The Principal Principle–A sliding scale of value

The Trinity is like an egg, or so the analogy goes – shell, whites, and yoke.

candy covered chocolate eggs

As we come up on Easter, that three-parts-to-an-egg way of trying to help explain the complexity of a spiritual truth by using a physical reference, may well provide a degree of surface color to the shell of our understanding. But all analogies, even the ones used by Jesus, have their limits.

When considering the usefulness of some comparison, especially when it comes to reflecting on the realities of God, it is critically important to recognize the sliding scale of principle.

Whenever an analogy, parable, metaphor, or similar linguistic device is used to help explain a more complex truth, there is always a principal principle (or main point) that is being made. That should come as no surprise, but what is often missed on the less discerning is that the secondary, tertiary, and further comparisons between the main subject and the simplified analogy rarely contribute additional meaning, and especially so the further one gets away from the main point.

Any attempts to force additional revelations regarding the main subject, as possible intentions from other aspects of the vignette, most often distort the originally intended point (not to mention, just outright mislead the audience).

Consider Jesus’ analogy:

“Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.” (NASB; Mt 12:29)

On the surface, it appears that Jesus is recommending the best way to pull off a successful robbery. The main subject is about the need for unity in order for any enterprise to remain viable; in particular, no divided kingdom can long remain standing. However, the Lord chose to use the dark side of a comparison in order to make his principal principle. To carry his point further into some meaning that can be gleaned from sneaking into peoples lives and taking things from them is pure foolishness.

That one should be obvious, but what about the very commonly abused analogy of Lazarus and the Rich Man? The Rich Man, as the story goes, eventually died and ended up in Hell where he requested water upon his tongue from the finger of Lazarus, the poor beggar from the former life who now enjoyed the presence of Abraham in paradise.

In spite of the conjecture often touted about this vignette, since a specific name was used in this story, that it must be a true story, we have very strong scriptural statements about the lack of bodily resurrection at this point from which fingers and tongues can exist. It is possible that it is an actual event that Jesus’ “foresaw”, but the entire event is presented in exactly the same manner and wording as other analogies by Jesus, and so we would be well advised to approach it with similar cautions.

The issue at hand, however, is whether we understand the main point being taught in this story, or if instead we tend to get wrapped up in secondary comparisons. For example, from what you may recall about this story, in context was Jesus teaching about the realities of Heaven or Hell? That is the dominant view most often taken from this passage; that Hell is a place of torment from which the party in Heaven can still be viewed, and that everyone begins to experience one or the other at the moment of their death.

Aside from the principal principle of this post, if you happen to be curious about the real point of Jesus’ story about this Rich Man, I would encourage your comparison in Lu 16 of verse 16, which sets the main subject, and then of verse 31, which offers Jesus’ conclusion. Both the Law and the Gospel point to the same thing, and even though that Law may have been replaced by the “good news”, if someone refused to listen to the former, they will never receive the latter either. You either listen to God, or you don’t, period.

So back to our consideration of analogies. The whole instigation for this post, came from my daughter. She shared a story she recently heard about faith and works. The minister compared what the Bible has to say about this dynamic subject in terms of a row boat with two oars. One oar had “faith” on it, the other had “works” on it. From the outset, he made it clear that our works do not save us, but his analogy appeared to convey something different.

As he elaborated, and as I heard second hand through my daughter, the boat only travels along the straight and narrow as designed by God when both oars do their thing in unison. If only the faith oar is used, then the boat just spins in a circle.

The challenge I find with presenting this subject in that manner is that it gives a very strong visual to the absolute necessity for our works to “help” save us. In other words, if you are not rowing with works, then you can’t move toward the Kingdom. I don’t imagine that is what he meant, but the analogy is not structured to teach anything about the distinctions between faith and works. Simplicity can sometimes become a real monkey-knot.

After a good sleep, I shared with my daughter this morning how I might have altered the rowboat analogy to help improve the likelihood of understanding the complexity of how faith and works interact within Christianity.


The row boat is the vessel of our lives and choices in which we, as Christians, sit. Faith is being the captain of the boat, and rowing the boat is the works that demonstrate our passion and skill as captains. The thief on the cross beside Jesus, never got a chance to put an oar in the water, but his status as captain was never dependent upon his rowing.

Faith is not something that is seen or developed from our own source, but is declared upon us by the Admiral of the Universe. We do thereafter get invited to grow in our faith-skill as captains, which comes as we put our backs into rowing, but our position-on-deck is entirely about divine appointment.

Those who choose to go fishing instead of rowing as expected of captains, and allow their boats to meander aimlessly about the sea of life, may find their license revoked, or as some prefer to view it, they may discover that they misunderstood and never were captains to start with. (By the way, if you keep an eye on my principal principle, there shouldn’t be any offense to fishermen here, because that is a secondary aspect to my analogy.)

In defense of the minister who shared his rowboat analogy, his principal principle was that faith should operate together with works, for those who claim to be faithful Christians. His point is well taken.

Analogies are tricky vessels; prone to list and even capsize in heavy winds. As passengers, we would do well to seek first to grasp the principal principle, while treading carefully upon deck whenever considering whatever other meanings may also be intended. As presenters of analogies, we teachers would be wise to craft our simplified versions of truth carefully so as to make the principal principle more graspable, while at the same time avoiding the secondary impacts of meaning that can so easily divert our fellow dinghies into unsafe waters.

What is the principal principle of your boat?

About grahamAlive

Christian Author
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