The Principle Approach: Follow-Up (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

It is taking me a number of posts to work through all the thoughts that the Principle Approach has caused to bubble up in me. You can see the earlier posts and get a little background on this approach here and here.

Up until now I have not dealt much with the actual principles behind the Biblical Principle Approach (BPA). They are:

“1.God’s Principle of Individuality
2.The Christian Principle of Self-Government
3.America’s Heritage of Christian Character
4.Conscience is the Most Sacred of all Property
5.Our Christian Form of Government
6.How the Seed of Local Self-Government is Planted
7.The Christian Principle of American Political Union”

[“Biblical Principles” from]

My understanding is that these principles may be expressed in slightly different ways in different sources, but the core ideas remain the same. I think I would like to go through these one by one though I may not have as much to say about some. I should confess from the start that most of my reading about this approach has been from online sources. I know they have thick books about their philosophy, but my library doesn’t carry them and I am cheap 🙂 As always, my posts are me working through ideas; I think as I write. So what you are getting here is me encountering these ideas for close to the first time and trying to work through what I think of them. I reserve the right to change my mind in the future or for that matter in the middle of this post.

Having said which, the first principle is that of individuality. gives two statements for each of the principles, one relating to God and one relating to us. For this first principle it says:

“Doctrinal Application: Our God is Himself an Individual who made us in His image for a providential purpose.

Personal Application: My unique individuality has a purposeful destiny that can only be fulfilled through Christ’s redemption.” []

Looking first at the doctrinal application, I can agree completely with the second half, that God “made us in His image for a providential purpose.” But is God an individual? I think it depends how we use this term. He is One God, but He is three persons. This is language the church struggled with for centuries. To my mind, God is three individuals which basically means I would equate the word individual with the word person as we usually use it in reference to the Trinity. An individual has their own unique personality and will. I think this applies to each member of the Trinity.

But I am not sure this argument really affects our understanding of the second half, the application to us humans. I would agree that we are all unique individuals, made in the image of God, in need of redemption through Christ, and made for a specific purpose ordained for each of us by our Creator. I am wary, however, of the strong emphasis on individuality which seems to be at the core of the BPA. We Americans (and, as we will see in later principles, this is a very American approach) tend to have a high view of the individual, but I am not at all sure that this is biblical. Both our fall and our redemption are owed to the fact that God sees and treats us not as individuals but as contained within the head of our race, first Adam, then Christ. He also deals with us frequently as families, saving (or not) whole households. And He tells us that we are His body and as such are all interconnected. What we do affects the other members in ways we cannot fully comprehend.

A specific application of our view of individuality is how we see property rights. The BPA and other approaches (I am thinking here of the Thomas Jefferson Education mostly) tend to reinforce American values like freedom and property rights. But in ancient Israel, the most valuable commodity, land, was never truly owned by the individual. The land was God’s, and He chose to give it to families. So an Israelite could not actually sell their land in perpetuity. They could only rent it long-term. In the jubilee year it would return to the family that had previously owned it. There were other provisions as well, such as marrying one’s sister-in-law to beget children for one’s deceased brother, which were designed to preserve the families and show us that this was a higher priority than individual rights.

My inclination is to think that this is an issue that requires balance. To view people as a collective and to ignore their individuality would be to err of the other side. But I think as Americans who have a strong independent streak, we tend to err on the side of overdoing the role of the individual. We need to remember that God blesses children for the sake of their parents and that the sins of one can affect the whole also.

The second principle is that of self-government. says:

“Doctrinal Application: Knowing God through Christ teaches me to obey Him and enjoy liberty with law.

Personal Application: I am only properly self-governed when governed by Christ.”

