We Evangelicals talk a lot about essentials and non-essentials. Rightly so. We talk about distinguishing between those areas in our faith – those doctrines – which are central or “cardinal” doctrines, and those which are not so important. However, we often have trouble when someone asks us to define, distinguish, and defend this whole “essentials/non-essentials” distinction.

I have written on this many times, but I am going to attempt to be somewhat comprehensive here. That translates to “long article forthcoming.” But I think that this exercise is representative of a pressing issue in Christian discipleship. So put on your seat belt. It is going to get bumpy.

At the Credo House of Theology (our headquarters in Edmond, Oklahoma), right when you walk in the front door, you see written on the wall the Latin words in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. Translated into English, this means, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This phrase (often wrongly attributed to Augustine) comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius. It has served as a place holder for a sort of Evangelical credo or statement of faith (hence, it is the first thing you see at the “Credo” house). It expresses the idea of orthodoxy and grace existing together. It reminds us that there are essential Christian beliefs and there are those matters of lesser importance.

I remember hearing a pastor once say concerning doctrine, “You are either one-hundred percent right or one-hundred percent wrong. There is no in-between and there are no gray areas. God is not confused or unsure. Why should we be?” While this might be true concerning God, for us, things are different. For now, we see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). While we have our share of those with more of a fundamentalist mindset, who have a thousand lines drawn in the sand in the name of truth, we also have our share of liberals, whose mindset compels them to erase as many lines as possible in the name of grace or love. We must be careful, balancing grace and truth.

Defining Essentials and Non-Essentials

Paul spoke about those things that are “of first importance [protois]” (emphasis mine). Christ spoke about straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matt. 23:24) and the “weightier things of the law” (Matt. 23:23). The very existence of creeds and pithy statements of faith in the Bible evince the truth that there are many issues that are of “first importance.” Here are a few examples of biblical creeds and succinct statements of faith:

Deut. 6:4:
Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

1 Cor. 12:3:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor. 15:3-7:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (emphasis mine)

Phil. 2:6-11:
[W]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

1 Tim. 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Heb. 6:1-2:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

1John 4:2:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.

Each one of these represents an early summary of Jewish/Christian belief, focusing in on the most important issues.

As I said, this is one of the things that (should) distinguish us as Evangelicals. We are those who unite around those things that we believe are the weightiest, the things that are the most important, while we (should) give (some degree of) liberty in the non-essentials. I often tell people that there are some things which I believe that I would die for; there are some things which I believe that I would lose an arm for; there are some things which I believe that I would lose a finger for; and then there are some things which I believe that I would not even get a manicure for.

Like in all areas of life, we need to learn to choose our battles carefully. But in order to do this, we must first come to know the difference between essentials and non-essentials.

But (as the criticism goes) it is not that easy to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. More importantly for now, many Evangelicals have simply never been exposed to this and therefore practice their theology in a much more legalistic way, believing every conviction that they have to be representative of a hill upon which they should die.

Here I want to elaborate upon and expand the discussion a little bit. While we need to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, we also need to recognize that there are different types of essentials. Along with this goes my belief that there are different ways to “break fellowship” based on our beliefs. In other words, not all essentials are equal. Some are essential to the very foundation of Christianity, but some are only essential to a particular denomination or expression. This will require different types of breaks in fellowship.

Let me start with a chart, then I will briefly break it down:

 Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all essentials. 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. Hence, it is at the center of the circle.

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 for our sins (1 Cor 15:3-4)
  • Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

As with all of them, I am sure that 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 present 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 which 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 God’s transcendence (his metaphysical distinction from the universe)
  • A belief in God’s immanence (his present activity in the world and our lives)
  • A belief in God’s sovereignty (while there are different ways to define sovereignty, this basically purports that God is in control)
  • Belief that Christ is the only way to a right relationship with God
  • Belief in eternal punishment of the unredeemed

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

Please notice that these are essential, even if they are not as essential as those expressed in the previous category. In other words, these do not represent negotiables. These are still cardinal doctrines.

But we could also include in this section a grouping entitled “Essential for Historic Orthopraxy.” This would include all of those practices and sins about which the church has been united in its belief. This would include humility, helping the poor, belief that homosexuality is a sin, issues of stewardship, respect for the imago dei (which would deem abortion wrong), and the need to evangelize the lost.

