14 September 2005

What do common sense and Scripture tell us about the relative weight of different truths?

Common sense makes it crystal-clear to most people that some truths in Scripture are of primary importance, and other truths are less vital.

For example, most people would agree that the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine of Christianity, but Sabbatarianism is not. (In other words, committed Christians might differ among themselves on the question of whether and how rigorously the Old Testament Sabbath restrictions should apply to Christians on the Lord's day; but authentic Christians do not disagree on whether Jesus is God.) Again, common sense is sufficient for most people to recognize the validity of some distinction between primary and secondary truths.

Unfortunately, "common sense" is not as common as it used to be. (It's one of the early fatalities of the postmodern era.) And with increasing frequency, I encounter people who challenge the distinction evangelicals have historically made between fundamental and secondary doctrines.

Some rather extreme fellows have begun a quasi-Christian cult located not far from where I live, and they actually teach that all truth is primary and every disagreement is worth fighting about and ultimately dividing over if agreement cannot be reached. Either agree with them on everything, or you are going to hell.

Others—equally extreme—argue, in effect, that "truth" isn't primary at all; relationships are, and therefore no proposition or point of truth is ever worth arguing about with another professing Christian. The latter position is gaining adherents at a frightening pace.

Does the Bible recognize a valid distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines? How would you refute someone who insisted that all truth is of equal import? How do you answer those who claim no truth is worth arguing over? Could you make a biblical case for a hierarchy of truths, or for recognizing a distinction between core doctrines and peripheral ones? If so, how do you tell the difference? Do you have biblical guidelines for that? What if we disagree on whether a particular doctrine is essential or secondary? How is that question to be settled?

Those are questions which in my opinion have not been pondered seriously enough by contemporary evangelicals. You have to go back a couple of centuries to find writers who wrestled with such concerns in any depth. Volume 1 of Francis Turretin's Elenctic Theology includes a section discussing this subject (starting on page 49). Herman Witsius also deals with it near the beginning of vol. 1 of his two-volume work titled The Apostles' Creed.

It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture. But I think the distinction is still very clear. Here, briefly, are five biblical arguments in favor of making some kind of distinction between primary and secondary doctrines:

  1. Jesus Himself suggested that some errors are gnats and some are camels (Matt. 23:24-25). And He stated that some matters of the law are "weightier" than others (v. 23). Think about it; such distinctions could not be made if every point of truth were essential.
  2. Paul likewise speaks of truths that are "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3)—clearly indicating that there is a hierarchy of doctrinal significance.
  3. Certain issues are plainly identified by Scripture as fundamental or essential doctrines. These include:
    1. doctrines that Scripture makes essential to saving faith (e.g., justification by faith—Rom. 4:4-5; knowledge of the true God—Jn. 17:3; the bodily resurrection—1 Cor. 15:4; and several others).
    2. doctrines that Scripture forbids us to deny under threat of condemnation (e.g., 1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 1 Cor. 16:22; 1 Jn. 4:2-3).

    Since these doctrines are explicitly said to make a difference between heaven and hell while others (the "gnats" Jesus spoke of) are not assigned that level of importance, a distinction between fundamental and secondary truths is clearly implied.
  4. Paul distinguished between the foundation and that which is built on the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11-13). The foundation is established in Christ, and "no other foundation" may be laid. Paul suggests, however, that the edifice itself will be built with some wood, hay, and stubble. Again, this seems to suggest that while there is no tolerance whatsoever for error in the foundation, some of the individual building-blocks, though important, are not of the same fundamental importance.
  5. The principle Paul sets forth in Roman 14 also has serious implications for this question. There were some differences of opinion in the Roman church which Paul declined to make into hard-and-fast matters of truth vs. heresy. In Romans 14:5, he writes, "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." That clearly allows a measure of tolerance for two differing opinions on what is undeniably a point of doctrine.
         As an apostle, Paul could simply have handed down a ruling that would have settled the controversy. In fact, elsewhere he did give clear instructions that speaks to the very doctrine under debate in Romans 14 (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Yet in writing to the Romans, he was more interested in teaching them the principle of tolerance for differing views on matters of less-then-fundamental importance. Surely this is something we should weigh very heavily before we make any point of truth a matter over which we break fellowship.

One thing I would like to say, since I am sometimes cast in the role of someone who attacks heresy: I'm as eager to see evangelical unity as I am to attack ecumenical compromise. But in order to keep the two straight, it is crucial to have clear biblical reasons for treating various doctrines as either fundamental or secondary. I've given a considerable amount of thought to these issues in recent years, but I'm interested in feedback from readers of my blog. Anyone know of resources where these issues are discussed in depth?

See also:

Phil's signature


dogpreacher said...

I think you did a wonderful job on this post, Phil. At the outset, I wondered if you had read Campi's blogpost of a few days ago. I think scripture shows several areas where a pecking order is 'in order'(Romans 14? ). Thanks for the thoughts!

Gunner said...


Thanks for posting this. I'm very glad to be challenged to think about it more. For a resource, I would recommend Sinclair Ferguson's three messages from the 2003 Bethlehem Conference for Pastor's. The conference was entitled "Good Fences, Bad Fences, and the Glory of Christ."

I felt that Ferguson did a fine job at explaining and digging into the issue of doctrinal boundaries with clarity and depth (from a pastoral perspective). I was 21 at the time, so maybe what was helpful for me would be old news for you and others. But hundreds of pastors were there, and I know they benefited. His messages were entitled:

1. Guarding the Gospel: The Pastor’s Calling
2. Serving the Truth: The Pastor’s Privilege
3. Facing the Broken Fences: The Pastor’s Burden

$12 for the MP3 of the whole conference.

Char said...

I think an excellent case for the existance of primary and secondary doctrines can be made from structures I've noticed in Torah; but then I think everything can be traced back to Torah one way or another. :)

Joe said...

To approach this topic on a philosophical level is one thing, and a good thing, but to make it practical is very difficult.

Members of a particular church disagree about what is primary and what is secondary.

Different denominations disagree on what is primary and what is secondary.

Different "non-denominational" entities disagree on what is primary and what is secondary.

In a practical way, how do we arrive at what is REALLY primary?

Some of my church members, on issiues I see as important, have any said things like, "I know the Bible says..., but..."

I don't know how to deal with that.

Any ideas?

Carla Rolfe said...


I don't have a resource (off the top of my head) for you on this, other than the Scriptures. It certainly is a worthwhile topic however, and I look forward to seeing suggestions by the readers as well.

This is something that holds my interest as well, since I seem to come across more and more Christians who leave out of the gospel, what I have always believed to be without question, fundamental TO the gospel.

SDG - Carla

FX Turk said...

I am sure you realize this is the topic I have been talking about at my blog almost since its inception.

James said...

Mr. Johnson:

I don't normally commment on blogs but I can't resist on this one, as you've hit a topic near and dear to my heart.

I don't have resources to suggest per your request, however, this topic has come up in my church in regard to issues being discussed at leadership meetings.

One area of truth I believe to be of primary importance is the area of worship. God cares about how we worship Him and I believe is clear that He takes this seriously (Lev 10).

I find it interesting and perhaps disturbing that some churches (mine included) regulate the worship of God to personal preferences (secondary truth). Certainly preferences play into our undestanding and application of Scripture but I believe worship to be our "highest occupation", requiring diligence on our part to ensure that Scripture 'regulates' the worship of God.

