Monday, August 04, 2008

On the "Essentials of the Faith"

By “essentials of the faith”, evangelicals typically mean “that bare minimum required to keep one out of Hell”. It’s not usually thought of this way but if you remove the fluff, that’s what it means. I think it may be more productive to think of it the other way around – what is the bare minimum required to get into heaven? Once we can answer that question, I think we’ll know the real “essentials of the faith”.

In defense of denominationalism, one man may say “oh we Presbyterians & Baptists view baptism differently but we agree on the essentials of the faith”. It was that sort of comment that prompted me to think about this some more. If the very entrance rite into the faith is not essential, what is? (I’m deliberately avoiding the obvious question of who gets to determine the “essentials” in the first place).

While a Baptist may say that he and an Anglican agree on the “essentials”, on closer inspection one may find the Anglican to be of the variety that endorses Transubstantiation. Again, if the central sacrament of Christianity (potentially idolatry if misunderstood) isn’t an “essential” then what is?

Many of these evangelicals seem to have “don’t be Catholic” among their “essentials” of the faith. A Baptist may shrug off the Anglican’s Real Presence or even Transubstantiation and say “we agree on the essentials” but he would never do so to one who submits to the successor of Peter. That’s odd. How ironic and sad, what once was considered an essential: “there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church” has become reversed in Protestantism: “there is no salvation inside the Catholic Church”. Of course, “essentials”, in the sense I mentioned above, would likely be granted even to devout Catholics by most evangelicals I suppose. That is, the Catholics' faith (albeit misguided) may just be a “get out of hell free” card even if they are idolaters.

So what are the real essentials of the faith? Again if we thought of “essential” not as “how to stay out of hell” but “how to get into heaven” I think we are left with only one answer to this question: every doctrine is an “essential of the faith”. One must be perfect to enter heaven and there are no lies or falsities inside the pearly gates. Again, no vain word will be spoken in God’s presence and no one will debate doctrine with Him. There will be no “pro-choice” Christians in heaven - not even one. There will no sooner be Christians in Heaven who believe adultery is morally permissible than will there be any who believe that contraception is morally permissible. Or perhaps, if it ends up being the case that Protestants got it right and contraception is actually permissible, there won’t be any who believe it is evil in Heaven. In short, there won’t be anyone who enters heaven having any false doctrines or sinful practices.

None of this means that any who die having any false beliefs of any degree go straight to hell. This is why the doctrine of purgatory is... an essential of the faith!

So not only do we have to reach a level of moral purity to pass through the pearly gates, we also need to reach doctrinal purity. Doctrinal purity is far easier than moral purity of course. On earth, all one must do is align his or her beliefs with what is known objectively to be pure in doctrine: the Church. Purifying one’s behavior is quite another story and while the former is easier than the latter, they both depend on God’s grace. So I say without hesitation, all doctrines are “essentials of the faith”.


Andrew Preslar said...

I ceased being protestant, and I was the Anglo-catholic kind of protestant, because their religion inevitably became watered down with private religion made in each one's own image.

Even the ones who said, in hushed tones, like dealers: hey man, you can believe the Marian dogmas, Transubstantiation, perpetually virginity of Our Lady, the Catholic doctrines of grace, etc., ALWAYS added: just don't make it an essential of the faith; i.e., necessary to be believed unto salvation. And never preach or teach what you believe!

When I asked them what is necessary, in their sense, they ALWAYS responded: whatever can be proved from Scripture, or the Ecumenical Councils, or the consensus of the Fathers.

When I asked: (1) What can be proved from Scripture? (2) Which Councils are Ecumenical?(3) Who are the Fathers, what are they agreed upon, and when did they die out? They fell to fighting and squabbling amonst themselves. They formed many little denominations and "provinces."

All to preserve the Purity of the "Catholic" faith, without Roman additions and Protestant deletions. See?

The Catholic Journeyman said...


Among a-C Protectants, this gets confused with "essentials of Salvation" all too often.

Too much emphasis is put on "proof" when that in itself contradicts "Faith". biblically.

Maintaining a walk on the path to the narrow gate (journey to heaven after salvation) does require all of our practices as you have said.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Catholic Journeyman - what is a-c Protestant? Is that anglo-catholic?

Kim said...

I think Protestants are generally primed to accept whatever other Protestants believe as acceptable because so much about the faith is seen as merely symbolic. Therefore, it doesn't matter if some believe baptism is an essential or that the bread and wine (juice!) actually turn into Christ's flesh and blood in a mystical way to some. If I believe it's symbolic because that's what I've always been taught, then who cares?