My understanding of this point is that it is saying three things: that we need to govern ourselves, that we can only do this through Christ, and that we can only govern externally if we can govern internally. I would agree with all of these. Our society is in sore need of people who realize their obligation for self-government. The idea that one can control not just their actions but also their thoughts and feelings has been lost to us. How often is “I can’t deny my feelings” an excuse for sinful behavior? I also really like the idea that we move from the internal to the external. The Bible tells us that leaders in the church must have their own lives in order before they lead others, but we seem to have lost this idea in the world of politics and unfortunately also in the church at times. Our leaders have blatant sins in their personal lives, they exhibit a complete lack of self-control, and we excuse their behavior and say it has nothing to do with their public role. So I am all for a renewed call to self-government.

I am slightly puzzled by the third principle, “America’s Heritage of Christian Character.” If they are defining character as I would, then I am all for it. They speak of character as what sustains self-government, and also say that the Bible is the training manual for character. I have no problem with these statements, but what I don’t understand is where the American part comes in. One’s Christian character need not be inherently American. Such character can presumably be found in other societies.

I think what they are meaning to get at is not that this character is inherently American, but that it is something Americans used to have and which we need to bring back or at least reapply ourselves to. But I wonder if this is really true. Have we lost something we once had? Did we have it and are we lacking it now? It is a common assertion in certain Christian circles that our forefathers had some virtue that we now lack and that America is the worse for it. The time usually pointed to is that of the Revolution and the early days of this country (with BPA’s emphasis on the Constitution and government, I assume this is also the era they are looking towards). I won’t deny that our founding fathers did great things for which I am grateful. But I am skeptical of the assertion that men as a whole were better then than they are now or even that some men were greater. The fact is we know the stories of a few handfuls of men and even these have been worn down by the passage of time. We see them through the frosted lens of history which distorts things and tends to show more of a dichotomy between good and bad than really exists in men’s hearts. On one hand, circumstances can make the man. The time of the Revolution no doubt brought out the most noble in many men. But I think we saw on 9/11 that nobility and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good can still exist and that some at least rise to the occasion when it presents itself. And then on the other hand, I think we tend to idolize those who came before us and to gloss over the parts we don’t want to hear. The truth is most of our most famous Founding Fathers were not what I would consider good, orthodox Christians. Many were deists. Thomas Jefferson kept a mistress and edited the Bible according to his own ideas (see this article on some of the literature regarding Jefferson specifically). Ben Franklin seems to have been quite licentious. My point is not to take away from the good these men did but to say that that good often came through imperfect people, even unsaved people. When we look at the Bible, we don’t see whitewashed heroes. Israel’s forefathers are shown with all their flaws. I think we err when we do not acknowledge and remember the flaws of our own founding fathers. They were human like us though they did great things. So while I am all for building character, I would steer away from the American part or from idolizing a particular period of history.

I’d like to close this post with principle four and save the rest for part 3 (!). The fourth principle says: “Conscience is the Most Sacred of all Property.” Once again I feel like there is a level of meaning here I am not getting, but I do agree that conscience is important. We are all born with consciences, given by God for our good. We can either foster them and train them is recognizing good and evil, or we can abuse them. Even seemingly benign neglect tends over time to dull the conscience. It is like a sword which must be kept sharp. I am not sure I would use the words “most sacred of all property.” I do think we need to respect others’ consciences and not encourage them to violate them. But we also need to recognize that consciences can be easily misinformed or led astray. Charlotte Mason in her fourth volume Ourselves talks about all the parts which make up our selves and how we need to balance them and not exalt one part above the others. I think I prefer her understanding of the matter. Conscience is given us by God and in a society which abuses the idea so much I don’t want to take the idea lightly, but I also want to recognize that God gave us other gifts too like reason, and  a sense of beauty, and a sense of justice, and compassion; the list could go on. Too often also I think we use our consciences as excuses to do wrong. We say our feelings or our consciences lead us to do all sorts of evil things. A person’s conscience should not be an acceptable excuse for sin.

That is the first four principles. The last three get back to the specifically American emphases so I will save them for next time.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] methods, but it has also generated a lot more posts. I would recommend reading parts 1 and 2 for a little background before going further with this […]


  2. […] Principle Approach and follow-ups 1, 2, 3 and […]


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