Your thoughts?

GL said...

That Jesus mentioned a
"first and greatest commandment" and " a second like it" and that "all the law and prophets depend on these" seems to make this point either VERY implicit or perhaps Jesus' statement crosses over into the explicit realm.

To Joe-- you are correct that adjudicating between competing "essentials" and "non-essentials" perspectives can sometimes be difficult. I have listened while orthodox Christian in Charlottesville have debated sexuality issues, both sides convinced of the high authority of Scripture and yet one party saying "This is essential and worthy of leaving a church" and the other party saying, "No where in Scripture or the creeds is one's position on sexuality elevated to an essential of the faith. You have no permission to leave your church."

I don't have a direct answer for your question, but an indirect answer is: this is what we do in the Church, until Jesus comes back. We search the Scriptures, we reason together, we love, we pray, we study some more.

puritanicoal said...

Jesus' own words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5), support that there is at least and apparent hierarchy of law. Jesus said: "19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven . . ."

By the way, at the time, it was argued that the following was the least of the commandments:
“If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young." Deut. 22:6.

However, this doesn't really address the question as to what is "essential" and "non-essential." I think that has to be explained in a connect-the-dots way, much in the same way the imputed righteousness of Christ or the Trinity is explained. Neither are explicitly spoken of, yet are accepted by many (although in dwindling numbers). Romans 8 seems to be a good starting point.

Maybe we can convince Piper to write a book on it. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think Robert Schuller's (spelling?) "The Be Happy Attitudes" deals with the aforementioned subject in great detail. :P

Frank Martens said...

Sort of....
Critical Issues Commentary by Pastor Bob DeWaay of Twin Cities Fellowship.

I don't know if he address's every issue but there's quite a few.


agonizomai said...


You might want to give this link a try.

Phil Johnson said...

Before the proliferation of links gets out of hand, let me explain again:

I'm not looking for guidelines on how to tell truth from error.

I'm not looking for lists of "fundamentals."

I am looking for writers who actually grapple with the biblical basis for making a distinction between primary and secondary issues.

The question on the table is not "How do we determine whether the doctrine of eternal punishment is true or false," but "How do we determine the relative seriousness of being wrong on an issue like this?" and, "How do we know whether someone can be in error on this issue and still be deemed an authentic Christian?" How much and what kind of error can we tolerate within the fellowship of faith before the principle of 2 John 10-11 kicks in?

Again, I'm looking for solid, careful biblical answers, arguments rooted in church history, ancient creeds, denominnational traditions, or one guy's opinion about what's fundamental and what's not.

Phil Johnson said...

BTW, I didn't mean by that last comment that none of the links given have been helpful. Some have. Thanks to those who have posted them.

But I'm asking to be pointed to specific places where the specific issue I have raised is being discussed specifically.

Sled Dog said...

Wow, the handling (or mishandling)of this very issue of primary and secondary issues is one of my greatest concerns as I interact with folks who I would consider "of MacArthur." I must admit I'm a bit amazed that Phil writes about this, as my exprience has been that almost every time I enter into conversations about primary and secondary matters with these folks, everything seems to end up in the primary pile, and the resulting attitude is that true evangelical unity is virtually unattainable.

Maybe an example would help clarify. I don't think the role of women in the church, although important for us to learn from Scripture, rates as high as the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in Christ. Or the doctrine of the trinity. Or the deity of Christ. But I often come across individuals who want to fight tooth and nail over the first issue just as much as the last three. It's not that I don't have strong opinions about what the Bible teaches about women's roles, but I just can't put that issue in the same category as the others as a "fellowship breaker."

Does my church have female elders? No. Can I fellowship with a solid evangelical presbyterian church that does? Yes. But if a group teaches salvation through works, unitarianism, or that Jesus is not God, then I can't bring myself to fellowship with them.

Ephraim said...

Doing doctrinal prioritization exercises according to fallen man's viewpoint, has never, and will never, bring about real unity throughout the body of Messiah.

There will, of course, be some localized agreement among believers that tends to keep small, or large in some cases, groups showing up at certain buildings on certain days to engage in pre-defined, pre-approved, religious behaviour. But, as we have all seen at some point in our experience, that in and of itself does not bring about the unity we all long for.

Now, the doctrinal prioritization that Adonai has already done would produce the unity He, and hopefully we, desire.

One small problem though; our rebellious nature, which is at the root of our disobedience, does not want to submit to Elohim's prioritization of essential doctrines and behaviours. We like to do things our own way. Then cover our work over with a coat of religious paint,(pick your favorite color), with the hope that what we have done is "exactly" what "the LORD wanted".

When we look around at the world today, do we not see everyone, secular or otherwise, arranging their beliefs according to what they want? Too much of it going on. It wears a person out just thinking about it.

Is there a solution? Yes, there is. But it will not come from man. It may come through him, but it will not originate from him. Those who wait upon YHWH will be renewed. Those who don't will simply come up with another angle to avoid the straight and narrow.

Sorry I don't have a list of books or other stuff for you Phil. I imagine that your shelves are quite full already. And after reading most, if not all of your books, the questions still remain.

What will YHWH show us next to break this maddening calm?


Gunner said...

sled dog: I think the reason that the people you're describing react more strongly than you do against the female-eldership issue is that Scripture is quite clear on the matter (1 Tim. 2:9-15). I think you agree with this, so I'm not challenging your convictions on the matter. Just saying that at one point or another, neglecting or completely rejecting clear truths (even though they're peripheral) can call into question whether someone has submitted himself to God's Word or not. The hard part is that it's an issue of degree - to what degree does that person submit himself to clear scriptural teaching regarding peripheral issues.

The implication is: The degree to which Scripture is clear regarding a particular truth or command has a bearing on how strongly we should stand against a *rejection* of that truth or command.

Phil Johnson said...

Right. Thanks, Sled Dog. Warm and wonderful sentiments, as usual.

Now that you've got that off your chest, have you got any biblical insight you'd like to share with us on the issue (as opposed to this very enlightening information about how you feel about things)?

Habitans in Sicco said...

Ephraim, you've READ "most, if not all of [Phil's] books"?!!

I mean, like, WOW! Because I have seen his library, and that's a lot of reading.

Does Phil loan you his books? Because the one time I tried to borrow a book from him, his secretary wanted me to sign for it.

J. Ed Komoszewski said...

Daniel B. Wallace makes some important observations about cardinal truths and the inner witness of the Spirit here.

A sneak peek at a relevant chapter in a forthcoming Zondervan title can be found here.

Sir Blogalot said...

Doesn't this whole thread militate against the claim that these essentials and non-essentials are "common sense"?

Sicco, you are revolting.

Sled Dog said...

Biblically, ALL believers are called to some measure of unity. Jesus prayed for it (John 17:20-23). Paul encouraged it (Ephesians 2:2). In my pursuit of truth, I can't escape the fact that Jesus wants his church unified. But it seems that many believers spend more time trying to figure out how they are divided.

As with so many things in the Christian life, a tension exists. And people tend to fall on one side of that tension or another. They either become driven by legalism or liberty. They either try to figure everything out, or they stop trying to figure anything out. I love the description of Jesus (in John 1:14) as being full of grace AND truth. He knew how to perfectly balance out the tension, and revealed it in His life.

