Fundamental v. non-fundamental doctrines


Fundamental doctrines are those doctrines, belief in which is necessary to salvation. These beliefs in a rudimentary sense identify a person as a Christian. For many, the Apostles Creed is viewed as the substantive content of true faith (e.g., Heinrich Bullinger). John Calvin observed that not all doctrines are of the same sort. Some doctrines must be believed which, if they be denied, would undermine the Christological foundation of the truth of the gospel. These include the beliefs that God is one, Christ is God, Christ is the Son of God, and salvation is by grace. Other articles of faith, though disputed, do not break the unity of the faith (e.g., whether one must believe that at death human souls go to heaven, or simply that they live to the Lord) (Calvin Institutes 4.1.12). Subsequent to the Reformation, Lutherans saw belief concerning the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper to be a fundamental doctrine, whereas the Reformed did not.

In the history of Protestantism, the positive function of the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines arose with the appearance of the catechisms of the Reformation. Usually such catechisms treated the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. In order to produce a digest of biblical teaching, the church must employ some distinction like this. Reformed thinkers even distinguished between those articles of faith that are catholic or universal, which are to be believed and taught unto salvation, and thus taught in catechesis—and those articles which are theological, which are necessary for theological work but not for faith (such as extra-biblical historical and archaeological facts). Reformed churches have sought to steer a middle course between those who rejected any notion of basic doctrines altogether, and those who multiplied fundamental doctrines. In addition, some recognized a difference between the doctrinal rules and judgments of particular churches, and doctrines enjoying the general assent of the universal church.[1]

            [1] For a thorough historical discussion of the rise and function of the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines in the period following the Reformation, see Richard Muller in Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed., Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), esp. pp. 406-430.

A bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity (2)

bucketsBased on our previous post, the following claims seem accurate and true:

  • a true church (confessionally defined) is not determined by whether elders serve for a term or a lifetime (a matter of prudence)
  • being Reformed (a confessional identity) does not require commitment to presuppositional apologetics (a theologoumenon, or theological opinion)
  • one can be a Christian (a fundamental essential), yet not believe infant baptism to be true (a confessional truth)

Recall our six buckets:

1. Essential truths, also called “fundamentals of the faith”
2. Confessional truths, explained by documents like the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards
3. Dogmatic claims—think Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield
4. Theological opinions, often influenced strongly by assumptions arising in biblical studies, or in philosophy, or in logic
5. Prudential convictions, or sensible claims that seem to “fit” with one’s biblical and/or theological understanding
6. Varia

We offered the concluding observation that although necessary and helpful, this bucket analogy is also dangerous. Three dangers come to mind.

Danger 1: Some truths belong in more than one bucket.

For example, the truth about Christ’s human and divine natures belongs in buckets 1., 2., and 3., for sure. Many convictions relating to eschatology belong in buckets 3. and 4. It’s hard to imagine that convictions about a minister wearing a robe behind the pulpit could be placed any lower (i.e., be any more important) than bucket 4.

The reason this presents a danger involves two impulses. One is to elevate every aspect of a truth, or demote every aspect of a truth, to the higher or lower bucket, according to one’s personal preferences. And if placement options exist, differences of opinion are sure to arise, jeopardizing “unity in the faith.”

Danger 2: Some truths in a higher-numbered bucket require warrants or justifications that belong in a lower-numbered bucket.

I have dubbed “common grace” a theologoumenon, a theological opinion. It is not a core belief that determines whether one is a Christian, nor is it a confessional truth that distinguishes, say, Reformed from non-Reformed.

Oh, I know that some opponents of common grace, believing the issue to be confessional in nature, have sought and do seek to eradicate common grace, root and branch, from the thinking and convictions of their followers. So their justifications reach down (again, think lower-numbered buckets) all the way to important confessional convictions about absolute divine sovereignty, total depravity, election and reprobation, particular grace, and more.

My point here is that the yarn with which one knits the sock is not the sock itself. There are others who take that same yarn and using different stitches, knit an altogether different sock. Hence the category: theologoumena.

