The meaning and criteria of "the essentials"

Dan kicked off our discussion about essentials with a proposal: given the Apostles’ Creed, what else should be required as essential Christian doctrine (or, what would be wrong with using even this as the standard for “essentials)?

However, if I may, I would like to take a step back and ask a couple logically more basic questions. That is: 1) What exactly are we saying about when call a doctrine “essential”?, and 2) What is the criteria by which we include doctrines in the essential category (and so come up with something like the apostles’ creed)?

It seems that the term “essential”, at least among conservatives of various stripes, serves double duty: it signifies the boundaries of the Christian church, and of salvation. Thus in tandem with answering any question about what is “essential” one will have to at least consider the issues surrounding the historical claim of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus. Most contemporary Christians, at least, have softened this claim to “ordinarily no salvation outside of the church”, and I think that is a right instinct. An example of a liminal case might be Apollos in Acts, whose preaching was technically incorrect, or at least incomplete (knowing only of Jesus and nothing of the Holy Spirit and the events of Pentecost), but who was not regarded in any way as a false teacher. Similarly, one could imagine liminal cases today, with people who profess (if they are even conscious enough to do so) technically incomplete or incorrect doctrine (how many congregants in the average rural church could explain the ousia/hypostasis distinction?) but who nevertheless seem to have an ardent love for the Lord and display the fruit of the Spirit in their life. Nevertheless, while recognizing the importance of this qualification, the modern ecumenical discussion is basically between leaders of churches and is often directed at the goal of having a common teaching ministry (where pulpits could be exchanged without violating conscience), and so agreeing on what the essentials are and agreeing on the content of them is (pardon the pun) essential. Someone in a teaching position in the church is morally expected (even by scripture, cf. James’ epistle) to have attained a higher standard than the average congregant, and certainly to have reflected enough on doctrine to have a settled opinion on such matters (which places them more firmly in the category of the morally culpable if they reject true essential doctrine). So, sum up the discussion so far: essential doctrine is doctrine that defines the boundaries of the true church, the community of those on the way to eschatological City of God.

The second basic question, and perhaps the most important one (in my humble opinion), involved in this discussion is the criteria by which essential doctrines (in distinction from non-essentials) are identified. It’s here where I think things really get interesting.

Obviously, immediately the issue of theological authority, and correlative theological methodology, becomes directly relevant to this discussion. How one identifies essential doctrine will be dependent on what gets to define the criteria. Now, as in many ways this is the most divisive question of all in the modern ecumenical debate, one could perhaps get hopeless about the possibility of Christian reunion in the present. However, there is possibly still a chance for reunion in advance of resolving all these questions, if we can take for granted that most Christians have some theological authorities in common. For example, between conservative Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals there is common agreement that the Apostles are the foundational authority of the church and define its doctrine, even while those parties disagree on whether the current Magisterium exercises an authority equal to that of the Apostles (being their successor). This allows for at least the possibility of rapprochement. Obviously, among denominations that are even closer in theological heritage, like conservative Lutherans and conservative Anglicans, the possibility of coming to agreement on what the criteria for essentials is is even greater.

My tentative ecumenical proposal at this stage is the following: let us assume that the Apostles get to define what are essential doctrines and what are not. This will immediately exclude some of the most radical of experience-based types of Christianity, but some starting point is unavoidable (and which one we take will be inevitably biased depending on the one suggesting the starting point), and I personally think those forms of Christianity are the least like the first century Church in comparison to all the other denominational variations. Furthermore, I think such forms of Christianity as inherently uncorrectable, since they claim direct divine authority for whatever they experience to be the “Spirit’s leading”, and it is impossible to question whether they have interpreted a self-interpreting experience correctly, unlike mundanely researched exegetical positions.

Since this post is getting long, I will leave off here for now. The next logical step is fairly obvious: what did the apostles teach was essential doctrine, insofar as “neutral” grammatico-historical research is concerned?