One of the earliest heresies that the church had to face was that of Marcion and his rejection of what we call the Old Testament today. Marcion went as far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful and angry God and that the God of the New Testament was a God of love, acceptance, and peace. He went out of his way to emphasize the dissimilarities between the Hebrew Scriptures and the distinctly Christian Scriptures rather than to emphasize the unity between the whole of God’s word.
Such an error has not been unique to Marcion or the Marcionites. While Classic Dispensationalism does not outright reject the Old Testament as Marcion did, they do emphasize disparity between the Testaments, in particular in their view that Old Testament Israel was different from and not a precursor to the Christian Church…thus presenting Christ as having two distinct brides. This has arguably led to some churches identifying themselves as “New Testament Churches,” though I’m not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean. Most recently, the popular preacher, Andy Stanley, has taught that the church should “unhitch” itself from the Old Testament and that Christians are not required to obey the Ten Commandments. So much for God being the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow or that not an iota or a dot will fall away from the Law until the heavens and the earth pass away.
We, on the other hand, teach that the Bible is one, united book and that everything from Genesis through Revelation is perfectly consistent and that the New Testament but that it is impossible to really understand the New Testament without being well-grounded in the Old Testament (hence we give out full Bibles, not just New Testaments and Psalms when we evangelize people). Further, I would argue (as I have stated many times before) that the Gospel is found interwoven throughout all of the Old Testament, and again, the Gospel as seen in the New Testament doesn’t make much sense apart from seeing the Gospel in the Old Testament.
The Heidelberg Catechism puts this notion succinctly when it states (answer 19) that “God initially revealed it (the Gospel) in Paradise (this is a reference to Genesis 3:15), but afterwards proclaimed it through the holy Patriarchs (Adam, Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc…) and prophets (Moses and the Prophets of old), as well as foreshadowing it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the Law. In other words, as you read the scriptures of the Old Testament, you should see Christ showing up everywhere. The 19th Century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, argued that the Bible was like a roadmap where every verse leads to Christ if you know how to read the map properly. Amen and Amen to that.
And to those who would look for ways to “unhitch” from the Old Testament or to deny the continuity of the Scriptures from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, repent. You are not only robbing yourself of the richness and the fulness of God’s Word, but you are leading people astray from the whole Gospel. You will be held accountable for this (James 3:1).
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.