But why is this feature of the bucket analogy dangerous? Very simply because when one borrows elements from buckets 1., 2., and 3. to construct a truth-claim that belongs in none of those buckets, but belongs rather in bucket 4., very heated arguments and bloody verbal fisticuffs ensue. It’s almost as if these theologoumena-defenders need the soaring temps and searing rhetoric in inverse proportion to the validity of their claims to being . . . whatever: orthodox, classically Reformed, confessional, you pick.

Danger 3: Ecumenicity–which is the purpose of this discussion–is of different kinds and can therefore occur at different levels.

Let me enumerate five distinct ecumenical levels or intensities.

3.1 Organic ecumenicity: like human marriage (i.e., between a man and a woman), some church unions over the years lose all sense of “us v. them,” or “my people v. your people.” Rare, to be sure, when it comes to churches, but ideal and blissful.

3.2 Organizational ecumenicity: less intimate than organic ecumenicity, here’s where you still find, unto the second and third generation of those who fear, A-churches and B-churches in the same denomination. They’re joined, but the seams bulge for . . . ever.

3.3 Co-belligerence ecumenicity: this kind of ecumenicity is experienced at pro-life rallies and pro-life vigils, for example; prayers are prayed, Bible verses read, songs sung, hands held. Christians are united on the basis of what they are fighting.

3.4 Martyr ecumenicity: this kind is virtually ineffable, because it arises in the crucible of suffering oppression and martyrdom; Protestants and Roman Catholics and Orthodox share the Eucharist in a P.O.W. camp before facing a firing squad together, or refugees from various Christian traditions huddle together singing silently in celebration of a convert’s baptism.

3.5 Tip-o-the-hat ecumenicity: this is the most distant, most frigid form ecumenicity, where Christians/churches/federations acknowledge bits of shared faith and pieces of common practice. But union? Not in a million years. Some of this goes on in NAPARC today. Another term for it is faux fraternizing.

Once more, why is this feature of the bucket analogy dangerous? Because the arrangement of the buckets has so often encouraged people and churches to define themselves over against others, even in the same “family” of churches, on the basis of buckets 4., 5., and 6. This in turn allows Christians/churches/federations to rest content with the ecumenicity described as 3.5.

Next time: from buckets to circles.

A bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity (1)

bucketsI won’t say that great minds think alike, but I had sketched the structure of this post several days before October 15, 2014, when Mark Jones posted about Reformed Theological Diversity (lots of it). I’ll let you decide that stuff about great minds.

First, then, please go read Dr. Jones’ essay.

Here is one of his lead paragraphs:

Richard Muller’s introductory essay in Drawn intro Controversie should be required reading for Reformed ministers, especially those who polemicize on matters regarding Confessional orthodoxy. In his essay he lists: 1) Debates that concerned confessional boundaries, which crossed over or pressed the boundaries; 2) Debates over philosophical issues; 3) Debates concerning issues of significant import that threatened to rise to a Confessional level; 4) Debates over theological topics that did not press on confessional boundaries. The various debates that I had selected for discussion in the book were placed into these categories.

Well then, here’s where I was headed last week, in my pre-composition ruminating stage.

I’d like to invite you to do a bucket exercise together. So imagine someone setting before you six buckets, each labeled as follows:

Bucket #1: Essentialia
Definition: that without which one will not see the Kingdom, enter heaven, or be saved; beliefs that define what it means to be a Christian
Examples: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; sin separates people from God; divine redeeming grace comes apart from any and all work, yet necessarily produces works

Bucket #2: Confessionalia
Definition: those beliefs that define what it means to be a Reformed Christian; beliefs stipulated by the Reformed Confessions; truths that distinguish between churches that are Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.
Examples: infant baptism; the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the continuing requirement of personal holiness

