Essential Doctrines VS. Non-Essential Doctrines
Truth is important for the Christian. It's important that the Christian have correct doctrine. The Bible says "until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming." (Ephesians 4:13-14) and "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15). The Bible also says "Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them." (Hebrews 13:9). The Bible places heavy emphasis on correct doctrine and true teachings.
That said, there's a tendency among Christians to think that one must get everything right. Every single doctrinal issue that can be discussed, one must be correct on. If you disagree with them on anything, you are deemed by them a "heretic". I can't tell you how many young earth creationists I've talked to on social media have called me a heretic (among a few other colorful names) because I disagree with them on how old the universe and Earth is, and what the best interpretation of Genesis is. I have also had many Calvinists label me a heretic because of my Arminian soteriology. Though fortunately, most Calvinists (or at least the ones I have as friends) don't think that of me. It's mostly those in the cage stage who are apt to hurl that accusation. Is this really right though? Do we have to be correct on all our doctrines?
I don't think so. I don't think that everyone has to have 100% of their theology correct in order to be considered a true Christian. Let me explain why.
If Everyone Had To Be Correct On Everything, Almost Everyone Would Be A Heretic
If we had to have all of our doctrines correct, I doubt very few of us would be orthodox. I think the number of Christians who have everything right will, in the final analysis, be a microscopic minority of believers. I myself have changed views over the years because I found out that I was wrong in some of the views that I held to. Even if you have most things right, you most likely hold at least one false theological belief. Perhaps you got it right on the age of the earth, the existence of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, The Trinity, justification by faith alone, the right soteriological view in the Arminianism/Calvinism debate, etc. etc. etc. etc. but let's say you get it wrong in the eschatology debate. Let's say you adopt futurism when a preterist framework is correct, or if futurism is true, but you got the timing of the rapture off. Are you really confident in asserting that you couldn't have got it wrong on any of your theological beliefs?
Of course, you obviously don't think you're wrong on any of them. If you did, you would no longer believe them. But certainly, it is at least possible you got it wrong on one or two issues. I wouldn't at all be surprised if, when I see Jesus face to face, He tells me "You know, your theology was really good and accurate in almost everything, but I've got to tell you that you were wrong to believe partial preterism. Tim Lahay was right." or He might say "You know, you got so many things right, but you wrong to reject concordism. I really did intend my Book to convey scientific information. Hugh Ross was right. You were wrong." or whatever it might be that I got wrong. I'd be very shocked if Jesus agreed with every single one of my beliefs. Again, I don't think I got preterism or accommodationism wrong. If I did think that, I wouldn't believe them. But these are examples of things I might have gotten wrong.
You can be a genuine Christian and get some things wrong. A requirement for salvation isn't that you're right on every single one of your theological beliefs.
You Would Consider Everyone But Yourself A Heretic
This would also prevent me from considering any theologian or apologist that I learn from to be true Christians. I disagree with all of the apologists I follow. I agree with William Lane Craig on most things, and I agree with him on more issues than I do anyone else, but I even differ with him on some things. For example, Craig affirms the inherited guilt interpretation of original sin, while I affirm the Eastern Orthodox View of Original Sin (i.e that we inherit Adam's sin nature, but we're not held accountable for his action of Eating from the forbidden tree). I agree with the members of BioLogos that evolution is compatible with The Bible and that God could have used evolution to bring about life, but I'm on the fence about whether or not He did. I agree with R.C Sproul that partial preterism is the correct eschatological view, but I strongly disagree with his Calvinism. I agree with Roger Olson on Arminian soteriology, but I think his assessment of Molinism is dead wrong.
I agree with my friend Richard Bushey's opinions about presuppositionalism, accommodationism, Old Earth Creationism, and other things, but I disagree with him on Calvinism and Annihilationism (i.e the view that those sent to Hell are snuffed out of existence after a little while).
With every Christian I know, I disagree with them on at least some things. I think they're wrong in some of their theological beliefs. However, I don't think that they're heretics. I consider them to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. If I thought that everyone had to be right on everything (and since I think my views are right, that would mean they'd have to agree with me on everything), then that means the only person I would not consider a heretic is myself! But that's absurd. Surely, I'm not the only Orthodox Christian in the world. And yet, I've yet to find a Christian who agrees with me on literally everything. William Lane Craig comes the closest, but I even differ with him on a few things.
Am I Saying That Doctrine Doesn't Matter?
Not at all! If I did, I'd be contradicting The Bible (and what I said at the beginning of this blog post). Rather, what I am saying is that when it comes to doctrine, there are essentials and non-essentials. There are things that make-or-break your salvation and things that do not. There are things that, if you affirmed them, would make you a heretic, and things that would not.