The pharisees learned that as much as they thought they had things worked out theologically, Jesus came along and destroyed most of their conclusions. Jesus flipped them out when he and His disciple's plucked wheat on the Sabbath, and then He turned around and set them straight on the whole matter. They thought they were right, but they were dead wrong.

I'm fearful that when we stand before the Lord, and we show him the labor of our hands as 21st century American believers, He is going to look at us and say, "That's it? You just argued about stuff?"

Sorry, Phil, I didn't answer your question. It's obviously not an easy question to answer!

puritanicoal said...

I have to first say, I do not know of a book that addresses the issue you bring to the table and I spend a lot of time in bookstores, and online looking at books.

That being said, if such a book(s) exists, unless you agreed with it 100%, wouldn't you be left with the same quandary? Would you then need a book to tell you whether the book you are reading is right about primary issues, and the only issues that are wrong are secondary issues? I am not trying to be facetious, but isn't what you are asking about really the "ultimate issue?" Who's right and who's wrong?

This reminds me of the Supreme Court's treatment of obscenity cases. There is no set standard, they simply say, "We'll know it when we see it."

Isn't it the same here? We meet someone, or deal with someone, or some ministry, and we assess their doctrinal position. If there are areas of which they are not aligned with our own, don't we just have to make a case-by-case determination?

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see what you find out of this, and I will be here clicking every link. But, I fear that this is akin to Ishmael's White Whale.....

Quist said...

I believe the late Francis Shaeffer treats this topic in his small booklet: The Church Before the Watching World - A Practical Ecclesiology. See: http://www.rationalpi.com/theshelter/watching.html

Phil Johnson said...

Sir Blogalot says: "Doesn't this whole thread militate against the claim that these essentials and non-essentials are 'common sense'?"

Well, yeah, that was my whole point. Unfortunately, support for the dichotomy between primary and secondary truths has been pretty much left in the realm of common sense since the time of Herman Witsus. With the decline of any consensus on what "common sense" tells us, we need to take a new look at the issue, and there needs to be a clear understanding of what Scripture says about it.

That's why I'm not particularly interested in hearing people's personal feelings about it.

Sled Dog says: "I'm fearful that when we stand before the Lord, and we show him the labor of our hands as 21st century American believers, He is going to look at us and say, 'That's it? You just argued about stuff?'"

I hear you. But I'm also fearful that the bulk of 21st-century American believers are even more likely to hear Him say, "You didn't care enough about truth to refute the flood of lies and counterfeits? You listened to the worldlings who claimed it's 'unloving' to confront error? Didn't I give you a better example to follow; and didn't I even command you to contend earnestly for the faith?"

Steve said...

Phil: After you've sorted through the deluge of links, etc., could you at least let the rest of us know which one or two leads really DID offer substantial thoughts (if any)?

This very matter of primary and secondary doctrines is has long been of great interest to me.

Off the top of my head, I can't point to any resources, but given my reading in recent years, if ANYONE would have grappled with this, it wouldn't surprise me if one or more members of the early reformed church in Scotland did, given their prolific written output on matters of church polity and practice.

Sled Dog said...

Perhaps Jude provides a starting poiont for the discussion. He wrote that we are to contend FOR THE FAITH that was once for all entrusted to the saints. What is the FAITH we are to contend for? I believe that we are to firmly fight against anything that would weaken the message of God's salvation through Christ. That is the essence of the FAITH.

If someone teaches works rather than faith through grace, the FAITH is threatened (hence Paul's near hysterical response to the Judiazers in the Galatian church). But the discussion of whether about the role of women in the church does not threaten the GOSPEL. I can be saved even if the latter is taught, but I can't be redeemed by the doctrine of the former.

Sled Dog said...

Curse you blogger! No editing capabililties. Omit from the 2nd paragraph: "of whether".

Jeremy Weaver said...

I feel:-) like the best place to look for the kinds of answers you want are found in the early church creeds.

farmboy said...

I've never posted a comment to a blog before, but here goes...

When it comes to the truths revealed in Scripture, there are two metrics that may interact.

1) Importance: Some truths are more important or vital than other truths are. (This is the subject matter of the current blog topic.)

2) Clarity: Some truths are more clearly revealed than other truths are. (Can a truth be clearly, yet implicitly, revealed?)

From these metrics a couple of questions follow:

1) Is there a correlation between these two metrics? Are the most important or vital truths also the truths that are revealed with the greatest clarity? Or is there generally little correlation between these two metrics?

2) What is the greatest cause of disagreement - A) less important or vital truths that are incorrectly classified as more important or vital truths, or B) truths, whatever their level of importance, that are revealed with lesser clarity in Scripture?

From a slightly different perspective, assume a truth that is universally agreed to be of relatively little importance. Assume also that this truth is universally agreed to be clearly revealed in Scripture. Would acting and/or believing contrary to such a truth place a person in the position of lacking proper respect for Scripture? (Growing up, if my dad desired that we, his kids, wear green on St. Patrick's Day, and he made this desire clearly known. Even if this was a relatively unimportant item for my dad, we would have been guilty of disrespecting our dad had we not worn green on St. Patrick's Day.)

Jerry Wragg said...

Sled dog -
First of all...Jesus' call for unity in John 17 is not a prayer for amicability, but rather a petition for the sanctification of his people in unifying love through the truth (v17). The core issue was not that the disciples needed to become more agreeable in attitude but more set apart unto the truth. As you expressed, The scriptures do call us to unity often, but as Paul teaches in Eph. 4:11-14, we are to unify around the truth which is able to protect us from being deceived.
Second, John 1:14 does not teach that Jesus had the perfect balance between a "graceful attitude" and "truth commitment". The verse, in context, teaches that the glory and grace of the Law (v17 - the moral perfections and holiness of God, revealing sin, pointing to the need for a savior)was fully realized (manifested) in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Lord was certainly filled with perfect kindness, love, and the offer of grace in salvation...but verse 14 is not a statement about how He perfectly balanced attitudes toward others when speaking truth.

Frank Martens said...

SledDog says... "The pharisees learned that as much as they thought they had things worked out theologically, Jesus came along and destroyed most of their conclusions. Jesus flipped them out when he and His disciple's plucked wheat on the Sabbath, and then He turned around and set them straight on the whole matter. They thought they were right, but they were dead wrong."

And Christ was Gracious enough to show them their error. The problem wasn't that they searched out theological answers, it's that they were wrong and were using it for personal gain. The issue is the heart, THEY WEREN'T EVEN SAVED! (Well, some of them anyways).

Phil, it's a good question, and we would all agree that whenever these ideas (or truths) are presented as what saves (and not being Christ alone and His finished work on the Cross) is where the problem lies.

Phil Walker said...

I think your post makes the point exactly (and I half suspect you missed yourself making it). You are (quite rightly) wanting to see evangelical unity. That is to say, unity in the gospel. Paul's own priority was the gospel; I would go to Galatians 1:6-9 and Philippians 1:15-18, which I think make this abundantly clear.

If it's essential to the gospel, then we make a stand and will say that people disagreeing with us cannot be saved. If it isn't, we can disagree, charitably and as Christian brothers and sisters.

So, now all you have to do is answer the small question of "what is the gospel?" I await your own solution to this minor problem with interest. : )

Ephraim said...


That was great! I needed the laugh.

This English, she is tough, no?


Sled Dog said...