Bucket #3: Dogmas
Definition: the scholarly formulation of confessed truths, which constitutes the church’s tradition of theology and doctrinal expression
Examples: the peccability of Christ; infra- and supra-lapsarianism; the covenantal structure of reality, revelation, and redemption; certain kinds of imputation

Bucket #4: Theologoumena
Definition: theological opinions; inferences drawn from a system of dogma
Examples: common grace; presuppositional apologetics; Mosaic covenant as the republication of the so-called “covenant of works”; ways of understanding divine simplicity

Bucket #5: Prudentia
Definition: matters of wisdom and prudence with respect to the church’s life and practice
Examples: lifetime v. term eldership; the necessity and use of liturgical forms; single cup v. multiple glasses for the wine at the Lord’s Table

Bucket #6: Varia
Definition: the stuff church splits are made of (sorry, just kidding; sort of)
Examples: women ushers; organ skirts; wearing a robe as a preacher

We plan on returning to this bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity, so keep them out, and think about what you’d put in each of them.

As you do that, ponder the keywords for this set of blog posts: nuance, balance, calm.

Next time: why the bucket analogy is dangerous, but helpful and necessary.

John Murray and Christian schools: an Orthodox Presbyterian testimony from 1945


From the “I never knew that” file (HT:

The Report of the Committee on Theological Education, found in the Minutes of the 1945 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, contains the following:

It is highly important to remember, however, that though the church is obligated to teach the whole counsel of God, it does not follow that the teaching of the whole counsel of God may be given only under the auspices of the church. There are other auspices under which it is just as obligatory to teach and inculcate the Word of God. Such teaching should be given by parents in the instruction and nurture of their children. But the life of the family is not conducted under the auspices of the church. Such teaching should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments. The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character. But the Christian school, whether at the elementary or the secondary or the university stage, should not be conducted under the auspices of the church. The teaching of the Word of God given in the family and in the Christian school will indeed, as regards content, coincide with the teaching given by the church, but this coincidence as regards content does not in the least imply that such teaching should be given under the auspices of the church.

Notice: teaching the whole counsel of God is “just as obligatory . . . should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments.”

Followed by this crowning touch: “The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character.”

Thoughtful people are asking at least three questions:

1. What ever happened to the breadth and catholicity of thought, along with commending Christian day school education, that characterized John Murray and OPC leaders in a former generation?

2. Why is it not reasonable to conclude that contemporary NL2K (R2K, “Escondido theology”) advocates are in truth bent on destroying the shared legacy of not only Abraham Kuyper and “the” neo-Calvinists, but also of John Murray and (former) OPC leaders?

3. Why today’s loud repudiation of what once was acceptable in OPC circles, namely, the positive and hearty endorsement of “the” “Christian” “world and life view” “as set forth in Scripture”?

The Role of Religion in America’s Current Crisis:
Reflections on September 11, 2001

Written originally in September 2001 for publication in the Dutch daily, Reformatorisch Dagblad

* * *

I live in Dyer, Indiana, in the heartland of America, far away from New York City.

Last evening I was talking casually with my neighbor, Don, as we were both working outside in our yards, cutting our lawns and tending our flowers. When I complimented him for his display of a large American flag and for his colorful patriotic decorations, he explained why his home was decorated so colorfully. “I was there,” he said in a quiet voice. “In New York, you mean?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I mean I was on the 57th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit several stories above me. I was there on business, doing computer maintenance for a client, when the explosion occurred. And as I was walking down those stairs to get out of the building, I was praying that I wouldn’t die.” Last Saturday evening his family and friends joined him for a “Thank God I’m alive” party. And he’s been going to mass rather often since he returned home last Wednesday.

The tragedy of 9/11 (these digits 9-1-1 are more than a date–they are also the emergency telephone number in every American community) has been broadcast into our living rooms with images burned into our minds for generations. So too have many stories of survivors and rescue workers, narratives laced with thanks to God. Community gatherings throughout the nation feature prayers and religious vigils for the victims and their families. Like a pastor holding the nation’s hand, President Bush quoted from Psalm 23 to comfort the American people.

