Ecumenical

One of my favorite songs from the long, lost era of good, “Christian” alternative rock (yes, I hate the distinguishing label too!) was a song titled, “ecumenical” from a little band called Black Eyed Sceva.  As I always appreciated the creative design of the song, the lyrics were challenging as well:

at what price your belief how will you stand against the devil’s schemes for the struggle we face is not against flesh and blood as if that weren’t enough was it a cross or a tree what’s if matter if it’s saturday or sunday for what’s more what we share o r what tears us apart etch this creed on your heart: unity in what is essential liberty in nonessentials victims of religion be forewarned when they try to exchange substance for form will you recognize the devils without their horns they’re so much harder to see and they do so much harm unity in what is essential liberty in nonessentials and in all things charity

This song is essentially an extension of Augustine‘s famous quote,In essential matters, unity.  In non-essential matters, diversity.  In all matters, charity.”

Over the years, the essential and non-essential theological presuppositions of the church have changed.  So from your perspective, what are the essential matters of our faith that all should cling to?  What are the non-essentials?

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~ by Dave Smith on April 23, 2009.

14 Responses to “Ecumenical”

  1. In college, one of my profs tipped me off to the distinction among:

    1) Dogma
    2) Doctrine
    3) Adiaphra

    The distinctions helped save my faith.

    If you grow up with a semi-fundamentalist to fundamentalist worldview, you assume that most things related to faith are dogma; hence, you’re very resistant to disagreement and quick to write others off as compromisers.

    If, however, you are willing to shrink dogma to a much smaller, more significant body of beliefs and are willing to accept that lot of issues fall into headings 2 or 3, things start to change. It becomes possible to pursue unity and diversity at the same time.

    My list of essentials (dogma) is really pretty short. At the moment, I consider the major doctrines established by the early church councils — Trinity, Incarnation — to be the most important. There are a handful of other dogmas I hold to, such as Creation — Sin — Redemption, but I’m willing to negotiate the nuances of those things.

    For example, I don’t feel bound to Young Earth Creationism, even though I would hold Creation as a dogma. Additionally, I’m open to conversations about the nature of Sin vs. sin and alternative explanations to original sin (i.e., are we born as inherently sinful beings? Or, are we born into an inherently sinful environment? Or both?) And I’m also open to conversations about the nature of redemption (models of atonement theory).

    So yes, there are essentials. I don’t relate to Christians who deny the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus — I just don’t get that. But on the other hand, I think there’s a lot of space for diversity and inclusivity, even among those who embrace the essentials.

  2. Ooh, non-essentials (this should be fun if others jump on board):

    drinking, smoking, swearing, playing cards, women wearing pants make-up and jewelry, rated R movies, movie theaters, the internet, video games, cable tv, being rich, being poor, being anywhere inbetween, evolution, young earth creationism, the scientific method, inerrancy, determinism vs. free will…

    Maybe more to the list later.

    I’m not saying I do all that or believe all those things, just that they’re not essential to me. In other words, a swearing Christian is still a Christian, in my book.

  3. Ben, thanks for sharing that filtering system from your prof. Very insightful.

    Why such a hard line on incarnation above all the others? Not saying it shouldn’t…but would love to hear further thoughts on that.

  4. Dave, probably because I studied a lot of Barth in seminary 😛

    I’d have to say I really bought into his christocentrism.

    When it comes to essentials, though, I’d really want to affirm the unanimous agreements reached at the early church councils where the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation were hammered out. Obviously, you can’t have Trinity without Incarnation or Incarnation without Trinity. They’re inextricably intertwined.

    Beyond the consensus of the early councils, though, I suppose I’m drawn to those two dogmas in particular because of their overreaching influence upon other dogmas, doctrines, and adiaphra.

    After all, Christianity isn’t Christianity without Incarnation. Incarnation reveals to us that God is involved in human history, that God is God for and with us, that Sin and sin will not reign in history forever, that the Creator is not aloof from creation, and on down the line.

    Also, Incarnation is essentially why Trinity is Trinity. If God is Trinity because God chose to be God for us (Incarnation, thanks Karl Barth), then Trinity might even be considered to be both a logical and chronological derivative of Incarnation.

    Finally, every type of soteriology, from rigid Calvinistic election and reprobation, to inclusive Christocentric universalism derive from the notion that God is for humanity (Incarnation).

    So, in short, I would definitely make Incarnation primary in my own theology, though I would necessarily insist on it being first for others. However, it’s definitely an essential, I think, because so many other doctrines rest upon it.

    1) These doctrines are important because of the historic, authoritative consensus reached about them in the early church councils.

    2) These doctrines are important because they are foundational doctrines from which many of our other doctrines derive.

