1. Theological Maximalist

Every doctrine is essential.

This represents those who seek unity only with those with whom they have maximal agreement. There is somewhat of a separationist mentality in this group. They are ready to fight for every crumb, believing it to be in honor of the Lord. If it is the word of the Lord, it is the word of the Lord. How can one regulate its importance? All issues are equal, or at least close to it. For most theological maximalists, evangelism and outreach are not much of an actual priority, as their separationist mentality militates against them.

Christianity is made of of boundaries created by maximal doctrinal confession and practice.

Historic Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Fundamentalism would normally share this perspective.

2. Theological Minimalist

Almost every doctrine is non-essential.

This represents those who see Christianity as an outreach that unites more around an evangelistic cause and less to an evangelical creed. Therefore, when it comes to doctrine, these only recognize what would qualify as least common denominators. It’s a bare-minimum approach. It’s the “Apostles Creed” only. In other words, the idea is this: “Let’s just find out what all of those who call themselves Christian believe, and let this represent the creed of true Christianity, and then let’s not talk about much else other than how we are going to change the world through acts of kindness and justice. Talking about what divides, well . . . divides. And division is a terrible thing that immobilizes the cause. Therefore, let’s just all get along and do anything we can and introduce people to a Christ who acts, not one who wastes time articulating.

Christianity has minimal docrinal boundaries.

Many of those in pop Evangelicalism and the emerging church take this perspective.

3. Theological Centrist

Let’s meet in the middle.

This represents those who seek unity by finding areas of compromise on a “journey” for truth. In this, there is not really any creed, only cause. When it comes to doctrine, they take the dialectical approach, asserting that opposing positions are rarely correct, but that truth is found closer to the center. Opponents would say this approach compromises the vitality of the truth, while adherents would respond that no one really has the exclusive “Truth” with a capital “T,” just many “truths” with a lower case “t.”

Christianity has no objective doctrinal boundaries, but adapts to the times.

Many more liberal Christians along with those of the “Emergent” movement share this perspective.

4. Theological Essentialist

Let’s unite around the essential or cardinal issues of the faith, but give liberty in other areas.

A essentialist is focused on the most important elements of the faith so that the other issues can be seen in light of the perspective they provide. This person assumes there are essential (cardinal) and non-essential (non-cardinal) issues of the Christian faith, and seeks to create a doctrinal taxonomy or hierarchy. Ultimately, the only issues that should divide are those which deviate from the center. They believe that the center provides the anchor from which all other conversation will find its ground. The center, to the essentialist, is the person and work of Christ (i.e., who he is and what he did). This does not mean that non-essential issues are unimportant, but that we should allow liberty in places where there can be legitimate disagreement.

Christianity’s boundaries are created only by their ties to the center.

Protestant Evangelicals hold this perspective.

Here are some differences between the four positions:


Maximalist: Let’s find all denominators.
Minimalist: Let’s find the least common denominator.
Centrist: Let’s create a new denominator that is somewhere in the middle.
Essentialist: Let’s find the most important denominator.

Approch to division

Maximalist: We will militantly divide over all issues since all issues are of equal importance.
Minimalist: Issues upon which people disagree unnecessarily divide.  Therefore, let’s not discuss disagreements.
Centrist: Let us be dynamic, adjusting toward the middle ground. Then we can get along.
Centralist: If we are united around the centrality of Christ, let all other issues find their perspective in this agreement.

Approach to Christian history

Maximalist: All traditions that do not completely agree with us are anathema.
Minimalist: Find the minimal areas of agreement and form a new tradition.
Centrist: Use the dialectical method of understanding history as a stepping stone to the evolution of truth.
Centralist: Find the central areas of agreement and recognize this commonality.

Approach to non-essential issues:

Maximalist: There is no such thing as a non-essential
Minimalist: Non-essentials are unimportant
Centrist: Everything is non-essential
Centralist: Non-essentials should be put into their relative positions of importance to the degree that they affect the central issues.

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

    49 replies to "Mapping Theology"

    • Alfonso

      Where would the cessationists fall under? For them to be classified under the Maximalists would be quite an oxymoronic position. Clearly, scripture upholds a continuationist position but they are vehemently against it. So – where do they go from here?

    • C Michael Patton

      This map would not map individual issues so much as the general mindset about doctrine. So cessationists can and do fall anywhere on the map.

