William Lane Craig recently defined Christian essentials as those doctrines to which all Christians subscribe. Conversely, if Christians don’t agree on some doctrine or another, then that’s inessential to the Christian faith.
So he seems to be using Christian consensus as his criterion for Christian essentials. And he’s not the only one to do this. You have people who cite something like the Apostles’ Creed as their common denominator. Christians are defined by their agreement with the Apostles’ Creed. That’s the frame of reference. If it’s not taught in the Apostles’ Creed, then it’s nonessential.
But there’s a basic problem with this criterion. For those who use Christian consensus as their criterion aren’t really using consensus as their criterion. You see, to say that Christian essentials are defined by whatever all Christians believe, you already have to have an idea of what makes them Christians in the first place. For you are claiming that this is something Christians believe in. So Christians aren’t simply defined by their common belief in this or that doctrine. For it has to be Christians believing it that makes it a Christian essential.
So those who appeal to Christian consensus are tacitly going behind the consensus. They actually begin with a preconception of who is or isn’t a Christian. If Christians believe something in common, then that makes it a Christian essential.
The fact that non-Christians disagree on some doctrine or another doesn’t render it inessential. Rather, the fact that Christians disagree on some doctrine or another renders it nonessential.
So consensus isn’t really the criterion. It has to be Christian consensus. In which case, it’s not consensus that defines a Christian, but Christians who define consensus.
Suppose you take the Apostles’ Creed as your frame of reference. Of course, there are people who disagree with one or more articles of the Apostles’ Creed. If you say their dissent doesn’t count because they’re not Christian, then, of course, you have to operate with a preconceived idea of what makes a Christian a Christian. You’ve defined the Apostles’ Creed as a Christian Creed. And you’re measuring Christian profession by that yardstick.
But once again, if that’s the case, then it’s not the consensus of Christians that determines Christian essentials. Rather, you’ve make a prejudgment concerning the status of the Apostles’ Creed, and you thereby judge Christian profession by whether or not a given individual affirms the Apostles’ Creed. That’s the bare minimum.
So folks like Craig don’t begin with consensus. Consensus doesn’t select for the Christian essentials. How would he know what Christians agree on unless he already knows who the Christians are?
But, of course, professing believers represent overlapping beliefs. Some professing believerss agree on premillennialism, but disagree on infant baptism–among many other examples.
So professing believers can be subdivided into many different overlapping groups. They are members of many different Christian subsets. The premillennial Christians or the amillennial Christians. The paedobaptist Christians or the credobaptist Christians. And so on and so forth.
So how does someone like Craig decide which subset represents the relevant unit of consensus? He can’t simply appeal to Christian consensus, for there is no one body of beliefs which represents Christian consensus.
Rather, you have a variety of overlapping positions. But this doesn’t mean they all intersect at the same point. And even if they did, that might be so minimal and incidental that it would hardly amount to a credible profession of faith.
Even something like the Apostles’ Creed is deceptive, for when Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants (to take three examples) profess the Apostles’ Creed, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing by the same terms. Clearly they don’t all mean the same thing by the “church” or the “communion of saints.”