Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is Essential?

One of my favorite theology blogs Parchment and Pen has done a series of posts on trying to identify and get people to think about the essentials on Christianity. The goal is for people to rethink when unity should be broken or more importantly when it should not. The theme is the popular quote:

“In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

This is certainly a principle made in Ephesians 4:3 that tells us to

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Last year Michael posted a test, which I recommend you take - it will make you think and that is a good thing.

Today his blog entry groups several doctrines into various "buckets" based on essentiality.
  • Essential for Salvation
  • Historic Orthodoxy
  • Traditional Orthodoxy
  • Denominational Orthodoxy
  • Important but not essential
  • Not Important
  • Speculation

As I wrestle through this task I found Michael's wise suggestion of 4 criteria to consider helpful - primarily this boiled down to 1) is the doctrine clearly taught as central in Scripture and 2) is the doctrine something believed as central universally and historically by the church.

I understand what he is driving at on that second point as Augustine used this principle in identifying the canon of Scripture as laid out in "On Christian Doctrine" Book 2, Chapter 8:

Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.
The idea here would be that when in doubt about the interpretation and essentiality of a doctrine consider "the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches" - here catholic means universal and not Roman Catholic. Using this approach is why the book 1st Clement is not part of the NT Canon - some held that it should be but apparently not the greater number or more authoritative churches.

The historical orthodoxy bucket is clarified as being "what has been believed by the historic Christian church for the last two thousand years, no matter what tradition" as well as it being held as a central belief. In the blog the later date priority of Matthew over Mark, and the authorship of Matthew and 2 Peter are not placed in this group even though they were believed by the historic Christian church because they are not considered central doctrines. In my mind this bucket can become subjective since it is not whether a doctrine can be shown as universally held historically that puts it in the bucket but also whether it was considered a central part of the message of Christianity as well. So is the date priority of Mark worth breaking unity over - no, but it was historically held. I agree that what is historically important should influence our thinking and for me the major creeds jump to the front as candidates for centrally held historic doctrines. If the doctrine was part of a creed it was likely central to the Christian church.

However as one places doctrine into buckets the traditional orthodoxy/denominational orthodoxy become essentially the same and could have been combined into the "important and essential/worth dividing over" - at least in my opinion as I think through my own set of beliefs and there essentiality. Why? Because first it is at this level of doctrine where the divisions tend to take place (just look at the items placed there on the blog) and thus are where unity is broken. This would make these doctrines "important and essential" to those holding them regardless of the source (historic, tradition, denominational etc).

For example the doctrine held by the RCC - bucketed as "traditional" and stated on the blog as "[b]elief that both Scripture and unwritten tradition have ultimate authority as they are interpreted by the Magisterium" is certainly not an essential belief for salvation (or historic though the RC would disagree) but is certainly important enough to break unity over since the source of authority (Scripture or Magisterium), the nature of authority (infallible or not), who has authority (elders or Pope/Bishop) and even the source of truth are not held to be the same. This would naturally make governing and teaching the church in unity a near impossibility.

Another doctrine listed as traditional is the "[b]elief that justification is through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone", which would be part of the essential for salvation list for me regardless of where the doctrine is placed in a historic/traditional/denominational sense. Same for the doctrine that "Christ is the only way to salvation" (which was placed in the historic bucket) this is an essential for salvation for me too. See my comment #23.

I do see the point and importance of identifying where a doctrine comes from historically, however the main source of truth is Scripture. History certainly can provide an excellent guide when one is wrestling with what one believes and whether or not it is worth dividing over but once one is practically trying to put them into buckets from a salvation and unity/division point of view I see these "extra buckets" of tradition/denominational as less useful.

Certainly I think we could all consider expanding our sphere of unity in our theological debates and stances but there are some issues of practicality as well as importance that probably must be considered as well if a church is to conduct itself in an orderly manner that strengthens the body (1 Cor 14:26,40). For example the gender of the teacher and baptism,in my opinion, are not essential for salvation. However the gender of a teacher and the age and beliefs of a baptismal candidate could well cause serious problems in a local church if there is wide spread disagreement in these areas.

Kudos and blessings to Michael at the Parchment and Pen for putting this series together and hopefully my comments on the buckets he proposed will be taken for what they are - which is what that I found them useful as I work through the test he proposed. But hey even if your list of essential buckets may vary I am not willing to divide over it...

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