    • Aaron

      You’re putting Driscoll as more theologically conservative than Piper and Swindoll as more liberal than either? You’ve got to explain that… 🙂

    • Mike O

      I think I am a centrist, but there are elements in my thought process from all *except* maximalist.

    • Rick

      Driscoll is a fundamentalist in sheep’s clothing.

    • R David

      Like Aaron, I am interesting in why you placed Driscoll where you did.

      Jon Sellers #1-

      “I would place myself in the essentialist view…I think creedal and confessional groups tend to be maximalists”

      Would you not agree that some of the creeds (particularly the early ones) exist to clarify those essentials, as understood by the church as a whole?

    • Pete again

      CMP, as usual, a very insightful and thought-provoking post.

      If you must shoe-horn Eastern Orthodox into one of these categories, you chose correctly: “1. Theological Maximalist – Every doctrine is essential.”

      An important side-note is that, as a 21st century Orthodox, I’ve had the entire, complete apostolic Faith handed down to me. From the earliest writings of the orthodox church fathers, and at every point in history, protected by the Holy Spirit, I see that my faith aligns with theirs.

      The difference I see between a Protestant like Jerry Falwell and myself is that he CHOOSES his position on your scale; on the other hand, I don’t dare to jettison any of the precious traditions & apostolic interpretations that have been carefully handed down to me.

    • david carlson

      I am assuming that at the end “centralist” should be “essentialist”

    • david carlson

      What you are missing is the fundamentalists who invent doctrine or add doctrines at actual variance to what the bible teaches – no card playing, no dancing, no drinking, for example People who deny the sufficiency of the bible by adding to restrictions that do not exist. I am not sure where that fits in your chart (over the edge?)

    • Jon Sellers

      R David, Sorry I was not clear. Yes the early ecumenical creeds are essential. I had in mind the more recent Reformed Confessions and Catechisms that tend to become deposits of doctrine for maximalists.
      So any modification or revision or new articulations are most often seen as highly suspect and a deviation from the faith.

      They do have value to me, but not as dogmatic statements, more as guidance reflecting the scholarship of their time and group. I do not think insight and understanding of doctrine has ceased since the Reformation. If we find better ways of expressing doctrines and that ends up changing the way it is expressed in the Reformed Confessions so be it.

      My point was that the maximalists I have encountered most were dogmatic in regard to Reformed Confessions.

    • Irene

      In this post, _you_are defining what is “essential” and then applying that definition to the other theological groups.   But instead, you should let other theological groups define their own essentials and nonessentials, and *then* evaluate them in light of these categories.

      For ex, Catholics do indeed have essentials and nonessentials. The essentials are just different and more numerous than yours.  The theological approach of Catholicism is actually nearer to what you call the essentialist approach.  

      Ex:  You refer to to “Roman Catholics”. But “Roman” refers only to the Latin rite within the larger Catholic Church. There are many other rites, with different liturgical expression and canonical law, that also have allegiance to the pope. Different nonessentials!  

      And do you realize how it sounds to say that the CC and  EO will “militantly divide” while the thousands of Ev Prot denominations value unity more?

    • Esh413

      The maximalist categorization worries me in this chart. It seems like we are wanting to put any denomination in this category that has a comprehensive confessional stance. As a result, this chart could potentially put the PCA, LCMS, RCC, EOC and fundamentalist baptists and non-denominationals in one category. That is a lot of people to be represented by an outlying category of a chart showing a spectrum of strictness. I think it hints at the fact that christianity by nature has always been a religion that puts faith before anything else. It may be more useful to analyze this spectrum not on the a maximalist vs. minimalist perspective but rather on how these traditions handle heterodox beliefs. eg. not celebrating communion (RCC, EOC and LCMS) with those with whom they do not have fellowship or whether these heterodox views can prevent a person from being saved. (Some might be more strict on some of these things like a denial of the resurrection).

    • david carlson

      so, we should be extremists in our essentialism?

    • david carlson

      So, where does the Westminster Confession of Faith fit in this – essential or extreme?

    • Yeah, Charts..! Dispensationalists just don’t have them! 😉 The Church Catholic & Reformed is always closer to the ‘Essentialist & Maximalist’, though I feel myself that the Ecumenical Councils, especially the Nicene are “Essentialist”, as close to the Maximalist (the first five). Here too I would at least place the Soli’s as Essentialist! And perhaps too even the Soli Deo, non diabolo persolvendum erat: The ransom was paid, not to the devil, (but) to God alone; amaxim adapted by Francis Pieper from Quenstedt (cf. Pieper, II, p. 380, and Baier-Walther, III, p. 112). The maxim encapsulates the central difference between the satisfaction theory of the atonement held by both the medieval and the Protestant scholastics and the patristic ransom theory according to which the ransom was paid not to God, but the devil.” (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, by Richard Muller).

