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Toward Defining ‘Essential’ February 7, 2007

Posted by larrylaz in Random Musings.
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Joe,

When it comes to defining ‘essential’, as you asked in your last post, I can’t help but think of a quote that I posted here a few weeks ago from Wayne Grudem about major and minor doctrines. I agree with you that just about anyone would agree that in the essentials we should have unity, and that the real problem then is determining what is and is not essential.

Actually, before I get to the Grudem quote, let me add first that it would be wrong to say that an essential doctrine can only be one that has been consistently agreed upon throughout the history of the Church. This may be obvious, but I stress it again because the suggestion has been thrown my way a few times recently that if such and such a doctrine (and you could probably fill in the ‘such and such’!) were so important, then it would not be so heavily debated. But the history of the Church bears witness that no major, essential doctrine in the Christian faith has been unchallenged.

Is there a more essential doctrine to our faith than the deity of Jesus Christ? Well, within a couple hundred years of Christ’s appearing in flesh and blood, the widespread belief of the Church was that He was not divine. It was Athanasius in the mid-300’s who contended to restore this truth, and he was heavily in the minority. If not for his commitment to a truth that had been abandoned by the Church, we would likely all be walking in darkness.

The same could be said for justification by faith alone; what is more precious and vital to our faith than this? Yet it was not until the Reformation that this truth was preserved, thanks to Martin Luther and others. So to say — as I sometimes hear it said — such and such cannot be essential because there is too much debate about it, is an argument that just won’t stand the test of Church history.

So I go back to Grudem’s definition for help:

“A major doctrine is one that has a significant impact on our thinking about other doctrines, or that has a significant impact on how we live the Christian life. A minor doctrine is one that has very little impact on how we think about other doctrines, and very little impact on how we live the Christian life.”

If we substitute the word ‘essential’ for ‘major’ then I think I am inclined to use this explanation for our current situation. The doctrines that I want to hold in my ‘closed’ hand (to use the image you gave from Driscoll), which I will not budge on, are the doctrines that shape my thinking about other doctrines and/or have a significant impact on how we live the Christian life. The unessential doctrines, the ones we can hold more loosely, are the ones that do not significantly impact our thought on other doctrines or affect how we live the Christian life.

In addition, I would think that the clarity and quantity of Scripture on a given subject ought to be used in determining if a doctrine is essential. I think an example would be speaking in tongues; because there is only one significant passage dealing with that issue (1 Corinthians 14), and it being one that is not extremely clear, I am inclined to treat this as an unessential doctrine.

I am tempted to give other illustrations, but other ministry things beckon. I’ll leave you to flesh out some of the details a bit more, correct/refine me if I am in error, or just add some to what I have said. One thing seems clear: a read through the New Testament (and I might say, especially the pastoral epistles) tells us that the area of doctrine is not something to be casual about. The ongoing health and preservation of the Church is in measure dependent upon our finding out and keeping those essential things, and guarding them with all of our hearts. I think it is safe to say that wherever the Church is floundering and drifting toward liberalism today (and it is happening in abundance), one can be sure that what once were held as essential doctrines have become unessential.

Awaiting your thoughts,

Larry

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