Peter Kirk has written an excellent post about the essentials of the Christian faith. I’ll let you go to his blog for the many references he has used in his discussion, and the reason for this post at this moment.
My reason for commenting on it is simply that Peter has highlighted a number of the reasons why I believe it is important for us to clearly identify what we hold as essentials of the faith and why. I think I made a fairly clear statement on the issue in my post, Unity, Diversity, and Confusion. In that post I suggested that when we have too few essentials we become confused and rudderless and when we have too many, we become rigid. I could also note that when those essentials are not well-defined and carefully chosen we can do unintended damage throughout the church.
I have experienced this repeatedly in meetings and conversations in which Christian unity is discussed. Someone calls for unity, for holding onto the essentials and allowing disagreement about the non-essentials, but then when they list those essentials, they will include things such as particular rules for using the gifts of the Spirit, worship styles, styles of dress, music, particular details of Biblical interpretation, forms of church organization, and so forth. Peter is addressing the inclusion of items like gender roles, but the exclusion of things such as baptism (that it should be done, not the method), or communion (again that it should be part of our church life, not the method of details of the theology).
And indeed I agree with him on all these points. Baptism and communion are important, because they are the ritual living out of the essential doctrines of salvation and of the incarnation. I would rank them below the incarnation doctrine itself, which I think is Christianity in essence, but I would regard some form of those rituals as an essential part of something I would recognize as Christian. I prefer a hierarchy, rather than a hard line between essential and non-essential, but even in that hierarchy, there will be a hard line on points which define “Christian” and “non-Christian.”
When we unthinkingly put forward essentials of the faith, we tend to put our cultural values and our personal preferences up front, and we also tend to put forward things about which we are passionate at the moment. Advocates of any of the major positions on gender roles in the church are passionate right now because that is the controversy that is front and center, at least in American evagelicalism right now. But we need to ask whether the momentary focus on this issue makes it more essential, or whether it simply makes it more emotional. I suspect that the reason we focus on this issue so much is that we actually agree on the majority of the other points.
But there is a problem there as well. I can agree, for example, that a doctrine of hell is either essential or certainly on the line. But by this I mean that we have a doctrine that says that our choices in this life have an eternal impact, and that there are negative as well as positive consequences. There are numerous ways in which one can work out the details, but I don’t regard those as essential. I think that similarly the emphasis on “penal substitutionary atonement” goes to detailed definitions that do not have adequate scriptural or traditional support to make them essential. I recall recently someone asked me if I accepted the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. I said that I do. But then he pursued it further, obviously believing I was just kidding. “But do you accept the penal substitutionary atonement?” Well, at that point, for honesty’s sake, I needed to point out that I don’t accept any description of the atonement as adequate and complete in and of itself to describe the atonement, and that the “penal” aspect seems to me to cause many more problems than does the Biblical statement that Jesus died for our sins. “Died for our sins” sounds essential to me; putting this in a judicial setting and making God the punisher (although I do believe that the punishment of sin traces back to God) does not sound essential.
In any case, I think it is important to discuss and define the essentials as an essential first step to building Christian unity. Until we know who we are–the most essential facets of who we are–we can’t be in real unity. I think that if we really give this due consideration, we’ll find that our real essentials are not always the biggest current controversy. Discovering that would be a good thing!