Phil Walker,

To whom are you directing your comment?

And to your comment, I say "here, here!"

Ephraim said...

Farmboy said:

"Growing up, if my dad desired that we, his kids, wear green on St. Patrick's Day, and he made this desire clearly known. Even if this was a relatively unimportant item for my dad, we would have been guilty of disrespecting our dad had we not worn green on St. Patrick's Day."

Nice illustration. It reminds me of YHWH's instruction to Irael to wear Tzit Tzit on their garments, to remind them of Torah when they were going about their day. Today most Christians would consider that to be completely uneccessary and a sure sign of legalism. In other words, a relatively unimportant command compared to the weightier matters of Torah, such as the ten commandments. Yet, it pleases my Father in heaven when I make it (the least of His instructions) as important to me as it is to Him.

"on earth as it is in heaven"

But then if love is the answer to everything, why are we even having this discussion?


Sled Dog said...


I certainly was not ignoring the context of John 17. Unity must have an object...not simply to be amicable (which I did not call for). Jesus prayed that His followers be sanctified in the truth and be completely unified. We have to deal with both, not one at the expense of the other.

As far as John 14, I believe that the statement does reveal an incredible balance that God could somehow show us grace, when the truth is we aren't worthy of His love. And Christ demonstrated that balance throughout His entire earthly ministry.

Makes me think that the answer to Phil's original question might be: Be more like Jesus!

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Phil writes: “With the decline of any consensus on what "common sense" tells us, we need to take a new look at the issue, and there needs to be a clear understanding of what Scripture says about it.

No consensus on what common sense tells us? Phil, are you sure you are not among the Evangelical Left after all? Should you rename your blog, Pomomaniac instead?

Just kidding of course – your last line clarifies the point you are making ( there needs to be a clear understanding of what Scripture says about it ). However, I think we all recognize that examining what the Scripture says will not answer all of the questions that are being asked (if they did we would not still be talking about this). Bringing biblical principles to bear is the call of the day, but of course this is subjective and will not be able to avoid, as you say, hearing people's personal feelings about it .

Phil Johnson said...

See what I mean about the death of "common sense"?

c.t. said...

There's unity and understanding of these issues among regenerate Christians. In the invisible Church of which Christ is King.

The person who stated that the creeds (and I would add the Reformation confessions) fill this need is on to something.

Nice to see you reference Turretin and Witsius. Always keep in mind: Covenant Theology is not the servant of infant baptism. Don't allow the high church paedo types push this line. Covenent Theology is the truth (read Witsius' major work, Economy of the Covenants).

Benjamin said...

Some call us to simply love one another, as though this were a sweeping solution to doctrinal controversy. Yet if anyone would argue that to "love one another" does not involve the need for doctrinal distinctions, for warnings and rebuke, for gentle correction and taking heed unto one's doctrine (for by it we save ourselves and our hearers), for turning our eyes and helping others to turn their own away from that which is worthless, for distinguishing between the "love" of the Church from that of the world--which includes within it an implicit call away from Christ--then I would suggest that they do not understand "love" as it is Biblically defined... and there doctrinal controversy returns.

Others say, let us look simply to Jesus and be like Him! Easier said than done for then we must understand just what He did say and do and, again, doctrinal controversy ensues.

On the other hand, Jonathan Moorhead seems to question the perspicuity of Scripture when he says, "However, I think we all recognize that examining what the Scripture says will not answer all of the questions that are being asked (if they did we would not still be talking about this)."

Here, greater faith is placed in the abilities (and hearts) of men than in the Author who perfectly inspired His work. Mr. Moorhead does not seem to be a Calvinist (or not a very consistent one), for this sort of statement is itself rejected by Scripture. We are taught that the differences of opinion on religious matters are never to be attributed to some sort of lack of clarity in the Scriptures themselves but rather to the immorality of our hearts' secret motivations (John 7:16-18).

It is a strange arrogance to attribute some inadequacy to Scripture for it presupposes that we have exhausted Scripture already on some (or any) particular issue and now know that our questions cannot be resolved by further resorting to a careful perusal of its pages.

Just as Christ said to the Sadducees when they brought forward an argument that the rabbinical experts apparently could not answer sufficiently, the one who says such things does so only because that person does not know the Scriptures nor does he or she understand the power of GOD.

Every part of Scripture is precious and undeniably true. Now, it is equally clear that not every ignorant and immoral public denial of some part of the same should result in the view that such and such a person is "lost." I see that Mr. Johnson is trying to get to the details of the proper distinction.

While discussing this, of course, we have to face the question of where that line is drawn the crossing of which brings a person beyond a simple possession of a heretical belief to that place where they are a genuine heretic. For instance, Jonathan Edwards' view of the Trinity was clearly heretical. Nevertheless, he was not a heretic and I think the key to this lies in the fact that he did not really appreciate and believe the implications of what he had formulated. He contradicted himself instead and tried to procure very different conclusions from his description of the trinity than his formulation would logically require.

This is also why I believe Arminians are not true heretics, in the main, because they almost never, today, follow the logical implications of their views (on the other hand, sometimes, not doing so leads them into error) but prefer to hold tight to GOD's exclusive rights to praise and glory. As it is, this is why Spurgeon can talk about the Calvinistic quality of the hymns of the Wesleys and why Arminians today hardly look at all like those of John Owen's day when he wrote A Display of Arminianism. He dealt with a type of Arminian that looked more like our modern day Open Theists (and worse).

It is interesting that you brought this subject up, Mr. Johnson, as this is something I've been grappling with as well. I encourage others to do the same. A strong Scriptural study of this subject would be a fine instrument to help guide the Church through the foggy seas of our time. Most are either hugging the shores in all their travels, hardly growing beyond the platitudes of their initial rebirth or else venturing forth foolishly into the perilously dark waters of liberalism and a dead orthodoxy without realizing or perhaps caring what they've become in the process.

This certainly is a subject for all times and a great need of a truly Christian people. It would be strange to think that the LORD had not provided the answer to one of the most basic questions.

Benjamin said...

The "creeds" and Reformational standards are not what Mr. Johnson is looking for. Creeds, by their very nature, cannot explore and analyze sufficiently the Biblical grounds for any doctrine (much less compare the relative importance of doctrines). They merely offer a statement of belief with a few references sprinkled in.

We need, I believe, a strong grasp of the connection of doctrines and the Biblical acuity to establish their connection and hierarchy by Scripture, either by express statement or rigorous implication.

c.t. said...

Creeds, by their very nature, cannot explore and analyze sufficiently the Biblical grounds for any doctrine (much less compare the relative importance of doctrines).

They sift doctrine by weight and show this just simply by what they leave out as not weighty enough to include.

Jonathan Moorhead said...


I appreciate your zeal for Sola Scriptura, but for me to say, " examining what the Scripture says will not answer ALL of the questions that are being asked," does not constitute a rejection of the Reformation doctrine nor does it impinge upon my 5-point Calvinism. I am simply acknowledging that there are some questions that the Bible does not explicitly explain.

I happen to agree with “Temple, War, and Cities” that the creeds are an excellent place to start.

SUGGESTION: Phil, will you schedule a “Pyromaniac Cruise” (you know, like the “Grace to You Cruise” to Alaska) so we all can get together some time? Thanks a million (my favorite Mayhew phrase).

Phil Johnson said...

