Essential Doctrine: Those ideas and beliefs which define the core of Christian thought; those ideas and beliefs where the rejection of such places one outside ChristianityAs I have attempted to understand the essentialness of doctrine, I have determined that the importance of a particular idea may depend upon context. Therefore, I have identified, so far, 3 different arenas where essentialness comes into play, and the means of classifying what belongs within those categories.
(I may note that I seem to use the words context and category interchangeably in this post. In reality, these are categories that are defined by context, and therefore there is a one-to-one relationship between them. The names that I provide as the subject headings are the categories. The contexts are what defines these categories)
Soteriologically Essential Doctrine
I have tried and tried to come up with a less obfuscating word for this, but so far I've failed. Personally and Individually carry connotations that I do not intend, and Salvificly would imply a sort of gnosticism (saved by knowledge). In either case, I'm stuck with this term till either I find a better one, or someone suggests a better one.
The basic concept of soteriologically essential doctrines is that they are doctrines which are necessary for a person to believe in order to be considered a Christian. But what is necessary for one to believe in order to be Christian?
Examining the early church, we see the basic Christian creed was "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9 and I Corinthians 12:3). This was a much stronger statement then we often give it credit for. The Jews refused to say the name of God and instead say "Adonai" (my Lord). Thus, to the Jew, calling Jesus Lord was saying that Jesus was Yahweh! Meanwhile, the title "Lord" was also used by the Roman Caesar cult in order to demonstrate one's political loyalties. Thus, the claim that Jesus is Lord said to the Greek that Jesus is Lord instead of Caesar, and that a Christian's loyalty to Christ was higher than their loyalty to Rome.
But in our day, our most basic creed would be "Jesus is Lord and Savior". Personally, I think that this is a rather powerful creed, and worth the dignity of the basic Christian belief. Though the early church did not include Savior in its creed, there also was no one else vying for the title. In today's world, it is precisely these two aspects of Christ's identity that are most at stake.
Additionally, if we take the Romans passage I mentioned earlier as our standard, then it is also important to understand and affirm the Christ event. Paul points to the resurrection, which is at the heart of the Christ event, but I believe this would also include Christ's birth (the incarnation), Christ's death, and Christ's return (especially the concept of our own resurrection). The details are not what is really important, but the essence of what the Christ event was and means.
If you don't not believe in these things, than you are simply not a Christian. There is no way around this. Others may want to propose other doctrines on this list, but I don't think they are as necessary. Cosmology, Ecclesiology, Pneumatology, or even Soteriology and Eschatology do not come close to defining what it means to be "Christian" more than Christology. Who is Christ? What did He do? What does that mean to me? Do I trust Him? Do I obey Him? These are the questions which are fundamental to our own Christian identity and any other belief, if it is wrong, can be corrected by the Spirit if we get those questions right! This is my belief, because in the end, our salvation is grounded in faith in Christ: in who He is and what He has done. Anything else is gnostic.
To this, I can propose this concrete list of doctrines (no particular order) that I do believe one needs to believe to be Christian, but it is important to note that I do not believe confession in this list is the basis of orthodoxy or salvation. Merely that these doctrines must be present:
- Jesus is the one Son of God/Christ
- Jesus is God incarnate (both divine and human)
- All of mankind is on a path to destruction
- Jesus died on the cross as a means of saving humanity
- 3 days later, Jesus rose from the dead
- If we place our faith in Him, we will rise from the dead as well, and live eternally
Ecclesiastically Essential Doctrine
When we think of essential doctrine, I think this is the category that most of us really think of. The problem lies in treating this category like the first category. The confusing of these two contexts either causes an inappropriate level of openness in church doctrine, or an oppressive pharisaic treatment of the laity.
One cannot expect every person to be an expert on doctrine and the faith. It is just impractical and unreasonable. To some degree, someone has to be a Christian before they can be a mature Christian. Part of this maturity is coming to a deeper understanding of Christian faith, and on an individual level, this category of doctrine marks some mandatory maturing marks in the Christian walk, but such a thing could hardly be called essential.
I call it ecclesiastically essential because these are things that are essential for the church to understand and teach. Pastors should believe this, as well as any teachers and leaders. Any church must believe in these if it is going to be able to propagate and grow true Christians. One reader of this blog (he can name himself if he likes) said once that you can find Christians in the most unlikely places. This is true, but it is important to distinguish the Christianity of the person and the Christianity of the place. We should not "baptize" an institution just because we might find a Christian within in it in spite of what it teaches.