Essential for traditional orthodoxy: Again, these will necessarily include all of those from the two previous categories, but add some distinctives of their own. Essentials here will include all of those that are foundational to one of the three main Christian traditions: Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and 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 and final 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)

Again, for each one of these tradition, these represent essential distinctions which, while not as cardinal as those in the previous two categories, are important nonetheless.

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 by 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)

While these might be considered worthy of breaking local fellowship in practice, they are not important enough to break ultimate fellowship. In other words, these represent legitimate debates that should not affect our unity.

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 authorship of 2 Peter
  • Belief about particular end-time schemes (i.e. 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? (creating hell for those who speculate such things)
  • 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? (two hours after Eve was created . . . ask me why some other time)

So far, my purpose has been to stimulate a deeper level of thought about the difference between essentials and non-essentials. Really, I just want to convince you that there are different levels of essentials and non-essentials.

Now (take a deep breath), let’s move on and talk about the criteria which makes a doctrine essential.

Defending Essentials and Non-Essentials

So far so good? I can hear the objections:  “This all sounds really nice. But who decides what are essential doctrines and non-essential doctrines? The Pope? Your local church pastor? The SBC? Al Mohler? Or is it my private interpretation of the Scripture? Alas, with such a question, the divisions start all over. “In essentials, unity.  Sounds nice, but impractical.”

I don’t think we have to be so pessimistic about this. I actually think that there are certain criteria that most thoughtful people can agree constitute the foundation of our faith – the essentials. I have them narrowed to four in no certain order. It is important to note that I am persuaded that all four must be present for a doctrine to be considered essential for salvation or essential. These criteria would pertain only to the first two circles: 1) Essential for salvation and 2) Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy.

1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?

This first criterion is one of historical agreement. This is a form of “consensual faith” (consensus fidelium). This criterion of universal consensus follows the canon of Saint Vincent of Lérins mentioned above: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, “that which was believed everywhere, always, by everyone.” In other words, an essential cannot be something new like the doctrine of the Rapture. Neither can it be something that has lacked historic unity by Christians across time like the perpetual virginity of Mary. As well, it cannot have limited geographic representation, like certain Eastern liturgy. The question here is, Have all Christians of all time everywhere believed it?

2. Explicitly Historical: Does the history of the church confess their centrality?

This is like the first but differs in an important way. Here we are saying that if the history of the church has not explicitly confessed this as a central issue, then it is not. For example, the history of the church may confess that the Christian worldview includes a firm confession of a belief in the historicity of the Flood narrative, but it has never been a part of the central teachings to the degree that a denial of such is a damnable offense. When combined with the first criteria, the exception cannot define the rule. The point here is that we take seriously God’s work in the history of the Church through the Holy Spirit. If the church has universally believed that a certain doctrine is both true and central to the Christian faith, that doctrine deserves serious consideration as being among the essentials.

3. Biblical Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture?

One of the principles that the Reformers sought to communicate is that of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. The Reformers did not believe that all of the Scripture was clear (a misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity), but that all that is essential for salvation is clear. In short, if something in Scripture is obscure, then it is not essential. Augustine even held to such a principle stating that one must not build doctrines on obscure passages (On Christian Doctrine). For example, one should not build essential doctrine on what the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:19) are, or what it means to be “baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29). Unfortunately, both Catholics and Mormons have done just that. If a passage is obscure, no essential doctrine can be derived from it.

4. Explicitly Biblical: Does any passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential?

The Scriptures speak about a great many things, but it is explicit regarding that which is of essential importance. For example, as I noted before, Paul says to the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; emphasis mine). The “of first importance” tells us that Christ’s death and resurrection “for our sins,” from Paul’s perspective, are essential components of Christianity. Without such, according to Paul, there is no Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff). As well, the Gospel of John speaks about the importance of faith. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). This passage explicitly makes faith central.

Again, these four criteria, I propose, must all be present. I think I am committed to this. If one or more is lacking concerning a particular doctrine, I believe that it is not possible for one to legitimately argue for its core necessity. (But again, this does not mean that the issue is not important.) As well, all four feed off each other and are somewhat self-regulating. In other words, if someone doubts whether something is clear in Scripture, all he or she has to do is look to history.  If something is not clear in the Scripture, we will not find that it passes the test of historicity. This is why it is of vital importance that Christians not only be good exegetes, but also good historians.


