Here is a chart to help distinguish between those things that are essential (cardinal) and those things that are non-essential (non-cardinal). There is an explanation below. How to distinguish between essentials and non-essential is a very big question that is not covered here, but you can learn about that here.


click on chart to enlarge

Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

What I include:

  • Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)

Issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:

  • Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
  • Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
  • Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
  • Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

As with all of them, I am sure there are some ancillary matters that could be included, but this gives you the key doctrines. Without these, you simply don’t have any sense of what it means to be a Christian.

Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy: These include beliefs “essential for salvation” but are broader, in that they express what has been believed by the historic Christian church for the last two thousand years, no matter what tradition. This is expressed by the Vincentian Canon (434 A.D.): “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” The exception of fringe movements has never been valid for this canon. It is simply asking, “What have all Christians everywhere always believed?”

Some of what I include:

  • The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed at Nicea
  • The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully man and fully God) as expressed at Chalcedon
  • The belief in the future second coming of Christ
  • A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  • A belief in eternal punishment for the wicked
  • A belief in God’s transcendence (his metaphysical distinction from the universe)
  • Belief that Christ is the only way to the Father

To be sure, some of these doctrines “develop,” but their development is only in relation to their seed form which preexisted their more mature expression. (For more on this, see here.)

Essential for traditional orthodoxy: Again, these will necessarily include all of those from the two previous categories, but some distinctives are added. Essentials here will include all of those that are foundational to one of the three main Christian traditions: Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism. These are beliefs that distinguish one tradition from the next, but are not absolutely essential from the broader Christian worldview expressed above.

Some Protestant distinctives would include:

  • General belief in the major pronouncements of the first seven ecumenical councils (325-787 AD)
  • Belief in the necessity for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Belief that justification is through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone
  • Belief that Scripture alone has ultimate authority on all matters of faith and practice
  • The canon of Scripture made up of 66 books (excluding the Deuterocanonical books)

Some Roman Catholic distinctives would include:

  • Belief in transubstantiation (the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ)
  • Belief that justification is through faith and works
  • Belief that both Scripture and unwritten tradition have ultimate authority as they are interpreted by the Magisterium
  • Belief in the authority of twenty-one ecumenical councils
  • Belief that the Pope is the infallible vicar of Christ
  • Belief in the Marian dogmas
  • Belief that the canon includes the Deuterocanonical books

Some Eastern Orthodox distinctives would include:

  • Belief in the infallibility of the first seven ecumenical councils (325-787 AD)
  • Belief that the liturgy of the Church is part of the Gospel
  • Rejection of substitutionary atonement and the imputation of Adam’s sin
  • Salvation by grace through faith as God works these out through our unification with Him (theosis)
  • Traditional inclusion of the Deuterocanonical book (although there is some debate about this)

Essential for denominational orthodoxy: This will be similar to the above, but one step down in importance, dealing as it does with the particular and peculiar denominational expressions of the various Protestant traditions.

Some examples:

  • Credo-baptism, i.e., Baptism is only for believers (Baptists)
  • Infant baptism (Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans)
  • Unconditional election (Reformed and Presbyterians)
  • Arminian theology (Methodists, Nazarenes)
  • Belief in the continuation of the Charismatic gifts (Pentecostals, Church of God)

Important but not essential: These are those beliefs that do not describe any particular tradition necessarily. They are important, but not that important.

Some examples:

  • Beliefs about particulars in the creation debate
  • Belief whether the books of Jonah and Job are historical accounts
  • Beliefs about the inerrancy of Scripture
  • Beliefs about the authorship of 2 Peter
  • Belief about particular end-time schemes (e.g., premillennial, amillennial, post-millennial)
  • The order of books in the canon
  • Which translation of the Bible to use from the pulpit
  • Which Gospel was written first
  • How often one should celebrate the Lord’s supper
  • Whether or not Christ taught in Greek or Aramaic

Not Important: These are beliefs that people have concerning Christian doctrine that are not important for any expression and do not affect Christian devotion or spirituality.

Some examples

  • The date of Christ’s birth (Christmas)
  • What kind of music to play at church
  • Whether to use real wine or grape juice at communion
  • Whether to hold Saturday night services
  • Whether or not John the Baptist was an Essene

Pure speculation: That is just what these are—speculation. We just don’t know one way or another, nor does it matter.

Some examples

  • Did Adam have a belly-button? (yes, he did…it would just look funny otherwise)
  • Belief in the eternal destiny of pets (except I know my dog Rocky is going to heaven)
  • What was God doing “before” creation? (decrees)
  • Will there be meat to eat in heaven? (we can all hope)
  • Will there be sex in heaven? (we can all hope more)
  • How long was it before Adam and Eve fell? (didn’t I just write on this?)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    89 replies to "Distinguishing Between Essentials and Non-Essentials"

    • Jason Pratt

      Michael: “In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are ‘essential for salvation,’ they are not saved.”

      At the risk of sounding facetious, you should also include this belief in your bullet-point list of what you include as doctrines essential for salvation.

      e.g. “Belief that the doctrines in this list must be believed in order to be saved.”

      (I’ll grant that if Calvinism is true this would not be categorically gnosticism, salvation by doctrinal assent, but rather a sign of being both elect and some significant way along the process of regeneration. Some Arminians wouldn’t take it so far as to earn salvation by such assent either.)

      Considering that a doctrine of the Real Presence is pretty demonstrably Historical Christian Orthodoxy, and was denied until relatively recently by only a handful of fringe movements (thus is denied by a strong minority in the total history of Christianity overall), do you regard yourself as being outside historical Christian Orthodoxy and yet correct, or do you accept some variation of the Real Presence (if not the particular transsubstantiation forumulation of the RCC)?

      Certainly ditto for a belief in some kind of post-mortem purgatory; probably also Christ’s descent into hades to save people still stubborn in their sins (which historically had very wide if variable belief from the 2nd century through around the 7th, and still does today in all Eastern communions?)

