Essential and Non-Essential Theology: Who Decides Which Is Which?
There is a distinction which everyone makes, which is absolutely essential to theology and the Christian life, but nobody (that I know of) has any really good way to draw the line.
Allow me to illustrate. Suppose a very excitable and slightly legalistic Christian comes up to you, just brim-full of excitement, because he just read this book (which you really need to read!!) that tells him that the human is actually a three-part being (body/soul/spirit) instead of just a two-part being (body/soul). This distinction, he tells you, just unlocks all of the mysteries of the human/Christian predicament! Why when we just realize this…oh wait…his voice drops and he turns deadly serious, “You do believe that the human is a three-part being, right? Or are you still stuck in believing we are two-part beings? How could you truly be a Christian if you miss this essential truth…?” Likely, you would end the argument – at least in your own mind – by simply saying, “Look, this isn’t very important. I don’t know what I believe. I don’t care. I think our time would be better spent dealing with matters which actually touch our lives, like sin, hypocrisy and a judgmentalism, don’t you?”
On the other hand, there are many voices today – so many that I hardly need to name them: if you haven’t said it yourself, you have heard someone close to you say it – who are saying, “Look, theology is all so very complicated. I am a simple person. Just me and Jesus can figure out most of life.” This works for a lot of people – the problem with that approach is that it is isolating and non-correcting. This is how cults form, and it is how fathers become cult-leaders of their own families. It gets ugly, friends – trust me.
Fundamentally, this approach is wrong because in the attempt to allow Scriptures to speak for themselves, the person actually speaks on behalf of Scriptures. The claim is that one is basing their beliefs on Scriptures and the Spirit. But if they are completely closed to the voices of other faithful men, speaking through commentaries, or books, or the local church or neighboring concerned churches, then they are really muting the voice of God (who seeks to correct His own through His body through other spirit-filled people – cf. Gal. 6), the voice of the Spirit (who corrects a false word from the “Spirit” through a correct word, through another person, cf. 1 Cor. 14:30) and even the Word of God from the Bible itself (for if someone claims an interpretation of Scripture which nobody else can see, isn’t it obvious they are distorting Scriptures?)
So, somehow, we need to balance between the extremes. On the one hand are those annoying people that have every bit of their theology worked out, to a fine detail, and are willing to excommunicate you on silly and irrelevant issues. On the other hand, there are people who cut themselves off from all correction and rebuke, and ultimately set up their own interpretation of Scriptures as the only way to read Scriptures. Along with these people are the cults, and the mini-cult-leaders, who set up their families as islands (and religions) unto themselves, with the patriarch of the family serving as their own private pope and Authority on all things religious.
How does one strike the balance between “too much” theology, and “not enough”?
Some Helpful metaphors
I have heard several helpful metaphors to this end. Mark Driscoll speaks of “close-handed” doctrines and “open-handed” doctrines. There are some things worth fighting for (and believe me – that Irish Calvinist man loves a good fight!) and there are some things which are not worth getting worked up over. This solution works for Mark, but it has the inherent difficulty of being completely arbitrary. Who gets to choose what is a “close-handed” and what is an “open-handed” doctrine? Apparently, the head pastor does. This works well for someone like Mark who is, I think, pretty good at deciding which issues are important and which are not. However, the cult-leaders and kooks could also apply this method to their own methodology. It is arbitrary, and the metaphor works only as good as the person weilding it.
A less arbitrary metaphor is offered by Bruxy Cavey. He uses the metaphor of an atom. As most of you know, an atom is made up of protons in the middle, with electrons circling that nucleus. The only difference between all of the elements of the world, so they tell me, is the number of electrons circling that nucleus. So, you could take an atom of Hydrogen, and add a few electrons, and it would become an atom of Oxygen. (Don’t shoot me if I just said something stupid – I have no idea whether such a chemical reaction is feasible. But as I understand, it is at least theoretically possible to make those sorts of transitions). You cannot tamper with the core in the same way, however. If you take away a proton, the entire atom will become unstable and begin to decompose – flinging electrons and protons off into space and releasing massive amounts of energy. This is what happens in a nuclear reaction.