For some of you, this is the first time you have been exposed to this way of thinking. I pray that you consider the major points of what I am saying even if you do not agree with the details. I am not an ecumenicist, but I don’t think that we should have ill-will or break fellowship with people unnecessarily. I do believe that we have the right and obligation to define what it means to be “Christian.” While I don’t think we should over-define it to the point where our circle of fellowship is so small that it only includes “you and those two,” we need to be careful, as under-defining our faith is just as dangerous as over-defining it. It is very easy to slip into theological maximalism (fundamentalism) or theological minimalism (liberalism). But we are Evangelicals. This means that we are “centrists,” uniting around the most important issues and giving varying degrees of liberty in less important issues. While it is true that because something is non-essential this does not make it negotiable, it is also true that because something is believed strongly does not make it central.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon 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. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    101 replies to "Essentials and Non-Essentials in a Nutshell"

    • Seth R.

      Zoro, I think it’s pretty clear that Mormon doctrine is NOT a topic of this discussion. I’m sure Michael Patton would agree. So any attempt to defend my unique Mormon beliefs here would be a massive threadjack. Maybe TUAD would have fun with it, but I think a lot more people here would find it a nuisance.

      My original comment pointed out that Michael’s criteria basically question-beg in favor of status quo and biblical sufficiency.

      Sure, I hold these views because I’m Mormon. But what does that have to do with the actual argument? Does the fact that Mormons hold these views automatically mean that other Christians don’t have to think about them?

      If I thought this was a solely “Mormon” issue, I wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. I’ve got other blogs I can do that on.

    • Zorro

      Seth…you questioned CMP’s argument based upon his appeal to Scripture as its ultimate authority. Then you posed the rhetorical question: “What if we don’t accept those assumptions?” Did you or did you not? Yes you did! So why can’t you just answer jwy’s question? If you can’t appeal to Scripture, and you’re not God, then what authority are you going to appeal to when you claim to have knowledge?

    • Seth R.

      Fair enough.

      I think historic consensus is important, and should not be ignored by any means. It needs to be a factor in formulating your own views. But I wouldn’t consider it binding, or the most important factor. The Bible is also important – hugely important. But I don’t think it claims to be the sole authority. Others will disagree with me, but that’s how I see it.

      Personal spiritual experience of God also needs to be factored in as you determine your own religious views.

      But let’s bring this back to how to tell if someone is Christian or not.

      I would say if they believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ – in any shape or form, and they self-identify as Christian, then that is good enough to identify them as “Christian.” Good enough in my book.

      Now, if you want to move this to a discussion of how you determine if they are doctrinally wrong, that is a separate issue in my mind from whether they get the “Christian” label. If you want to go there, I guess we can.

    • Zorro

      Seth…This is precisely the problem and the issue: “Good enough in my [your] book” isn’t worth anything unless you are God…and you’re not God. CMP’s appeal to Scripture is absolutely essential and necessary. Scripture is the ultimate, presuppositional, epistemological norm for historic, orthodox Christianity. We must appeal to ‘His’ book, not yours.

      “Divine authorship is the ultimate reason why Scripture is authoritative. Its authority is absolute because God’s authority is absolute, and Scripture is his personal word to us. Since Scripture is God’s personal word, all of it is authoritative, for as Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), not just those parts that we find attractive, cogent, relevant, or culturally respectable.” (John Frame; The Doctrine of the Word of God, 165)

    • Zorro

      Seth…In response to you closing statement “if you want to move this to a discussion of how you determine if they are doctrinally wrong, that is a separate issue in my mind from whether they get the “Christian” label. If you want to go there, I guess we can.” Well, we can go there, but I think CMP’s argument is about the best presentation I’ve seen on it. So, I would basically parrot what he’s already said, only with less eloquence.

    • Seth R.

      Scripture being God-breathed doesn’t really get us to the doctrine of sufficiency.

      And I’d also point out that a lot of what the Protestants I encounter try to pass off as “the authoritative word of the Bible” winds up basically being code for “my unique eisegesis of said Bible.” So you wind up with individual Protestants “playing God” anyway.

    • Zorro

      Seth…Is. 55 (verse 11 in particular) “11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
      it shall not return to me empty,
      but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
      and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

    • Zorro

      Seth…this is what I consider an orthodox position: The WCF 1.6: “VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.[12] Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word:[13] and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

    • Zorro

      Seth…Whether you believe it or not, Scripture claims to be ‘sufficient’.