    • C Michael Patton

      Jason, I would disagree about real presence and Purgatory. You will have to read the post i linked to to understand why. Bit that is a good observation. The rest of what you said I did not understand. .

    • Nick D

      Rad! This gives me an idea for a tattoo…….

    • John

      Michael, you don’t believe in traditional orthodoxy. ( let’s say, that is what every church in the world accepted in oh say 1000ad, and also considered essential). One example: every church believed chrismation was an essential.

      So concentric rings is not what you believe. For you traditional orthodoxy is only the bits and pieces your sect happens to accept from traditional orthodoxy. But conveniently ignoring what more untraditional sects do not accept.

    • C Michael Patton

      John. You will have to read the link. It defines it more.

    • David Rogers

      Michael, When you say, that “Belief that faith in Christ is necessary” is essential for salvation, it sounds like you are saying that if someone affirms religious pluralism, even though they accept all other points of Christian orthodoxy, they cannot be saved. Am I understanding that right?

    • Coleman Glenn

      Are you intentionally excluding Oriental Orthodox churches from “historic Christian orthodoxy”? Oriental Orthodox Christians have never assented to hypostatic union as expressed at Chalcedon, and they make up the majority of Christians in several countries (e.g. Armenia, Ethiopia, Egypt).

    • Frederick W. Harrison

      My observation is that there are many people who regard the three innermost circles as akin to Phariseeism or intellectualism, summing them up pejoratively as religion or religiosity yet vigorously (and and sometimes viciously) defend things in the two outermost circles, summing them up as true spirituality.
      For example, my former (Baptist) church, in an attempt to become more “user friendly” to the community dispensed with adult baptism as a requirement for church membership and the right to vote at church meetings. The moderator of the church, in complete agreement with the pastor, stated that there was no proof in the church scriptures or other documents that baptism was required in the early church, hence it would not be required in ours – unless you wanted it as an elective. Any attempt to point out the command to baptize being part of Jesus’ great commission was dismissed as cold-hearted phariseeism/legalism.

    • Wow, the loss of Baptism, is most certainly the loss (to degree) of the Historic Church Catholic! But then hey, I am a “churchman”, and something of the classic (old school) Anglican. And I know, quite small these days! 😉

    • And note, I take Baptism as the Sacrament of the ‘Sign & Seal’ of Salvation, but not the reality itself. But still very essential in the “visible” church and assembly of Christians!

    • Martin LaBar

      Well done! Thanks.

    • […] C. Michael Patton at Parchment & Pen Blog has a Chart to Help Distinguish Between Essentials and Non-Essentials. […]

    • theoldadam

      Pardon me, ladies and germs…but you have it wrong…according to my cousins the Missouri Synod Lutherans have all the correct and essential doctrines…and no one but them will make it to Heaven.

    • Tiller

      I would have to point out that whether to use wine or grape juice for communion is only unimportant to people who believe in using grape juice, or at least that doing so is acceptable. The early church would have probably been appalled by this (Chrysostom told people to slap heretics who prohibited drinking wine, because saying so would be blasphemy).

      Anyone who holds to more sacramental theology (RCC, Eastern, many Lutherans and Anglicans, and a few liturgical Reformed and Presbyterians) would put this issue in one of the preceding categories, most likely Historical or Traditional Orthodoxy (though some of the latter parenthetically mentioned groups above would put it in Important but Not Essential category).

      Alas, your list has betrayed your beliefs, and you have revealed your opinion on the acceptability of grape juice in place of wine.

    • C Michael Patton

      “Alas” is an unacceptable word, being essential NOT to say. Actually what this betrays is people’s uncanny ability to turn unimportant issues into important issues, even the Golden Tongue Preacher. Some churches would place not playing cards in the essential for salvation category, but this does not make it right.

    • Jonathan

      It seems that many from this list -Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy, would be required to encounter the true character of God. Would not the doctrine of the trinity be nessacery for this? How can one experience the fullness of Jesus without believing in the Trinue God? If we omitt those that are in the list of essential for historic Christian orthodoxy, then the character of God/Jesus is vastly different.

    • theoldadam

      We use both wine …and grape juice for those who cannot tolerate wine.

      After all…we are not legalists.

    • John

      Michael: not sure what link or point you are pointing me to. You refer to Protestantism as one of the big three that defines orthodoxy. But some Protestant distinctives didn’t exist prior to 1500AD. On the other hand Protestantism dispensed with things that were considered essential prior to 1500AD in all Christendom. Why can’t Mormons or JWs or Gnostics or Marcionites or liberals or anyone else similarly redefine the essentials of Christianity? You are completely arbitrary.

      theoldadam: I refuse to believe that there is anybody who cannot partake a quarter teaspoon of wine and crumb of bread.

    • Irene

      John, there is a link at the end of the very first paragraph of is original post.

    • C Michael Patton

      John, I would agree that the issue of doctrinal development is a hard and complicated subject. I would also agree that essential change such as jw and Mormons are immediately disqualifying (unless we have a deist God).

      However Catholics and Protestants certainly do have their ways to tackle the change/development within their traditions. Orthodox fall a bit differently as the, without justification IMO, don’t believe in doctrinal development past 787 (which is arbitrary). But, in the big scene of things, that gives them the same problem to deal with.

      So, how do we all deal with it?

      First, no orthodox Christian tradition allows for essential change. Orthodox dont say the church started at 787, Protestants don’t say it started in 1517, and Catholocs don’t say it started at V1.

      So, everyone has the issue of development. It is WAY too big to get into here now, but you San see what I have done on this by a chart! I will post this chart righ now. That is a good idea.

      But, I don’t believe Christian orthodoxy to include the Protestant distinctives. I would not put the Orthodox distinctives there either as they don’t fit the Vincentian canon, always everywhere and by all.