Tereo-Kensai is correct; creeds are not what I'm looking for, and I expressly said so.

Byt the way, lest there be any question about this—I accept all the major ecumenical creeds without any reservation. But I reject the notion that the ecumenical creeds (Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedon, etc.) are a sufficient list of everything that is truly fundamental.

A moment's reflection ought to reveal why (from a Protestant perspective, anyway) the creeds don't even come close to furnishing an answer to the question I have raised. After all, none of the central issues under debate between Rome and the Reformers were settled by the early creeds.

If you start with the assumption that patristic creeds define everything that's truly fundamental, you'd have to argue that the Reformation was a mistake, because it split the church over secondary matters. That's one of the very accusations the Catholic Church made against the Reformers in the 16th century. Protestants have universally rejected that idea for 500 years. Good Protestants still reject it.

To give just one example: the doctrine of justification by faith is not dealt with in any of the ancient creeds. Yet Galatians 1 clearly makes it a fundamental issue.

By the way, it begs the question to say "if it's essential to the gospel, then its' essential truth." The question is about how to determine biblically what is essential—including what's essential to the gospel.

This is not an easy question. Just because a doctrine is related to the gospel—or even central to the gospel—does not mean that every aspect of that truth is essential.

The nature of the atonement is a classic example. What's more essential to the gospel than the atonement? Yet no one but the darkest hyper-calvinist would say that your understanding of the extent of the atonement has to be perfect before you can be embraced as a Christian.

On the other hand, I would be inclined to suspicion about someone who knowingly and deliberately rejects the vicarious, penal, and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. It seems to me someone who teaches that Christ's work on the cross was only exemplary and who flatly denies that it was substitutionary or propitiatory is no true Christian. I believe I could support that conclusion from Scripture.

But, once more, I'm looking for serious resources from serious writers who have thought carefully through these things, not a free-for-all airing of off-the-cuff opinions. I appreciate those who have suggested good resources.

Incidentally, a "Pyromaniac cruise" is a patently bad idea. Don't you remember what kinds of things happen when I travel?

Benjamin said...

I sincerely apologize for my misunderstanding, Mr. Moorhead. I believe that all of the theological questions that have been discussed thus far find their answer in Scripture but you are quite right that they are likely enough not to be found explicitly stated. Then again, disagreement still has little to do with the matter because even those things that are explicitly stated are still often hotly debated.

As for the suggestion that we begin with the creeds, I understand the interest in a historical foundation for answering questions about the actual importance of certain doctrines over others, but I think that you have both missed the point of Mr. Johnson's question.

He is looking for Biblical analysis. He cannot find this by examining creeds or a confessions which, likely enough, he has examined as much as anyone here. He will find in such things what many men believed to be important doctrines but, if you will look at the earlier comments, you can find Mr. Johnson explicitly saying, "I'm not looking for lists of 'fundamentals.'

I am looking for writers who actually grapple with the biblical basis for making a distinction between primary and secondary issues."

There isn't much "grappling" being done in confessions and creeds. All such struggles usually take place in the background. Most works grapple with establishing this or that doctrine. I know of none, personally, that grapples with the specific Scriptural revelation of the hierarchy of doctrines in contrast with each other, especially in regard to doctrines that many might consider to be in a sort of "gray" area of controversy... unclear whether to categorize it as "essential" or "inessential."

As for me, I don't find those categories (at least their names) very helpful. Most doctrines, even those that are "inessential," have important implications the effects of which stretch into or influence more "essential" doctrines. The issue of paedobaptism, for instance, might be described in this way.

Benjamin said...

Well, it looks like Mr. Johnson made part of my post unnecessary.

Sled Dog said...

How ironic...when I took my wife out for lunch today (excellent huevos rancheros I might say.) I noticed that the new pastor from the local presby church was having lunch with his assoc pastor. My mind flashed to the discussion on this thread, and for a split second I wondered, hmmm, how should I respond to this paedo-baptizer? Obviously I extended the right hand of fellowship to this man who preaches the full gospel of Christ. I may not agree with every doctrine of his church, but I can glory in the fact that people are finding salvation because of the Gospel is preached.

Now, I know this still isn't answering your question, Phil. I agree with you about the creeds. When people ask me my creed I tell them it's Genesis thru Revelation.

But here's my question for you, Phil. Can you expand on your comments about how paedo-baptism effects and influences primary doctrines. I've got my views, but just wanted to hear your case...

c.t. said...

The context of my own remarks, as I formulated it, was not "creeds" alone but confessions.

Suggesting anyone was saying the little Apostles' Creed covers all central doctrine is not playing fair.

For somebody requesting help, in a rather informal environment, you're awfully prickly and demanding.

You asked a question that may just basically require a summation of historical, biblical, and systematic theology. Afterall, the process of biblically discerning or identifying principle doctrine (and by default sifting out or identifying secondary or non-principle doctrine) involves basically everything that goes into the process that produces confessions and STs and summation works such as Institutes of the Christian Religion, etc.

c.t. said...

Something ongoing and interesting and seldom remarked on in the history of the church era is the fact that so few branch/denominations/schools of theology (however you want to define it) produce respected systematic theologies (including grudgingly respected). It's actually just the Reformed, Calvinists (whether Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist) who produce such STs.

What makes Calvinist theologians different from other schools and denominations and branches and what not? Valuation for the authority of Scripture.

This subject touches on your request and the general subject of your post.

Steve said...

Phil: What I'm about to share doesn't hit exactly on what you asked in your blog, but I believe it makes for decently good peripheral reading. I pulled an Andrew Fuller volume down from the shelf and found an article titled "Agreement in Sentiment the Bond of Christian Union," in which Fuller addresses the matter of Christian forbearance in regard to beliefs, doctrine, etc. The article is short, and Fuller does not delve deeply (which is unfortunate!). In a letter to Rev. Samuel Hackney in 1796, Fuller explains his thoughts regarding dissenters not having grounds for religious union with the established Church of England. Here are a few excerpts:

"...I may say further, I wish to be on terms of religious friendship with no man, unless he be a friend to what I consider the first principles of the oracles of God.... Christian love appears to me to be, 'for the truth's sake that dwelleth in us.' Every kind of union that has not truth for its bond is of no value in the sight of God, and ought to be of none in ours."

Later, he states, "No two persons may think exactly alike; but so far as they are unlike, so far there is a want of union. We are united to God himself by becoming of one mind and one heart with him."

Later, apparently responding to a comment Samuel Palmer made, Fuller states, "'A decided judgment on some points,' you consider as 'unimportant, and think there is room for mutual candour.' If those points are unrevealed, I say so too; but I do not consider either the Deity or the atonement of Christ as coming under this description, an I hope you think the same.... As to 'candour,' it is due to all men, even infidels and athiests; but candour will NOT lead me to treat them as objects of Divine favour, but to speak the truth to them in love" (emphasis added).

Fuller also comments at one point that when it comes to forbearance, "I wish inflexibly to adhere to the side of truth and righteousness, so far as I understand them, in every punctilio, in order to please God."

Excerpted from Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1845), pp. 489-92.

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog says: "here's my question for you, Phil. Can you expand on your comments about how paedo-baptism effects and influences primary doctrines[?]"