      For the record: Wayne Grudem in ‘Systematic Theology’ defines the sufficiency of Scripture as follows: “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.”

    • Zorro

      Seth…your final remarks about your ‘Protestant’ encounters smells of the hasty generalization fallacy.

      “Hasty generalization is a logical fallacy of faulty generalization by reaching an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence. It commonly involves basing a broad conclusion upon the statistics of a survey of a small group that fails to sufficiently represent the whole population…The fallacy is also known as: fallacy of insufficient statistics, fallacy of insufficient sample, generalization from the particular, leaping to a conclusion, hasty induction, law of small numbers, unrepresentative sample, and secundum quid. When referring to a generalization made from a single example it has been called the fallacy of the lonely fact or the proof by example fallacy. When evidence is intentionally excluded to bias the result, it is sometimes termed the fallacy of exclusion and is a form of selection bias.” Wikipedia

    • Seth R.

      Yeah, Isaiah 55:11 doesn’t really get you to sufficiency either.

      All it says is that what God has ALREADY said will be born out and fulfilled.

      Absolutely nothing in there about whether he’s done talking.

      You’ll have to find something else.

    • Zorro

      In regards to Sufficiency: 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 1:1-4

      “The NT teaches…that with the coming of Christ, with his atonement, resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, redemptive history has reached a watershed. The work of Christ is final, in a way that the work of Abraham and Moses is not. In Christ, God has spoken (past tense, Heb. 1:2) a final word to us, attested (also past tense, Heb. 2:2) by Jesus’ original hearers. As the redemptive work of Christ is once for all, so the word of Christ and the apostles is once for all. For God to add more books to the canon would be like his adding something to the work of Christ, something that Scripture teaches cannot be done. God himself will not add to the work of Christ, and so we should not expect him to add to the message of Christ.” (John Frame; The Doctrine of the Word of God)

    • Seth R.

      Who said anything about adding to the message of Christ and his atonement?

      It’s not going beyond the atonement.

      It’s about adding to what human beings have said and written about it.

      Besides, this merely begs the question in assuming that the New Testament said everything about the atonement that needs to be said.

    • Zorro

      “We either accept God’s authority or we do not, and not to do so is sin.” (John Frame) God says, in His Word that Scripture is sufficient for His purposes, not necessarily for your questions. My argument is cogent and well attested.

      Yours, however, is self-referentially incoherent. Before this most recent excursus you listed three things as epistemological grounds: (see post #53 (pg. 2, post 3)

      “historic consensus”, “the Bible”, and personal spiritual experience of God.” You say that these are important factors, but that none of them are ultimate grounds?

      Your dilemma is evidence of what Cornelius Van Til coined the ‘rationalist-irrationalist dialectic.’ You claim the sufficiency of autonomous human reason (rationalism) but you are not God and can never achieve absolute epistemic certainty (irrationalism).

    • Zorro

      So what are you? What is your ultimate presupposition?

      “A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition…. This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought.” (Doctrine of Knowledge of God, 45)

      “Rationalism gives us a perfect knowlege – of nothing. Irrationalism leaves us ignorant – of everything. Both are self refuting for neither can give an intelligible account of itself.” (John Frame)

      The fact you remain unpersuaded is not affront to the evidence, although my argument for the evidence may be lacking. But Scripture says deep down you know the truth, but suppress it. Dont’ take my word for it, read what God has to say about it in Romans 1:18-23.

    • Seth R.

      Who says we need to achieve “absolute epistemic certainty?” This appears to be another assumption of yours.

      Speaking of assumptions, you have yet to provide me any compelling evidence from the Bible that it claims to be the “last word” on what God has to say. The scriptures you’ve provided so far have all been duds for that argument.

    • Zorro

      I have made my argument and I believe the evidence is compelling. Your lack of persuasion does not render judgment on the sufficiency of the evidence.

    • Seth R.

      No you haven’t. You’ve simply cited some verses that say God’s word is fantastic and wonderful and so forth. But you haven’t presented me with a passage yet that says he’s done talking.

      And citing a scholar who is making the same bare assertions you are making without backing them up is not an argument either.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “This is only true if your understanding of love is nothing more then warm and gooey feelings. Of course this type of love bears no resemblance whatsoever to the the fierce, jealous, and pursuing love displayed by the God of the Bible.”

      Read this article: The State of Christianity Today.