    • John

      Michael, there have been orthodox disputes argued and resolved way past the year 787. Nothing special about that year really, even if occasionally it seems that way.

      Depends what you mean by doctrinal development. Orthodox would say they don’t believe on development at all, but I guess that’s debatable.

      Vincentian canon: but chrismation was believed everywhere, always and by all. Terrullian back in the 2nd century said it was a universal practice. I mean if that doesn’t qualify, then the Vincentian canon cannot have any meaning at all. So how about it? Did Protestants get it wrong, or will you admit the Vincentian canon and tradition has no place whatsoever in your theology?

      • C Michael Patton

        Not at all. I certainly cannot have expected you to read everything I have written on this (doctrinal development is one of my primary areas of study—not that that means anything), but I have much criteria that something must meet to be considered essential. The Vincentian canon forms a principle basis, but itself is not essential. I think he had the basic idea right (though his canon is certainly nothing extraordinary as the idea of a regula fide was a concept already well used—even though St Vincent himself was hardly a St doctrinally speaking—he should have taken his own advice.

        But, the link to the article might help. Essentials are defined by biblical and historic clarity and explicitly. Without these it won’t fit. There are all kinds of practices which fit the bill of the Vincentian canon which, while fine in practice (such as baptismal formulas, catachumen reg, and prophetic evaluation), but cannot be thought of as essential for salvation.

        Tradition has always been a wonderful and scary thing. There are good traditions and bad ones. But this is a hard thing for tradition based systems to admit.

    • theoldadam


      Had a guy, just last week, who is a visitor to our congregation and he said that even a couple of drops of wine made (makes) him ill.

      We don’t want to be a stumbling block to anyone. A little grape juice isn’t going to hurt him, either…or us.

    • John

      And is there any medical/scientific basis for this beyond hypochondria? What if someone says grape juice makes them ill, will you go to lemonade? Where does it end?

      BTW, communion wine is diluted with mostly water, so a quarter teaspoon of it, is not much wine.

    • John

      Michael: you seem to be saying that essential and essential for salvation are equivalent in your vocabulary. In which case, I imagine that there is precious little essential in your theology.

      I’m curious if your personal version of the Vincentian canon meets its own criteria. I.e. can it prove itself from the bible and tradition to the level of its own criteria? If not, where does it stand, and upon what does it stand?

      Getting back to a concrete example, does the formula of Chalcedon that you’ve defended vigorously have great biblical clarity? Really?

      • C Michael Patton

        No, they are not equivalent. Hence the chart. The concept of the Vincentian Canon comes from the Bible. Christ talked about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel and the “weightier things of the law.” Paul talked about things that were “of first importance.” So Vincent’s rendition was hardly novel or revolutionary.

        Belief in the Vincentian canon and it’s particular method is not a cardinal essential. As you can see in this post, these things are reserved, primarily to the person and work of Christ.

        Chalcedon definitely fits the bill. All it is an expression of who Christ is. This is a pretty big idea in scripture. Leo’s Tomb was a product of western stability and biblical fidelity. Like them or not, Rome was incredibly stable theologically compared to the East, who, ironically, at the time, were way to philosophical. Leo I is one of my heroes.

    • Coleman Glenn

      Michael, sorry, I realize my previous comment came across as a bit accusatory, but I really am interested in hearing the answer: would you place the Oriental Orthodox churches outside of historic Christian orthodoxy? Or do you think their disagreement with Chalcedon is not so great as to qualify as rejecting one of the essentials? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • C Michael Patton

        Glen, great question. Certainly with this issue, they are outside orthodoxy. However, I don’t see this as an issue that de facto anathematizes them from the kingdom. I don’t think any of us have this figured out. I just believe that Chalcedon gets us as close as we are going to get. Nestorianism and Monophysitism messes with the viability of our representation on the cross, but a wrong belief about it does not.

    • John

      Michael: yeah sure in a broad sense, some things are important, some aren’t. My question was whether your specific private criteria for worth, not being either taught in the bible, nor being a historical consensus, are worth anything, being as they are, not in compliance with itself. And if your criteria for ascertaining what has worth, is itself worthless, what do you stand upon?

      Yeah sure, who Christ is has some importance… Like if he was a demon vs whether he was a messiah. But is the specific issue addressed in Chalcedon important ? Is every esoteric question about Christ essential? Perhaps, but upon what foundation do you say so? And assuming it is essential, as you seem to be claiming, upon what basis do you claim to have the right solution since clever and holy people differed?

      As for the west’s “stability”, I think they were not so much stable as ignorant of the theological discussions taking place in Greek, and therefore ill -equipped to take part in them. Not to mention that the “west” was one church among a dozen major churches. Easy to have unity when you are one.

      • C Michael Patton

        No, I would not say that every aspect and every detail about who Christ was and what he did has equal importance. Much of it should be left to mystery. That is why I appreciate the apaphatic character of Chalcedon. The Gospel is pretty simple and we theologians have a way of making it very complex. “Who do men say that I am?” is the most important question ever asked. However, I don’t think even Paul would have been able to speak with the articulation of Nicea or Chalcedon (and compared with much theology today, they are simple. But getting the answer right does not mean one has to get it right in its perfect wholeness. None of us can get there.

      • C Michael Patton

        As for these criteria not being in compliance with itself, I don’t want to burden myself with such necessity. Foundational principles are often self-attesting. However, as I have said, these principles are found in Scripture. And certainly history at least attempts to evidence a doctrinal hierarchy concept even if the traditions don’t perfectly agree which beliefs/practices are essential and which are not.

        Roman Catholic eventually said that everything is essential (at least everything they define. Eastern Orthodoxy is too timid to create any catachisms at all which creates much diversity among their theologians with regard to doctrinal hierarchies (most of whom just choose non-engagement at the answer).

        An example of a practice that was universally accepted in the Walt church but finds little concern in EO and RC is personal evangelism. But this is an example of the way we pick and choose which non-cardinal practices we want to engage in.