That's the way I used to think.

Now that I'm thinking harder about these things, the road has narrowed considerably. These issues matter a whole lot more than I thought they did. When you really think through the way many of us used to think it's amazing how much we DIDN'T think.

The Catholic Journeyman said...

a-C = anti-Catholic Protestants....same as you are posting about.


Phil Snider said...


I'm a little of two minds about this entry. I think you are right to point out that one of the (many) problems with the concept of essentials of faith is that, ultimately, we have no agreement on just what is essential and what is not. One person's essential is another person's unessential. Really, this just shifts theological argument between denominations (or traditions) to a different area, not really solving the problem.

Yet, I think you're being a bit harsh here. In many ways, consideration of essentials arose in the Protestant tradition as a way to defuse rigid denominational boundaries which had led to open conflict. If, somehow, we can ease down the tensions between different Christian groups by looking at what we have in common sometimes as opposed to only what divides us, perhaps we can achieve some degree of toleration and working together. I don't think that was necessarily a bad impulse nor do I think that impulse, provided it also understands the differences between Christian groups as serious ones, is wrong now.

Furthermore, I would challenge you that the Catholic tradition has this concept as well. Let me remind you of the famous dictum of St. Augustine- "necessaris unitas, dubiis liberatas, omnibus caritas"-unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, and charity in all things or St. Ambrose's advice to Augustine's mother, Monica, (who was disraught about the differences of liturgical practice in Rome compared to Ambrose's Milan) that she should do in Rome what the Romans do. Clearly, both St. Augustine and Ambrose saw a doctrinal core which was necessary to believe, but they also believed that some things can differ from church to church and those differences aren't earth-shattering. Take a look at the concessions given the Uniates in Eastern Europe in which some of the hallmarks of Roman Catholic doctrinal decisions are left open (married priests, certain differences in liturgical practice) if you want to see a practical example.

So, are you really sure that all the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is as non-negotiable as you suggest?

Tim Troutman said...

Phil, thanks for the comments I think I'm fine with "essentials" as long as it serves as a lowest common denominator to keep us from fighting each other, but thats about as far as I'm willing to accept it.

So, are you really sure that all the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is as non-negotiable as you suggest?

I'm only slightly less sure of that than I am that God, in some form, exists. None of the issues you mentioned were doctrinal, they were all disciplinary. The Catholic Church has 23 or 24 rites each with varying liturgies. I attend two separate rites on occasion. But both Churches teach the same doctrine. In fact, all the Catholic priests at the Ukranian mission I attend are married.

Now the Eastern Tradition is invaluable in the way of understanding the difference between "tradition" and "Tradition". There was a time when the West also allowed married priests as I needn't tell you.

The East use leavened bread the West do not, we celebrate Easter on a different calendar etc...

These are all disciplinary not doctrinal. And I will readily grant that most visible differences between Protestants are disciplinary as well. The difference is that Protestants have serious doctrinal differences whereas the various Catholic rites do not. Even the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not differ much in doctrine.

Phil Snider said...


I take your point on the doctrinal vs disciplinary distinction, although what would be helpful is a more clear definition or nuancing of what you mean by doctrine. It think I know what you mean, but I wonder if your term doctrine might be understood in a different context as essentials among Protestants. In that case, are you not just arguing about what should be considered essential also?

Just poking you with a sharp stick.


Tim Troutman said...

Phil - I gotcha. Those are good questions to ask. Sometimes the line can be difficult to draw between "doctrine" and "discipline" - that's why it's something far too important for me to be involved with. I can only accept what the Church says on this issue.

If we didn't have an objective source to point to and say "here is where the line must be drawn", then I can see some of these things getting pretty confusing.

But surely no theological or moral issue can be included here. We can be sure of all things which have to do with basic morality (murder, adultery, stealing etc...) there has to be one correct position on these issues (God's position - whatever that is). We Catholics think that the Catholic Church reflects His positions as we believe that we received our doctrines from Him.

So let's suppose that the Catholic Church got the issue of abortion wrong and a woman's right to her body supersedes the fetus' right to life. In that case, everyone must agree that abortion is acceptable in order to get to heaven. There won't be any "holier than thous" who call evil what God calls permissible. That in itself is evil! On the other hand of course, if the Catholic Church is right here and a woman may not end an innocent life regardless of how inconvenient it is, then everyone must assent to this truth before entering heaven.

In essence, all I'm saying is that only truth will exist in heaven and nothing false. On those grounds I say that all doctrines are essential in the long run.

