Friday, October 2, 2009

Christian Essentials?

Flying Heron
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
I've been watching with some interest over at Stan's place (birdsoftheair.blogspot ). Stan is one of those who have asked me to no longer comment there so I haven't, but he has posted a series in which he goes through what he considers to be Christian essential beliefs.

He begins with the notion that "saved by grace through faith in Jesus" is a line that distinguishes Christianity from other religions. So far, very good. From there, he listed some fairly typical (I guess) notions of Christian doctrines. In his words...

What doctrines did I list as essential? In what I consider a somewhat logical order:

1. The Inerrancy of Scripture
2. The Sinfulness of Man
3. The Atonement
4. The Trinity
5. The Resurrection of Christ

Stan added the caveat...

Now, I, again, need to make it clear. When I say "essential to Christianity", I do not mean that in order to become a Christian you need to believe all these things.

I am not saying that a person who does not have a clear understanding and agreement with, for instance, the mystery of the Trinity cannot be saved. These are not essential for salvation. They are essential for Christianity. They form the primary substance of Christianity. Without them, you have something that is not Christianity.

And I respond by thinking, "hmmm." I'm not sure if I agree. Oh, I believe in most of his essentials - although not the way that Stan wants me to believe (he has decided that I'm not a Christian because I don't believe correctly on some things - that is EVIDENCE of why I'm not a Christian, but it's not what makes me not a Christian, according to Stan). Of course, I don't believe in what he is calling "biblical inerrancy."

I'm no theologian, but I reckon my essentials would look more like this...

UPDATED: Dan's list of Christian essentials IF I WERE TO DO A LIST...

1. The Sin problem of humanity
2. The Love of God for this world and God's desire to save humanity
3. The Grace of God, by which we are saved
4. The Lordship of Jesus
5. The Fellowship/Community of Believers

The advantage to this set of beliefs (as opposed to Stan's) is that they are exceptionally directly biblical. That is, these aren't implied (like he thinks inerrancy is or like we both think the Trinity is, or as his version of Atonement is). My take on them comes pretty directly from Jesus' teachings.

Clearly, we have a sin problem (although Stan and I may look at that differently - more on that in another post). But then, from what I see in the Bible, there is a HUGE emphasis on the love of God for this fallen world. God wishes that we'd ALL be saved, this is what the Bible tells us God wants and this desire springs from God's love for us.

And so we are offered salvation by God's grace. This is what saves us, God's grace through faith in Jesus, as Stan agrees. What I found especially missing in Stan's list (and he apparently thinks it is implied) is any mention of the Lordship of Jesus. That is, we know Jesus' teachings and agree with God that our way is wrong, that Jesus' way is right, we repent of trying to go our sinful way and, by God's grace, live a life walking in the steps of Jesus, our Lord.

Stan may think it's implied, but I think it's important enough to note right up front. After all, someone could believe in Stan's essentials and not be saved at all.

I also think the communion of saints is an important essential, the love of the church for one another and the world.

Again, I'm no theologian, am I off on a wrong trail or does that sound solid? To me, my list is much more "Jesusy" than Stan's. These are teachings that come straight from Jesus the Christ.

Stan's list sounds vaguely more Pauline (well, except for the inerrancy stuff, which Paul doesn't talk about that I see, or the Trinity stuff, but the rest of it...)



Alan said...

I think the making of lists of essentials was exactly why the Presbyterian church split in the 1920s and 30s over the fundamentalist/modernist controversy.

Make a list and someone will turn it into either a purity test or an entrance exam (or both.) Which, as we've seen, is exactly how the 5 Fundamentals on his list are typically used today. (To which fundamentalists today add: Don't be gay.)

My first problem with creating these lists is that they're such an oversimplification of what is presented in Scripture. I'm not sure it's a worthwhile exercise to render down Biblical truths to theological McNuggets.

But worse is that these lists are just ways of trying to decide who's in and who's out. They're just ways of judging other people, and trying to play God. Now I know that's not your intent, Dan, but why play that game anyway, since you certainly know that's the purpose those folks have in making these lists in the first place? In the immortal words of Joshua from the movie WarGames, "The only winning move is not to play."