    • John

      Michael: You would think if your foundational principles are so obviously self attesting, they would have widespread, if not majority, if not overwhelming majority agreement. But they don’t. So… You’ve got to wonder if you are on the right track with that thought. In point of fact, why would I ever accept a thought without widespread acceptance in the first millennium? No matter how good the argument, how does a thought rejected or unthought of by the best and brightest have a hope of being the truth, and or why should I think my judgement better?

      I’m not sure that history does attempt doctrinal hierarchy. Sure, it crops up now and then, but mostly it is a problem ignored rather than engaged. Orthdoxy actually seems to quite deliberately not engage that topic.

      • C Michael Patton

        It is not self attesting that some thing are more important than others? I hope you don’t take your skepticism toward such an axiom to marriage!

        But, as I said, the Bible is clear with the straining out gnats stuff.

        Early church history was clear with this as can be evidenced by the whole philosophy of creeds, credal hymns, and baptismal formulas. Once again, the canon veritas and the Vincentian canon clarify this. So I am not really sure what we are arguing. Are you saying that you don’t believe that some things are more important than others? Are you saying that belief about whether Luke’s sermon on the mount was unabridged or abridged is as important as whether Christ rose bodily or spiritually from the grave?

        You don’t have to answer that as I know that you have a doctrinal hierachy. The only thing that I am trying to do in this post is help people feel comfortable with this and begin to work through how to strain out gnats and not swallow camels. Are you against this post? I guess it is late, but I am trying to find out what you really have a problem with so that this does not waste our time (as, often, these comments threads tend to do).

    • John

      Michael: I don’t think anyone’s arguing that some things aren’t more important. The problem comes when you try to define which is which based on your private criteria.

      There’s another question though, which is whether people need to give much consideration to the question of what things are more important. I think Orthodoxy takes the position that such questions are not worthy of a great deal of consideration. Which is frankly a relief since its notoriously difficult to figure out. Orthodoxy makes it easy to ignore such questions, because of its mystical nature, and because it tends to avoid (to some extent) commenting on other sects.

      So.. do I have a problem with your post? Kind of, in so far as I don’t think your diagram either describes reality, nor the ideal, furthermore it is exhausting and fairly frustrating and fruitless to figure out the hierarchy.

    • C Michael Patton

      Well, I suppose that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I have taught this for over a decade now. It is session seven and ten of The Theology Program. And this session produces more reaction than any other (positive). This changes their lives and thinking. Why? I suppose that it does for them what it did for me: allowed me to have grace and truth. It is such a relief to know which doctrine are worth dying over and which we don’t need to break fellowship over. It helps them see that Paul meant what he said when he placed the person and work of Christ at a level of “first importance.” It helps them see that when Paul talks about “things indifferent” in Romans 14, we can start to show grace. It relieves them of a significant burden, but keeps them engaged with other people without going liberal (nothing matter…I don’t need to engage). It helps them to know what part of the Gospel that is necessary to accept and which people have debated for centuries and are adiaphora. Just the very existence of that word (“adiaphora”) helps them.

      But this should not come as any surprise. The easiest thing to do is either be a legalist or a liberal. Most people tend in one of those two directions. But to find out that there is actually a way to have doctrinal fidelity, understanding what are the most important things that God wants us to know about him, and have doctrinal grace is amazing.

      But it is not a pragmatic thing I am dealing with here alone. This is a calling. We all must walk this hard line. No one ever said that it was easy, but ironically once we take on this yoke, it is freeing.

    • C Michael Patton

      But most importantly, it causes people to truly engage the truth, wresting with the options. Reading and memorizing a catechism or a creed is easy. But diving into the Bible and Church history attempting to discover for oneself cements the truth in a whole different way as it becomes a wrestling match with God that we are not soon to forget…the limp won’t let us.

      Boy, am I preaching now 🙂

    • John

      Michael: I can see where it might be freeing if you had all the answers, but you don’t. You’re in pure speculation land, so I don’t see how it’s freeing. “This might be really really essential… or maybe it doesn’t matter at all”.

      I don’t think the options are either legalism or liberalism. One can be aware that some things are more important, and have private thoughts about it, without trying to define it. In fact, I find it incredibly freeing to NOT try and define that. In fact, that defines the difference between east and west, that the west seems to need to define stuff like this. Usually Rome says “X” and Wittenburg “not X”. Like the Eucharist issue, Rome saying it is essential for salvation, (most) Protestants saying it is (nearly) meaningless or non-essential. The east saying it is important without being legalistic like Rome about its status. You are both legalistic, just in opposite ways!!!!

      • C Michael Patton

        Its a lot easier than you think brother. But, we have done as much damage as can be done here brother. We can pick this particular topic up in glory and we will give each other “I-told-you-sos”! Deal?

    • […] Chart to Help Distinguish Between Essentials and Non-Essentials […]

    • david carlson

      @john – really don’t get your concern

      @cmp – really great chart. Very valuable in talking with recovering fundamentalists.

    • R David

      Since it is not under “essentials”, can a Christian deny the Trinity?

      One may not know about it, so that person may be a Christian, but would out historic orthodox beliefs that are outright denied/rejected?

      • C Michael Patton

        David, it is not under essentials for Salvation. But it is under essentials for orthodoxy. So if someone denies the Trinity they are an unorthox Christian. If they teach this denial, they are a heretic. We must leave it to God concerning their salvation.

    • Seth R.

      Michael, I find it interesting that you start “historical Christianity” at 434 AD.

      Why not start it with Peter and Paul instead?

      • C Michael Patton

        Seth, I start it at creation. The church starts at Pentecost.

        Orthodoxy is not managed by the articulation of a doctrine. Therefore no one has to hold to a particular form of wording but at the revelation of the principles. The articulation comes later, usually through controversy. The Canon is a good example. The orthodoxy of the canon came through the writing of the books of the Bible. The articulation of names of the books and official acceptance into “testaments” and a book called “Bible” comes later. But you don’t have to call them New Testament Old Testament or Bible to be orthodox or Christian.

