Monday, October 11, 2010
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.
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."