I've read and appreciated all the comments over the past two days, even though time does not permit me to reply to most of them. Many have given extremely helpful feedback. My sincere thanks to all who have participated.
We've been talking about the distinction between (on the one hand) truth that is so essential to the gospelso vitally importantthat you must affirm it or be condemned; and (on the other hand) lesser truths, where there may be more room for misunderstanding or disagreement. How does one tell which category any given doctrine fits into?
Some have suggested (and I quite agree) that Scripture may be deliberately vague on these issues for good but hidden reasons, so that some of the questions we have raised are answered in the Bible with stark black-and-white clarity; while most of the answers we're looking for are sketched out in indistinct lines and with varying shades of gray.
On the other hand, some who have commented have wondered aloud whether any distinction between essential and peripheral truths is really even necessary.
It seems to me that even a few moments of cursory thought would quickly drive us to the conclusion that we cannot simply erase every distinction between primary and secondary doctrines. This is true for all the biblical reasons I outlined in my first post on this subject Wednesday. It's also true for the reason I gave yesterday: Scripture commands us to contend earnestly against error when the faith once delivered to the saints is at stake; and yet, when the unity of true saints is at stake, we are commanded to receive people who are weak in the faith without indulging in doubtful disputations.
We're expected to make sound judgments about which is which. Remember, Jesus sternly rebuked the Pharisees for failing to distinguish between vital and secondary legal principleseven though no distinction between "gnats" and "camels" was ever spelled out explicitly in the Old Testament law. They were held responsible to apply rational, sensible judgment to the biblical dataand there was plainly enough data so they should have understood that justice, mercy, and the love of God are bigger spiritual principles than counting out little seeds for a tithe (Luke 11:42).
Notice what Jesus said: "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23). Recognizing a proper taxonomy of spiritual principles doesn't give us permission to abandon whatever principles are deemed secondary. I think that's a misunderstanding that causes some to shy away from speaking of "secondary" truths. But "secondary" doesn't mean "optional." It does, however, mean that all truths aren't of equal import. Not every point of truth is an occasion for all-out battle, especially between brethren who agree on the major points.
That's one of the huge practical realities of real-world ministry that sensible people who want to be faithful to the commands of Romans 14 simply must understand. We may not always agree on which issues are worth fighting for, but it's an evil mind that rejects the distinction completely and fights with equal vigor over every issue, gnats and camels alike.
I do, in fact, know people like that. I already mentioned that a small cult of them live not far from me. Nearly every week of my life, I have to deal with the fallout of confusion and ruined lives they have left in their wake.
A few years ago, we excommunicated the leader of this group from our church because he became hypercritical and began labeling every Christian leader under the sun (not to mention every significant figure from church history) a "false teacher."
Of course, some of the people he criticizes are indeed false teachers who ought to be exposed and refuted with careful, thoughtful, credible, biblical arguments. But this guy lumps the heretics and the best of men together, and his complaints against godly leaders are always just picayune and insignificant differences of opinion. (For example, years ago, when he was just beginning this campaign, he found a workbook with premarital advice for engaged couples that included a worksheet outlining personality characteristics. He labeled it "demonic idolatry" and declared the author a false teacher because he associated personality profiling with secular psychology.)
For nearly a decade, this guy has been building his own cult. It frankly amazes me that anyone would be confused by his teaching, because I listened to several of his tapes when he first began his Crusade Against Everyone Else, and I can only describe his style as the Barney Fife school of discernment. (On one of his tapes he called psychology "the most worst heresy that is in our day today." He labeled James Dobson "The worst enemy of our soul today." It's that sort of rhetoric. I'd pay him no mind at all, but I am in touch with people from families he has destroyed, and I hear weekly from people who have encountered him and are terribly confused and want advice from someone who has dealt with him.)
Anyway, when I first confronted him, I warned him that he must not fail to distinguish between doctrines that are fundamental and those that are secondary.
He replied that he can find no such distinction in Scripture. Truth is truth, he said, and all truth in Scripture is equally important. He suggested that if Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, any idea that is in discord with a true understanding of God's Word is a rejection of Christ, who is the embodiment of all truth.
That's one extreme that looms large in my mindthe notion that all truth is equally essential. If that perspective were correct, we'd all be in big trouble, because I don't know of anyone whose understanding of biblical truth is flawless. I certainly don't make that claim for myself.
But there's another danger on the other side of the fulcrum. This is undoubtedly one of the most pressing dangers in the church today. It is the minimalist tendency of defining the true faith in terms that are far too broad to rule out false doctrines that masquerade as true Christianity. (See last week's posts on Mormonism for a classic example of how this plays out.)
More and more Christians these days seem to think it doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you label it Christianity. With the possible exception of a few cults that blatantly renounce the Trinity, almost everything taught in the name of Christ is now accepted by evangelicals.
Chuck Colson gave this trend a huge boost a few years ago in his book The Bodya book that was critically acclaimed but in my view seriously flawed. one of his central theses was the notion that the Apostles' Creed plus four or five "fundamentals" (none of which include the gist of the gospel) pretty much give us a complete list of primary doctrines. Beyond that, Colson seemed to suggest, no article of faith ought to be a point of serious division between "brethren," loosely defined.
Of course, he insists that Roman Catholicism must be regarded as a legitimate, faithful expression of biblical Christianity, because Catholicism affirms the Apostles' Creed.
So "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" naturally came hard on the heels of that book. The ECT document itself seems to echo Colson's declaration that the Apostles' Creed is a sufficient statement of essential Christianity. Certainly, some of its signatories understand it that way.
Next Tuesday, if time permits, I want to take a critical look at that claim. As I said in one of my comments after yesterday's posts, I affirm the Apostles' Creed. But I don't for a moment believe it is a sufficient statement of essential truth. Historic Protestantism has never believed the ancient creeds are sufficient. But when Colson began promoting the idea, his view quickly became the dominant opinion among evangelicals.
How is it that a non-theologian, a layman who came to faith fairly late in life, wields so much influence over the evangelical movement's theological consensus? I realize, of course, that Colson hasn't done this single-handedly, but there's no question that his voice has been the dominant one in bringing about this shift in evangelicals' thinking.
It's one more evidence of the pathetic shallowness of the late twentieth-century evangelical movement. I'll repeat what I said in Wednesday's post: evangelicals must hang up their Hawaiian Shirts (so to speak) and get back to some serious thinking about pivotal theological issues. This whole question of which doctrines are of the essence of the gospel would be a perfect place to start.