Suddenly religion has become prominent in America. An irony, really, in view of vigorous attempts to eradicate religious expression from American public life. Does all this public piety represent a genuine renewal, a national return to God—or is religion the spare tire Americans will be using until we can get our needed repairs?

Religion as instinct

There are no atheists in foxholes, so we’ve heard. War makes many people religious. In America’s current national crisis, religious expression is an instinctive response.

At 10:30 AM last Tuesday [September 11], less than an hour after the third airliner crashed, people were gathering for prayer in the Washington National Cathedral. At noon, more than 2,000 people filled another church for a memorial service called by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C. That evening, across America thousands of churches and synagogues held prayers service or candlelight vigils.

The events have occasioned interfaith services and ecumenical calls for unity. Because of Islam’s high profile in the current situation, many clerics are taking great pains to emphasize those elements common to all religions, namely, peace, love, and toleration.

Songs sung at public events are serving to express religious feelings and patriotic loyalties. When major league baseball resumed this past Monday, the traditional song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” usually sung during the seventh inning stretch, was replaced with “God Bless America.” In fact, this song, written in 1918 by Irving Berlin and revised in 1938, has become the public’s favorite, being sung more often than the national anthem. Members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the nation’s capitol, and members of the New York Stock Exchange sang it at the reopening of the trading floor this past Monday.

What we have been witnessing, I think, is the body politic, traumatized by terrorism, reacting instinctively by reaching upward for help from the God we all know exists. Religion is a natural human response (Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 1:20), and to the extent that it corresponds to God’s created purpose for the human race, we may be extremely thankful for spontaneous, instinctive, national talk about God.

From instinct to interpretation

But as the hours turned into days, and the days now become weeks, religious talk in America is moving from the level of instinct to the level of interpretation. At this level, religion helps to explain both the attacks and the response appropriate to them. Clergymen who read parts of the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek” and praying for one’s enemies are offering more than comfort. They are offering direction as well. And so were pastors who preached last Sunday on Romans 13.

At this level, religious talk employs some very heavy biblical words, terms like “forgiveness” and “justice.” Appeals to sacred writings and to the character of “God” are serving to justify both calls for non-retaliation and calls for military engagement.

Last week Thursday, former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (and colleague, Pat Robertson) made the controversial claim on television that God has removed His protection from America because specific secular organizations (whom Falwell named) had led the nation to condone abortion and gay rights while banning prayer in public schools. Other Christian leaders insist that God is judging America for its arrogance toward Third World countries, for supporting their despots while plundering their resources, for indifference to Third World poverty and pain. Unfortunately, in his subsequent correction and retraction, Rev. Falwell felt compelled to disconnect both the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and God from the tragic events at the World Trade Center, suggesting thereby that we Americans need not think about the religious meaning and divine purpose in these events.

The apparent unity on the level of religious instinct is now giving way to differences of religious understanding that have long existed in our nation. As we see from the quick public condemnation of Falwell’s premature moralizing, the contest has already become one of competing interpretations that then ought to guide public policy and national response. While we may well sing “God Bless America” together at the baseball park, national harmony fades as the music dies and the preaching begins.

From fear to faith: the opportunity of “religion” in America

To say that the attacks of 9/11 have made many Americans afraid is an understatement. Many fear the unknown. When and where and how will the next terrorist attack occur? Many fear the future of American society with its commitment to open democracy. What kind of society will our children and grandchildren inherit? Many fear Islam, a religion whose claims are as absolute and total as the claims of Christianity.

But such national fear serves simultaneously as an opportunity for biblical faith-obedience. It is no easier for American Christians than for Dutch Christians to distinguish between religious commitment and patriotic loyalty. America’s current crisis gives Christ’s church a fresh opportunity both to learn and to live out her unique calling in the modern world. That calling is to keep declaring and demonstrating the good news—the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only this power will transform “religion” in America from a means that serves human need to an end, the glory of the only true God. Ora pro nobis.

