Christians believe things. This much seems to me to be rather uncontroversial. However, once we take a single step beyond this bland assertion we find ourselves embroiled in controversy. One of the difficulties we encounter here is that there are some things Christians believe which are more important than others—more central, or foundational to the whole picture of the world that the Christian faith presents.
This the first post in a series that is going to undertake an exploration of how we should think about these essential beliefs and their relation to Christian beliefs that are (in some sense) nonessential. In my previous post
, I suggested that Dogma is worth fighting over, but not all fights are equally important. Distinguishing between the essential and nonessential helps us determine what fights are most important: it’s the difference between saying, “eat and let eat,” and Paul opposing Peter to his face (Rom. 14:2-3 & Gal. 2:11-14).
Why is this important? First of all, I’ve found the question to be unavoidable, and an unavoidable question is an important question. It has been raised in academic settings, but it has been pressed on me with a fury in real life—particularly in urban environments. Churches with profoundly different beliefs are practically stacked on top of each other. The radical diversity of belief in the city has a strong undercurrent of assumed pluralism, where the one orthodoxy is that there are no heresies.
Secondly, Christians have a regrettable knack for confusing essential beliefs with nonessential beliefs, typically with disastrous results. The fateful ruling of the church in 1616 condemned Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe as “false and altogether opposed to Scripture,” and Christians have been retreating and apologizing for the church’s blunder ever since. I cannot speak to all of the possible reasons for the church’s condemnation Galileo’s earth-disparaging notions, but I think it is safe to say that one of them was likely that they viewed the Ptolemaic model (with the earth at the center of the universe) as essential to the Christian faith.
It has been suggested that given the church’s checkered history of in/out pronouncements, the best way forward is to simply stop making these totalizing statements. Often this suggestion is accompanied by the warning of being “on the wrong side of history,” with the assumption that future generations of Christians will feel about the current generation much
the same way as we feel about the inquisition. This is a very real possibility—the church has erred in the past, and no doubt may err in the future. But it is also possible the future generations will be grateful for our judgments, in much the same way that we are thankful that Athanasius bellowed out that he was “contra mundum”[i] (against the world)
It was the forth century, and “the highways were covered with galloping bishops.”[ii]
The arch heretic, Arius, had by all accounts won the day. St. Jerome lamented, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[iii]
The brilliant young deacon Athanasius had not even been 30 years old at the council of Nicaea, and years later when the conclusions of the council were contradicted, the conventional wisdom would have advised him to concede defeat and side with the whole world. But because Athanasius recognized that the full divinity of Christ was essential to the Christian faith, he chose exile, setting himself “against the world,” rather than relinquishing ground that was essential to the Christian faith. This is not to say that we are likely to suffer banishment and exile for our confession: we stand in the shadow of that towering witness, but even in his shadow we are called to be faithful to what we have been entrusted with.
Where then is the ground that Christians cannot relinquish? Where must the church say, “thus far and no further,” or is there no such ground? Along with avoiding embarrassments similar to the church’s expeditions into science in the 17th century, distinguishing between the essential and the nonessential will adjust how we view and interact with other Christians. Groups which on the surface may look like entirely different religions may in fact be quite similar: imagine setting an east coast conservative/traditional Roman Catholic parish side by side with an Old Regular Baptist church buried in the hills of Kentucky. Other churches that may seem identical on the surface—even belonging to the same denomination—may end up being worlds apart in relation to the essential beliefs of the Christian faith.
If there are in fact certain beliefs that are essential to the Christian faith, then it follows that if an individual or church is teaching a perspective contrary to one of these essentials, it is not longer Christianity we are dealing with. Christianity is a coherent set of beliefs and practices that are by their very nature incompatible with other beliefs and practices. It is a “total-world-picture,” and although that picture does not include everything one may believe about the world, it certainlyexcludes some things. It is when we are speaking of these foundational beliefs that Christians feel compelled to exclude whatever happens to contradict them. That is to say, Christians believe certain things, and as a matter of consequence, Christians don’t believe other things.
To be clear, I am not trying to answer the question “What must a person believe in order to be saved?” For one thing, I think that the question often holds some questionable assumptions about salvation. For example, it seems to assume that faith and belief are strictly synonymous: that is, in order for a person to be “saved” they must mentally assent to certain true propositions about God. Although faith includes belief, it cannot be reduced to believing true things about God. The demons believe, and shudder (Jas. 2:19): that is to say, they probably have their theology (in the thin sense) more sorted out than most of us. So faith includes true beliefs, but is not reducible to those true beliefs; faith does not merely mentally assent to God’s existence, but also obeys Him and trusts Him. (Heb. 11; whole chapter, esp. v. 6)
There are a few things I would like to accomplish with this series: the first is to nail down my current understanding on the issue. Over the past three or four months the topic has been raised in innumerable contexts, and how we answer it will hold important implications for how we understand our own faith, the nature of the Church, and how we interact with other believers and those outside the faith. The second is in hope to be of benefit to you, my reader, by bringing some clarity to the question—and more than anything, to encourage thought and dialogue about it. The third goal is to draw attention to the enormously important and often overlooked realities of probability and certainty, and how they relate to Christian beliefs and practices.
Orthodoxy is a perilous thing. It is perilous because it means taking a stand. It is perilous because it means excluding something. As Chesterton points out, it is the heresies that are tame: tame because they are conventional, because they promise respectability if we but hand over the keys to the kingdom. All of the great heresies—Marcionism, Arianism, Gnosticism, Docetism—were invitations to exchange essential beliefs of the Christian faith with notions which were more suitable to contemporary audiences. The peril of Orthodoxy is in holding fast to what is essential, and if we are to do this we must first recognize what the essential is.
Of course, we are not told that Athanasius bellowed out that he was “contra mundum!” but I have always imagined it this way; it’s the type of statement that demands to be bellowed.
This remark was made sarcastically by the pagan Ammanius Marcellinus. Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff,History of the Christian Church
, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1908), 632.
Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians,
§ 19. “ingemuit totus orbis et Arianum se esse miratus est.”