    • R David


      “But it is under essentials for orthodoxy. So if someone denies the Trinity they are an unorthox Christian.”

      So does it matter much what is considered historic orthodoxy (or any orthdoxy) or not since salvation is not at risk? In other words, what is really gained by being orthodox?

      • C Michael Patton

        Well, Orthodoxy describes much more than what those who are saved believe (commonly). Think of it in terms of your relationship with God (because that is what it is). God says “Let him rejoice in that he understands and knows me.” To know God’s name is one thing, but to get to understand and know him is another. What if someone were to say to God “What does it matter if I understand you or know you? After all, I already know you name. Isn’t that enough?” Orthodoxy is not about fitting into to some group of people but getting to know God. It is a development in our relationship with him. Once we understand it that way, such minimalist approaches will never do. Does that make sense?

    • R David


      “Orthodoxy is not about fitting into to some group of people but getting to know God. It is a development in our relationship with him.”

      That does make sense, but again, if a person then rejects something in historic orthodoxy, does that person know Him in the first place? If a person says: “God is not Trinity”, then it would appear he is not only failing to develop in the relationship, he is indicating a rejection of it.

      • C Michael Patton

        R David. It may seem that way as these doctrine form the bedrock of what the Spirit had wright in the hearts of believers of all times least and everywhere. But I leave such a judgment in God’s hands. Moule was a great expositor of the New Testament, bit was not convinced that the Bible taught the full deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. He did not actively preach this. He just had his private non-belief here. Do I think this excludes him fr glory evidencing that he did not know The Lord? Not necessarily.

    • R David

      By the way, Tim Keller has a nice article on the importance of “sound doctrine”.

      In it he writes: “…Paul does not simply say that right doctrine is necessary, but it is “sound.” The Greek word Paul uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul’s way to say that wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health. Or, to say it another way, if you lack spiritual vitality and fruit, if you are not courageous enough, or joyful enough, or if you are not filled with love and hope, it may be because your grasp of Biblical doctrine is shallow and thin, or distorted and mistaken.”

    • rob haskell

      I would prefer to orient the continuum to Scripture rather than historical orthodoxies. In other words, what does scripture teach as essential (love, faith, identity of Jesus, good works, the nature of God, etc) and what issues are not addressed clearly by scripture (the ones we are always fighting about)? But also, why is “essential for salvation” deemed the center? As important as that is, I am not sure that it is the only or ultimate test case. Essential doctrines are not just the “how to get saved” doctrines. How would we decide which are and which aren’t if not by asking what is essential to salvation? Again, we should go back to scripture and allow it to determine what is central.

      • C Michael Patton

        Rob, scripture is definitely the final and ultimate source (“the norm which norms and is not norm end”) but we must see tradition as a guardian of truth even tho it can and does err. Otherwise we are following in the footsteps of the radical reformers and the restoration its movement, not the Reformers (who used tradition more than I do!).

    • Duane

      Where does Scripture tell us about “non essential” doctrines? Jesus spoke of “weightier matters” but He also spoke of the significance of every jot and tittle.
      Doctrine is not what redeems us, anyway. We’re not saved based on what we know or what doctrines we accept.
      Finney rejected certain “weightier” biblical doctrine and the negative impact of his errors still lingers in churches today. Shall we not declare him a heretic for denying Christ’s propitiation?
      Sadly the “agree to disagree” posture (which sounds gracious but has no biblical basis, as Scripture calls us to unity of the faith and truth) is that infamous “slippery slope” that simply advances the tolerance of error in the name of so-called “orthodoxy” and splinters the Church.
      And if we start talking about how no one has perfect knowledge then we may as well ask, then what can we be sure about? Our duty is to seek to discern what “thus saith the Lord” is. There are reasons for and consequences to a person’s beliefs. We need to root out where the views depart from Scripture and declare the error plainly; not make room for multiple private interpretations.
      As MacArthur has well expressed, the very nature of Absolute Truth itself is under attack in our generation.
      Truth is divisive, and necessary.

      • C Michael Patton


        Paul, in 1 Cor 15 talks about doctrine “of first importance.” Jesus clearly distinguishes between “weightier matters” and “gnats” and “camels”. Paul talks about “indifferent things in Romans 14. The very existence of earlier creeds and songs which assume a cardinal confession within a confession. This is a very biblical concept that does not, in any way, promote relativism (which is an issue of the ontology of truth.)

        So, while all the bible is inspired and all truth is important, all truth is not equally important. Hope that helps.

      • C Michael Patton

        As well, I would disagree with MacArthur and agree with JP Moreland. It is not the nature of absolute truth that is under attack (that is the guise that conservatives like us have seen and, unfortunately promoted. What is under attack is the issue of certainty. People may believe that truth exists, they are just not certain who has this truth.

    • Rob

      I was surprised to see your list of Roman Catholic distinctives listing Papal infalibility as this was clearly a 16th century decree reasonably soon after the [RC] church had had 3 simultaneous popes. Whilst it may be important for Roman Catholics surely it is misleading. Would it be some sort of justification for the Inquisitions and the crusades which have been quite a blight on the Christian world ever since? I did really apreciate your article and many of the comments & replies- keep it up

    • rob haskell

      Hi Michael – Thanks for the reply. Here’s my thought on tradition: if it can, as you say, err, how do we determine when it does err? It seems to me that the standard by which we make that determination is Scripture. So if scripture is “guarding” tradition, why is it that we always start with tradition, as in the example of this post? I also wouldn’t say that tradition is guarding “truth”. That is too abstract and it leads to obfuscation of the norm. What we have is Scripture, not unqualified “truth” – obviously there are many truths that Scripture does not address. And yet our theology and tradition seem comfortable addressing all manner of truths.