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (5)

shaping a digital worldIn our previous installment of this book review, in connection with the question, “Does Christian technology exist?,” we reviewed Abraham Kuyper’s discussion of the phrase “Christian family,” and concluded with a promise of more.

Here’s the more, this time coming from volume 2 of Kuyper’s De Gemeene Gratie (forthcoming in English translation as Common Grace, vol. 2).

Near the end of this volume, Kuyper is discussing the effect or influence of (to use his terms) “particular grace” upon “common grace.” In this context, he embeds in chapter 89, entitled “Christian Civilization,” an explanation of the two senses in which the adjective Christian can be applied beyond the institutional, confessional, means-of-grace-administering church. The first sense is what Kuyper calls the non-confessional sense, and the second is the confessional sense.

Without apology for these lengthy quotations (important ideas require careful exposition!), here is Kuyper himself:

If this [foregoing discussion] establishes the fact that the Christian religion, i.e., particular grace, has been the means for bringing common grace to its most powerful manifestation, then the question arises how we must understand this effect of particular grace on common grace. It is customary to call the result of this effect “Christian,” and then to speak of a Christian civilization, Christian society, Christian government, and so forth. But we sense immediately that, as we have briefly indicated, the word Christian has an entirely different meaning in these phrases than, e.g., in the expressions Christian church, Christian literature, Christian school, Christian press, Christian theology, Christian singers, and so forth. This is because in the two series of expressions, the word Christian is used in terms of a different contrast. When we speak of Christian nations, a Christian society, etc., then this marks a contrast with pagan nations, pagan society, Mohammedan states or Mohammedan society. But when, by contrast, we speak of a Christian press, Christian school, Christian singers, etc., then we are thereby indicating a contrast with the liberal press, the neutral school, unbelieving singers, etc. In the first instance, we are emphasizing the unique character of the European states and nations in contrast to those of Asia and Africa. In the second, we are not thinking of Africa or Asia, but are thinking of the Netherlands and distinguishing in our own country between the groups of those who defend their confession of Christ and those others who live out of what people call humanism. The first contrast, therefore, is not confessional, but only the second one is. Or we could say that when we speak of a Christian state, a Christian society, a Christian civilization, etc., we have only common grace in view as it has been permeated by the gospel, but when, on the other hand, we speak of a Christian school, a Christian press, Christian singers, and so forth, we are referring to particular grace as it chooses to use the things of ordinary life (667-68).

We sense that this is correct when we ask ourselves, Can someone be a citizen of a Christian state, live in a Christian society, be part of a Christian civilization, without personally confessing Christ? The answer is definitely in the affirmative. The facts show and prove it. Many people who are averse to any confession of Christ are even prominent leaders in such a Christian society. But if we ask whether someone can be a Christian singer, Christian teacher, etc., without personally confessing Christ, then everyone will sense the impossibility of this. It is therefore clear that Christianized common grace does not depend on personally belonging to Christ; by contrast, fully developed particular grace always remains inseparable from it (668).

Yet until now, these two distinct meanings of the word Christian have been mistakenly confused. The thesis has even been promoted that the “Christian” school was the “best run” school [or: is the school offering the best education, having teachers who are Christian, promoting good morals; ndk]. And it is from this confusion of the two notions of Christian that the endless confusion between the life of common grace and the life of particular grace has sprung, under which we still suffer. On the one hand, people tried to tie down everything confessionally—state, society, popular culture; on the other hand, people tried to abolish the Christian church and to separate it from its confession, so that as national church it chased what was fermenting among the people. Thus on the one hand, we have the attempt to put the label “Christian” in its specific meaning as a stamp on common grace, and on the other hand, we have the attempt to deprive the word“Christian” of its specific sense even in the realm of the church (668).

We therefore direct our readers’ attention especially to the fact that they can never come to a clear insight into the correct relationship between church and world, between the communion of saints and society, and thus also between church and state, unless they take the trouble to clearly think about and think through the enormous difference between these two meanings of the word “Christian.” The term Christian as it is applied to the entire nation, the whole of society, the entire state, etc., stands in contrast to what is pagan or Mohammedan. The term Christian applied to a narrower group within the population, within society, or within the state, stands over against neutral, unbelieving, non-confessing entities (669).

