Saturday, December 17, 2011

What is Essential Doctrine?

Are there essential and non-essential doctrines? If so, what are they? What impact should this or would this have upon my Christian life and beliefs? This article will attempt to answer these questions. First, we should distinguish between at least two aspects of what is considered to be essential doctrine. That is, we must ask ourselves the question, “essential to what?”
The first aspect is what I will call truth essentialism. This essentialism deals with truths that are necessary to be true in order for Christianity as a whole to be true. Truth essentialism includes: the existence of God, the Trinity, Jesus being the Son of God, Jesus’ resurrection, salvation, etc. Perhaps surprisingly, truth essentialism does not include things like the evolution/creation debate, old earth vs. young earth, biblical inerrancy, the inspiration of Scripture, Calvinism, speaking in tongues, trichotomy vs. dichotomy, and so on. This is because Christianity could still be true even if these particular teachings happened to be false.[1] Notice also truth essentialism is not concerned with telling us which doctrines are important or not; it is only concerned with describing what must necessarily be the case if Christianity is true.
The next aspect is what I will call practical essentialism. Practical essentialism includes all of truth essentialism as part of its set. However, it is concerned with what is necessary to be true in order for mainstream, orthodox, evangelical Christianity to be true. This surely covers more ground. It includes: the virgin birth, the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, the institution of the local church, the second coming of Jesus Christ, etc. Practical essentialism still would not include things like Calvinism vs. Arminianism, speaking in tongues, a particular hermeneutics, pre-tribulational Rapture vs. post-tribulational Rapture vs. no Rapture, the doctrine of Hell, etc.
(EDIT: I have come to think the virgin birth belongs in truth essentialism, because if Jesus were not born into mankind, he would not truly be human; and were he not born of a virgin, he would not be sinless [he would eventually sin because of his proclivity for sin, which Jesus does not have])
When people say things like “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty,” they are more or less referring to practical essentialism. If you were in a country where Christianity was illegal and there was one underground church around the area, what would prevent you from joining them in fellowship? If they adhere to practical essentialism, nothing should. In fact, biblically, separation from other believers was only done in one of two contexts: false teachers of the Gospel (who are not believers anyway) and those who had been admonished by church discipline.
Again, it should be stated that all true doctrine is important, as God is truth (John 14:6). However, truth and practical essentialism are basic guides for discovering orthodox Christianity’s truth. Those who differ with us on teachings that do not fit into these categories should not be ostracized.

[1] For example, imagine that God never chose to inspire the Bible, but rather chose to work through it. Doubtless, we would have a much different Bible and world history, but it nonetheless could still be true that Christianity is correct.


  1. Happy New Year Randy!

    I think I agree with the majority of your post and I do agree that we engage in debates on minor issues. While I really do not especially like debating WITH Calvinists, I do believe the debate is vital because it is a discussion on HOW salvation or conversion begins. If salvation is an essential doctrine as you indicate, THEN that makes conversion essential because as I see it, if we get that wrong, we are wrong on salvation as well. This also as I see it, has a lot to do with our Doctrine of God and how we see His involvement in the world and His responsibility related to sin and salvation.

    Happy New Year!

    Grateful to be in His Grip!


  2. Hi Bob, Happy New Year to you as well! I think you bring up a very interesting point. When I say salvation is in the category of truth essentialism, I mean the basic idea that salvation is found by grace through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I wouldn't think that particular nuances such as Calvinism/Arminianism, eternal security/free-will Baptist/loss of salvation, and the like would belong to truth essentialism (though perhaps they would to practical essentialism). That said, I would like to take this opportunity to agree that the Calvinism conversation is important; doctrines can be very important even without conforming to the definition of truth essentialism as outlined above. Thanks for the comment!


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