    • I love Richard Muller’s book here! Indeed every pastor-teacher in the Reformed and Reformational tradition should have a copy!

    • Btw, before the Westminister Assembly (1643-52), there was the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563), and here are the historic statements defining Anglican doctrine from the English Reformation. Then there were the Irish Articles 1615, Archbishop Ussher. Of course both of these affected the Westminister standards! For me as Anglican Reformed both the Thirty-Nine Articles as the Irish Articles, are at least Essentialist, for right doctrine and theology!

    • Pete again

      On second thought, probably better to leave Catholics (Roman & Eastern) and Orthodox off of this chart. It is more accurate, and better undestood, as a Protestant-only belief chart.

      I mean, where would you put the Apostle Paul on this chart? How about John or James? John Chrystostom?

    • @Pete: Here’s a link that may obviously challenge you! I hope Michael won’t mind?


    • Ron

      CMP, I’ve always found your charts helpful.

      What program do you typically use to create them?

    • And a real and true Protestant is a “Confessional” Christian! His confession is first Christ Crucified – Risen & Ascended. Just noting the Anglican Articles, the first eight are of: The Catholic Faith, Incarnation, Trinity, and Scripture and the essential creeds. The Articles 9-18, are Personal religion or “godliness” in the Economy of Salvation, etc.

      Articles 19 thru 31 are Corporate religion (godliness), and sacramental theology.

      When one reads these, one can see how far sadly the Anglican Communion has fallen! It was surely a “confessional”,”catholic” and “reformed” church!

    • @CMP, You got me rolling, with that “chart”! Sorry.. 😉

    • @Pete: Perhaps we can place St. Paul where Holy Scripture and Canon does, with 1 Cor. 15: 1-11, etc.?

    • Pete again

      Hi Fr. Robert, good to hear from you again. Took a quick scan of your page, nothing offensive or challenging that I could see. As the page points out:

      “Cyril Lukaris, it is typically pointed out, was later denounced by his own church, and his theology and international vision is thus seen to be out of accords with the larger Orthodox one.”

      As you know, our bishops are not “infallible”. Far from it. Never have been.

      And at the time of Lukaris, Constantinople was under Islamic rule. I can’t imagine the pressures. Maybe that was a contributing factor?

      The Ecumenical councils, in themselves, are not infallible either (although, many Protestants have claimed that this is what Orthodox believe). Only what is accepted by the Church as orthodox is kept as the Faith.

      “Acts 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things”

    • Irene

      Yes, Pete! I think so too. I think these categorizations make sense only from the so-called essentialist’s point of view.

      Btw, thank you! for calling Catholics Catholic, instead of Roman Catholic.
      (Are there any other churches not called by their own self-designated names on this blog?….Maybe “Fundamentalists”…..)

    • @Irene: Even we Low Church Anglicans, (myself at least) would like to be called “Catholic” Christians! 🙂 As we believe the historical Anglican Communion is both “catholic” and “reformed”.

    • @Pete: Yes, I know the EO believe their Church is historically infallible. Strange though? It can only be held in such by “faith”. And the Three Creeds, the Nicene, Athanasius, and the Apostles Creed, are held by Anglicans to be very high authority! I hope at least some of us Anglicans are close to the EO? Though of course the Church for us is always a Pilgrim Body, and never infallible.

    • Pete@ Only the “Holy Spirit is the true Vicar of Christ” on earth! But the proper historical Church (and that is also always a Local Church), is the “mainstay” of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15)

    • Irene

      @Fr Robert: Yes, I understand (I think I do anyway) what you mean when you use the term “Catholic” to describe yourself. (: I’ve noticed that sometimes you use the term “Church Catholic”, to get across your meaning without confusion with THE Catholic Church. I’m not picking on that type of usage. (:
      It’s just that the term “Roman Catholic Church” is not correct. It’s so similar to “Roman Church” which is in a way degrading. The Catholic Church is not of any particular place or country or theologian. That’s why it’s catholic! Actually, the highest name of the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ.
      Don’t know what’s wrong with me today…usually I’m not so thin- skinned…
      I guess it just came up today because I was using the example of different rites within the CC to demonstrate how not everything is an “essential” within the CC.