    Probably more than you wanted to know 🙂

  5. Not too much at all. Thanks for unpacking that some more. I really like your rationale.

  6. Couple thoughts.

    1)I wish the Church approached unity from a perspective analogous to how the non-Christian world views Christians/Christianity. That is, I think the majority of non-Christians don’t see any difference between, say, a Gene Robinson and a John Piper, let alone, something more subtle like the differences between neo-Calvinism and neo-Puritanism. For the most part, to those outside the Church, all these folks are simply Christians. Which is not to say that there aren’t important distinctions amongst the various elements of Christianity, nor that those differences aren’t significant or worthy of discussion. Unfortunately, I think the Church too often approaches it backwards, spending too much time trying to figure out what essentials/non-essentials we can find to differentiate us from “those other Christians”, rather than looking for the common ground first and building off of that.

    2) My personal essential list is probably longer than what I would consider essential for somebody else. Like Ben, I think there are certain things that just flow logically (and that have been affirmed by Church teaching over the years) from a core belief in Christ (as God and God’s Son) and his death and resurrection as God’s redemptive plan for creation. However, I wouldn’t necessarily throw somebody out of the club 🙂 if their thought process didn’t lead from that to what I or the historic Church considers a correct or obvious conclusion. So perhaps those things aren’t necessarily “essential” after all. Does essential = bare minimum to be a Christian?

  7. Great thoughts Brandon, and really good question there at the end.

    I will open that one up and see if others respond as there is a LOT to what you are asking there.

  8. Does essential = bare minimum to be a Christian?

    The place to start is to define the word “Christian,” and if we look historically, we would find that in spite of the consensus of the early councils, the early church was very diverse.

    Take, for example, the Arian controversy — and particularly, the large number of Arian Christians.

    By the definitions of the early councils, these Christians are heretics and hence “out of the club” (and I’m assuming by out of the club you mean outside salvation?).

    In modern terms, we have people who self-identify as “Christian” but have very little resemblance to Orthodoxy — at least in terms of the early councils and creeds. For example, let’s take the Easter celebration as it’s fresh in our memories. There are plenty of Christians who deny a physical resurrection and instead argue that the resurrection stories are simply that, stories. Those stories are still powerful to them; they are inspired by the stories; they are filled with hope by the stories; and, they are inspired to do good works in the name of Christ by the stories; and, they might even trust that Jesus demonstrates salvation (although in a different way than Evangelicals would understand). From their perspective, they are Christians — people who follow the teachings and actions of Jesus.

    Now, even though I would consider orthodox Christology to an an essential, I’m not about to say that all the Arian Christians of the past (and future, for that matter) are outside salvation. And who am I to say that even my contemporary liberal “Christians” are outside salvation? I am simply unable to do so.

    And I would say that for two reasons.

    First, I’m not sure that having a heretical view of the Incarnation, Trinity, et al excludes one from salvation; in fact, I might even argue the opposite on some days.

    Second — and this is the larger, more important point I think — the question of soteriology is ultimately unanswerable for human beings. What I mean is simply this: if Christians are right about God, Jesus, sin, final judgment, and ultimate salvation, then salvation is ultimately God’s decision, not ours.

    In other words, if the final judgment is a real event that will take place in the future, then when it comes to the salvation of other people, we are forced by our own doctrine to admit that neither you nor I could ever be qualified to make that judgment.

    So, to answer your question on your terms and in your language, I would argue that it’s ultimately impossible for us to say “who’s in and who’s out.” From an epistemological standpoint, we can say that we just do not have the adequate knowledge to make that judgment. Yes, we can “judge the fruit” in terms of peoples’ actions (including our own), but only God truly knows the heart — past, present, and future.

    So, when it comes to “essentials,” I wouldn’t necessarily want to frame them as soteriological essentials. In other words, I would be very cautious to make the claim, “This is the bare minimum you must accept and still be a Christian,” because ultimately who’s “in” and who’s “out” is not and will never be for me to decide.

  9. Maybe for this discussion, at least, the term that needs defined is essential. If anything is going to merit inclusion under that term, I would think that concepts of soteriology would. Even if we can’t ultimately know another’s heart in that regard, I would say that I can know my own and the hope I have in Christ and the reason for that hope. Therefore, I ought to be able to define what is essential to that hope (reserving some portion for that which is unfathomable to our mere human minds).

    My sense is that Augustine’s saying on essentials and unity is one of those things that sounds good on the surface but doesn’t hold up well under any level of scrutiny. How do we unify around essentials when there isn’t agreement on what is or is not essential? For that matter, there’s a significant number of people who disagree with the whole concept to begin with (thinking it’s just an attempt to elevate diversity and/or relativism ahead of truth). Also, “essential” isn’t a word that really lends itself to subjectivity. As we’ve all indicated a tendency toward a personal list of essentials and a list of essentials for others, I would say that items that didn’t show up on both lists would seem not to meet the definition. Should unity simply mean that I follow Christ based on whatever concept of essentials that I hold personally; then, where that results in an overlap with others, I ought to embrace that commonality, however deep or shallow it may be?

    Rather than worrying on what is essential/non-essential (or at least worrying too much, otherwise this won’t be a very fun discussion 🙂 ) , the last third of Augustine’s statement is probably the one that should be our focus.

    Out of curiosity, for those who read the Greek, does “of first importance” in I Corinthians 15 have any relationship to the word essential?