    • Zorro

      Seth…I have backed up my arguments with evidence. You believe my arguments are ‘bare’ because you don’t accept the authority that substantiates the evidence my arguments present. It’s not my problem that you don’t accept it. I don’t accept your arguments (in part because your arguments are nothing more than suggestive questions lacking any substantive evidence; in part because they have been proven self-refuting and self-destructing by respectable, peer-reviewed, published Christian apologists and scholars (much brighter than you or I), and mostly because they contradict what Scripture says; and I hold Scripture as my ultimate presupposition. Your ultimate presupposition, whatever it is (since you refuse to qualify it), is not Scripture, and therefore ultimately must be an appeal to some form of autonomous human reason. News flash, you are not God (at least not yet anyway…pun intended). My argument is complete.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Read elsewhere:

      “The liberals continue to bone headedly conflate adiaphora and heresy. They do a bait and switch. Once you agree to allow adiaphora, they hope you will allow heresy as well and not notice the trick they have pulled.”

      Relevant to the discussion about essential and non-essentials in the Christian faith.

    • John

      You mention eternal punishment. What about Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality as defined by John Stott and Earle Ellis?

    • Jeff Ayers

      The essentials for salvation are the most troublesome for defining as essential:
      • [Patton’s ]What I include:
      • Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
      Is there any scripture that states implicitly or explicitly that to receive the gift of eternal life or obtain salvation (justification and regenerative salvation) you must have a “Belief in God”? If so, where is it; and what must you believe about this God?
      Do you have to believe all of his attributes to be saved?
      Can you hold to any heresy about God and still be saved?
      How much of the Scripture’s definition of his nature, essence, ontology, origin, personality, dealings with man, future retribution etc must one believe in this “God” to be saved?
      Perhaps a better summation is that “In order to be saved one must believe in the God who offers eternal life to all who simply believe on Him, namely the Lord Jesus Christ”

      part 1

    • rayner markley

      Michael seems to be saying that only orthodox believers are Christians. In other words, can there be an ‘unorthodox Christian’ at all, or is that phrase a contradiction in terms?

      Perhaps the difficulty arises because he has not said what he means by the ‘historic Christian church.’ One suspects that he is conveniently omitting the many thousands of Arian Christians and others so that he can say all Christians everywhere have always been orthodox.

    • Ronnie

      John, conditionalists affirm eternal punishment. They just disagree with traditionalists that the punishment consists of torment. They affirm, rather, that the punishment consists of eternal destruction.

    • Jeff Ayers

      • Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)

      What if you are a oneness Pentecostal who believes Jesus is God but deny his separate essence from the Father and the Spirit?
      What must you believe about his humanity? His virgin birth, his not knowing the day or hour of His return, the nature of his blood, the type of body he had, his sinlessness etc…

      • Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)

      Again, is a “belief in your sinfulness” a sine qua non of “What must I do to be saved”? If so, what about my sinfulness must I believe? That I am “dead” as a Calvinist defines “dead”, that I cannot do anything good at all, that every act I commit is tainted with sin, that my sin will send me to the lake of fire, that my sin was imputed from Adam (Either federally or seminally) etc?

      perhaps a focus on the most important “essential” is what is the minimum (or maximum) one must believe to be saved and therefore “Orthodox”?

    • patriciazell

      I don’t think God is interested in our labels–I think He is interested in setting us free from the loss, death, and destruction that the kingdom of evil has ensnared our world with. We tend to make going to heaven the goal of the gospel and the outcome of salvation, but God makes our freedom from deception and our immortality His goal and the outcome of Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection. As much as I appreciate all the efforts of those who have gone before us, I believe we have all the tools that we need to find knowledge, understanding, and wisdom from God. What He gives to each of us is first-hand from Him to us–we don’t have to rely on second-hand information. God is quite capable of reaching into the depths of our beings and of giving us exactly what we need to be victorious.

    • Zorro

      Rayner…I think you are way out-kicking your coverage with your last post. I mean, really, you actually believe that CMP “is conveniently omitting the many thousands of Arian Christians and others so that he can say all Christians everywhere have always been orthodox?” If you’re going to make such a bold claim, then why don’t you back it up with a reasonable argument, not just a suggestive question?

      patriciazell…First, are you trying to argue that many have a view of the Gospel that is too narrow? If so, what is your real concern? Sanctification? Social Issues? Some Liberation concern? I think most would agree that God’s desire for man in light of His plan for Salvation includes more than the doctrine of justification and immortality, but it is certainly nothing less than that. So, what is it exactly that you do not feel is being emphasized enough? Second, you might heed caution in light of what C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery.”