When did I ever say I think paedobaptism "effects and influences primary doctrines"? I don't think it necessarily does. (Baptismal regeneration is whole a different matter, BTW.) As a matter of fact, I have many close friends who are paedobaptists, and I make it a point never to pick fights with them over the issue (well, at least not in earnest; I might needle them from time to time) precisely because I don't believe it's a primary matter.

Certain approaches to sacramentalism disturb me greatly. These are epitomized by the Auburn Avenue theology and most of its cousins, ranging from the New Perspective on Paul to the odd varieties of pretentious pseudocatholic drivel floating around among some Protestants these days. (I'm thinking of the stuff regularly found on the "Communio Sanctorum" blog—the Artists formerly known as "Reformed Catholicism.") But that particular type of sacramentalism disturbs me because of the way it undermines the clarity of the doctrine of justification by faith.

By contrast, paedobaptism per se isn't something I really want to spend time fighting about.

Likewise, you'll find, I deliberately stay out of most arguments over eschatological schemes. I do think there are some essential truths pertaining to future things (chiefly, the future, literal, bodily return of Christ), but I don't think any essential truth is at stake in most of the escatological debates theological students love to hammer each other with. So I steer clear of virtually all those debates, and I refuse to allow anyone's opinions on the timing of specific future events to become an impediment to my Christian fellowship.

(BTW, I wouldn't include most varieties of "full preterism" in the list of escatological controversies that bypass primary truths, because it seems to me extreme preterism does involve a denial of the bodily return of Christ, and in the worst cases, some full preterists have seemed even to explain away the significance of the bodily resurrection of Christ. But I'm just stating that opinion for the record, not opening this comment thread for a debate on eschatology. So be forewarned; if you try to start a debate here about any eschatological issue from preterism to the timing of the rapture, your comments will be unceremoniously deleted because they are officially off topic. I'm allowed to veer off-topic on my blog. No one else is.)

To a certain degree, I think some of the more picayune debates over worship and music styles aren't really worth the amount of ink that has been spilt over them. However, I do believe the majority of the popular fads in so-called "contemporary worship" violate crucial New Testament principles. Chiefly, I think man-centeredness and worldliness in worship are the contemporary equivalent of the groves and idols that God condemned in OT worship. Therefore (as you know from things I have posted), I'm prepared to do battle with the miscreants who peddle those innovations.

But I acknowledge that there's ultimately more subjectivity than I am comfortable with in the reasons I might assign differing levels of importance to this or that doctrine in my hierarchy. If it's possible outline additional objective, biblical principles besides the ones I listed in my original post, I'd like to develop my views a little more. That's why I started this thread.

For the record, I do think it's positively sinful to make issues we admit are secondary—such as paedobaptism and eschatology—the first things we want to know about someone's theology, as if we were looking for argument-fodder. To a lesser degree, the same thing is true about Calvinism. I do think Calvinism touches on issues that are worth debating, and I don't mind a vigorous, gloves-off fight with a rabid free-willer, if the free-willer picks the fight. But it embarrasses me when fellow Calvinists seem to walk around wearing their Calvinism on their sleeve like they are spoiling for a fight, acting as if there's only one subject that really matters in all of theology.

Now I'm way off topic again, but back to your original question, I don't know where you ever got the notion I think differences over paedobaptism are worth breaking fellowship over. For the record, I don't. I have nothing but compassion and patience for my poor, benighted paedo friends. I even buy them lunch sometimes.

Phil Johnson said...

Temple, war, and cities (you wouldn't be the latest incarnation of "Carolyn Trace," would you?) says: You asked a question that may just basically require a summation of historical, biblical, and systematic theology.

No, I didn't. I asked for help locating serious resources where brighter minds than mine have dealt with these issues from Scripture.

I'm not trying to be "prickly," I'm just trying not to let the thread veer off into an argument about how various people who post in my comments section "feel" about it.

Maybe next week I'll invite everyone to tell us how they feel. This week, my question was deliberately more specific than that. I'm just trying to keep it on track.

Sled Dog said...


I was simply referring to your quote:

"Most doctrines, even those that are inessential have important implications, the effects which stretch into or influence more "essential" doctrines. The issue of Paedo baptism might be described this way."

Aren't you saying here that although doctrines may be inessential, they still may have some impact upon more primary, essential doctrines? And if so, how does Paedo baptism do so? Since you used Paedo baptism as your example, I just wanted you to expand on your reasoning.

It was a simple question! Really! I have no stake in your response one way or another. I just desired you to elaborate on your proposition.

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog: That's not my quote. Someone else said that. Check the source again.

Frank Martens said...

Ok, Now I understand what you are looking for in this post :) At first I thought you wanted someone's scripture and thoughts on this, but you want someone's complete research and sermon/paper on it.

I know Piper has done some sermons on this and I have found a couple (and I'm sure there's more)...
Contend for the Faith
Training the next generation of evangelical pastors and missionaries - Piper states that all the secondaries become sustained by God Exalting motives if our focus is wholy on God.

Benjamin said...

Sled dog, I think you have Mr. Johnson mixed up with, well... me. Though my last name is Johnson, we're not related (I think) ;)

I made the remark about paedobaptism and the relationship I often find between "essential" and "inessential" doctrines. My meaning was in line, basically, with what Phil Johnson later explained, if I understand him correctly. If you still care for it, I'll gladly elaborate... though my explanation will seem biased toward the Baptist point of view. It must be remembered that, when I speak of paedobaptists, I'm not merely referring to Presbyterians, though I am most familiar with their doctrines than any other among that group.

Paedobaptism does not necessarily, but often seems to in practice, lead to corruptions in more "essential" doctrines. For instance, because paedobaptism is often extremely difficult to exhume from the deep recesses of Scriptural meaning, certain advocates of it will emphasize extra-biblical sources of authority and/or focus more upon debating a proper hermeneutical principle by which to guide exegesis than the exegesis of the text. This often translates into a perversion, however slight, of sola scriptura. Tim Enloe would be an obvious example of this. I also once read a Presbyterian who jokingly said, "You know you're a Presbyterian if. . . your copy of the Westminster Confession is more dogeared than your Bible."

Also, because of the suggested implications of baptism for the salvation of children (among certain Reformed groups, though not all), one's view of salvation, particularly faith, become skewed. The reason for this seems to be that the actual benefits received from infant baptism are vague and controversial (as they are not taught in Scripture). Thus, having already left revelation behind a tad to support an extra-biblical doctrine, further unbiblical attempts at making sense of the special "grace" one supposedly receives are contrived.

There are, for instance, certain odd perspectives on just what it is that children receive in baptism that have been taught which suppose there is some sort of seed of regeneration (not yet blossomed) in children who were baptized. This seed supposedly germinates at the time in which the individual finishing their confirmation classes stands before the covenant community and publicly professes belief in those doctrines which were taught. This "act of faith" seems to form the context, for some, of that moment of true salvation.

With this sort of context, one can easily come to see "faith" as little more than intellectual assent, as Gordon Clark seemed to do, and believe oneself saved because of having received baptism and having expressed assent to what was taught. Some even go so far as to deny that the concept of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" has any real meaning and certainly is not essential for a life in Christ. It is a well-known criticism that paedobaptists tend to focus less on living out one's faith and on evangelism than on doctrinal minutiae. Whether that is a fair criticism or not, there's a reason why a staunch opponent of Calvinism, such as Laurence Vance, has warned his fellow Arminians that the Calvinistic Baptists are most evangelistic and therefore most dangerous and that Presbyterians and the like are not much of a concern.

