The Whole Faith Is Essential: Part 1
Michael S. Horton
"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Certainly, all Christians can agree on the clear scriptural teaching that charity should be shown in all cases, to all people, in all circumstances. We are not only to speak the truth, but to speak it in love, gentleness, and humility (1 Pet 3:15-16).
However, the formula above, tracable to Augustine, has over-promised and under-delivered for centuries. Of course, the medieval church was a lot less complicated: just believe whatever the church teaches. (No mortal can possibly know everything the church teaches, so you just sign a blank check: it’s called “implicit faith.”) Not on the basis of the church’s authority, but on the basis of Scripture’s inherent clarity, the churches of the magisterial Reformation regard the ecumenical creeds and distinctive confessions and catechisms as faithful summaries of the “essentials.” So for Rome the “essentials” are whatever the church requires for salvation, while Lutheran and Reformed churches confess collectively what they believe the Bible to teach as essential for sound faith and practice.
However, the famous maxim above has been invoked more in radical Protestantism than in Roman Catholic or Lutheran and Reformed traditions. By “radical Protestantism” I mean the trajectory that runs from Anabaptist to Quaker to Restorationist sects in the New World. Although an English Puritan (that is, a minister in the Church of England who would not conform to episcopacy), Richard Baxter (1615-91) alarmed many fellow Puritans by revising and rejecting key features of Reformed theology. Baxter first labeled as “mere Christianity” turned out to be another set of doctrines that were diametirically opposed to the confessions he had subscribed. Many today think that Baxter is the original source of our maxim, because he appealed to it to justify his program. Where churches had agreed in representative assemblies on what Scripture teaches, Baxter’s spirit is in many ways that of modern evangelicals. “Essentials” are whatever I think they are; church dogmas are the letter without the Spirit. The most important doctrines are the ones that all professing Christians can agree to, which of course leaves out doctrines like original sin and the sovereignty of God’s grace in election, justification, the new birth, and preservation of the saints. Professing Christians disagree over the sacrifice of the mass, purgatory, merits, and ultimate authority in the church, so these matters must also be excluded from any list of essentials—or “mere Christianity.”
In a 1620s tract, pietist leader Johannes Arndt invoked the “essentials-non-essentials-charity” maxim over against what he perceived as a narrow spirit among Lutheran orthodox theologians. It also became the moniker of the Campbellite branch of American Restorationism. Not only in need of reformation, all churches were thoroughly corrupt, except for the one Church of Christ that had been lately restored at the Cane Ridge, Kentucky, revival in 1801. “No creed but Christ” was also Campbell’s contribution to the vocabulary of radical American Protestantism. Interesting, isn’t it, how a phrase regularly employed to call Christians away from petty strife and schism to united witness ends up becoming a banner for undermining, marginalizing, or even rejecting the creeds and confessions that have united and continue to unite many believers across all times and places?
After the triumph of unbelief throughout much of European and Anglo-American Protestantism, the range of views held by professing Christians has widened to the point of absurdity. One may believe anything, except that the creeds and confessions remain binding on those who subscribe them. The deity of Christ is far less “essential” than the affirmation of homosexuality and quite precisely defined political positions. Moderates on their way to becoming full-fledged liberals invoked the distinction beteween essentials and non-essentials to defend themselves against charges in church courts. Eventually, they had their way, and creedal Christianity became “non-essential.”
First, who decides what essentials and non-essentials are? Rejecting the Anglican and Puritan consensus on justification, Baxter forged under this banner what fellow-Puritans branded as “neo-nomianism”: that is, turning the gospel into a new law. Yet in doing so, Baxter thought he could unite not only Protestants (Arminians, Lutherans, and Calvinists) with each other, but also with Rome. So he definitely had a horse in this race.
It’s clear enough from Baxter at least that “essentials” didn’t include what the Reformation confessions regarded as essential. Before long, the great Puritan and Oxford vice-chancelllor John Owen was warning of his erstwhile friend’s creeping Socinianism (basically, Unitarianism). Whether or not this is a fair judgment of Baxter, many leading Arminians in Holland and England regarded the Trinity as a “non-essential” and then, within one generation, many of Baxter’s sympathizers were in fact Unitarian.
The point is not to endorse slippery-slope arguments, but to remind ourselves that “essentials” have to be defined—and are defined in the ecumenical creeds and in the confessions of our churches. When it comes to “essentials,” I often wonder, “Essential for what?” Usually, my evangelical brothers and sisters mean something like “essential for salvation.” There may be a doctrine test, so like any nervous student, we want to know how much we have to get right to pass. However, this is “salvation by doctrine”—another form of works-righteousness. We are not saved by how well we know and can articulate Christian truth, but by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. That involves knowledge, of course, but it’s the fact of trusting in Christ, not the degree of our knowledge, assent, or trust, that is at issue.
But what happens to the call to become lifelong disciples of Christ when the content of the faith is reduced to whatever we think someone needs to know in order to be saved? As Robert Godfrey has said, “D. L. Moody said he could write the gospel on a dime, yet God thought he needed to write a pretty long book.” Of course, the gospel can be stated and shared simply, but do we have the authority to determine which summary of the Bible is enough and leave the rest of the Bible in the “non-essentials” category?
In the Great Commission, Jesus did not say, “Go therefore into all the world and preach the gospel, making everyone memorize the Four Spiritual Laws, and then keep multiplying converts.” He commanded the church to “make disciples” by proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and “teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded.” People do not have to know everything that the Bible teaches—or even to understand all of its major doctrines—in order to be received as professing members of Christ’s body. However, when they become Christians, they are enrolled in a school of lifelong discipleship. Not everything in Scripture is equally clear or equally important, but everything is essential for us to know. God did not reveal everything that he might have revealed to us, but whatever he has revealed to us is necessary.
Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is therefore useful for teaching, reproof, and instruction in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16) and in Acts he reminded the Ephesian elders that he had preached “the whole counsel of God” while he was with them. Where’s the “essentials” and “non-essentials” division?
Tomorrow we will answer this question in Part 2.