Essential Doctrine for the Christian

by Steve Gregg of The Narrow Path

As for a list of the “essentials of Christian doctrine,” these are difficult to nail down with certainty. Living, as we do, at this late date, we may be biased by the fact that the church, through its long history, has sought to clarify many issues that were never made clear in the early church (e.g., the trinity), and which some true Christians may not have understood or believed prior to the time of the church councils’ codifying them.

For example, it seems rather essential, today, to believe in the trinity and, especially, the deity of Christ. However, I am pretty sure that the disciples did not understand these doctrines at the time they left their fishing nets to follow Jesus. In my opinion, they were genuine Christians from the moment they committed themselves to Christ, though their theological savvy was probably very rudimentary, or even misguided.

It seems likely to me that the first disciples were justified by faith before they ever heard or understood the doctrine of justification by faith. That is, as soon as they cast their lot in with Christ, I believe, their faith was accounted to them for righteousness—whether they understood this to be true or not. They also were assured that their names were written in heaven long before they understood the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement—or even before they realized Christ would die and rise again!

We might think that we must give these early disciples a pass, despite their ignorance, owing to the fact that these things had not clearly been made known to them yet. Their salvation was based upon their total commitment to God and to Christ,as best they understood them, despite any defects that might have clung to their theological viewpoints.

Since, in the intervening centuries, the church councils have “clarified” and codified many of these doctrines, we might feel that it is inexcusable for any true Christian to be ignorant of these things today, and we might tend to exclude from fellowship any professing believer who lacks an orthodox view of the trinity, of the substitutionary atonement, or of justification by faith. But I think the matter is not that simple.

Is the only reason that we excuse the apostles for their primitive ignorance, and do not excuse (let us say) today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses for theirs, is the fact that the apostles lived before Nicea, and the JW’s live after? Are we not suggesting, then, that church councils have the authority to declare the same people “no longer saved,” who would have been saved had they lived before the councils convened?

Before Nicea, there were very many Arian (JW) Christians, as continued to be the case for over a century after Nicea. I think it would be uncharitable to exclude from fellowship these pre-Nicene Arians (if they were sincerely seeking to understand and worship Christ according to their best understanding of scripture) simply because they had not the benefit of whatever light was later shed in the Nicene Council.

But what about after Nicea? If those same Arians remained unconvinced of the Council’s decision, and still failed to understand the scriptures in a trinitarian fashion, would they, who had been saved before the Council convened, no longer be saved afterward? This suggestion would seem to make salvation to be based upon one’s acceptance of the progressive decisions of church councils, and we Protestants could then be equally faulted for not submitting to the “insights” of Vatican I and Vatican II.

As non-papists, it is an article of our faith that we do not depend, for our beliefs, upon councils or human authorities, but upon scripture alone, as best our brains and consciences permit us to grasp their meaning, and as we believe ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:27).

It would seem to follow that those Christians who found the reasoning and exegesis of Nicea unpersuasive would retain the right to continue in their own Arian views, as much after Nicea as before. This doesn’t mean that I think that Arians are correct! I am a trinitarian. However, even though I believe trinitarianism to be true and scriptural, I do not find that this specific belief is ever clearly explained in any one passage of scripture, or represented anywhere in scripture as the essential viewpoint of all who would follow Christ.

I think the defining of orthodoxy at the ecumenical councils often served a good purpose, but was a “mixed” blessing. The process also resulted in a narrowing in the minds of the Christian church as to who might be regarded as a “brother,” and who might not be.

In Jesus’ teaching, true discipleship was defined more in terms of commitment and behavior, than in terms of highly-defined theological systems. “If you continue in my words, you are my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). “Make disciples…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt.28:19-20).

Obviously, one is not saved by behavior apart from faith, and “faith” must have some specific informational content. Thus there are things that one must believe, in order to be a true Christian, but these things are not so narrowly defined as we might have expected them to be.

When we seek guidance in the scripture as to what must be believed in order for a person to be saved, we find the following:

1. He that would come to God must believe that He exists and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Heb.11:6)

2. If you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)

3. You must believe that Jesus has “come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3)

4. You must believe that Jesus is the Christ [Messiah] (1 John 5:1; 2:22)

5. You must believe that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 4:15/John 20:31)

6. You must confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead. (Rom.10:9)

At this late point in history, we automatically attach a lot of qualifications to some of these statements. For example, we might consider that “confessing that Jesus has come in the flesh” implies our complete theology of the incarnation and deity of Christ, or that “Son of God” means “God the Son,” or that “I am He” means “I am Yahweh.” It is hard to know whether the original hearers understood all of these nuances to be present in the terminology or not. What is obvious is that none of these passages develop the complete doctrines that we have come to associate with orthodoxy. True as the orthodox theology may be, it was not defined unambiguously and insisted upon until some time later.