    • Jeff Ayers

      “Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave for our sins”—

      While, in this age, I do agree that Paul said you must “hear the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13) prior to trusting in Christ for eternal life. However, the most basic bible study reveals that NOT A SINGLE disciple believed in the death, burial and resurrection prior to Luke 24 (See Luke 18:31-34 and John 20:9 etc.)
      But even this point must be handled carefully, as Paul made it clear not just that “Jesus DIED”, but that he “Died FOR our sins” (imputation) and also “HOW that Christ died for our sins” (Shedding of his blood, through FAITH IN HIS blood Rom 3:25)
      “Belief that faith in Christ is necessary”–
      Finally, we are NOW on track for what one must do to obtain salvation: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved… But believeth on him that Justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness, … believe on him to life everlasting life 1 Tim…

    • rayner markley

      Does God save unorthodox Christians? If so, their essentials should be included on the chart.

    • rayner markley

      Zorro, you’re right about the coverage. However, I don’t see how anyone can seriously believe that orthodoxy has been believed everywhere, always, and by every Christian.

    • […] Finally, I think Michael Patton does a good job with this line of thinking and I'd refer folks there for more information. Hope this helps! __________________ Sola Scriptura does NOT reject tradition, it simply limits […]

    • […] Michael Patton on the spectrum between Christianity’s theological essentials and non-essentials […]

    • […] Michael Patton on the spectrum between Christianity’s theological essentials and non-essentials […]

    • […] Find out more about distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials. […]

    • […] revelation is essential. But since there won't be true unity in this age, I suppose it's often wiser to focus on catholic and evangelical essentials when in mixed company. __________________ Sola Scriptura does NOT reject tradition, it simply limits its […]

    • […] to come to Christ and grow in the knowledge of Him and His righteousness. On this whole topic of "essentials and non-essentials," I think Michael Patton does a good job and I'd refer you … for more info. Originally Posted by Lion King Is it the flag? (just joking ) I didn't even […]

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Patton is making the assumption that what he sees as the church supposedly established by the teaching of the apostles is the church that their teaching has established.
      I don’t think so. For the foundation of the conglomerate Patton assumes to be that church presents the crucifixion of Jesus as a direct positive benefit. However the foundation for the church Jesus is head of can only be built on the fact that his crucifixion is a unilaterally accountable sin.

    • Quora

      What must someone believe to be considered Christian?…

      > Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all essentials. 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 …

    • Ed Kratz


    • […] 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 explaination 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. […]

    • Irene

      I have 2 good (I hope) questions.

      First, wouldn’t #3 be, in effect, a veto of the other three criteria? Because it could be so subjective? For example, issues like infant baptism, or, say, the Eucharist may be certainly present historically, but not perfectly explicit in Scripture. Some people may interpret Scripture in a way that sees it clearly, while others call it absent or obscure. It seems like it would all come down to personal preference in Biblical interpretation after all, if you are calling all four of these points necessary.

      Second question–
      How do you think these would change over time? For example, what would Peter and Paul’s list look like? Compared to St Patrick’s or Luther’s or Calvin’s or Billy Graham’s? I ask because as time marches on and doctrine develops/reforms/whatever, the historical vantage point would be different. And if hypothetical lists by influential theologians of their respective days would be different, does that just mean that some are necessarily wrong, or does it also mean that essentials and nonessentials REALLY change?

    • […] 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 explaination 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. […]

    • Irene

      About St Vincent’s canon–
      Is it accompanied by a belief that the Holy Spirit protects the church doctrinally?
      Otherwise, what is the rationale for giving authority to what is universal?

      • Ed Kratz


        Yes, the church as a whole. But the way the Holy Spirit protect is organically, not institutionally. This is what Christ said when he said my sheep hear my voice and listen to me. There will be, in general, a universal recognition of the voice of Christ. Some things God makes clear and there is unity and some things he does not make so clear and there is not. But it is all God’s purpose. Therefore, those thing in which there is universal acceptance, we know God’s voice is being heard. That is why the canon of Scriture is an organic issue, not an institutional. There is no way to test the institutional.

    • Irene

      Ok, I see that you are making a distinction there.

