April 4, 2009

Essential Doctrine

This is actually a topic that I have thought a lot about. Like I said in the last post, there has been a discussion going around about the nature of orthodoxy and the concept of essential doctrine. The basic definition of essential doctrine would be as follows:
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 Christianity
As 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:
  1. Monotheism
  2. Jesus is the one Son of God/Christ
  3. Jesus is God incarnate (both divine and human)
  4. All of mankind is on a path to destruction
  5. Jesus died on the cross as a means of saving humanity
  6. 3 days later, Jesus rose from the dead
  7. If we place our faith in Him, we will rise from the dead as well, and live eternally
This list can easily be stretched out (I have done it before), but that is essentially what it means to be Christian.

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.

Essential Distinctives

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.

Wrapping up

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.


bethyada said...

I would add the category foundational doctrine. I place creation and Fall here. It is not that an individual must hold this to be saved, or a church must hold it; but it is foundational to the gospel, the death of Jesus does not make sense without it.

There are several doctrines that are foundational to belief, but Christians can disbelieve them and still be Christian, it is just that they are inconsistent.

bethyada said...

I also think that salvation is when we focus on Christ and less related to a set of beliefs. A man may have many wrong beliefs and be saved, another may have many right ones and not be saved. It depends what direction you are going. As I wrote previously

There is a point in time when we turn from hiding our face from God to looking at him; from walking our own way to walking towards him. This "point of time" may be identified as "salvation" but the issue is that we persevere in the direction we have chosen.

Also, to have wrong belief is much more significant if you choose this from previous correct belief. Wrong belief in a neophyte that is yet to be corrected is less concerning.

pchurcher87 said...

Hi Jc-Freak,

You put "All of mankind is on a path to destruction" in your Soteriologically Essential Doctrine
section. I was just wondering if this should actually be here. It's not that I disagree with the concept but just wonder if it should be in the Ecclesiastically Essential Doctrine. The reason that I question it is partially to do with the early father Gregory of Nyssa. He was most probably a universalist. He held that non-believers will go to a lteral hell until such time as they have atoned for thier sins, at which time they will be released to eternity with God. It's not that I agree with him but simply that I don't see anywhere in scripture where his belief is deemed at heretical. Any thoughts?

Also, I wonder if its worth adding explicitally somewhere that Doctrine is not everything i.e. to avoid the Gnostic danger. Ones behaviour, when saved, will change to be more christ-like.

Thanks for you though prevoking posts. In Christ,

Pizza Man said...

Very interesting and enjoyable post.

Jc_Freak: said...


As for the concept of foundational doctrine, I would say that most of those things fall under ecclesatically essential or distinctives. For instance, something can be foundational, and still be a distictive in the sense of its effacious in various contexts. Though I don't necessarily disagree. Perhaps it's a label that fits outside of my organization. I'll think about it.

Jc_Freak: said...

"You put "All of mankind is on a path to destruction" in your Soteriologically Essential Doctrine
section. I was just wondering if this should actually be here. "

Even the Origenists, such as Gregory, believed that idea. Where Origen deviated from orthodoxy wasn't that all of humanity is on a path towards distruction, but that all of humanity has been saved from that path. The reason why it fits in the category is that Christ cannot be saviour if He is not saving us from something.

"Also, I wonder if its worth adding explicitally somewhere that Doctrine is not everything i.e. to avoid the Gnostic danger. Ones behaviour, when saved, will change to be more christ-like."

Perhaps it is worth it to say that more explicitly in this particular essay. I provide a link to a post at the beginning of the essay that makes this very point in detail. It is our orientation towards Christ which is accounted as righteousness, not what we do, or what we believe.

pchurcher87 said...

Thanks for your reply.
I missed that link. thanks for pointing it out.
You're right about Origen. I'm sorry I obviously didn't explain myself properly. He did indeed hold that before-Christ all were on the path to destruction but post-christ (when he wrote) he held that eventually all of creation, including every human being, will be redeemed. So in this sense no-one has gone to destruction. I agree that something needs to be there. After all the Gospel needs to be bad news before it can be good. Perhaps a re-wording woul help, such as "All people are seperated from God and deserve death/destruction due to thier sin"

Mason said...

JC I think you strike a good balance here, and I appreciate the tenor you take, thoughtful and gracious while still sticking to the core that really matters.

The categories you use here are helpful, and I think you are right to keep the core Christocentic, that seems very fitting and in line with the New Testament witness.
Also the focus on Christ as the absolute center and on Scripture as a witness to Christ has a nice Barthian ring to it.

I too have a hard time with fitting the Trinity here, but if pressed I think I’d put it in the first of your categories. Not that I expect everyone to get it, or think it is a prerequisite to saving faith, but I do think it is so close to the core that it is hard to place it elsewhere.
The distinction I would make is this… if you don’t have any exposure to the concept through no fault of your own then yes, following Jesus as Lord in the sense you lay out is perfectly sufficient to place you within orthodox Christianity.
If however you get to the point of understanding what the doctrine of the Trinity states (with or without the terminology) and yet reject it, this would place you outside the bounds of the Church. In other words I think that while “Christ is Lord” is something that must be believed, Trinity is something that must not be rejected.

Jc_Freak: said...


Those are my thoughts on the Trinity exactly. In part, what I have concluded is that though it is possible that one may not believe in the Trinity, it is only in the ignorance of it, and not believing in something else. All of the alternatives to the Trinity are unsatisfactory for some reason or another, but it is possible for some to honestly not to think much on the subject.

Jc_Freak: said...

I was doing some editing work on this blog and I noticed that I made a post on this exact subject 4 years ago. I thought you guys might be interested in comparing how the idea has changed over the years.