The Core Curriculum (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Dan Anders
May, 1992

I have spent the last seven years on the campus of a Christian university. During that brief time, I have seen several educational trends come and go. Academics seem always to be inkering with what and how students learn.

One of the ongoing battles in academia is over a “core curriculum.” what courses should be required of all students? How do you decide what is the irreducible minimum that every person needs to know? Who determines those essential requirements? Believe me, the battle over these issues rages “hot and heavy” in the larger academic community.

Similar debates are often waged in that faith community we call the church. People wonder what ought to be the focus of Christian life in the church. Differing, sometimes opposing, views get expressed. All kinds of pressures – personal preferences, research studies, practical experiences – get stewed into the mix. The mix sometimes becomes volatile as members push to see their own perspective prevail. Well, is there a core Christian curriculum? Can we know what really matters to God? is there one primary message that stands at the heart of Christian faith and life?

What is First?

Ian Pitt-Watson, a seminary professor, has a piece on the theology of preaching. He calls it “What is First.” he begins by noting that sentence is a declaration, not a question. it’s not “What is first?” but “What is first!”

I think that’s right on target. Before any consideration of rhetorical style, before any discussion of worship format or educational models, before any gimmicks and marketing techniques, we’d better settle on content. What is first! The message is more important than the medium, Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message” notwithstanding.

There’s a slim book by John Killinger with a title any preacher would love: The Centrality of Preaching in the total Task of Ministry. He argues that the church’s total ministry revolves around what happens in the pulpit. The sermon is the hub of the church’s wheel.

But there’s a title I’d suggest that is even more decisive: The Centrality of Good News in Preaching and Ministry. Until we settle on this core curriculum, nothing else matters. Here is the heartbeat of God.

First of All

When the Bible says something is first, I believe it’s first. There are two crucial times where Scripture makes such a definitive declaration.

The Gospels record an occasion when Jesus spoke about things of first importance (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Matthew and Mark both make it quite clear that Jesus defined the “first” commandment by citing Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

A standard Greek wordbook says that “first” (protos) can mean “first of several” or of any group (as in Matthew 21:31). It can also mean “first, earliest, earlier” (as in Philippians 1:5). Or protos can mean “of prominent” (Bauer, Lexicon, 732, 733). Jesus’ “great commandment” saying is among the texts cited to support this third meaning.

Jesus obviously did not mean that the instruction to love God supremely was the first command in chronological sequence. It clearly was not. instead it is the “foremost” divine directive. It is “most important.”

Jesus’ aim to love God most brought him to this Earth. “For you know the generous act o our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor …” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

God could have revealed himself in blazing flame across the sky, but that would have been too impersonal. He could, and did, send prophets and angels – but that was too aloof. Only when God drew near to us in the flesh-and-blood Jewish manness of Jesus could we begin to grasp the depth of his loving. Then we knew with-us-God, “Emmanuel.”

There is no way to say “Jesus” (“the Lord saves”) without confessing the salvation he came to bring. Boldly engraved across the whole gospel story is the sign of the cross. All four Gospels unite around this single theme: The God-man came to die. From conception to ascension the message rings loud and clear that we are saved by Jesus’ dying.

Consider as evidence one paltry line from each evangelist. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “The Son of Man must undergo great sufferng, and be rejected … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32).

Of First Importance

There is another key text where that word “first” occurs. Paul wrote his fractious church in Corinth: “Now I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you … For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared …” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5a).

Why did Paul center his missionary preaching in the cross? Why did he determine “to know nothing among [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)?

The answer, I think, is obvious. The story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection came first in Paul’s preaching because it is first in significance. It alone is the powerful, saving word of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). No other message can compare in importance. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Key to Renewal

If we wish to see the faith and hope and love of God’s people renewed, we must start where Jesus started, where the gospel starts. And we must end where it ends. No human cleverness can compete with Calvary. No marketing strategy can lift up like the cross.

That is the core curriculum for our faith and life. To preach anything else is the kiss of death.


I heartily recommend The Core Gospel by Dr. Bill Love (ACU Press, 1992).Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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