      Perhaps the difference is this: should we go to Scripture THROUGH tradition? (I would argue no) or should we go directly to scripture in dialog tradition? (much better in my mind). If we were to take this later approach I think that a list of core beliefs would look different.

      • C Michael Patton

        Rob. What I do is start with the Scripture in English (which is a type of tradition as men translated it and this involves interpretation). I use the 66 book canon (which is not decided upon by an individual, but through the consensus fidelium—organic not institutional tradition). I imagine you do also. So Tradition is already acting as a gaurd. Then I go to the original languages (well, if it is the Nee Testament. Here I follow the NA 27/USB 4 tradition. Even here, I am relying on fallible text which are produced by tradition. In sum, we don’t have a perfectly infallible text of the Binle available.every text you use has the fingerprints of the dirty hands of tradition on them. (You see where this is going?)

        Then I go to exegetical commentaries (a living fallible tradition). I use multiple commentaries (since they are fallible and it is good to have multiple sources. Then I consult church history to see if my understanding lines up with 2000 years of Spirit filled believers. Fallible, yes, but a good check. Then I consult reason, experience, and emotion. These are all fallible, but even Paul tells us these sources have authority in Romans 1 and 2.

        Normally, by the end, I have a pretty solid grasp of what the passage means. We all end with a fallible interpretation no matter what. We had better, though, follow a model of hermeneutics which produces the most responsible conclusion.

        So tradition gairds just like any other fallible sources, even the tradition of the translations and the canon.

    • rob haskell

      Thanks Michael – Appreciate the interaction. I don’t really disagree with you, but I sense that we do have diverging agendas. I think that we pay too much attention to tradition, though we often don’t think about it as such (we may call it “theology” or we may appeal to “John MacArthur” or whomever, or we may have as a reference what we learned as young Christians). I sense that evangelicals as a whole are moving more towards accepting tradition as (let’s just say) “more normative than it has been previously considered”, and this concerns me. As a Protestant, I don’t deny the value of tradition, but I do view it critically in the light of scripture.

      I also agree about the fact that we have no pure source of knowledge, as though tradition were uncertain but when it comes to exegesis we suddenly enter an area where pure objectivity is possible. Clearly not. Still, given the imperfect state of our knowledge AND the historical realities to which scripture bears witness, I makes sense to me to prioritize scripture (and here I mean “exegesis”) above all other sources. And I mean WAY above. Further, there are many many instances in which the sorts of ambiguities you highlight are not really relevant, where it is patently obvious that certain traditions are not sourced in Scripture.

      Again, we don’t really seem to be disagreeing. I’m just getting my two cents in.


    • Duncan Vann

      Michael, you’ve made a reasonable stab at this, but I’m not sure it’s helpful to even have such as list. People might be tempted to think it tells them what they need to believe for salvation and what doesn’t matter.

      Jesus came across people looking for just that kind of reassurance. One time he used a heretic as his example (the parable of the Good Moslem, anyone?); but all the orthodoxy of the pharisees just was not enough, for he said:

      You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor.

      For that man, that seemingly optional doctrine was critical. Yet God shows the most amazing grace. Salvation has to do with our hearts, more so than even our doctrinal stance. Doesn’t it?

      • C Michael Patton

        Duncan, your worry is valid. But I have to take this chance. I believe very deeply in the Evangelical canon: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

        We can stick our head in the sand and say we are going to try to create absolute credal unity or we can recognize that God has allowed for some degree of disunity in the Church for 2000 years, but there are some things of first importance, as Paul says, that we don’t allow liberty in.

        This plays out very practically in many ways. Church membership, hiring a pastor, who we let teach a Sunday school, and who is a canidate for evangelism.

    • John

      Michael: interesting that most of the traditions you speak approvingly of are 20th century ones ( or at least, not particularly old ones ). E.g. NA27, English translations, yourself. If those are are traditions, then anything and everything is. Of course when other people talk about traditions, they are usually talking about something they think has authority because of the ancient apostolic witness. Two completely different concepts, confused with the same word.

      • C Michael Patton

        Yah, I only used those illustrations along with the exegetical commentaries to show how it is impossible not to yeild to tradition somehow, even when one thinks they are doing only exegesis. It was just for a response to the one who commented. It’s kinda like the old saying I don’t use any traditions, only the Bible. Well, that is a tradition! Or maybe you have heard “No creed but the Bible.” We’ll, that is a creed.

        There is no way to avoid tradition. But some traditions are more warranted than others. That is why I spend so much of my time reading history.

    • John

      Yes good point. Michael, your approach encourages Christian minimalism. What is the bare minimum needed for salvation, or alternatively, what is the tiny tiny part we can be certain of, because we “all” agree, let’s reject the rest, because, well we can’t know that for sure, so forget it. If you are happy with that, fine. Although, what denominatinons really agree on is vanishingly small. Of course, Orthodoxy is often called “Christian maximalism” because it discourages this approach. Priests and people are aware of what corners can be cut when circumstances warrant, but it’s a concession, not ideal. That’s why it’s not legalism, because we can make concessions when need be without saying that the full way is thereby merely a local custom. ( although some things certainly are local custom ).

    • John

      Michael: if we are going to speculate on “what God has allowed” in the church, how come the church for, oh say 1500 years ( assuming we accept Protestants as “the church” after that ) insisted on WAY more credal unity and agreement and agreement in practice and faith than which you are proposing? It seems to me that if we look at the historical church, and make assumptions that “this is what God wanted”, its not in favor of putting the delineations of what is essential where you in fact put them.

      • C Michael Patton

        I don’t think you have to say that this is what God “wanted” (although I do actually argue for this elsewhere), it is what God has allowed for hos own purpose. Obviously we would/should all agree that this is what he has allowed since this is indeed what 2k years of church history evidences.

        There are only two ways out of this:

        1. Adopt a more deistic approach where God is more like a cheerleader in heaven, sadly laying his Pom poms down because we are not winning in this department that is so important to him or . . .

