C. Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen lays out his opinion about how essential various elements of Christian belief really are, relatively speaking. James McGrath of Exploring our Matrix disagrees, claiming that many of Patton’s most essential doctrines are only found in the Johannine literature.
James is right to wonder where Christian conduct fits into Patton’s schema. As it stands, it isn’t really there at all, and that is surely a distortion of the gospel. The Great Commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor surely fits somewhere on a list of Christian essentials! At the same time, if you believe that salvation is by faith and not by works, can you really claim that any kind of behavior is “essential for salvation”?
I would respectfully disagree with James, however, that most of these essentials (at least in the “essential for salvation” category, are “supported primarily or exclusively by appeal to the Gospel and Letters of John.” Here are Michael’s top-tier essentials:
- Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
All issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:
- Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
- Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
- Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
- Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)
I think you can make a case for Christ’s deity and humanity from Hebrews, and Michael himself appeals to a Pauline passage, the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” I know that verbiage is not conclusive, but it does tend to point in the direction of divinity, as do several of Jesus’ parables in the Synoptic Gospels (I’m thinking in particular of the Wicked Tenants, and the implications about the identity of “the son” who shows up at the end). the “Johannine thunderbolt” in Matthew 11:27, while also not conclusive, does seem to suggest that more people than merely John had at least an embryonic awareness that Christ was divine. As to the fact that humans are sinners in need of God’s mercy, honestly, what books of the Bible don’t teach that this is the human condition? And what New Testament books don’t teach that Jesus died and was raised to new life? The final item is the most problematic because, although the New Testament is pretty clear that all people are called to faith in Christ, I think humility requires us to admit that we may not have enough information to declare what God does with those who are not in a position ever to have meaningfully heard the gospel. Clark Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy is helpful here.
I don’t object in principle to naming one’s doctrinal “essentials,” and I would much prefer they be arranged in a hierarchy of one kind or another because that seems to foster much more fruitful dialogue with those who believe differently. And this is true even though I understand full well that you and I are going to disagree about where certain items belong in the pecking order.
The crusaders of both fundamentalism and liberalism (be they caped or otherwise) have a problem with hierarchies of belief. The fundamentalists put everything in the top tier so that any—and I mean any—deviation in any matter throws you into the category of a godless unbeliever: using a Bible other than the KJV, women wearing pants, men going too long between haircuts, you name it. But I have observed liberals put everything (at least of a doctrinal nature) in the bottom tier so that any—and I mean any—affirmation of doctrinal certainty is met with disdain if not open hostility. We moderate Baptists fully understand the first danger, but we have sometimes been so zealous to distinguish ourselves from fundamentalists that we have resisted admitting to any doctrinal non-negotiables.
For what it’s worth, I am much more amenable to the logic behind Catholic hierarchy of levels of teaching within the church, even though of course I would disagree with many of their specific conclusions. Also, it must be kept in mind that this hierarchy is an “in-house” schema, not strictly intended for ecumenical concerns or activities. Even so, I have found it helpful. Bishop Raymond Lucker discussed these various levels of teaching in an interview in The American Catholic back in 2001. Here is my summary with comments:
1. Divinely-revealed truth, which requires faith and assent. The opposite is heresy. In Catholicism, this is the category for such things as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection, love for God and for one another (hurray for orthopraxis!), the real presence in the Eucharist, the immaculate conception of Mary, etc. Obviously, as a Protestant I’m only willing to place in this category things for which I can find a firm, unambiguous biblical foundation.
2.Definitive non-revealed truths, defined as matters of faith and morals that “even though not revealed themselves, are required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively” and having a “necessary and intrinsic relationship to the truths of faith.” These truths require firm assent and acceptance. The opposite is error. Examples include principles of natural law, seven sacraments, and a host of social-justice issues (human dignity and equality, condemnation of racism and sexism as evil, etc. Hurray again for orthopraxis!). I think I would put the Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the fourth and fifth centuries in this category: they are not explicitly biblical, although I believe they have a firm basis in what the Bible does unambiguously teach. Most social-justice issues probably still belong here, although I would promote some of the more basic or foundational ones to the first category.
3. Authoritative but non-irreformable teaching, also called “authentic but not infallible.” These are doctrines “to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith.” Here there seems to be an admission that things are not entirely clear, and that in fact we may eventually come to a different conclusion. This level of teaching requires “religious submission (respect, obedience) of will and intellect” and religiously grounded obedience. The opposite is dissent. Here Lucker lists examples including biblical criticism, evolution, the formula for the sacraments, teachings about (against) artificial birth control, and teachings about (against) the ordination of women, etc. I expect my list would look somewhat like his, although viewed from the opposite direction!
4. Disciplinary rules, which require obedience. The opposite is disobedience. Examples include rules for fasting, feasts of obligation, and celibacy of clergy. Again, my list would be similar, but transposed into a congregationalist key. I defer to my (local) church’s rules, customs, and procedures about using the liturgical calendar, how the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, decision-making processes, “chain-of-command”-type issues, and the like.
5. Theological opinion, which invites agreement. (The shift from “requires” to “invites” is significant, I think.) The opposite is difference of opinion, and sometimes the church will issue a warning about certain differences of opinion that could lead to error. Examples include the existence of Limbo and the specific applications of various moral principles. I would place end-times speculations, the authorship of various books of the Bible, beliefs about the genre of Job, Jonah, or Esther, and other speculative issues here. In a free-church context, this is bound to be a very large category—and the freer, the larger!
6. Pious practices and devotions, which invite imitation and encouragement. The opposite is personal preference. Examples include praying the rosary, going on pilgrimages, and other forms of private devotion. This is pretty self-explanatory. I would include here things that may fit well in one person’s life of discipleship that should not be imposed upon another’s: a personal quiet time, devotional reading, making the sign of the cross, particular acts of charity or service, etc.
This schema does not have a category for “beliefs necessary for salvation.” If you really want one, here it is: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).