I think we tend to think of “faith” mostly in terms of mental assent to certain truths (this attitude has been fostered by the careful defining of orthodoxy at the ecumenical councils). Once we think of faith this way, we may tend to add more and more truths to the list of those that belong to the essential faith. But I think “faith,” in scripture, is more concerned with “trust” and having a relationship based upon trust in God and in Christ, even where one’s specific theological information may be confused. If it is true that God has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them to Babes” (Matt.11:25), then we must assume that illiterate and unsophisticated people, who have little or no theological training, can have such a faith as pleases God. The addition of theological savvy may well enhance an existing faith, but can not be essential for salvation, else only philosophically-oriented and biblically-trained people could be saved.

Abraham “believed in the Lord” and it was counted as righteousness for him (Gen.15:6). But what exactly did he believe? Did he know about the trinity? the deity of Christ? the substitutionary atonement? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

What I am saying is that there may be people who love God, and believe that Christ is the Son of God, and are committed to following Him, but who are intellectually in the same place as was Abraham or the disciples in the Gospels, so far as their theological understanding is concerned. They, like we, have embraced Christ as Lord, have “taken His yoke” upon them and are “learning from Him,” but have (like ourselves–1 Cor.13:9), as of yet, understood Him only imperfectly.

As His true disciples, they are “on the road to find out,” just as we are, but are somewhat behind us on that road, as others are ahead of us. Are they our brothers? I think so. If they are not, it is for God to judge, and not me. If they love Jesus–the same Jesus portrayed in the Gospels–and believe everything He said, so far as they sincerely understand it, I can’t see how they stand in any different relation to Him than do I, except that I am better informed–a detail for which I can take no credit (1 Cor.4:7).

Thus I think that God will judge such people, not on the basis of their understanding, or lack thereof, but on the basis of their willingness to accept what the scripture says, and their not refusing to embrace true doctrine when they see it to be true. Condemnation belongs, not to those who have too little light, but to those who, having seen the light, have loved the darkness, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19).

As for your statement of faith, I believe that it is fine to include every doctrine that is non-negotiable with you in your statement of faith. That would probably include (at least it would for me!) the absolute authority and inspiration of scripture, the trinitarian model of the Godhead and the deity of Christ, the substutionary death of Christ for our sins and His bodily resurrection, and the absolute Lordship of Christ over every category of life.

In publishing a statement of faith, however, I am not saying “these are the things one must believe in order to go to heaven with me later, and to fellowship with me today,” but, rather, “these are the things I believe. If they resonate with you, or, at least, you find no objection to them, let’s fellowship together in Christ, and continue learning together about Him.”

I have come to believe that there will be some people in heaven whom I did not expect to see there, and that there will be many, who I expected to find there, who will not be there. This is because I have been conditioned from my youth to think that salvation is acquired through correct understanding more than by a humble desire to know and please God.

The bottom line is, I will befriend anyone who is submitted to the testimony of scripture, and who seems to love Jesus and confesses Him to be the Son of God, the Christ, and the Lord–so long as his/her conduct does not give the lie to that profession. In so doing, I may end up loving someone who, as it turns out, was not really saved, but I will leave that judgment to God. If I accept as a brother someone who turns out to be unsaved, I have ultimately lost little. However, if I call “unclean” one whom Christ has (unbeknown to me) cleansed, then I make myself an offender. I have been deceived in the past by those who later proved to be “false brethren,” but I have never regretted having loved them. My loving those whom God loves (“the world” John 3:16), can hardly be offensive to Him.

It should be understood that I will endeavor to teach and be taught by anyone with whom I am in fellowship. Therefore, those who have less orthodox views than my own will not be unconfronted by the biblical case for my view of orthodoxy. In time, they may improve their theology, or they may not (or the interaction may lead to improvement in my own theology). If they do not immediately see things my way, I will grant them the liberty to come along at their own pace, as I expect them to allow me to do also.

You needn’t embrace my attitudes in this matter. I am only answering according to my conscience. You must act according to your own consciences.