        2. Believe that we (your pick) are the only true church and we are united. But then we have a crazy cultish situation where people who love and confess the same God-man (who the Bible says we cannot confess outside the Spirit), are not really in Gods family because they don’t belong to your group.

    • helen giles

      Speaking of what has been decided on……am pretty sure tenants (sic) of the faith is spelt ‘tenents’

    • Daniel Brady

      This article raises one key issue over which I have become increasingly concerned. As I understand it, the Vatican, to this day, while stating that faith in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation, still rejects belief in salvation by faith alone. The Roman Church says that faith must be combined with certain works in order to obtain salvation.

      As Protestants, we wholeheartedly reject this view, and can cite many passages in which Paul, in particular, states very clearly that salvation is entirely by faith.

      Now, if I believe one thing about how salvation is obtained, and someone else believes differently, then we cannot both be right. Theoretically, we can both be wrong. But we cannot both be right. Furthermore, Paul says very clearly, in Gal. 1:8, that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one he preached is condemned. Clearly, salvation by faith alone, and salvation by a combination of faith and works, are two different gospels.

      My question, then, is this: If Protestants and Catholics have such differing beliefs about how we are to be saved, is it truly appropriate for us, as Protestants, to regard Catholicism as a legitimate Christian denomination? For years, we have done so, and I would like to hear a good explanation why.

      • C Michael Patton

        Daniel, very good and big question that has divided many people. My short answe is that people are justified by faith alone, not by a belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. All one has to do to be saved is call on God through Jesus Christ to have mercy on them. They don’t actually have to be aware of the instrumental cause of their justification or EVEN that they were justified. This comes later through discipleship. s the old saying goes “we are saved in a moment in time. We spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what happened in that moment.”

    • John

      Daniel: can the book of James say salvation is by faith and works and still be in the Church? Why? Once you have an answer to that, there is the potential to apply your answer to the Catholic Protestant question you pose. It may not apply, but potentially it could, so consider it.

    • John

      LOL, actually it’s tenets of the faith.

      Michael, if those are the 2 options, how did you pick one?

      Also, I don’t think those are the 2 options. I mean, surely you can’t claim that God is 100% on board with all the Protestant disunity. Nor would I claim he is on board with every disunity that happens in Orthodoxy. As for “God’s family” it depends if you want to equate individuals being in some right standing with God, with a concept of an officially, God sanctioned church. I mean, do I want to say definitively that Marcionites weren’t saved? No, I don’t want to make that pronouncement. But neither do I want I quote them as an authority on the canon either. You Michael have to distinguish these concepts, because you have to look to the “official” church in history for a canon, ignoring any schismatic groups. But I don’t think you want to thereby damn to hell everyone else, right?

    • Daniel Brady


      I am certainly not as scholarly as some, but I feel I have been influenced by some very great teachers. The best quick explanation I can give in response to what James says is that a person is proven to be justified by his good works. You could perhaps say that an individual is justified BEFORE MEN by good works. James is stating the truth that Martin Luther summarized with his statement that “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.”

      Furthermore, you may or may not be missing my point. I did not necessarily intend to get into a debate about whether or not works is an essential prerequisite for salvation. I am convinced within my heart and mind as to where I stand on the issue. My mind cannot be changed, just as I cannot change the mind of someone who is just as convinced about where they stand.

      My point is that, given such a drastic difference in belief concerning how salvation is to be obtained, both views cannot be correct. Either we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, or we are saved by a combination of faith and works. You cannot have it both ways.

    • Daniel Brady


      It is a very good point that we are saved by faith alone, and not by belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, my next question is this: If I come across someone who adamantly says that justification must be obtained by a combination of faith and works, they have faith, but they are also seeking to combine works with faith. Didn’t Paul say that if we seek to implement works as a prerequisite for salvation, then we are nullifying faith? (cf. Gal. 5:1-6)

      • C Michael Patton

        Daniel Brady,

        Good question. I don’t claim to speak on behalf of Magistrial Protestanism here. There are a lot of people who disagree with me, but I don’t think that believing your works contribute to your salvation nullifies one’s faith nor means they are not saved. After all, many people believe that we can lose our salvation due either to a loss of faith or unrepentant sin. Both of these would say that works contribute to the finality of one’s salvation . . . and these are Protestants. I don’t believe this, but it has representation. This does not mean that it is true, but we must consider.

        Some people believe that saying the sinners prayer saves them. Some believe that baptism is necessary. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the Christian church believed that baptism was a necessary component to salvation until the Reformation. Are we supposed to say that virtually no one was saved until the Reformation? As well, the Galatians were adding works to their justification believing that it was necessary. Paul does repremand them, but he still considers them “brethern.” They were living according to a different Gospel than the one by which they were saved.

        So I do believe that people can fail to live according to the Gospel of grace. It is a tragic thing and something that I think that we as Protestants can come and help people alleviate the burden of never knowing whether they have done enough. If one believes that their works contribute to their justification, but have trusted in Christ and called on God to forgive them of their sins, then they will get to heaven and realize that their works had nothing to do with it. It was only God’s mercy. The works that they did would then be in the flesh and they will suffer reward, but they will still be saved.

        1 Corinthians 3:11-15
        11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

    • John

      Daniel: and is this explanation different at essence to what Rome says? Maybe you think no. Maybe you’d be right. I’m not so sure. The reality is, words like “saved”, “works”, “faith” are abstractions that we have no technical definition of. Paul says we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Can they all be right? Does he mean something different in each case? And what does the phrase “saved BY” mean, anyway? We are saved by faith. By god. By Christ’s death. By grace. All in a different sense. Women are saved by childbearing, so the bible says.

      You say your opinion can’t be changed. Actually, I think if you were open to vastly different paradigms and frameworks for understanding these concepts, you might be surprised what opinions can be changed. Your opinion can’t be changed within the framework of terminology and understanding you are ensconced in, sure. These things tend to be so deep seated, we aren’t even aware of the baggage we are bringing to the table.