Again, paedobaptism has been known to instigate a diminution of the doctrine of sanctification and the need for personal holiness. If one believes that, through baptism and assent to catechism many are saved when they are surely not, then there are going to be those in the paedobaptist ranks that are thought to be Christians when they are goats among the lambs. To explain why they fall into gross practices, the practical result is at times to compromise the statements of Scripture concerning perseverance.

Again, when children are told that they are Christians because they were baptized (in a debate with James White, a paedobaptist said that this was a Christian parent's "right") the resultant "apostasy" often becomes more pronounced than ever throughout the ranks of paedobaptists, denominations turn liberal in a generation or two, and a greater assurance of one's salvation and the comfort of the knowledge of the salvation of one's children is sought. Right now, Auburn guys like Doug Wilson teach that baptism is a sure sign that one is elect. The deception grows all the more pronounced and sola scriptura is abandoned all the more.

Of course, on the other hand, if you attach certain expectations to what one's child receives in baptism, if the results are not clearly in favor of this, the soveriengty or honesty of GOD comes into question. I have personally heard one Presbyterian minister explain, in reference to the "promise" that is allegedly given to Christians and "to their children," that the children will be saved, that we simply don't always hold GOD to His promises. Another Presbyterian minister reminded me that we have to interpret this promise in light of the rule and not the exceptions.

The doctrine of the Church and the definition of the covenants come into play here as well. Whatever some Presbyterians will say, paedobaptism was flourishing long before Covenant theology and Covenant theology was fashioned, in part, as an explanation of the Old Testament grounds for what would be essentially a New Testament ordinance that cannot be found in the New Testament.

I could go on and the problems only mount higher from here and, though it is certainly true that not all paedobaptists succomb to the problems above (except perhaps for a weakening of sola scriptura), in order to avoid them, they often have to compromise elsewhere...

This is why, though not an absolutely necessary result, "inessentials" like the debate over infant baptism are often connected to larger problems concerning more "essential" doctrines.

Phil Walker said...

Sled Dog: Sorry, I forgot to put that in. I meant Phil Johnson's main blog post.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Sorry about the creed thing. Didn't mean to cause a stir.
I meant it as a joke.
I did think about this during a sleepless night and when I finally did get to sleep, couldn't get up in time to check it out, but does David Wells address any of this in his book, 'No Place For Truth'?

John Schroeder said...

Great Questions! I tried to add to the dicussio a bit here

c.t. said...

Yes you are asking for a summation of historical, biblical, and systematic theology (and the process that contributes to the drawing up of confessions, STs, and summation works like Calvin's Institutes) because the person who writes the scholarly and serious book you're looking for would be doing just that to satisfy request as you delineate it.

To use a computer analogy: you're asking for a reference to the kind of program that works in the background and is a part of the actual operating system of a personal computer, yet you are thinking you're asking for something that is more the equivalent of a program you download and use yourself (like your graphics programs).

There's no other way to sift biblical doctrine by weight other than to go to Scripture and to have the discernment that comes from the Spirit of Truth guiding you. There's no shortcuts. This is why I brought up Reformed/Calvinst systematic theologies and why they are the adult industry standard for seriousness: valuation for the authority of Scripture. Look into the process that has resulted in the most time-vetted confessions and STs and summation type works of theology. That is the process at work, and the criteria for sifting is nothing less than engaging Scripture and having the real discernment that allows one to know the truth.

c.t. said...

Basically, from my somewhat outsider point-of-view, I immediately saw that most mischief along the lines of division over secondary issues occured in matters of ecclesiology and sacraments. Other than that they occurs in matters more philosophical than doctrinal. For instance assuming what God hasn't revealed, such as is done in much of the Calvinst/Arminian debate. (I'm a Calvinist, for the record.) Or parsing things too dogmatically like "did I move towards God, or did God make me move toward Him?" where Scripture gives warrant for reconciliation of both.

If it's clear in the Bible (like the example people have brought up of women pastors) then it's worth fighting over. If it's not clear (such as issues of church polity or issues regarding sacraments) then common-sense says it's not primary. If Scripture leaves something unclear then so be it.

Unfortunately man wants power and man's main hold on power in things religious and Christian is via matters of ecclesiology and sacraments.

So even though they (ecclesiology, sacraments) are the main areas where secondary issues are made into primary ones to the degree of dividing people man still insists on making them primary because it gives man power.

So you're not fighting a battle that involves educating willing students, you're fighting a battle against the 'old man' in human beings and human nature that wants worldly power in God's domain.

TEX said...


don't know if this will help...or if it has already been mentioned...but DM Lloyd-Jones has a pretty good article (called "The Basis of Christian Unity") in the book KNOWING THE TIMES. It may touch somewhat on the excellent questions you raise in this post. Also Bunyan's paper "DIFFERENCES IN JUDGMENT ABOUT WATER BAPTISM, NO BAR TO COMMUNION" (found here: http://www.johnbunyan.org/text/bun-baptism.htm) may have some of the biblical argumentation you are looking for.
I will do some more research as I agree with you that this is a very important topic and one that we need to take to heart, that we might have more true unity in Christ and the Gospel and less schism over secondary doctrines. Thanks for this post Phil...Great stuff!

Sled Dog said...

Phil and tereo-kensai,

My bad! Made the mistake of co-mingling posts. Reading through I must have just blended Phil and tereo's comments. Probably because I'm not a night person, and also because some posters use profile photos and some don't. But mainly cause I was careless!

TEX said...


You might also try here: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/topic/unity.html

Looks like there might be some articles related to your post.

grace and peace,


Patrick Berryman said...

Excellent post. I wish I had some answers, so I'm anxious to see what your esteemed readers come up with. I recently had a falling out with my oldest friend who has drifted into charismatic and apostolic teaching. While we have maintained the friendship, he was deeply offended when I told him that I would not be able to host an event at my house where he was seeking to raise funds to start his new church. I told him that our differences were significant enough that I couldn't endorse his new ministry. That made me wonder how I make these types of decisions. I don't have any hard and fast rules, so I'm often going on what "feels" right. That's a recipe for disaster.

He pointed out to me that it was ironic that I would take such a hard line on endorsing his ministry when I (a biblical sovereigntist) belong to an Arminian church that doesn't practice church discipline and allows women to teach adult Sunday School classes. He might have a point.

TEX said...


let's try that monergism link again...noticed it got lopped off.

here it is again...hope it helps:


Dave said...

Some items that may fit the bill for you:

Evangelical Reunion by John Frame

Purpose-Directed Theology by Darrell Bock

The Mark of Jesus by Timothy George and John Woodbridge

A paper by Philip Brown entitled "Categories of Truth vs. Caregories of Exegetical Certainty" (http://pages.prodigy.net/apbrown2/CategoriesOfTruth_DBTS.pdf)

Only portions of the books apply directly, but have interesting discussions of this subject.


Benjamin said...

First of all, it should be clearly understood that it is self-refuting to suggest that Mr. Johnson's question and his search are not really important to concern ourselves with because that, in itself, is to suggest a hierarchy of importance concerning certain questions and doctrines, which is the very thing being discussed. If we wish to know whether there is a hierarchy of importance in which some doctrines and some questions are to be deemed less important than others, all we need do is ask ourselves whether it makes sense to ask whether this question and its answer are themselves important. Unless such a question about the relative importance of all questions of doctrine is logically meaningless, we must presume that the answer is obvious.