To clarify between doctrine & discipline requires an authoritative source - the Church.

Doc Rampage said...

Tim, I don't know of any protestant who thinks that you have to have correct doctrine to get into heaven or have to know for sure what is a sin and what is not. For most of us, all you need to know is that you are a sinner who requires God's forgiveness. And when that forgiveness is freely offered, you have to accept it. Isn't that pretty much all that the thief on the cross understood?

The image of an angel at the pearly gates giving some kind of oral exam on Christian doctrine is a little weird. And it implies that faith in God is not enough, I also had to have faith in the men who taught me, and in the right men at that. Pick the wrong teacher and you're going south, buddy.

In fact, this whole obsession with not going to hell, or in going to heaven, strikes me as weird. What I was taught is that because of my relationship with God, I'm going to heaven. Period. Now, what can I do on this earth to show my gratitude to God? How can I become closer to him? A Christian striving to get into heaven is like an adopted child constantly pestering his adopting father on how he can ensure his inheritance. It is unseemly and it implies a lack of faith in the father who took him as son. If he has adopted you then he will give you your inheritance. Let it go.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Doc, thanks for the reply. Good to hear from you.

I don't know of any protestant who thinks that you have to have correct doctrine to get into heaven or have to know for sure what is a sin and what is not.

Me neither. I think your assessment of "essentials" according to evangelicals was about right. Although, ask evangelicals if a Catholic who think he earns his way into heaven by works is going to be saved and I'd bet at least half of them would say no. They would have just contradicted their doctrine of "sola fide" since "sola fide" now became "sola fide + correct doctrine".

But I agree with you, in word no evangelical would say that correct doctrine is necessary to get into Heaven. I'm just saying that they're wrong - you do need to believe correctly to get there.

To quote myself:

None of this means that any who die having any false beliefs of any degree go straight to hell.

You said:

The image of an angel at the pearly gates giving some kind of oral exam on Christian doctrine is a little weird

Yea that sounds weird. That's not what I was talking about though.

it implies that faith in God is not enough

James 2:24 implies that faith is not enough also.

In fact, this whole obsession with not going to hell, or in going to heaven, strikes me as weird.

Well the Christian faith can certainly be weird at times. But if there's anything Christ reiterated over and over while He was on this earth was... if you're gonna be obsessed about something - this is what you ought to be obsessed about!

I like your analogy of an adopted son trying to earn his inheritance. That's a good one. You have to understand that we Catholics don't believe you can earn your way into Heaven though. So we would completely agree with that analogy.

But we should add something to it. The one thing the child musn't do is go around bragging about the inheritance or much worse - start believing that he deserves it. It isn't rightfully his in the first place, it was a gift. I'm sure you'll agree with that.

The whole perfection before you enter heaven is an entirely different soteriology than you're accustomed to. I'll be glad to talk more on that issue but only if you want to learn about it.

Doc Rampage said...

It's not a matter of correct knowledge, but correct attitude.

I've never known a protestant who was _sure_ that Catholics are not saved. But a lot of us have some doubt as to whether anyone who is trying to get into heaven through good works can genuinely be satisfying the two conditions: (1) know that you are a sinner and (2) accept God's free gift. If you genuinely know that you are a sinner, then you should also know that all of your good works are as filthy rags, completely inadequate to affect your standing with God.

Also, if you are trying to get into heaven through good works, then this is arguably a rejection of God's free gift of salvation. You insist on doing it yourself.

And this, by the way, is why it seems so odd to me the way that you keep accusing protestants of pride and of thinking that they deserve salvation. Quite the opposite, the protestant doctrine is that no one could possibly do anything to remotely deserve salvation, that our only hope is the infinite grace of God.

It is the Catholic belief that seems proud to me. The idea that you have something God wants (good deeds). You give God what he wants and he gives you what you want. It strikes me as downright sacrilegious.

Kim said...

Doc, as a Protestant with an open mind, in my investigation of Catholicism I have seen no teaching that says you are totally on your own in earning your salvation and I've seen nothing saying Christ's work on the cross is insufficient. Quite the opposite, actually. The Catholic Church teaches that good works follow faith and that good works in and of themselves are only "good" in God's eyes because He gives the grace to do them. Catholics who hold to Church teaching are aware that it is by GRACE that they are saved through and through. There are many Scriptures that state that our works matter after we have faith. We Protestants like to skim over them because we're so deathly afraid we will, for a split second, rely on ourselves rather than Christ in some way. But Catholicism teaches that every good and perfect gift (including the good works we do) comes from Above only and always.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thank you Kim.