The Dilemma of the Essential and Nonessential Doctrines

Over the past few years when evangelizing, I have heard a claim that is becoming more prevalent among Protestants. This belief has been expressed to me in these words: “We cannot resolve all of the disagreements among Christians but these disputes revolve around the nonessentials. We should give glory to God that Christians are united in the essentials.” I have also been told we should rejoice because these “essential doctrines” are a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

As a Catholic

As a Catholic, I agree there is a hierarchy of truths that God has revealed to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. However, I also acknowledge that I am obliged to assent to the truths taught by his Church, as none are unimportant or optional. In some cases, the Church gives us the freedom to debate on a topic (such as with predestination) but, even in these situations, we have boundaries outside of which we can fall into error. But this understanding is drastically different than this Protestant notion of “essential versus nonessential doctrine.” For the Protestant, not only is there no ultimate authority to formally declare what is “essential,” there is no authority to settle disputes on these issues. This is why, in reality, this supposed “unity on the essentials” is merely apparent. If someone proposes this notion to you, discuss the dilemma of authority and challenge them on the fact that there may be a unity in form (as we may use similar words to express our belief) but this does not then denote there is a unity of doctrine.

“Essential” and “Nonessential” Doctrines– By What Authority?

If one holds this idea there are “essentials” that unify us as Christians and “nonessentials” of which we are free to debate, my first question: who determines these essential doctrines?

Some have answered the “essentials” are known when Scripture states truths explicitly and clearly. Some examples I have been given are there is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), God became man (John 1:1; Philippians 2:6-11), Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) and faith in Jesus is necessary to be saved (John 3:16). To contend this argument, I ask whether or not we are to consider the reality of who Jesus is to be an ‘essential’ doctrine (that Jesus is the Second Divine Person of the Trinity, who has become man, who possesses two natures, two wills, two intellects and is true God and true man)? If this is an “essential doctrine,” these truths cannot be fully known using Scripture alone. In fact, many opinions, with Scriptural support, arose in the early Church about Jesus: some claimed he was not equal to God but was his first creature or that Jesus possessed only one nature or Jesus was two persons. The response of the early Church was not to tolerate these as “nonessential doctrines we are free to debate,” but rather to recognize Christians must have an orthodox Christology, and those opposed to Church teaching on Christ were declared heretics.

Some have then responded by telling me that in addition to the Bible, we can know some of the “essentials” of the Christian faith by looking to the early creeds of the Church, like the Apostles’ Creed, because these express truths held everywhere by Christians in the first few centuries. My response to this is that though these early creedal statements of the Church are beautiful professions of the faith, they were not intended to be exhaustive or to be catechisms of the Christian faith. But, having said that, if one uses the Bible and the Creeds to define the “essential doctrines” that all Christians can agree upon, which creeds do we use? Using the beliefs taught in the Apostles’ Creed, heretical groups such as the Arians and Pneumatomachians would agree with us on the “essentials.” Using the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed from the fourth century, the Nestorians, the Monophysites, and Monthelites (all later declared heresies) would agree with us. If we use the Chalcedonian Creed from the fifth century, the Pelagians (later declared heretics) would agree with us on the “essentials.”

Additionally, some Protestants hold Sunday worship, infant baptism, a 66 book canon of the Bible, the Church is the invisible community of believers and the belief of using the Bible alone as the sole rule of faith to all be examples of “essential doctrines.” Besides the fact that there is disagreement among Protestants on these very doctrines, if we use only the Bible and these early Creeds of the Church, these proposed “essential doctrines” do not have any explicit support in either of these sources.

Is Salvation Essential?

Surprisingly, the topic of salvation is not listed as an “essential doctrine” by all Protestants. But if they do hold “justification is by faith alone (Sola fide)” to be an “essential doctrine,” point out this teaching is not found explicitly in Scripture. (The words “faith alone” are not found together anywhere in the New Testament except in the book of James 2:24 which teaches we are ‘justified by works and not by faith alone’). Furthermore, the understanding of justification as expressed by Protestants today was not taught by the Church Fathers is not found in the early creeds and would not fall into the category of a doctrine taught always, everywhere, by all in the early Church.

And in the various doctrines related to soteriology, Christians widely disagree. Can one lose their salvation? Is baptism necessary for salvation? Is repentance necessary to be saved? Is our holiness and obedience required to be saved? Not only are these questions on salvation not in the early Creeds, they are not explicit in Scripture (thus the disputes). With this, how can we claim there is unity on the “essentials” if we have radically different views on such a crucial topic?

Unity: Apparent or True?

Finally, I think it is also important to demonstrate how the claim of unity among all Christians on these “essentials” is very deceptive. If we analyze the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, as an example, we do find unity in our understanding of some of the beliefs professed. All Christians believe in the Triune God, the Incarnation and in the death and Resurrection of Christ. However, the conclusion of this creed is “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and “I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Though Christians are united in the act of speaking these words of the creed, if we hold substantially different interpretations, the unity of these supposed “essentials” professed is merely superficial. The reality is, without an ultimate authority to clearly promulgate God’s revelations without confusion or error, one will have to settle for an apparent unity and tolerate contradictions. But this is in no way an answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman expressly this in a profound way in his book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, saying that without an infallible authority on doctrine:

you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties…You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought but contrarieties you will have…

The Fullness of Truth – Given to be Known

Among Christians today, there are sadly many contrarieties, as Newman called them. But God is not a God of relativism or indifferentism. He is a God of absolutes, which is in no way opposed to love, and he would never want us to compromise on his truths nor allow errors to stand unchallenged. There is no indication God is content with contradictions being justified by this notion of having “essential and nonessential doctrines.” Rather, through the words of Paul, Scripture clearly rebukes disunity among Christians then as he would now (Philippians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 1:10).

God wants us to know the fullness of revelation and so we should not be satisfied with great uncertainty as to what we are to believe. God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), and our loving Father has given us access to the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ. Christ taught the Apostles the fullness of the faith (Jude 3) and then he commissioned them to preach to all nations “everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). And to ensure the Apostles would faithfully transmit all he had taught them, Christ sent the Holy Spirit to guide and protect them (John 14:26) so that his one Church would be the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The early Church leaders (the Apostles and bishops) recognized their duty to faithfully hand down the fullness of truth. Paul unashamedly preached the “whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul exhorted the leaders to guard all of the truths they had been given (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:11-14; 2:2). He insisted we always speak the truth in love so that people are not tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine and by the cunning of people (Ephesians 4:12-16) and that we must hold firm to sound doctrine to refute contradictions (Titus 1:9). Paul cautions us to not be like those who will listen to anyone because these “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7), and he warns we are not to be like those who fall away from the truths of the faith-holding beliefs more suitable to their own personal desires (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

The Church then and now recognizes the fullness of truth she has been given is not hers to possess or alter but is a sacred gift. This blessing is to be reverenced, guarded and faithfully promulgated to all generations. With this, the reality is that we do not need to debate on what doctrines are to be the “essentials” and we do not have to be content with contradictions in the “nonessentials.” Though there can be a hierarchy of truths, we should not be content with knowing only “the essentials” because the fullness of God’s revelations have been given to the Church in order that the fullness of truth could be made known to all (Ephesians 3:10). For this, I give glory to God.