In the same way, then, Bruxy argues that there are “central” and “peripheral” issues in Christianity. Add some speaking in tongues and sign gifts and you have pentacostalism. Take that away and add some Calvinism, and you have the Reformed faith. Etc. However, you cannot tamper with the “core” or you depart from the faith. At the core, Bruxy puts the doctrines about Jesus, as defined in the Apostle’s creed, and some other doctrines. If you start messing with that, then “boom!” The whole faith blows up in your face.
Bruxy’s analogy is more helpful, but in the end it comes down to just saying that the Apostle’s creed is the center of the faith – which is not really saying anything new. Also, it is subjective as to which other doctrines he decides to put into the nucleus. You will notice there is no morality in the nucleus – just head-knowledge. Actually, because I know Bruxy, I know that he would be screaming at me (in a very peaceful, non-violent way!) that I am distorting his words, and actually he has a lot of moral instructions in the core – especially the teachings of Christ, and basic moral commands. But again…which commands? Which morals? It is subjective, and it comes down to what the pastor decides is useful.
The problem with both of those metaphors is not that they are bad metaphors. A metaphor is meant to be a mental-hook, or to make a complex Spiritual concept clear to a audience. I think both of those metaphors do that well. The problem is that, as I said, it is quite subjective as to what is “essential” and what is “not-essential.” Until we have a good way of telling which is which, a good illustration is not very helpful.
I propose the following as a way of determining which are essential and non-essential doctrines: “Essential doctrines teach that God is God, that Sin is Sin, and make Salvation Possible.” We could also state this negatively: “When Essential Doctrines are corrupted, people will learn of a God who is not God, be taught that sin is not sin, with the result that Salvation will not be possible.”
By contrast, “Non-Essential” doctrines are any doctrines which do not fall under these basic headings. As important as some doctrines may be, if they do not fall under these headings they are not, by my definition “essential,” meaning “essential to salvation.”
Teaching That God is God
We are all aware that “knowing God” is more than just giving mental assent to a set of facts. He wishes to draw us into a love/faith/trust relationship with Him. This is an important point to make, and we need to make it often – especially when we are busy cramming our heads full of theology, and neglecting our souls. It’s not enough to know about God: we need to know God. However, there is an equally important point to be made. One cannot know God, if they do not know about Him. As Paul writes:
14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO [a]BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Rom. 10:14-15)
I spoke about this at length in the post What Comes First – Doctrine or Life? (A response to “Beyond Foundationalism” and “Velvet Elvis”). This was a paradigm-shifting post for myself, and it also strikes the death-knell to much of what goes for “theology” in our whispy “postmodern” climate. It’s worth the read, and I won’t retrace my steps here.
Suffice it to say that you do not get “points” with God by being “spiritual.” Praying to the wrong deity is called “idolatry.” That’s a sin, not a virtue. And so we need to pray to the right God. Which one is that? The one who revealed Himself through Scriptures, then incarnated Himself in Jesus Christ, then explained it all in the New Testament and is present with us through the Spirit as (and I cannot stress this enough) we read His Word.
If you knock on the wrong spiritual door, you will get no reply from the True God. If you teach people to “love” and “embrace” and “speak” to God, but then mess up the central doctrines about God, then you are leading people astray.
Okay, I see I need to mention one point from that post (which I want you all to read, but doubt most of you will). In order to have a relationship with a person, you need to know certian basic fundamental facts. For example, in the online world, we would like to know the age/sex/location of the person we are speaking to. We would have a very different conversation with “Alex, 38/M/Kansas” than with “Alex, 14/F/England.” If we don’t really know which one we are speaking to – or we may be speaking to any variation between – then we can’t really get to know the person. They are just a phantom to us – words without a face or a soul.
In the same way, we need to know certain basic facts about God. No, you don’t have to have the trinity all figured out to have a relationship with Him. However, you do need to know that Jesus is Lord if you want to be saved (Rom. 10:9-10). So yes, we need to know some basic things for salvation – no, we don’t have to have all the pieces of the sovereignty/free-will debate figured out, in order to secure our eternal destinies.
