Saturday, January 01, 2011

Christian essentials


How would you define the essentials of the faith, or would you simply leave them undefined.

Are you asking what's essential to saving faith, or what’s essential for the Christian faith to be Christian?

i) Apropos the former: as you know, the Bible states certain doctrines one must believe to be saved.

On the other hand, the Bible also has a principle of graded responsibilities (Lk 12:48; Heb 13:17). So to some extent I expect the propositional content of saving faith is person-variable.

God holds F. F. Bruce to a higher standard than the paperboy.

ii) Apropos the latter: in polemical books that deal with doctrinal controversies (e.g. Galatians, 1 John), the Bible spells out certain fundamental doctrines. So I think it’s possible to draw up a partial list of Christian essentials.

However, those are occasional writings which discuss Christian essentials incidentally rather than systematically. So I think we lack sufficient information to compile a definitive list of Christian essentials.

Ultimately, it’s incumbent on us to believe whatever the Bible teaches. That will automatically include the “essentials” (since the whole includes the part).

iii) Of course, Christian Bible scholars, ethicists, and theologians also spend time trying to distinguish timebound Bible statements from timeless Bible statements. And that’s part of distinguishing essentials from nonessentials. But that exercise is not without various degrees of uncertainty.


  1. This is the BEST post on "Essentialism" that I have ever read in the Christian blogosphere.

    My two main reference points are:

    (1) Mohler's article on "Theological Triage".

    (2) C. Michael Patton's articles on concentric areas of doctrinal importance.

    I should probably add another intriguing article and that's Kent Brandenburg's article that IMO argues that the question of what is essential and what is not is problematic in its own right.

    This issue of "Essentialism" crops up in several different areas:

    (1) Polemical arguments with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

    (2) Polemical arguments with mainline liberals and emergers.

    (3) Polemical arguments with theistic evolutionists.

    (4) Polemical arguments with Biblical Errantists.

    (4) Polemical arguments with egalitarians. Of which my most favorite article recently is Tim Bayly's Can a Christian be a feminist...

    I commend Tim's whole article.

    Lastly, my initial thoughts are that Satan can attack the "Non-Essentials" as a means to rot out, deform, and destroy the "Essentials" of the Christian faith, and thus it's vital and worth contending over what some may call "Non-Essentials."

    P.S. I've been on vacation with limited access to the internet and as a participant on the original thread I have been wanting to tell Steve that his comment to "Godismyjudge" was worthy of its own post. Lo and behold! I arrive home and here it is. Thank you Steve for such a lucid and insightful comment/post!

  2. You write:

    Ultimately, it’s incumbent on us to believe whatever the Bible teaches. That will automatically include the “essentials” (since the whole includes the part).

    As I read that a thought came to my mind about the essentials for Peter and John, here:

    Joh 21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs."
    Joh 21:16 He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."
    Joh 21:17 He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.
    Joh 21:18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go."
    Joh 21:19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me."
    Joh 21:20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?"
    Joh 21:21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?"
    Joh 21:22 Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!"

    Essentially, we both "follow Him". However the outcome for each is essentially different!

    To each his own to Him!

    Do I want to live a long and lasting life? Sure!

    Will I?

    Well, let each day come to me as He wills and knows, because, the essential evils of the day, though different on any given day does not change the Will of God to do as He promised me He will do all the while guiding me into His Truth; and, the Truth for Peter and John and you are essentially what they are as they are for me.

    I can rest in these Words of Promise knowing God and His Word never change for us though the essential experiences are different as you say: "...(since the whole includes the part)".

    Php 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
    Php 3:21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

    I can hear Peter think within himself something like this:

    "Hey, why does John get to see Mary buried after living out her appointed life with him and not me?!!. I care for Mary just as much as John does!"