In the present context, all that remains to be discussed is how we must envision this influence of particular grace on common grace.

Let us then pay attention to the following.

In the first place, those who confess Christ constitute a group in the midst of a nation, from whom a serious call to duty sounds forth unceasingly to the nation. That call to duty issuing from the people of the Lord works on the conscience. And in this way, the activity of the conscience that Paul describes in Romans 2:13 is stimulated and sharpened by this exhortation, this call to duty from those who confess [Christ]. In the second place, believers elevate domestic and societal life to a higher level through their example, and God grants to this example his effectiveness and his influence. In the third place, as believers in Christ also work in the public arena in order to proclaim, on the basis of the greater light they have received, firmer and clearer ideas take hold of the national consciousness. And thanks to this threefold influence, there emerges in the midst of the nation and of societal life a force for combating unrighteousness and for restraining sin, which, although it allows sin to continue in our personal life, and to stir and rage in secret, does not allow it to hold its ground in the national conscience, in public opinion, in the dominant ethos. Thus common grace is given a tremendous support precisely at the center of national life. This is the moral influence that proceeds from particular grace to the life of the nation as a whole, an influence before which unbelievers and scoffers must ultimately yield as well. And when the government, supported and pressed by this, finally expresses and codifies this higher moral life in its laws, then this influence ascends from public opinion directly to the life of the state and puts a Christian stamp on the state as such, whether it be a Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, or Reformed stamp. In a metaphorical sense, we may also call this a “Christianizing” or a “baptizing” of the nation as a whole, but always keeping in mind that this has nothing to do with the personal conversion of individual citizens and the personal application of the sacrament of baptism.

To this moral influence a second thing is added, namely, the blessing of the Lord. God loves his people as the apple of his eye, and he therefore extends his blessed influences in exceptional measure to those nations in which the church of his Son has come into existence. To those nations he gives the healthiest climate, the best-situated land, the greatest dominion over nature. He makes them belong to the best race. He endows them with the richest talents, the most noble gifts. He enriches them with the most wealthy families, with the most far-reaching inventions, and he thereby enhances the best opportunities for these nations to enjoy a comprehensive, undisturbed, and continually progressing development.

In summary, we may express it in this way: common grace intends a twofold restraining, the restraining of sin and the restraining of the curse. Particular grace helps to raise the activity of common grace to the highest level in terms of both: in connection with the arresting of sin, we see the moral influence of particular grace, and in connection with the arresting of the curse, we see the providential influence of particular grace (669-70).

*  *  *

We’ll conclude this installment with (1) a reminder from our last post in this review, and (2) a preliminary answer to the question, “Does Christian technology exist?”

(1) Reminder: By analogy to the Christian family, if technology belongs to the creational, and if grace aims to heal creation’s institutions and processes from their lapsarian maladies and misdirection, then, yes, there’s a good chance that Christian technology exists.

(2) A preliminary answer: Yes, Christian technology exists—depending on one’s definition of technology, to which we turn next.

Compassionate Eating as distortion of Scripture: the discussion continues

Back on September 11, 2012, I posted an announcement of a review essay I had co-authored with Dr. Stephen M. Vantassel, entitled Compassionate Eating as Distortion of Scripture: Using Religion to Serve Food Morality, which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Evangelical Review of Society and Politics (vol. 5, no. 1). Dr, Vantassel (Ph.D., Trinity Theological Seminary, USA) is Lecturer in Theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School, United Kingdom, and Project Coordinator, University of Nebraska (Lincoln), USA.

Recently, the author of Compassionate Eating, Matthew Halteman, has joined the discussion in the comments below the blog post. You can find the blog and related comments here.

It would be interesting and potentially instructive to read substantive engagement with the arguments put forward in the review.