Those are reading into the text.  At best, if en protois does mean "as of first importance," Paul is scolding the Corinthians because they were forsaking the doctrine of bodily resurrection, which would bring question on their conversion.

I've preached through 1 Corinthians 15 twice, and the flow of the passage says that bodily resurrection was the first thing Paul preached to them.  Along with death and burial, it was the first thing that they believed, so why would they be forsaking it now?  Of course, they were being influenced by the world in Corinth, which rejected bodily resurrection.  They were attempting to mix Greek philosophy with divinely inspired teaching.

I don't concede that en protois means "as of first importance."  I'm just saying that even if I did, we can't jump from that passage to a practice of ranking doctrines.

Protos is found 165 times in the New Testament.  That is a large sample size.  But then you have it used in 1 Corinthians 15 itself four times.  The other three times, besides v. 3 are in each of vv. 45, 46, and 47:

45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. 46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. 47 The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.

Does anyone think that protos means "first in importance" in each of those uses?   The first Adam would be more important than the last Adam?  I don't think so.  This should at least show that there is for sure no slam dunk case for "first in importance."  And if it could be "first in order," then it wouldn't be good to buttress a doctrine on it.

Protos, however, does not come alone.  Verse 3 reads en protois --  "among first things."  If he was talking about importance, he was stating the priority of the bodily resurrection to the gospel.  When a person receives Jesus Christ, he believes the bodily resurrection.  This is actually how Calvin interprets the verse:

For I delivered to you first of all He now confirms what he had previously stated, by explaining that the resurrection had been preached by him, and that too as a fundamental doctrine of the gospel. First of all, says he, as it is wont to be with a foundation in the erecting of a house.

In other words, he isn't saying this is first in importance among all other doctrines, but out of the initial things that I preached to you that resulted in your being saved.  This is foundational to someone being saved, believing bodily resurrection.  You have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to be saved, and you can't separate that from the teaching of bodily resurrection.  If Jesus rose from the dead bodily, then bodily resurrection itself is possible.

Thomas Charles Edwards, doing some cataloging of the meaning here in 1886, wrote:

En protois, not "among the chief doctrines" (Grot., Estius, Hammond, De Wette, etc.), nor "from the first" (Chrys., Hofmann), but "among the things to be stated first."

These were among the first things that Paul said to unbelievers, because they were what they needed to know to be saved.  This is what makes sense in the context.  He challenges their questioning of the bodily resurrection by saying that this was pivotal for someone to be saved.  As you move through the chapter, Christianity is worthless without the resurrection.  This is clearly the point.

When Matthew Henry says that it was a doctrine of the "first rank, a most necessary truth," he's saying that your Christianity, your gospel, crumbles apart without it.  That's an argument that Paul is making here.

A travesty today is spinning this tremendous teaching, this great teaching, into a brand new idea that the gospel, not the bodily resurrection, gets elevated above all other doctrines in a way in which those truths, which are not the gospel, are not essential truths.  That, my friends, is finding fools gold where there isn't even fools gold.  There is definitely no gold to be found.  That idea shouldn't even be looked for.  Somebody wants to find something and goes looking where it isn't, and "finds" it.

And the above false teaching then distorts the beauty of 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul's argument.  It turns 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 into a teaching that isn't even there.  And what is dastardly about it, is that it is an encouragement for disobedience.  Do we really think that Paul's expression there was meant to rank doctrine?  Come on, folks!  Get real here.  This is Bible twisting.


Ken Lengel said...


Thanks for your post. There are number of things that come to my mind from your post and this discussion.

- It is amazing to me that men who have trained for the ministry, studied the biblical languages, and claim to hold to grammatical-historical normal interpretation can come to the conclusions that they do. It truly demonstrates they want to maintain a narrative, rather than carefully exegete the Word.

- It is amazing to me that these same men rely on the opinions of other than the tools by which they were trained to understand and teach the Word of God. While commentaries and other aids are helpful, we are indebted to some of their work, our training should help guide us not to be gullible to "every wind of doctrine".

- In relations to I Cor 15, even in the English, the translators make it apparent that this writing was one of providing a sequence. That is mostly likely the real reasoning for Paul's choice of words. Paul outlines how he preached and presents the facts of the resurrection to them. This was done to ask them why they were doubting that they too be resurrected.

