The Whole Faith Is Essential: Part 2
Michael S. Horton
The division between essentials and non-essentials has allowed evangelicals of various stripes to focus on the central articles of the Christian faith (identified by the Nicene Creed) while many of their denominations were evaporating into the smog of liberalism. Yet it has also had a tendency to foster reductionism. The best examples of evangelical cooperation were inter-denominational and inter-confessional. Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed and Presbyterians, Methodists, and others came together with all of the depth of their own distinctive convictions. They defended their shared creed, but with the resources of actual churches and traditions over centuries. Even their strong differences and sharp debates contributed to this deepening of their common witness. Non-denominational evangelicalism is a different matter. Now, “evangelical” becomes the tradition—the most important identification. Yet “evangelical” was meant to identify people of various churches and traditions who didn’t cross their fingers when they said the Creed. It seems that the tie that binds is no longer the content of what we believe, but the methodological consensus regarding “essentials” and “non-essentials.” And as the statistics bear out, most American Protestants (including evangelicals) today cannot even summarize what they think are the actual “essentials” that would have been recognized and articulated by their forebears only a couple of generations ago.
In this setting, an evangelicalism that is nothing more than agreement on “essentials” (and what exactly those are is changing now) is shallow even in its defense and articulation of a minimial creed. We may still differ—we do still differ—over what Scripture teaches, but even going back to that Word together in the confidence that it reveals the deposit of truth is itself a remarkable source as well as sign of unity. Furthermore, our shared witness to the core of apostolic teaching can only be strengthened by confessing and teaching everything that Christ has delivered to his church. This means, of course, that we have to belong to churches that shape us over a lifetime, not merely get people to sign a tract or a statement of faith and then move on to more important things like marriage-and-family seminars. Not everything in Scripture is equally plain or equally important, but everything is essential to be taught, to understand, and to live out—always with charity toward all and malice toward none.