The question is, does this body produce Christians?Does it help Christians to grow closer to God? Is it keeping them focused on the Christ? Is it protecting them from false doctrine? It is this last one where we get the closest to essential doctrine. But in the end, departure from ecclesiastical essential doctrine doesn't condemn a person, or even a group. What it does it is cripples that groups ability to present a proper and sustainable worldview. It does not immediately cause a downfall, but it will lead to one if left uncorrected and will definitely hurt the immature persons within the group.
Much like the heart of defining soteriologically essential doctrines is understanding Christ, the heart of this is understanding the canon. The word "canon" simply means rule, or a standard. In this case, it means the standard of the faith. This is not simply Scripture, but also understand the Rule of Faith, the nature of Christianity. But this most certainly does imply Scripture as well.
I'm sure many may argue that the belief that Scripture is authoritative belongs in the first category, but to those I ask you to hear me out. Salvation rests on Christ, not the Scripture. Scripture is important because it points to Christ. Indeed, in evangelism, the goal isn't to get someone to read and appreciate the book, but introducing them to Christ. However, the bible was compiled as a rule of faith, as a canon, and as such it represents the fundamental witness of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, some affirmation of its authority (though infallibility or inerrancy would be unnecessary for this) would be necessary if a Church is really going to remain Christian. It must affirm the basic Christian witness.
Another important factor is the Spirit. Having an understanding of the guidance of the Spirit is absolutely essential to Christian living. Tied in with this comes an understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son, and the Spirit.
[Quick side note. I go back and forth between putting a belief in the Trinity in the first category or this one. In the end, I believe it should be this one, since I don't think we can rightly demand every member of the church to appreciate the concept of tri-unity. On the other hand, I am convinced that no body can rightly be considered Christian without a concept of the Trinity. Considering this, I currently place it here.]
Beyond this, I must decline from offering a list. There are many more doctrines I could include here, which to some degree is the problem. Such a list would be quite long, and part of the reason for this differentiation is to keep the first list short. If you wonder about whether I think a particular doctrine falls into this category, please ask.
This is a new category which I named only last week, though the thought has been in my mind in embryonic form for much longer.
When I am referring to distinctives, I am referring to those particular thoughts and beliefs which are distinctively important to a particular church/denomination/era. To some degree we've all seen this where a particular church takes a stand on an issue that isn't definitive to Christianity. Many times they do this illegitimately by judging those outside of that church by that standard. But to some degree, you can't be a Baptist and baptize your baby, and you can't be a cessionist in Assemblies of God, or a Congregationist Catholic. When you belong to a particular group which is within the church, there may be doctrines which define that group, or subgroup.
This can also apply to eras. There was a need to take a stance on some Trinitarian issues in the first few centuries that some of us see as unimportant. But when you are active in a culture which was as metaphysically aware as the Greeks, you need to say things about metaphysics. There are stances on Scripture that needed to be made in the modern era which were unnecessary before. Same with cosmology. Much of the Creationist movement isn't about "This is how God did it", but really "Our God is the one who did it". How do you make this stance in a science obsessed culture? How can you be really sure you are making the right one?
This also applies to some individual churches. For instance, I'm a passionate Arminian, and I believe that Calvinism is a legitimate expression of Christianity, though wrong. Despite this, because I am going to be teaching Arminianism in my church, I can't promote to leadership someone who will teach otherwise. It would cause fractures in the church. Does this mean that I wouldn't let a Calvinist into my church? Of course not. I would even let that Calvinist actively try to change my mind. After all, he might. But if a person can't teach what I emphasize in my teaching, then to some degree the leadership needs to be united.
In another church, that may not be an issue. My pastor, for instance, is definitely Arminian, but he doesn't really understand the debate, so he doesn't take part in it. He could easily promote a Calvinist in his church, and I think that he should. However, he is also a strong Creationist, and would never promote someone that disagreed with him on that issue, where I would.
In the end, this point is a matter of unity. It is impossible for us all to agree on everything, but there are going to be particular doctrines where are important to particular groups that need to be believed in that group. Just like we can't all agree on what stance we should take on certain things, we also disagree on their importance, and we shouldn't judge a group or a particular leadership because they value something higher than we think they should. Instead, we should judge them on whether or not they take it outside of their "jurisdiction" so to speak.
I feel like this deserves some more clarity. These doctrines are not important in determining whether something is Christian, but they are important in dealing with leaders in the church. That is what this is about: leadership. It has nothing to do with membership. Just thought I should say that plainly.
To place this in more clarity, this is a consideration of the essentialness of doctrine within three contexts: a person's salvation, the legitimacy of a church, and internal church politics. In other words: with a person, with a church, and within a church. What's important for each person is important for each church and what is important for each church is important within a church, but it never goes the opposite direction.
I feel like I should end this better. Oh well.