If you want to base your list on the Bible, then it seems to me you might notice that no such list is given in the Bible. If the making of these lists was important, doesn't it seem like a rather surprising oversight not to find one somewhere in there, eh?

Dan Trabue said...

excellent, excellent points, o wise one.

Dan Trabue said...

Lists are dumb...

Dan Trabue said...

Although I DO like Top 25 best books-type lists.

But other lists are dumb...

Dan Trabue said...

Time to re-read the Bible, and the Butter Battle Book, as well, I reckon.

Alan said...

The making and using of these lists remind me of star-bellied sneeches.

Anyway, to add to my previous comment, one question, I think, shows the futility of making these lists: Why only 5?

Really? There isn't even one other idea in the entire Bible that could make the list and make it 6 Fundamentals? If 6, why not seven? Why not 4? Why not 100?

Or ask yourself, of the 5, which is most important?

Once you start asking those questions you realize how arbitrary the list is to begin with.

(BTW, I strongly suspect that, since humans are pretty good at remembering 7 + or - 2 chunks of info at a time, 5 Fundamentals was easier to remember than say, 10, and that's the only reason for 5. :) But from a Biblical standpoint, if we were going to make such a list, obviously it should have 7 items for completeness.)

BruceA said...

If we're talking about Christian essentials, why not start with the Apostles' Creed? It's at once more God-centered and less doctrinally divisive than these modernist lists of "essentials".

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks, Bruce. And yes, the creed is fine and one with which I agree.

Alan said...

I agree with it too, but is not salvation by grace alone an essential? Because that's not in there. Neither is it explicitly trinitarian. It never even says Jesus died for our sins.

I've always found it interesting that one of our oldest creeds is so vague and non-specific. Maybe it is one of our oldest creeds because it is vague and non-specific?

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

You might want to see this new work:

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Not all "essential" doctrines are taught directly in Scripture. Some, like the Trinity, come out of reflection on what Scripture does say directly--and reflection on other solutions that create big mistakes. The Epistles are earlier than the Gospels and embedded in the Epistles are fragments of hymns (thus, earlier still, since the Epistle writers assume the familiarity of their readers with the hymns they quote)--and these show very high Christologies where Jesus is identified directly with God (e.g., Phil. 2: 5-11). The doctrine of the Trinity comes out of a few hundred years of reflection on keeping together the doctrine of monotheism (the oneness of God, inherited from Judaism) and the high Christologies.

So, I have more sympathy with some of your interlocutors choices than you do. We always attempt to "boil down" theology--for an evangelistic presentation, or for a testimony, or for an attempt at distinguishing truth from error, etc.

Are they reductionistic? Yes. Can any such list be criticized and shown to be majoring in areas not central to Scripture while omitting other areas that are central? Yes.

But I am uncomfortable with attempts to say that anything not taught directly without implication by Scripture cannot be an "essential." The Trinity is essential--even though it took awhile for disciples to figure it out--because without it, Who God Is and Who Christ Is cannot fit together coherently. As Moltmann showed in The Crucified God, even the Cross cannot be fully understood as an event in the life of God without the Trinity.

It also better explains the love of God: God is a community of giving and receiving love in God's very Triune being from all eternity. Therefore Creation, including the Creation of Humanity, is the overflowing of that love--God does not need Creation in order to learn to love, to learn to relate to others.

I'm being overly brief, because this is a comment.

Dan Trabue said...

Let me clarify, Michael. What I'm talking about are beliefs that some say are essential if you are a Christian. You have to believe these or else you're not a Christian, according to these folk.

I don't believe that.

I believe these are core Christian tenets and I tend to believe in many/most of these core tenets. Certainly the Triune nature of God is something I can buy into.

But I am wary and don't believe we ought to be in the business of saying that IF you don't believe these sets of beliefs, you are not a Christian, when Jesus does not say so.

That is, Jesus never says, "You must believe in the Triune nature of God in order to be saved," and I don't think that's true. I don't agree with this notion of demanding people believe in stuff that Jesus did not teach in order to be a Christian.

The felon on the cross besides Jesus - whom Jesus assured, "today you will be with me in paradise" - almost certainly did not believe in or even know about the Trinity, the virgin birth, or an infallible Bible.

Such tests of these as "essentials" that one must believe in order to be saved, that is what I reject as extrabiblical and poor reasoning.