  10. Out of curiosity, for those who read the Greek, does “of first importance” in I Corinthians 15 have any relationship to the word essential?

    My Greek is very rusty… do you think that ‘first’ is chronological? Certainly, Paul is giving a quick survey of what would eventually become the timeline for (at least some) of the Gospels…

    Or is it ‘first’ logically? Could Paul be attempting to show his own relationship to the ‘first’ authority (being Jesus) by tracing the timeline from Jesus to himself as an apostle? I ask because there’s no doubt that part of the issue in the Corinthian correspondence is Paul differentiating himself and the true apostolic message from his/its opponents.

    Or, is it ‘first’ conceptually — which would be what we’re using as “essential”?

    My Greek isn’t polished enough to know which of these three, if any, it would be.

    Also, “essential” isn’t a word that really lends itself to subjectivity. As we’ve all indicated a tendency toward a personal list of essentials and a list of essentials for others, I would say that items that didn’t show up on both lists would seem not to meet the definition. Should unity simply mean that I follow Christ based on whatever concept of essentials that I hold personally; then, where that results in an overlap with others, I ought to embrace that commonality, however deep or shallow it may be?

    Subjectivity is is a double-edged sword, I think. On the one hand, each of us has a unique experience with Christ through the Spirit in our own hearts, minds, and lives that is just as unique as each individual. On the other hand however, that unique experience isn’t grounds for reinventing the faith for each and every person.

    I suppose that’s why I paired my list down to the early councils of the church — because I wanted to point to 1) something outside of my own unique experience of Christ and 2) something that represented some type of collective agreement.

    I’m not convinced that the early creeds were completely unanimous (as I’ve noted, I’m not willing to damn the Arians, for example), but they do represent something that has not been replicated since — Christian leaders gathered from everywhere to discuss the essentials and reach consensus (way, way oversimplified, I know).

    So when I think of essentials, I think of the Creeds and the big doctrines of the faith — Incarnation and Trinity. Obviously, there’s room for some interpretive work (and hence disagreement); for exmaple, what does homoousias really mean? And I think there’s some room for a couple legitimate options.

    Maybe for this discussion, at least, the term that needs defined is essential. If anything is going to merit inclusion under that term, I would think that concepts of soteriology would. Even if we can’t ultimately know another’s heart in that regard, I would say that I can know my own and the hope I have in Christ and the reason for that hope. Therefore, I ought to be able to define what is essential to that hope (reserving some portion for that which is unfathomable to our mere human minds).

    The reason I resist framing these essentials in soteriological terms is because I reject the notion that we contribute to salvation, as believers or nonbelievers. In that sense, I have become very reformed. I do believe that salvation is God’s work — God is the active subject who initiates the work of salvation in the human heart, and we are the recipients of that work. Obviously, we have the capacity to respond — and I don’t intend to open up the free will/choice can of worms at all.

    I’ll bring up the Arians as an example again. They lived in the time before the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation had been hammered out, and that large group of people doesn’t subscribe to my essentials — Consequently, if we’re framing essentials as soteriological, then they’re out of the club, by definition.

    However, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before, I would argue that “Judged according to the light you have,” would apply here (and it’s just one among many examples I would want to apply it to). And when I couple that with my epistemological objection (that I can’t have any knowledge about the condition of another person’s heart), I don’t think I’m left with the logical conclusions that “essentials” are sotereological.

    =====================

    Okay, wrap that rambling up, and I hope it makes sense.

    Different thought that may or may not apply here, a parable from Luke 18:

    He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

    Obviously, there’s some difficulty with making dogmas out of parables, and I get that. But shouldn’t a passage like this be just as important to our soteriology as passages typically championed by Evangelicals (Think Romans 10:9, for example).

    And frankly, if so, it’s sort of a slap in the face to me, because it says absolutely nothing about Trinity or Incarnation, and those are my two pet doctrines, as it were.

  11. Holy smack, when did Dave posting videos of his kids naked turn into a blog with such serious, smart, conversation?? I clearly don’t have enough post-grad credits to continue hanging out here.

    I have an easy litmus test to determine if someone is a Christian. It’s simpler than anything mentioned above, and is much more reliable.

    I just say the word “dam” (without the “n”) in their presence. Like, “Hey, that road leads to the dam. We’d better stay on the dam road so we can get to the top and take some dam pictures!”

    If they giggle, they’re a Christian, for sure. If they don’t giggle, they clearly do not have the spirit in them.

  12. Nudity inspires deep theological musings, Rich. Didn’t you know that?

    And I like “frack” from Battlestar Galactica myself. Always raises the eybrows…

  13. Rich, I am with you on this one about the discussion. I am surprised how this stirred up both of professing and closet theologians.

    The dialogue has been VERY insightful.

    Ben has really pushed us to consider some supposed sidebar items that in fact play a major part in this discussion.

    As for Rich’s test…that one did make me laugh.

  14. When it comes to the dam essentials, I am in complete agreement with Rich and his dam test. And since Dave chuckled too, it seems we have a lot of dam unity.

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