There is a well-known phrase that goes back to Saint Vincent of Lerins (died AD 445) that goes as follows: “In Essentials unity, in Non-Essentials liberty, and in all things Charity.” And, in principle, the idea is a good thing. Confessing Christians are commanded in scripture to treat one another with love — ἀγάπη (agape) even. Those who cannot or who will not act with love toward other Christians are not really Christians in the first place (1 John 3:14-15). Further, there are plenty of areas in which we might disagree with Christian brothers (the application of this verse or the interpretation of that passage) and no essential piece of theology is altered. I remember the first time that I preached the “Parable of the Steward of Unrighteousness” (Luke 16:1-13). At the time, I was in seminary still and looked up 17 different commentaries on the parable and each commentator approached the text differently. Go figure…
The real problem with this phrase of St. Vincent is not the latter two clauses, but the initial clause. What defines the “Essentials of the Faith.” Or perhaps, to use more Biblical phraseology, what defines the “Faith once and for all time delivered to the saints.” What points of doctrine are we compelled to be united on lest the Christian faith be lost and we fall into outright heresy? This is a somewhat more hotly debated question.
Some theologians tend toward a more minimalistic approach — if we can all agree on the Apostles’ Creed, we can claim that we are Christians. Yet, Mormons would claim to hold to the Apostles’ Creed and even most mainstream denominations would identify the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints as a cult and not as a Christian denomination. Why is that? It is because the LDS church has redefined some of the terminology to suit their theological views.
Others have suggested that the four so-called Ecumenical Creeds together form this Essential view (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athenasian Creed, and the Christological Statement of Chalcedon). These four certainly draw us much closer to the answer and add some much-needed definitions to the terminology of the Apostles’ Creed. Yet, the Pope would affirm these four Creeds and most protestants would argue that the Pope is in serious error and many of us (particularly in the Reformed school of thought) would argue that the Pope is an antichrist.
So, where do we go next? While the next logical step is to appeal to the Confessions of the Church, we must be reminded that the purpose of a Confession is to clarify distinctions between Christian bodies, so confessions unapologetically cover things that may not fall into the realm of “Essentials.” So, that still leaves us asking the question, “Where is our starting point when it comes to Essentials?”
The answer has to fall back to looking at the Bible — the sixty-six books that comprise the Old and New Testaments. But, we need to go a little further than that. We ought to clarify that it is these books, treated as the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, consisting and treated as a unified whole, not a collection of disparate books gathered by the church. When the Scriptures become our starting point and our only rule for faith and practice, we now have a substantial basis upon which essentials can be distinguished.
The Bible is also the only place where we can know the Gospel. Gospel, of course, is a word that is used rather broadly — it refers to the four books that begin the New Testament and it also refers to the message of salvation we might would use in evangelism. In its most basic sense, though, the word means “Good News” and the Gospel (in that sense) is the whole of the Bible as the Bible contains the good news of God’s redemption of man throughout history. Beginning to end, it is the only place where we can discover the good news of the forgiveness of sins and a hope for eternal life. That is our Essential — everything else we hold flows out of this one book.