A Different Thought On The Essentials

[Edit 2014: Since this post has been getting some linking lately, I think I should add: it would probably be clearer or more accurate to say “culpable disbelief” rather than “culpable ignorance” (and mutatis mutandis for “non-culpable” etc.) in the places where I do below.]

We’ve had previous discussions at this blog on the issue of the “essentials”, what they are, and their relevance to church unity and church discipline. On this topic, there seems to be a long tradition of  orthodox theologians saying that this question is “mysterious and difficult”. And, I myself am beginning to wonder if the question is difficult because the question presupposes something erroneous.

It does seem counter-intuitive, at least a little, to say there is a category of doctrines (“non-essentials”) revealed by God which people are nonetheless free, in any sense, to disbelieve. I’m beginning to wonder if the essentials/non-essentials distinction is misleading. Consider: the practical impetus behind making the distinction seems to be our recognition (whether based on pure emotion or on the leading of the Spirit or something) that there are people who seem to have evidence of the Spirit of Christ living in them who nevertheless disagree with us on some doctrinal point. I was going to say “and only in the case where the doctrine is non-essential”, but frankly I don’t think that’s true: some Reformed theologians have emphasized that “you are not justified by faith in justification by faith, but by faith in Jesus”, implying it is possible for someone to be saved who does not believe in what many Protestants would call the “point on which the church stands or falls”. I am really starting think the real distinction being made, and being miscast as essential vs. non-essential, is culpable vs. non-culpable ignorance of the truth. Whether we take an apparent ardent love for Jesus as sufficient to join in communion with a person or a church, in spite of said person or church rejecting some truth we believed to be taught by God, is dependent on whether we think that person or church is excusably ignorant of the truth or not, and not whether the doctrine fits into the nebulous category of “essential”.

At least, that’s how I’m inclining at the moment. It seems the biblical data could be shifted either way: all the people excommunicated were, it seems to me, considered to be culpably wrong, so it’s not clear Paul would anathematize someone who made a significant error out of ignorance. At the same time, this does not underwrite a practice of latitudinarianism or antinomianism; it is, after all, possible for a preacher of the gospel to know that he has clearly communicated the gospel (or an important biblical teaching), and that people have understood him and still reject it. And further, it can also be argued that there are some truths no normally functioning human being could be ignorant of, such as monotheism, or some major ethical principles.

But the more I think about it, the more this makes sense. That culpability in disbelief is the real issue seems to be revealed by the fact that most of the “non-essentials” people point to “coincidentally” are also areas of doctrine where coming to a certain conclusion is very difficult due to the complexity of the issue. Consider eschatology: coming to the truth requires having a correct interpretation of scores of highly symbolic and ancient (and therefore frequently partially unclear) passages of scripture from several books, including (but not limited to) Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. There are just so many chances for sincere error here, that most people, I think, have intuitively recognized that there can be a high degree of non-culpable disbelief in the truth on this matter. But when it comes to, say, the deity of Christ, the issues are far less murky, and the proofs for it far more direct, that non-culpable disbelief is considered less likely to occur (though, perhaps not impossible). (One might respond that many in the early church didn’t find the deity of Christ so clear; and, indeed, the mainstream church does look with some indulgence on church fathers who taught otherwise questionable doctrines about the Trinity (e.g., Justin Martyr); however, once the issue was decided by the greatest minds of the church and agreed upon by the bishops of the church, it became much more inexcusable for the average layperson to disagree on the issue. This  widespread acceptance of this doctrine continues among Christian churches to this day, and thus, so does the high degree of culpability in rejecting it. And, further, most evangelicals today would say the Bible is indeed clear on the deity Jesus Christ, and I agree with them on that.)

On the other hand, one can think of a different kind of scenario, and it also seems to confirm my thoughts: imagine a situation where a person explicitly affirmed the fact that Solomon had a thousand women was indeed revealed by God, and nevertheless refused to believe it. Now, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to place such a fact in a category of “essentials”, but nevertheless, such behaviour would reveal a deep contumacy and rebellion against God that would warrant church-discipline.

These are my thoughts as they stand. I think they help to solve some problems with the received tradition about the distinction between essentials and non-essentials, and so I’m persuaded of it; but, I am definitely open to pushback here. I certainly may change my mind again. What do you think?

The one major counter-objection I can think of to this proposal is that scripture signals that some facts about reality are more important than others; this is undeniable, in my mind. But I think that these more important facts are also the things the Bible makes the clearest, and says are the clearest. So, I don’t think that ultimately undermines my thought here.