      Just a follow-up question to clarify. To use St Vincent’s canon as one of your 4 tests, it seems like there must also be the assumption that there is never an interruption in the true church…..such as what I believe LDS teach.

      I know Protestants can be all over the place on this, but it would eliminate that particular theory that New Testament Christianity was lost very early on and was only recovered at the reformation.

    • […] You can find them here. Also C. Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen, which I frequent, has a pretty thorough article on how he approaches it. Although I don’t agree with his calling Roman Catholics Christians, the article is still […]

    • […] John Wesley’s day as in ours, there was discussion as to what beliefs were considered essential for the Christian faith. As an Arminian theologian, Wesley disagreed with the opinions of many Catholics and Calvinists. […]

    • Charlie McClelland

      I found your article because of a discussion in our church about the six days of creation in Genesis 1. I was surprised to learn how many in our church did not hold that the days in Genesis 1 were in fact days dare I say literal 24-hour days. The language of Essential vs. Nonessential doctrines had never been a part of the discussion in other churches I had attended, I would say that a literal six day creation was universally assumed to be “essential” for any pastor, missionary, or deacon. It was so universally held; we did not even have discussions about the nature of the “day” in Genesis 1. This had always seemed to be a hallmark of those “liberal” churches who also questioned the flood, the miracles of the Old Testament, the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ. To find myself a member of a church where a large percentage did not hold to this made me wonder if I had made a mistake joining the church.

      However, as I began to research this, I realized that most of the Christian authors and radio speakers I admired did not hold to a literal six-day creation. So, I asked myself, is the six day creation an essential doctrine or am I just being unnecessarily argumentative?

      As I read your article, I concluded that Creation would be difficult to place in your circle scheme. However, it occurred to me that your level–Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy had a point– A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This of course is easier to say than to define. For example, even in your level entitled– Essential for traditional orthodoxy you include the Roman Catholic– Belief that both Scripture and unwritten tradition have ultimate authority as they are interpreted by the Magisterium. I would say that the Roman Catholic position undermines the belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
      The Bee Gees had a song with the line—“It’s only words and words are all I have to take your heart away…” There seems a level of discussion that calls into question the very words of Scripture. For example in the creation day discussion, does the word “day” literally mean 24 hours, or millions of years or is it simply a framework for organizing the revelation of the fact that God created everything and does not necessarily communicate anything more than the fact God created everything?
      For someone like myself, the answer seems plain and simple. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11, ESV) People of other persuasions simply discount or ignore this verse.
      When I look at your four tests
      1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation? This seems to imply the Church Fathers. If the Church Fathers already had departed from the belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture as the Sole source of authoritative truth. It seems we will run the risk of swallowing errors because after Constantine Catholic Doctrine was protected by the force of the State.
      2. Explicitly Historical: Does the history of the church confess their centrality? While my objection to the first rule would apply to this also, the question as concerning creation is more nuanced. The earliest seemed to hold to a literal six day creation, until Augustine who believed in a instantaneous creation simply explained to Moses as six days. (This seems to violate the belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture on the face of it although to call Augustine on this seems problematic. Later, reformation writers held again to a literal six-day creation until the middle of the 1800’s.
      3. Biblical Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture? This seems to be battleground. Does the Bible really mean what it says? Or is it true only when “properly” interpreted? “Properly” usually means the way I interpret it. It begins a long fight about how to interpret scripture, which this point assumes everyone is in agreement, which they are not.
      4. Explicitly Biblical: Does any passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential. This point seems to exclude any defending any doctrine after those essential for salvation.
      I am reminded of the trial of Martin Luther where he was asked to recant what he had written. To which he is reported to answer, howbeit in German not English– “Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
      I am still examining my response to whether a six-day creation is an essential doctrine. At this stage, I am inclined to state it is not an essential doctrine. However, the methodology used to deny the six-day creation needs to be investigated to see if it violates the belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture.

    • […] The folks over at Credo House have done a nice job of sussing out the details of this. Using a series of concentric circles radiating out from a center, they identify seven categories of belief – those that are “Essential for Salvation,” those that are “Essential for Historic Christian Orthodoxy,” those that are “Essential for Traditional Orthodoxy,” those that are “Essential for Denominational Orthodoxy,” those that are “Important but not Essential,” those that are “Not Important,” and those that are matters of “Pure Speculation.” You can read about what they put on each of these categories @ http://credohouse.org/…/essentials-and-non-essentials…. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.