In the last post we proposed several principles that together were called the agile manifesto for doctrine and theology. The first principle was: focus on the essentials of the faith over the non-essentials.
This of course opens up a number of questions. Is dividing doctrine into essentials and non-essentials a valid pursuit? If it is then which doctrines are essential? How do we go about figuring out what is and what is not essential?
The doctrines that one adds (or does not add) to their list of essentials can be very subjective. I have recently taught a class on discerning doctrine and we wrestled with these ideas. Much of my thinking on essentials has been shaped by reading Scripture, reading the extant writings of the early church, and reading a series of posts over at the Parchment and Pen, particularly the Essentials in a Nutshell (which also was described here and here).
Fundamentals of the Faith
When wrestling with which doctrines are essential the first thing we need to do is define what an essential doctrine is. What I mean when I use the term essential doctrine are those truths that define Christianity. Without holding these doctrines as true a person could not be saved. The essential doctrines should unite all Christians. They should also divide Christians from non-Christians.
Here is an example of an essential doctrine:
- The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
The Christian faith is based on the existence of God. The author of Hebrews says that without belief that God exists you can’t be a Christian (Heb 11:6). And Jesus, referring back to the passage in Deuteronomy, proclaimed the command to love God (which would include believing that He exists) as the greatest of all the commandments upon which all the other commands depend (Matt 22:36-38,40).
Here is another example of an essential doctrine:
- For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4)
- if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)
Jesus’ death and resurrection are called “of first importance” by Paul. They are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
I want to make a general observation from these passages. The idea that some doctrinal truths are more important or essential has its basis in Scripture. Jesus called some commands greater than others. Paul called out some doctrine as more important. We can also see this agile principle about essentials at work in the closing of the letter to Titus as well (3:1-11). Here Paul tells Titus to insist on salvation essentials over “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law“.
Discernment and Essential Doctrine
Having laid out a quick Scriptural foundation for the idea that some doctrines are more important than others we need to address the question: how do we determine which doctrines are essential?
I propose a framework that considers several important characteristics of a doctrinal claim. This framework is still very much a work in progress. I welcome constructive comments that would help make it more useful.
- Cardinality – measures the essential nature of a doctrine. Does this doctrine divide Christians from non-Christians?
- Clarity – measures how clear the doctrine is stated in Scripture. Is this doctrine clearly and repeatedly stated in the Scriptures?
- Consensus – measures how history has viewed the doctrine. Does this doctrine have the consensus of the church throughout history on its side or is it a highly debated and novel idea?
- Community – measures whether this doctrine is worth dividing over within a Christian community. On what doctrines should Christians (who hold to the essentials) divide over?
Taking a doctrinal statement, we can examine each of these characteristics on a scale of 1-5. Working through a chart like this will sharpen our thinking and focus on which doctrinal statements are essential and why we consider them to be so.
This is the measure of how essential the doctrinal statement is. Although I taught this with a scale of 1-5, it more practically works itself without using the 4.
- (5) Essential to being a Christian/Salvation
- (3) Very important but not required to be a Christian
- (2) Important
- (1) Of lesser importance
If the doctrine is not essential to being a Christian it may still be important but it would not be a 5.
The characteristic of clarity captures the agile principle: emphasize the clear & repeated themes in Scripture over the obscure & unique passages. If a doctrinal idea is explicitly taught and repeated it is far more likely to be essential.
Here is a scale on how to measure that.
- (5) Explicitly stated and supported by numerous explicit passages
- (4) Explicitly stated and supported by a few explicit passages
- (3) Explicitly stated in a limited number of passages and there is debate on the genre
- (2) Implicitly derived and supported by a few passages
- (1) Implicitly derived and supported by obscure passages
The characteristic of consensus captures the agile principle: favor tradition and the historic Rule of Faith over novel theological views. If a doctrinal idea has been debated throughout the history of the church or is relatively new then it is less likely to be essential.
- (5) Required for Orthodoxy as it is clearly & commonly held throughout Church History (Rule of Faith, Orthodox, Creeds)
- (4) Held by most during the early church (Patristic Period)
- (3) Debated idea but held by most throughout history
- (2) Widely debated idea throughout history
- (1) Relatively new concept or view
The characteristic of community captures the agile principle: strive for unity over division. It attempts to capture the fact that some doctrine may not be essential as I have defined it, but are important enough within various communities to divide over.
- (5) Worth dividing over. All members of the community must hold to this doctrine
- (3) some amount of liberty (differences) is allowable within the community
- (1) a large amount of liberty (differences) are allowed within the community
If a doctrinal statement has been characterized as essential (a 5 in cardinality) then it should also be a 5 in community. However, it is the non-essentials, those doctrines in which Christians differ, that must be carefully considered. Are these doctrines worth dividing Christians into separate communities over? This is the most subjective part of the framework.
Using Creation as an Example
In the field of software development we are often presented problems by the customer that are large and complex. One of the important skills one must have is an ability to break that problem up into smaller and more manageable parts.
I have found that often a doctrinal statements can work that way too. For example take a common doctrinal belief about young earth creationism.
|God created the earth in 7 literal days approximately 10,000 years ago||5||5||5||5|
This statement, which as written, does not have the consensus throughout church history that is represented here. Nor is every part of that statement necessarily essential to be a Christian.
If we broke out that statement into smaller parts we could more fully analyze what we hold and characterize it more accurately.
|God is Creator of all things||5||5||5||5|
|The earth was created in seven 24 hour days||3||3||2||–|
|The earth is < 10,000 years old||2||4||1||–|
|Death did not exist prior to the Fall||2||3||3||–|
It is essential for Christians to believe that God is the Creator of all that exists. This is a claim repeated numerous times throughout the Scriptures. However, there are some doctrinal claims that are not essential. A person could believe in an old earth and still be a Christian. They could even accept that there was animal death before the fall and be a Christian. These doctrines are implicitly derived from passages in Scripture. For example the age of the earth is primarily derived from analyzing the genealogies in the OT.
Broken out in this way we can better understand the truths we hold and that unite us. I will leave it to each reader and local church community to wrestle with whether some of these issues are worth dividing over.
This framework is a work in progress. But it attempts to capture the characteristics of a doctrinal claim that have been used throughout church history to decide which doctrines are essential. There is some interplay between the characteristics and still a fair amount of subjectivity. Further, many may not hold to antiquity and consensus as a reliable guide to doctrine. However, as a general rule, if the doctrine has been widely accepted as true and is clearly stated in numerous passages it is likely to be an essential doctrine that divides Christians from non-Christians. If the doctrine is less clear or has been debated throughout history then it is less likely to be an essential doctrine.
Again, I welcome constructive comments that would help make it more useful.