Over at the Valiant for Truth blog, Dr. Mike Horton has posted an interesting article (Part 1, Part 2) contending that the whole faith is essential. This is in response to the much abused dictum traceable to Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." While certainly we understand what truth it is probably is trying to convey, the dictum itself is problematic. Horton writes as follows:
First, who decides what essentials and non-essentials are? Rejecting the Anglican and Puritan consensus on justification, Baxter forged under this banner what fellow-Puritans branded as “neo-nomianism”: that is, turning the gospel into a new law. Yet in doing so, Baxter thought he could unite not only Protestants (Arminians, Lutherans, and Calvinists) with each other, but also with Rome. So he definitely had a horse in this race.
The point is not to endorse slippery-slope arguments, but to remind ourselves that “essentials” have to be defined—and are defined in the ecumenical creeds and in the confessions of our churches. When it comes to “essentials,” I often wonder, “Essential for what?” Usually, my evangelical brothers and sisters mean something like “essential for salvation.” There may be a doctrine test, so like any nervous student, we want to know how much we have to get right to pass. However, this is “salvation by doctrine”—another form of works-righteousness. We are not saved by how well we know and can articulate Christian truth, but by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. That involves knowledge, of course, but it’s the fact of trusting in Christ, not the degree of our knowledge, assent, or trust, that is at issue.
The division between essentials and non-essentials has allowed evangelicals of various stripes to focus on the central articles of the Christian faith (identified by the Nicene Creed) while many of their denominations were evaporating into the smog of liberalism. Yet it has also had a tendency to foster reductionism. The best examples of evangelical cooperation were inter-denominational and inter-confessional. Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed and Presbyterians, Methodists, and others came together with all of the depth of their own distinctive convictions. They defended their shared creed, but with the resources of actual churches and traditions over centuries. Even their strong differences and sharp debates contributed to this deepening of their common witness. Non-denominational evangelicalism is a different matter. Now, “evangelical” becomes the tradition—the most important identification. Yet “evangelical” was meant to identify people of various churches and traditions who didn’t cross their fingers when they said the Creed. It seems that the tie that binds is no longer the content of what we believe, but the methodological consensus regarding “essentials” and “non-essentials.” And as the statistics bear out, most American Protestants (including evangelicals) today cannot even summarize what they think are the actual “essentials” that would have been recognized and articulated by their forebears only a couple of generations ago.
In this setting, an evangelicalism that is nothing more than agreement on “essentials” (and what exactly those are is changing now) is shallow even in its defense and articulation of a minimial [sic] creed. We may still differ—we do still differ—over what Scripture teaches, but even going back to that Word together in the confidence that it reveals the deposit of truth is itself a remarkable source as well as sign of unity. Furthermore, our shared witness to the core of apostolic teaching can only be strengthened by confessing and teaching everything that Christ has delivered to his church. This means, of course, that we have to belong to churches that shape us over a lifetime, not merely get people to sign a tract or a statement of faith and then move on to more important things like marriage-and-family seminars. Not everything in Scripture is equally plain or equally important, but everything is essential to be taught, to understand, and to live out—always with charity toward all and malice toward none.