    • Irene

      Yes, quite true! A dialogue between Lutherans in Germany and a delegation from the Catholic Church, headed on the Catholic side by a certain Joseph Ratzinger, came to the conclusion that The Lutherans would no longer fall under (some/most?) the anathemas having to do with justification in Trent. This was because they arrived at the conclusion that there is not the disconnect anymore in the way the terms “faith” “faith alone” etc. are used.

    • Wade

      Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

      John 3:16 does not say that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. It says all those who believe in Christ will be saved, but it would be fallacious to conclude that therefore all those who are saved had faith in Christ–that would be like saying since all those who believe in God hold beliefs, therefore all those who hold beliefs believe in God.

      And it doesn’t make sense anyway. What about people who lived before Christ? Are they all going to hell? Presumably not. Whatever criteria God used for salvation before Jesus came to earth, call it criteria C. Would not criteria C also hold for those who had never heard of Christ after Jesus came to earth?

    • Duncan Vann


      [Moses] regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. Heb 11:26-27


      If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. John 5:46

      So through his faith Moses saw something of Jesus in advance. We likewise see something of him as if we were looking through misty glass. So Moses saw something of Christ just as we do and is saved just as we are.

    • Clark Coleman

      The essentials for salvation in this article are all phrased in terms of intellectual assent, i.e. “believe that [statement] is true.” In a recent comment, Michael talks of calling upon the Lord to be saved, which is not the same as believing that certain things are true. If you go through all of the New Testament passages in which the word “believe” is used, you will find that the grammatical construction “believe THAT [fill in blank]” does not need to imply more than mere assent. See James 2:19. But the “believe IN [God or Christ]” phrases imply something far more substantial than mere assent. The root of the Greek words translated “believe” and “faith” is TRUST. To believe in Christ is to put one’s trust in him. The demons of James 2:19 do NOT put their trust in Christ. However, they believe all kinds of statements that are true and important. They believe that Jesus died on the cross, that he was the Son of God incarnate, that God is the Creator, that Jesus Christ was resurrected, etc. But all of these “believe THAT” statements do not add up to a “belief IN” Christ. Yet the article phrases all of the essentials for salvation as “believe THAT” statements.
      Rather ironic, and sad, when the purpose is to emphasize what is essential.

      I submit that the failure to understand the Biblical concepts of faith/believe is the root of much division and heretical thinking today.

    • Duncan Vann

      Like leaving your home and going you don’t know where?

    • Fladaboscan

      The crux of religion is to make up terms and explain what everything means it terms of that religion. There is a reason religious texts are thousands of pages long, edited, translated and interpreted.

      Why would a loving father make religion so complicated that after getting a doctorate one can spend the rest of one’s life arguing what is true or not?

      What arrogance man has, claiming to know what god is and what god wants.

    • John

      “What arrogance man has, claiming to know what god is and what god wants.”

      Conversely, it would be arrogant to pretend not to know, if indeed God has revealed it.

    • Daniel Brady

      To John and Michael: It has been a few days since I have visited the site. Please forgive me. John, you are correct in pointing out that the New Testament does speak of three tenses of salvation. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. So let me be clear in stating that we are justified (I have been saved) by faith alone. The only requirement for being justified before God is faith in Jesus Christ.

      Michael, you do a good job of pointing out that we treat those who think a person can lose his/her salvation as brothers. Your point about the Galatians thinking they had to add works to their justification, but still being addressed by Paul as brethren is compelling. However, let’s also not forget that Paul did warn them against believing in vain and making Christ of no advantage to them.

      Furthermore, I was recently reminded that Martin Luther considered the Article of Justification by Faith Alone to be that which upon the Church either stands or falls. Whether we are justified by faith alone or by a combination of faith and works was THE issue being dealt with during the Reformation. It was for his stance on this issue that he was condemned to death by the Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms. It was only with the help of some friends that he escaped.

      The previous paragraph was written with some hesitancy, in that our faith is in Christ and in the Bible, not in the teachings of Luther, Calvin, or any other great teacher. Still, we Protestants do, in some sense, trace our heritage back to these early reformers. Hence, we ought to take note of where they stood on this issue and what great weight it carried with them.

    • Duncan Vann


      What if God wants lovers instead of people who can work out facts? So he welcomes children and confuses the heck out of scholars and theologians?

      Maybe it would help if you imagine God is a girl you’re courting / dating. Perhaps doctrine is a bit like knowing her favourite food and the music she likes? It’s somewhat helpful, but you cannot win her with information alone. Otherwise Geeks would be renowned for pulling. (This analogy might break down if we push it too hard … but still …)

      It is not always arrogant to claim to know what your wife wants. In fact, sometimes she expects you to speak and act for her. … Only you’d better be ready to backtrack fast when you realise you have misrepresented her, as you will (often).

      (If anyone wants a biblical basis for this, 1 Cor 1:18-25 covers the first paragraph)

    • Brian Midmore

      How are we justified? By believing in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Rom 4.24). There is need for a belief in God (a trust yes but more than this too) and what He did and who Jesus was. There is implicit in this a belief in the church in the ‘our’ of our Lord. If we believe in God we believe in the God of the Jews who calls us to holiness. For me Rom 4.24 sums up the essentials of salvation.

    • Jeff Ayers


      Where would you place the imputation of Adam’s sin into these circles?

      Federal or seminal… either one… or both.

      It seems (anecdotally) that it is the sine qua non of “orthodoxy” in most people’s minds and churches that one must believe a baby is:

      separated from God
      Under God’s wrath
      a sinner
      dead in trespasses and sins
      child of the devil
      deserving of hell
      wicked and deceitful heart
      guilty of Adam’s sin

      to be believe otherwise is pejoratively labelled Pelagian.

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