  3. Steve,

    One problem with this approach is either you have people believing the gospel who still are lost anyway or you have to say the gospel is subjective rather than objective. Let’s say the paper boy believes the gospel but doesn’t even know about original sin. Let’s say F.F. Bruce likewise believes the gospel, but he holds to the eastern view of original sin rather than the western view. Per this approach, the paper boy would be saved but F.F. Bruce lost.

    But the problem is the God has promised to save those who believe the gospel. So either the gospel changes from one person to the next or God’s promise is false.

    Now let’s assume the gospel is person variable. How would a preacher ever know what to preach? Given that truths are interconnected the gospel just keeps getting bigger and bigger and he should never stop preaching.

    God be with you,

  4. Steve wrote, "i) Apropos the former: as you know, the Bible states certain doctrines one must believe to be saved."

    What passages of Scripture and associated doctrines do you have in mind here?

  5. Kudos, Steve. I'm with TUAD - best treatment of this I've ever seen. I've observed special-needs people who have exhibited much faith and trust in God who simply don't have the ability to understand much of the gospel. Consequently, I've had to conclude that godly wisdom is not contingent on our ability to understand. That said, and given this article, if we truly desire God then we will pursue His truth as much as we have the ability to understand it.

  6. Yes, well said Steve,

    Would like to read your comments on TUAD's reference points...


    "What passages of Scripture and associated doctrines do you have in mind here?"

    For instance, you have certain passages in Galatians which treat sola fide as a Christian essential. Likewise, you have certain passages in 1 John that treat the Incarnation as a Christian essential.

  8. Dan,

    i) One problem is that you don’t offer a direct counterargument to anything I wrote. You leave all that untouched.

    You simply object on the basis of certain real or perceived consequences of my position. But how does that disprove it?

    ii) I don’t regard “person-variable” as synonymous with “subjective.” The truths of the gospel are true independent of the individual’s perception. In that respect the gospel is “objective.”

    Rather, we’re dealing with how the gospel is savingly appropriated.

    iii) Saving faith more than just a question of what truths one must believe. At a more ultimate level, saving faith is the end-result of inner renewal. Regeneration creates (or recreates) a predisposition to believe revealed truth. Renewing the mind, heart, and will.

    Is there a willingness to believe the revealed truth, even if one has a deficient grasp of revealed truth? Conversely, is there a witting and willful rejection of revealed truth. Is one's heart open or closed to God's truth?

    iv) Apropos (iii), it is possible to have professing believers who are still lost. They are nominal, unregenerate believers. And depending on the stimulus, some of them later lose their nominal faith, becoming apostates.

    That’s disturbing, but it’s not something we can wish away.

    v) As I already pointed out, the Bible singles out certain Christian essentials. A preacher can preach on those. He can also preach through central books of the Bible–like the four Gospels, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 John, &c. He can model his evangelistic sermons on evangelistic sermons in Acts.

  9. Steve,

    I guess I took your response as defining your position rather than an attempt to prove that the essentials are person variable. Lk 12:48 and Heb 13:17 don’t explicitly teach person-variable essentials and if you think they implicitly do, you didn’t explain. So I gave a reason not to hold that position.

    I agree person-variable does not have to mean subjective in every respect but the fact is that under a person-variable approach there is no such thing as the gospel. FF Bruce’s gospel is different than the paper boys and the paper boys gospel is probably different than his gospel when he grows up.

    I agree with what you said about regeneration and a willingness to believe - which is why I wasn‘t thrilled with WLC‘s response. But that doesn’t mean there are many gospels.

    I agree on preaching the gospel as laid out in scripture, but that supports my view that there is a gospel and those who believe it will be saved.

    God be with you,

  10. Steve wrote, “Ultimately, it’s incumbent on us to believe whatever the Bible teaches.”

    Incumbent for what? Justifying faith? Assurance of salvation?

    How do you reconcile such a concept of faith with the example of the faith of the blind man in John 9:35-38?

  11. ITO SAID:

    "Incumbent for what? Justifying faith? Assurance of salvation?"