- In addition, regarding "first importance" as a bad translation of the word, how does verse 8 (last of all) fits in to that mix? Even in the highly revered ESV, it changes v.3 to "first importance" and v. 8 remains "last of all." What does "last of all" mean, if the contents of verses 3-7 talk of first importance of the resurrection. Crickets. I hear no explanation of that from their doctrine.

- Finally, I understand that a primary portion of the fundamentalist/modern controversy was over the denial of the supernatural. Those writing on the fundamentals were trying to demonstrate that if we look at the Word of God, thru our own reason, our own rationalism, we really have nothing to have faith in! If Christ was not virgin born, he was born in sin, with a sin nature. If Christ did rise from the grave, we are still in our sins.

- In addition, these "fundamentalists" tried to initially persuade their churches, and for the most part, they lost that battle, and started their own churches, seminaries, etc. Separation was the only option for the others had denied the faith!

- Thank you for your post, and it was encouraging to someone like myself who is not a pastor, but studies diligently the Word, to see a faithful exegesis and understanding of its' significance.


Tyler Robbins said...

Bro. Brandenburg:

I completely disagree with your position in your earlier article on not being a fundamentalist.

Even so, I have never understood 1 Cor 15:3 to be saying that some things are more essential than others. I have always understood it the same way you have, that Paul preached the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the resurrection first. Period. Nothing more. This is probably because I use the KJV.

After you posted this article, I looked at some other versions, and they take the opposite view. Didn't know that.

As you said, the flow of thought doesn't seem to fit with the idea of Paul delineating between essentials and non-essentials. It just isn't what Paul is talking about. He's just wondering why they'd ever deny the fact of resurrection; given that it was the first thing he taught them!

Having said all that, I still think you're wrong on fundamentalism! Cheers!

Kent Brandenburg said...


You're welcome. I feel your pain.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm fine with your saying I'm wrong on fundamentalism, which would mean that you're saying that I'm a fundamentalist. My non-fundamentalist friends might separate with me. Listen, I'm trying to be good to the fundamentalists that don't want someone like me being a fundamentalist. That's my main point. I'm then also differentiating myself with the separation over just the fundamentals.

When I was trying to be a fundamentalist, I had a hard time being one, because I wanted to talk about everything and you could limit it only at the time to Promise Keepers, Jerry Falwell, etc. Fundamentalism has morphed since then, which means that even if I am one, then it hardly makes any difference because I'm not going to team up with the revivalists and I'm not going to team up with the Southern Baptist leaning group.

But I'm not with you at this point, Tyler, but thanks. I'm going to write at least another post on this, but not right away. Cheers to you too.


Doulos said...

Pastor Brandenburg, You are not the only one in "your camp". There are others out here not quite knowing what to call ourselves or even where to go to church with such a non-descript identity. With fundamentalism morphing beyond recognition (even as they pretend otherwise), there are even more of us with a choice to make. Years ago, current fundamentalists would have been easily labeled new evangelicals. Building bridges, centrists in music, platforms for ministries, culturally appropriate? Who are they kidding? Themselves and many others apparently.

No one knows what to do with us either, do they? I remain thankful for your voice and for being a virtual pastor of sorts to all of "our kind."

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks Doulos.

Jon Gleason said...

Kent, false choice. It was both first in order and first in importance. Of course the most important thing when he started preaching there was the Gospel. And of course it was the first thing he preached to them. It is both.

And the Greek wording can carry either or both meanings, determined by context. The Spirit chose wording that would do that because in the context, both time and importance were in view. Paul is saying, "I started with the resurrection, it's the main thing, in fact, without it we have nothing. Why are you listening to these people who deny it?"

And the KJV translators nicely used wording, just like the Greek, which is open to either or both meanings. The NASB and others chose wording that only allowed for half the meaning (for no good translational reason that I can see).

But even so, to extrapolate from that the whole essential / non-essential approach to separation that conservative evangelicals and soft fundamentalists are using these days is manifestly wrong.

If you only separate over the essentials of the Gospel, you cannot be consistent and apply II Thess. 3 and Matthew 18. And Paul told the church at Corinth to discipline out of the church a man who, as we learn in II Cor, was a believer in the essentials of the Gospel.

I guess Paul was a cultural fundamentalist, since he separated over more than the essential doctrines of the Gospel. He even told the church at Thessalonica to separate over the cultural practice of laziness.

And on that point, I'll go back to work. :)