“Will this be on the test?” Having gone to school for 20 years, I heard this question a lot from my fellow students. Ok, actually I myself wondered this question a lot. Higher education, as they say, is a lot like drinking from a fire hose. It’s hard to always know what to focus on. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious. I once had a professor in grad school who spent a full ten minutes describing the width of certain letters on the typewriter, and which Microsoft Word fonts retain this same width. The person to my left leaned over and said, “This is weird.”
And it was.
Now maybe none of you would say it this way, but I might imagine that there are times when you sit in a church service (not one of ours…I’m talking about some other preacher) and think: “Do I really need to know this?”
That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? By now we’ve tried to hammer home the importance and even beauty of Christian doctrine. But many of us have had those experiences where doctrine seems to stir arguments or has fueled discussions that seem to be purely academic in nature. After all, do we really need to settle the debate between Calvinists and Arminians or figure out whether we believe in pre-millenialism versus amillenialism? I mean, really, how much do we need to know about these types of things?
The Church has historically offered this piece of advice: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In other words, we stand firm in the Christian “essentials,” without splitting on non-essentials, and in all things we let love rule over our minds and our community.
WHAT IS ESSENTIAL
We might answer our question with a question of our own: essential for what? We can split this into three broad categories, which I’m borrowing from Michael Patton from his blog on theology (some of you have been through his thorough theology video series).
- Beliefs that are essential for salvation.
These are the most basic Christian beliefs. A Christian may obviously believe more than this list, but to believe less means that you are not in a saving relationship with God.
- Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
- 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 for our sins (1 Cor 15:3-4)
- Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)
Naturally, each of the above statements might have other beliefs attached to them, but these are the core, essential teachings of Christianity.
- Beliefs that are essential to be an orthodox Christian
By “orthodox” we mean someone who agrees with the distinctive beliefs of the Christian church. This list would include the list above, but would also include some issues that don’t relate to salvation, but determine whether your thinking is in line with the Bible and what other Christians have historically believed. This list would include (but would not be limited to):
- The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed at Nicea
- The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully man and fully God) as expressed at Chalcedon
- The belief in the future second coming of Christ
- A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
- A belief in God’s transcendence (his metaphysical distinction from the universe)
- A belief in God’s immanence (his present activity in the world and our lives)
- A belief in God’s sovereignty (while there are different ways to define sovereignty, this basically purports that God is in control)
- Belief that Christ is the only way to a right relationship with God
- Belief in eternal punishment of the unredeemed
In other words, denying any of the above ideas would certainly put you out of the stream of Christian thought, though I’d be reluctant to define the person outside of a relationship with God. But because these doctrines are so important for traditional Christianity, they are important enough to stand up for—there should not be room to “agree to disagree,” as these doctrines have traditionally formed the shape of Christian belief.
- Beliefs that are essential to certain strands of Christian thought
I’m trying to refrain from calling these “non-essential,” because I don’t want you to hear the word “unimportant.” These are the doctrines that often change between denominations or systems of Christian thought:
- Calvinism versus Arminianism (did God choose me based on his choice alone or because of my choice to follow him?)
- The exact timing of the events of Christ’s future return
- Authorship of particular books of the Bible
- The debate over creation and evolution
- Debates over Christian liberty in issues such as alcohol
Again, let’s not dismiss these as unimportant. On some of the above ideas I hold a very strong view—and I can name people in our congregation who take the opposing view. It’s just that these disagreements don’t serve to divide the Christian community. Two people can be saved, orthodox Christians and be in complete disagreement over whether the rapture comes before or after the tribulation. They can’t both be right. But disagreeing is ok. What we need is to cultivate a community of “gracious contention,” where we are free to discuss, to reason, to discover, and to love one another through such issues.
THE GOAL OF DOCTRINE
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells the young pastor that “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Theology has, as its highest aim, love for God and love for his people.
Nowhere is this love more fully expressed than in the person of Jesus. In John’s introduction, he begins his biography of Jesus by observing that “no one has ever seen God,” but Jesus “has made him known” (John 1:18). If you’re reading that in the original Greek, you find that the phrase “has made him known” comes from the single Greek word exegesato, which refers to scholars poring over ancient texts and stories to draw out a meaning. John is telling us that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s story.
In their book The Jesus Manifesto, authors Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet pick up on this theme:
“Jesus does not leave his disciples with CliffsNotes for a systematic theology. He leaves his disciples with breath and body. Jesus does not leave his disciples with a coherent and clear belief system by which to love God and others. Jesus gives his disciples wounds to touch and hands to heal. Jesus does not leave his disciples with intellectual belief or a ‘Christian worldview.’ He leaves his disciples with a relational faith.”
The authors overstate their case a bit. Room exists, I wager, for doctrine and thoughtful propositions. But they are onto something quite basic and uniquely Christian. If you read the works of other religious teachers, you find that Mohammad, Confucius, Buddha all had meaningful things to say, but—to quote St. Augustine—“I never heard them say, ‘Come unto me.’” Other religions create a division between teaching and teacher. Jesus alone says, I am the teaching. I am God’s message. Don’t just follow an idea. Follow me.
So for Christianity, doctrine is more than a set of propositions, because truth is a person. Truth has a body, and by devoting ourselves to Jesus we form a community of belief and a community of love.
 Rupertus Meldenius, quoted by Philip Schaff in History of the Christian Church, vol. 7, p. 650.
 For his full article, you might want to check out: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/06/essentials-and-non-essentials-in-a-nutshell/