Monday, October 11, 2010

Which Essentials

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity"

Such is an oft repeated motto among Protestants, including evangelicals.

The idea is simple: Let us remain unified on what is really important, but let's not allow the unimportant or the trivial to divide us. And of course, as we navigate such matters, let always remember love. This principle is wonderful. But I question whether evangelicals can really uphold it, at least the first two elements.

For, in order to maintain unity in essentials, and allow liberty in non-essentials, groups of Christians must first determine which beliefs are essential. How do we go about determining which beliefs are required, which beliefs on which we're unwilling to compromise? Who gets to determine it for the group?

For evangelicals, the answer will most certainly include the Bible. Evangelicals subscribe to sola scriptura, the belief that Scripture, by itself, is the highest authority. So one answer to the problem might be something like this: whatever the Bible teaches is essential for belief. But there are at least two problems with this.

First, Scripture must be interpreted. Experience proves that many sincere, devoted, well-educated, Bible-believing Christians can, and in fact often do, disagree about what Scripture says. This makes it difficult to determine exactly what Scripture is saying.

Second, perhaps as a result of the type of disagreement just described above, though I have heard of evangelicals claiming to follow the above principle, no evangelicals that I've ever encountered have actually subscribed to the principle that whatever the Bible teaches is essential for belief. Many issues that the Bible clearly has something to say about - such as the nature/necessity of baptism, end times, angels, church governance, etc - most evangelicals, although they may or may not have their own opinions, often do not consider to be essential for belief. Instead, we would tend to call someone who does subscribe to this kind of principle a fundamentalist.

Many evangelicals, however, implicitly as well as explicitly, subscribe to a somewhat softer version of the above principle which attempts to take into account the problems addressed: whatever the Bible teaches clearly is essential for belief. But this only pushes the problem back, for how do we determine what is clear in the Bible?

Unfortunately, the all too often answer for evangelicals today is that the Bible is clear, and is therefore teaching something essential, regarding whatever on which there seems to be a consensus among people they respect, trust, or have come in contact with. However, as time has gone on, more and more issues on which there used to be a consensus have been challenged by sincere Bible-believing Christians. This has meant that the list of things that evangelicals take to be essential has only been shrinking. Besides, truth is not settled by vote. We are called to follow the Truth of God whether or not it is popular or appeals to our preferences.

So how are we to solve this very serious problem? What I believe to be the answer, I'm sure, is no surprise: the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church. God did not give us the definitive revelation of Himself only for us to have no way to knowing for sure what it is. Jesus, the God-man, chose apostles and gave them the authority to be the authoritative teachers of the faith. These apostles passed this authority on to successors through ordination, who passed it on to others, all the way to our present day. These successors, guided by the Holy Spirit, have the ability - more than that - the right to determine what is or is not essential for belief.

It is, of course, possible for a non-ordained person to arrive at the right conclusion regarding a particular issue of theology, even through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we have no way of determining who has arrived at the correct conclusion, or who has been guided by the Holy Spirit. Ordination, in succession of the apostles, provides us a visible means of knowing that at least these people are guided by the Holy Spirit and have authority from God to tell us the correct interpretation.

Thus, for Catholics, there is a workable, plausible means that's based on Scripture and Tradition by which what's essential or non-essential can be determined with certainty. This allows for Catholics to actually have "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity."


  1. Fantastic. I have had the same thought for some time but wouldn't have been able to articulate it as well as you have here. Bravo.

  2. "Ordination, in succession of the apostles, provides us a visible means of knowing that at least these people are guided by the Holy Spirit and have authority from God to tell us the correct interpretation."

    Yes; and when these successors disagree they hold a council, much as the apostles did in Acts 15.

  3. The Pope, the bishop of Rome, of course holds a special place among the bishops, who are all the full successors of the apostles. He is the pastor of the Church universal and is capable of, by himself, infallibly setting down Church teaching. All of the bishops together are capable of the same thing, provided it is done with the Pope.

  4. In 1996 I was part of a conference titled "In Essentials Unity: Confessing Christ for the Third Millennium." We were part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) back then, and it was at a major Disciples church that this conference, filled with Disciples pastors and theologians and seminarians, was held. There was some attempt made to use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as an answer to the question of what the essentials are, but, as you may well guess, the conference produced no definitive statement. Most people do not like to talk about ecclesiology, but ecclesiology is everything. Either there is one authoritative voice for the body of Christ wherever it gathers, or there is not. If so, then delineating the essentials is, if not easy, at least possible. If there is not one authoritative voice, then all hope of determining essentials is lost. Sola Scriptura cannot do it.

    It is often argued that the essentials are simply those beliefs having to do with Jesus, e.g. that He is God, that He died for our sins, and that He rose again. It is true that these are essentials and are almost unanimously accepted by all who call themselves Christians. Yet there are some who claim to be Christians who would deny His divinity. Who, then, is to say they are wrong?

    Furthermore, if these are the only essentials, then 99% of life is left among the non-essentials. How are we to go about our lives if we are left to nothing but our own whims about the vast majority them? Jesus was not a Stoic. He was not a Greek philosopher who propounded a set of principles to guide life. By His own words, He is life itself. Surely, then, there is more to the essentials of life than just a few basic precepts, and if there is more, then it must be determined at some particular place, by some particular people, and at some particular time just what it all means.

  5. MagisterChristianus,

    Well said my friend. And interesting story.

  6. Hey, I'm a convert too and just wanted to say that I loved your story. I'll be praying for you and your family.

  7. I would say that most protestants would tell you that their unifying belief is summed up well in the Apostle's Creed as opposed to the much more problematic "everything that the bible says" that you describe.

    I just attended a baptism ceremony at my protestant church and the apostles creed was specifically repeated as the unifying, essential beliefs.

  8. Hey Anon,

    Why does the Apostle's Creed have such authority to hold that position?

    Also, I do not think that the vast majority of Protestants would agree that the Apostle's Creed entirely sums up all that is essential for belief.