To temple, war and cities...

"So you're not fighting a battle that involves educating willing students, you're fighting a battle against the 'old man' in human beings and human nature that wants worldly power in God's domain."

Your very argument that people emphasize the sacraments beyond any sensible importance to their detriment and the detriment of others stands as one of the strongest reasons why we should look to answer Mr. Johnson's question. Are they important enough to cease fellowship or not? Are they important enough to proceed with disciplinary procedures or not? Are they important enough even to correct (are they errors) or not? Should they even be emphasized or discussed and debated at all?

"If it's not clear (such as issues of church polity or issues regarding sacraments) then common-sense says it's not primary."

And who shall determine what is clear? As for me, I think that the issues concerning the sacraments are quite clear and that one must contrive a set of rather mangled premises and inferences in order to avoid a robust memorialist position. There are many who disagree with this (which is reflected in their systematic works and confessions) but does that mean that the issue is never made clear (are the Scriptures unclear, for instance, on even the "milk" of Hebrews 6:1) or is it merely that the teachings of Scripture are unfavorable to those who do not wish to listen to the LORD on these matters or do the work necessary to know what He says on these matters?

This is why a perusal of a certain set of systematic outlines will not be the best aid to guide us to an answer to Mr. Johnson's question. First, because the Calvinists are not the only group with systematic theologies among their works. You may not be familiar with the vast literature of other denominations, but there are Pentacostal (and even Charismatic) systematic theologies, Church of Christ and Lutheran systematic theologies, Anglican/Episcopalian and Methodist and Arminian Baptist systematic theologies, all of which have been written and worked over with much effort poured into their details. Not only do these works of systematics disagree in the proper ordering and emphasis or even the meaning of these various doctrines, but even systematic theologies within the Reformed camp do not agree on these things. The Reformed have debated for centuries where the questions of prolegomena (meta-theology) are to be rightly placed in a systematic theology and what emphasis they ought to be given.

It won't do any good to point to one group of works within a tradition and suggest that this is the place we need to start precisely because they've answered the question for themselves outside of the systematic outline itself and also because others disagree from the point of view of their own background study in this area and this produces a different emphasis in their systematics.

It is exactly this often unstated background analysis, this "grappling" with the Scriptures and the favor or the relative emphasis Scripture gives to this or that doctrine that we must come to know and carefully consider. We have to examine the arguments which any group of systematic theologians used, the considerations they made, in analyzing the passages which brought them to the result we see before us in their systematic works... because there are others who came to very different conclusions.

And it won't do any good to point to the Westminster Confession and suggest that it offers us the best understanding of the proper emphasis and ordered grouping of such doctrines, because it not only does not do this but it was never intended to do this.

c.t. said...

First, because the Calvinists are not the only group with systematic theologies among their works. You may not be familiar with the vast literature of other denominations, but there are Pentacostal (and even Charismatic) systematic theologies, Church of Christ and Lutheran systematic theologies, Anglican/Episcopalian and Methodist and Arminian Baptist systematic theologies,

My point (which was obvious) was not that only Calvinists produce systematic theologies but that only Calvinist/Reformed (whether Baptist, Reformed, Congregationalist, Presbyterian) STs are taken seriously by people who have as a starting point a real valuation for the authority of Scripture. You or anyone else can argue against that, but you'd be wrong, sorry to break the news...

And of course Calvinists don't agree on everything. John Owen, the Calvin of England, didn't agree with Calvin. Bunyan, as true a Calvinist as ever lived, was a Baptist. But the differences were in areas that the Bible is not clear on (despite what you say, tereo).

No, the Bible manifestly is not dogmatic and certain on matters of church polity and matters involving the sacraments. If you don't know that then you just havn't seen it for yourself. Scripture gives warrant to different kinds of assembly and leadership and worship. In the matter of the sacraments, Scripture gives warrant to know that baptismal regeneration is a false teaching. Beyond that, mode of baptism (etc., etc.) is not stated in the Word of God in a clear, direct way, therefore they are not issues to divide over. Bunyan had this down way back when, but men want power, and power is gained in the church via various abuses of clericalism and sacramentalism, so...man will have his way.

Benjamin said...

temple, war and cities...

While it is true that power is often sought through the influence of some means of grace, for by it one can control the means of salvation and blessing (Warfield argues something like this in his book, The Plan of Salvation), power is most often sought through arrogating to onself the essence of authority.

I encourage you, brother, to be cautious here because this is precisely what you are doing. Instead of reasoned argument and Scriptural context, several times you simply declare me to be wrong for no other apparent reason than that I disagree with you. Even an Apostle like Paul thought the Bereans did well to check up on him and you don't even grant this to me when I question some of the things you've said here.

As it is, Christ teaches us that "The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory. . ." (John 7:18).

I agree with you that the "mode" of baptism is not addressed in Scripture ("baptidzo" having a slightly more general meaning than is often argued by Baptists) but that is because it is not even a part of the Biblical teaching of baptism, not because the Scriptures aren't clear on this subject. As Hebrews 6:1 apparently makes "instructions about washings" a part of the "milk" we are to be taught, I don't think I am going too far to suggest that the instructions concerning baptism in Scripture (as well as the Supper) are clear.

You may think that certain issues are not but, where you are correct, those are not issues I take to be aspects of the Biblical teaching on the "sacraments," as you call them. The Bible needn't satisfy a person's longing to know the proper mode of baptism, for example, in order to be said to speak clearly on the subject of the "sacraments" because, to put it simply, the "proper mode" isn't a part of the doctrine of baptism.

I am not suggesting here, either, that Scripture does not evince differing levels of clarity from our point of view. There are certain things, certain facts and teachings, made more explicit than others. Nevertheless, everything needing to be known is clear enough to be known by those who are devoted to live by what is revealed.

Therefore, I reiterate, that the Biblical doctrine of the "sacraments" is clear, though this statement does not require me to believe that everything we might wish to have defined for us in our administration of those ordinances is meant to be answered, precisely because those things are not part of the doctrine of baptism but left up to our discernment.

Instead, because I disagree with you, you reject what I have said with the dismissive phrase, "you just haven't seen it for yourself." I take this to mean one of several things: 1) That I haven't experienced confusion about the Scriptural teachings on the ordinances myself; 2) I haven't asked the harder questions that cannot be answered clearly by a careful reference to Scripture; 3) I am not familiar with the objections of those who disagree with me; 4) I do not understand the ambiguity inherent to the language of Scripture on this issue.

Regarding #1, not being confused myself is not necessarily a sign that I have missed anything.

I've answered #2 above. Regarding #3, no one here is of course familiar with my knowledge on any of these issues. I will only say that I am familiar with the objections and positions of the various major perspectives in the controversies over baptism and the Supper.

Regarding #4, that is a point yet to be discussed. You haven't even bothered to find out what I do know of the language of Scripture on these subjects. It is, after all, possible that you are the one who is wrong... just maybe, however slim the chances.

c.t. said...

OK, tereo. That's your story, and you're sticking with it!

Benjamin said...

I've presented an argument, not a "story." There's an important difference.

Gaucho Joe said...


A possible resource is the book by father and son Richard I Gregory and Richard W Gregory titled On the Level.
They deal with this question and its interaction with the different types of relationships which each person has.