    It's not incumbent "for" anything. The obligation doesn't derive from what it does for us.

    Rather, we have a duty to trust God and take him as his word, for God is truthful and trustworthy.

    "How do you reconcile such a concept of faith with the example of the faith of the blind man in John 9:35-38?"

    What is there to reconcile?

  12. Dan, you keep equivocating between what's essential to be a Christian, and what's essential for Christianity to be Christian. They overlap in various ways, but they don't coincide.

    In one sense the "gospel" is everything the gospel entails. Everything implicit in the gospel. Everything that must be true for the gospel to be true. All the logical implications that flow into and out of the gospel.

    How much of that any given individual must appropriate to be saved is a different question. And I see no reason, in that sense, to say the gospel for a 5-year-old is the same gospel as the gospel for F. F. Bruce or Alvin Plantinga.

    Take Paul's letter to the Romans. He is presenting the gospel. He says so at the outset. But while all material figures in the logical structure of the gospel, we wouldn't say that saving faith hinges on a thorough grasp of Romans.

    I can't draw bright lines where Scripture refrains. And, in any case, that's rather artificial.

    We should avoid the minimalism which says, "what's the least I can get away with?"

    Rather, let's believe whatever God tells us, then let God sort it out.

  13. Steve, how does this work when the ambiguity may not be clearly biblical, historical, philosophical, or linguistic?

    For example, is it a Christian essential to believe Jewish people are God's chosen (for example)?

    Similarly, is it a Christian essential to believe the NT "church" (ekklēsia) is some spiritual NT construct?

    (I'm trying to gauge the practical application of your position)

  14. Essential to what? Saving faith or Christian theology?

  15. Steve said: "Essential to what? Saving faith or Christian theology?"

    The latter.

  16. What's essential to Christian theology is differently assigned by different theological traditions. According to Orthodox theology (to take one example), theosis is essential to Christian theology–but of course, other theological traditions demur.

    The debate over what is or isn't a Christian essential is one of the perennial dividing lines in Christendom.

    A number of theological traditions agree on *some* of the same essentials, but not all.

  17. Fair enough (and consistent with your original post), but are you willing to commit to a position by answering from your own tradition?

  18. When you ask about the chosenness of the Jewish people, are you talking about ethnic Jews, elect Jews, or what?

    Likewise, are you talking about Jews in OT times or Jews during the church age?

    You also need to define what you mean by the church as a "spiritual NT construct."

  19. Steve said: "When you ask about the chosenness of the Jewish people, are you talking about ethnic Jews, elect Jews, or what?"

    For the sake of discussion, the expression "Jew" (or יהודי Yĕhuwdiy - H3064) first appears in the KJV in [2 Kings 16:6] and last appears in [Rev 3:9] (as Ἰουδαῖος Ioudaios - G2453), appearing roughly 270 times between. Other Bibles are similar. As far as I can tell, this word seems to be applied fairly consistently, so we'll go with however you take it to mean (I'm willing to be as flexible with its meaning as you dare to be, in your answer).

    Steve said: "Likewise, are you talking about Jews in OT times or Jews during the church age?"

    If the conditions found in [Jer 31:36] indicate the relational end-state of God's election of Israel, let's use that period as the span for our discussion since it is covers both old and new covenants [Jer 31:31-36] without distinction.

    Steve said: "You also need to define what you mean by the church as a "spiritual NT construct."

    Ill re-phrase the question.

    Since the English NT employes the word "church" which derives from the Greek word "ekklēsia" (G1577) which means 'assembly' while the Hebrew employs the word קהל qahal (H6951) [Exo 12:6,16][Exo 35:1][Lev 8:3-8][Num 10:7][Num 14:5][Num 15:15][Num 20:4][Jud 21:8]...[Neh 7:66] etc, is there an essential distinction between the new covenant assembly and the old covenant assembly in Christian theology? if so what is it? [Eze 11:17]

  20. You're confusing words with concepts.