Teaching that Sin is Sin
Much of the leg-work for this section has been done in the posts “Sin Lists and Why We (Should) Love Them,” “What Do Homosexuality, Women in the Church & Home, Fornication, Divorce & Remarriage, Emergent & Hell All Have In Common?” and the discussions surrounding the posts on homosexuality and egalitarian/complementarian marriage.
Suffice it to say that much energy in contemporary theology is focused on saying that the Bible doesn’t say what it says. No, homosexuality/fornication/adultery/pornography/lust is not a sin. No, the Bible does not have anything to say against women leaders in the church/home. Etc. We may think we are making “progress.” We may think we are “modern” and “ahead of the times” and “updating the church.”
However, the one who sits in the heavens laughs. He knows that though the nations rage and despise His law (Rom. 8), they cannot throw off His shackles of morality (Psalm 2). In the end, there will only be two categories: those who sinned under the law, and those who sinned without it. Both will be weighed in the ballance and found wanting apart from repentance and grace (Rom. 2). God will indeed come to judge – and at that time there will be many surpises:
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many [a]miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ (Mat. 7:21-23)
Live your life so as not to be surprised.
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (mat. 5:19)
Teach so as not to be put to shame.
Making Salvation Possible
This is a blanket term which could cover a lot of issues. Usually, however, false religion comes down to a religion of works. I have argued (in sermon and post) that whether Rob Bell is a Christian or not, the religion which he sets forth in Velvet Elvis is a false religion which is basically a spirituality of works. Nobody will be saved by following that path. As Paul said:
“You have been severed from Christ, you who [a]are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4)
The preaching of such a false gospel is the worst of sins (Gal. 1)
I have about five minutes left. In no particular order, I will demonstrate how this principle should work itself out on the first couple doctrines which come to mind.
You can have a saving knowledge of God from either an Arminian or Calvinist or Dispensational view of this issue: it is a non-essential doctrine.
This is sin. Anyone who continues in sin without repentance will loose their salvation, or (if you lean the other way) prove that they were never saved. Cf. Heb. 6 & 10. These are essential doctrines.
Solid Christians can – and regularly do – profess views all over the map on this issue. It doesn’t touch on God’s nature or salvation history or sin. It is a non-essential issue.
As much as it is very important that we hold Scriptures in the highest regard, there are people who do that, while giving lip-service to the possibility that there are errors in Scripture. So far as this is possible, this is not an essential issue.
If you miss this one, you are dialing the wrong number when you pray. If you agree with lots of people, you are probably in, or are founding a cult. If it’s just you…you’re just wrong. You cannot be saved from your sins by praying to the wrong god, which is really no god at all.
People keep telling me that one’s eschatology effects all of their theology and all of one’s life. I’m not convinced. Whether one is “pre” or “post” trib has absolutely no bearing on God’s nature, sin, or salvation. This is most definitely a non-essential doctrine.
Head Coverings/Foot Washing/Long vs. Short Hair/Rock Music/Church Dress Code
Doesn’t touch on God’s nature, isn’t a sin, doesn’t affect salvation. Not essential issues.
No doubt, I have offended at least…all of you. Please allow me to explain. I am not saying that doctrines which are “not-essential” are “not important.” Yes, inerrancy, creation science and even eschatology are “important.” However, they are not “essential.” People can be Christians and disagree on those.
..and this is a very important distinction to make. An “essential” doctrine is worth splitting a church or even a denomination over. A non-essential doctrine isn’t even worth loosing a good friend over.
Now, as I draw this long post to a close, I am wondering two things. First, do you think I have nailed this important distinction? Or, do you think it needs more refinement? I am open to criticism: I want an answer to this more (much, much more!) than I want to be right.
Secondly, how would you rate some of the issues I have mentioned, or some which I haven’t mentioned? For example, how would you rate the following – essential or unessential?
Non Violent Atonement
Divorce and Remairriage
Human – two parts or three parts?
…etc. And many more…
Please – if you are game for it, add whichever doctrines or ideas you have, and tell me whether you think they are “essential to salvation” or “not essential to salvation.”