What Makes a Doctrine Essential? 3 Criteria

Michael Patton has listed three criteria that determine whether or not a doctrine is essential or not.  A question I’m sure most of us has asked ourselves in the promotion of unity.  He concludes that all three below are needed for a doctrine to be considered essential.  Click here to read what he says about each.

Patton:

Included in this credo is the belief that there are certain doctrines that are “non-essential” or non-cardinal. These are those that, while important to varying degrees, are not damnable in the proper sense. About these doctrines there can be legitimate disagreement within Christianity. We are to have liberty with regard to such doctrines. This means that we are not to properly or formally divide over them. We are to have grace.

This all sounds really nice. I have heard this touted from the Evangelical mountain-tops for quite some time. The difficulty always comes when we begin to discuss one key question: What are the essentials? Who decides? The Pope? Your local church pastor? The SBC? My private interpretation of the Scripture? Alas, with such a question, the divisions start all over.

In essentials, unity. Sounds nice, but impractical. Right?

3 Criteria

1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?

2. Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture?

3. Explicity: Does the passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential?

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a Doctrine Essential? 3 Criteria

  1. I would gladly take the third and throw the others in a “must consider” category. The Bible determines what is and what is not essential. Not history. If we judge things by history alone, we Protestants are the largest body of heretics in the world. Not clarity. The Bible is really really clear that Jesus was from Nazareth, but is that an “essential” doctrine? What were the biblical authors paradigm for division and unity, for what is essential and what is not. Paul says somewhere in one of his letters to the Corinthians: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received: How that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures, how he was buried and rose again, according to the scriptures. This is WAY MORE charitable than what the history of debates in the church has left us with: a long list of doctrines Paul did not mention here that we think are worth fighting over and condemning over. If someone believes in the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection and lordship of Jesus Christ, they are CHRISTIANS, and GOd demands we love the brethren. Seems relatively simple to me.

  2. I do agree with you on this one Brad. This is why I think N.T. Wright’s material appeals to so many. He is willing to deal mainly with the text and start from scratch to put it simply. A criticism he has with many of his critics minus Douglas Moo and some others maybe is their strong reliance on tradition and history. Unfortunately I’m afraid to say that many of the reformed type rely much more on history than they might admit.

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