I believe that it's important that we get it right even in secondary issues. If we care about truth, we should care about whether all of our beliefs adhere to reality. That's why I think so heavily and critically about things: I want to make sure that I'm right. That's why I put more stock in logic than emotion, and why I put heavy emphasis on following the rules of biblical hermeneutics (so that I exegete and not eisegete), and why I try to challenge even my own presuppositions and biases. But not everything is a make-or-break issue for orthodoxy. If it were, we'd all be in trouble. I very much doubt that any of us has everything correct.
The existence of God, the Trinity, the incarnation (that Jesus is truly God and truly human), the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, the resurrection of Jesus, justification by faith alone, the sinfulness of man, that Christ is the only way to Heaven, and a few other things are crucial to Christianity. Take one of them away and it collapses.
William Lane Craig uses the analogy of a spider's web. You can plug a few strings from the outer parts of the web, and the spider web will still hold up. But pluck a few strings from the center and the whole web comes crashing down. I hold that the age of the Earth debate, the Arminianism/Calvinism debate, the futurism/preterism debate, the concordism/accommodationism debate, and the eternal torment/annihilationism debate to be at the outer edge. By contrast, the resurrection, the incarnation, the Trinity, etc. are at the very center. Whether one affirms these or disavows them will determine whether they're a Christian or a heretic.
I believe that those in the Answers In Genesis, Reasons To Believe, and the BioLogos crowd are all genuine Christians, and we will have fellowship in Heaven with our Lord. The Molinists of Free Thinking Ministries and the Calvinists of Ligonier Ministries will likewise have fellowship in Heaven. William Lane Craig and James White will likewise stand side by side and sing God's praises in the new creation.
All truth is important, but not all truth is salvifically important. On the day of judgment, what's going to matter more? That you read Genesis correctly or that you faithfully followed Christ?
It's one thing to considers all doctrines important in the sense that you want to make sure you adhere to the right one VS. considering all views a salvation issue.
Is An Essentials/Non-Essentials Divide Biblical?
Absolutely! In Paul's day, there were internal disputes among believers just like there are today. And Paul argued that the people taking opposite stances should accept one another. He argued for essentials, but in Romans 14, he mentions some non-essentials and says "Don't get so hung up over these." He doesn't appear to even take a stance on them himself. He writes:
"Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person's faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." - Romans 14:1-6
Obviously among all these groups mentioned, one is correct and the other is incorrect, and the one who cares about what is true should care about whether he's adopting the right stance. But Paul says both groups of people have been accepted by God. So the distinction between essentials VS. non-essentials has its grounding in scripture. Some things really are non-essential to being a genuine Christian.
How Do We Know What's Essential and What's Non-Essential?
We need to be sure we know precisely what is an essential and what is not. We need to make sure we put the right things in the essentials category, and not relegate truly important things to the non-essentials category.
I think the councils which formulated creeds (like The Apostles' Creed, for example). These set the boundaries for what counts as essentials. Of course, we don't want to invest the creeds with too much significance as they are the results of fallible men who could be wrong, and as Protestants, we place The Bible as our highest authority on doctrinal matters.
But I think if we really reflect on the reasons why the creeds set the boundaries that they do (i.e why the essentials of Christianity are considered essential), we'll come to agree with them. For example, the humanity of Jesus is essential because if He wasn't truly human, he wouldn't have been able to truly die, and therefore there wouldn't be an atonement, hence no salvation. The deity of Jesus is important because, as Jesus Himself said in John 8:24, if we don't believe that He is who He said He is, we'll die in our sins. Jesus claimed to be God in various places (e.g John 10:30, John 8). If we don't agree with His claims, we're in trouble. Knowing precisely who Jesus is, is more important than knowing how many people He died for or how long the days of creation were. The existence of God is an essential for obvious reasons. Justification by faith alone is an essential because if you're trusting in your own works to save you, you're not trusting in Christ, and it's stated all over The New Testament that trusting in Christ is essential for salvation. You'd be trusting in your own righteousness to save you rather than Christ's. The sinfulness of man is an essential because if man isn't a sinner, then why did Jesus have to die on a cross? His death would be superfluous. Why would a non-sinner need a Savior?
I think that when we encounter people with whom we disagree, we need to be sure whether or not they deny one of the essentials of the faith before labeling them a heretic. If they don't, then we can debate the issues knowing that the other person is a brother or sister in Christ. If they do deny one of the essentials, then they're a mission field, and it's vitally important that we bring them to the truth. However, in both cases, we need to talk to the person with gentleness and respect. Heretic or not, they are a fellow human being made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27) and they are someone God loved so much that He became incarnate and died for them (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2). We should refute them, but do so graciously. For "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1 )
What I said can be summed up by this quote from St. Augustine: "Unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and in all things, charity."