Last week we got into a discussion about the doctrine of the Trinity on one of the threads here. As the issue was parsed, we were able to see just how careful we sometimes need to be in our descriptions and definitions, as even just one unclear word can lead to significant doubt or confusion. Especially on something as sublime as the Trinity where it is very hard for our human minds to comprehend three distinct Persons in one eternal God. Truthfully, our minds can’t really comprehend it, but we do our best to try to faithfully describe and understand who God has revealed Himself to be. Dr. Arnold then gave us an articulate expression of the Trinity just a couple days ago, correlating it to how we show love, and sin when we don’t.
Unsaid in these discussions, but likely presumed by most, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is a pillar of the Christian faith. An essential or fundamental or primary or cardinal doctrine, if you will. That if a church is going to call itself a church, or a Christian to call themselves a Christian, then they should have a handle on this one. As difficult as it may be to fully comprehend, if they have a faulty understanding of the Trinity, and especially if they reject it, one wonders if they truly are of the faith. (The caveat here, of course, is that we wouldn’t be as concerned with young children or those new to the faith as they may not have yet had an opportunity to come to a sufficient understanding.)
All of this got me to thinking about the essentials of the faith. We often refer to those things that are essential or primary, and subsequently those that are non-essential or secondary. So what are they? Now, I’m sure each and every one of us would have a list that’s a bit different, at least in some respects. Some might have a list of a few core essentials, others might have a list of a hundred. And I certainly imagine we would see some differences from the Evangelical list to the Lutheran list to the Catholic list to the Orthodox list.
The way I think about it, those items or doctrines that are the core or the essentials of the Christian faith would pertain to salvation and who God is. Even these two categories can be very broad in what we could all include, but which items or beliefs within them do we see as primary importance for the faith?
The aforementioned doctrine of the Trinity would be included in the primary list for me. Belief in God the Father, God the Son – Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, all distinct Persons of the eternal God and Creator of heaven and earth and man. While already admitting that this is a difficult concept for us to wrap our minds around, nonetheless if we don’t know who the Christian God is, as revealed and described in the Bible, then really in whom is our faith?
Certainly the person and work of Jesus Christ would be or primary importance. A Christian would need to recognize the deity of Christ and His death on the cross for our sins and His subsequent bodily resurrection. Following from that, a Christian would need to recognize their own sin and have a belief or faith in Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross and in resurrection in order to be saved from those sins.
I also think a belief in the Second Coming of Christ where there will be final judgment and the resurrection of our bodies and when He will make all things new and set all things right is an essential of our faith.
These are the things I think of as being the most essential or fundamental to the Christian faith. Much of what I have mentioned here can be found in one manner or another in the historic Christian creeds, which are obviously quite good baselines to the historic faith.
Matters involving baptism and communion and the authority of Scripture and God’s sovereignty are also of great importance, but I wouldn’t include them quite in the same category as the previously mentioned core. Others may very well include them.
Beyond these things, there are also plenty of other doctrines which are certainly substantial but I would think as being more secondary or as a rung below the essentials. Issues like the particulars of soteriology and sovereignty, such as are classically debated in the Calvinist/Arminian divide. Issues like the particulars of eschatology or ecclesiology or the continuation of spiritual gifts or the existence and nature of Hell.
Then we have all kinds of manner of topics, that while not denying their significance, I would see almost as being tertiary in importance. Things like worship music and Bible translations and alcohol and how to spend money.
Now my listings here are far from complete and full. This article was not meant to be an exhaustive study and I’m certainly not making the claim of being the final judge of the exact classification of importance for every doctrine. These are just my introductory thoughts. With the diversity in the faith we have here, it would be interesting to see what others would add or where they would see things differently than I do as a layman Evangelical. So have at it, if you like. We’re bound to have some differences, but I would hope we can also find some unifying agreements in our Christian faith.