    • @Irene: Forgive my memory, but I thought you were “Roman Catholic”? Yes, for me the true historical church is always “Catholic”, but historically it is also “reformed” or Reformational. The top-tier Reformers all thought of the Church as Catholic, One & Universal! 🙂

    • Irene

      @Fr Robert: Yes, it would be correct to call me “Roman Catholic”, but only because I am a Roman/Latin rite Catholic. Not all Catholics are Roman rite. There are also Byzantine rite Catholics, Syriac rite Catholics, Maronite rite Catholics, Chaldean rite Catholics, and several more, all of which are loyal to Pope Benedict.
      All of which are part of _the_ (formal) Catholic Church. So, if a person says Roman Catholic, or RCC, then you’re excluding many, many people around the world who also willingly submit to the authority of the pope.

      I guess I need to relate this to the original post…..the CC is not “Maximalist”. It does have essentials and nonessentials. It does have different local churches with different spiritual heritages all formally united around a central truth. The only way you could say the Catholic Church is Maximalist is if you presuppose that what the CC calls essentials are actually nonessentials. That’s why I agreed with Pete that this post is from…

    • John Metz

      Nice try! I am sure all of us can find something or someone to disagree with on the chart. I think you might have found Falwell to be less disagreeable than commonly acknowledged but maybe not. I thought some of the relationships on the chart were very interesting.

      Yet, what you illustrate is very important. How do we contend for truth (as we understand it) yet receive those who disagree with us on many matters? How important are the various issues? What is the basis of our real oneness in Christ? How important are some differences?

      Obviously there are some essential matters that are very important. That statement moves me somewhere to the center right.

      Thanks for the thought provoking chart.

    • Irene

      a Protestant point of view. (which is fine, too, if that is your aim)

    • @Irene: I know some Eastern rite Catholics myself, Maronites, and too, some Byzantine’s. There are more Eastern rite Catholic’s around in the west these days it seems? But since I was Roman Catholic, I have always thought that “Roman Catholic” includes them all? Growing up in the pre-Vatican II church in Ireland, it was all “Maximalist” for me! My perception anyway. As I have stated, being raised Roman Catholic was for me anyway a real blessing and providence, and after Vatican II, there was a real open door (some think too open). Have you heard about the statement the pope made toward the American liberal Sisters? I guess he dropped the “Roman” hammer on them! I am no liberal, so I guess this was a good thing? But, the old Roman authority also needs to drop on some of the wayward sexual priests, too! Simply no priests that have molested children, period!

    • Irene

      Hi again Fr Robert,
      Nope, Roman Catholic does not encompass all Catholics.
      I am a post Vatican II convert, but I completely understand what you mean because of many stories I have heard.
      Yes, I heard about that decision to reform the National Council of Women Religious…good! But should note that is a voluntary council I believe for the leadership among them, so judgement is not against all sisters in general. And amen to your words on the molester priests! Drop the hammer!
      One more quick note: I have to say that your comments are like mini vocabulary lessons in themselves! I can get quite an education from looking up what I don’t know! (:

    • @Irene: First, thank you for your kind words, I am just an and old pastor-teacher, who loves truth and theology.. and the historical order of the doctrine & revelation of God! And like Luther I try to relate Holy Scripture to personal existence, this really is the essence of the Pauline hermeneutic, and the approach to the doctrine of God itself, and here we see the greatest reality in the historical Crucified Christ Himself, who now lives Risen and Ascended in the heavens above, the Mediator… “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands , a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” (Heb. 9:24) Glory! 🙂

      Btw, so are you saying that Eastern Rite Catholics, though in fellowship and in submission to Rome and the papacy, are not “Roman Catholics”?

    • Irene

      @ Fr Robert:

      “Btw, so are you saying that Eastern Rite Catholics, though in fellowship and in submission to Rome and the papacy, are not “Roman Catholics”?”

      Correct. You were making me start to doubt myself, so I had to look it up. I found that actually the term Roman Catholic came about when Anglicans started using it to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church, so that they could then call themselves Catholic. How about that? (:

    • @Irene: Very interesting! Could you give me the historical source, from the Roman Catholic Church itself, for such a statement? I am sure many of our Anglo-Catholic brethren would also find this of interest! Note, I was for several years an Anglo-Catholic myself. And at one time even close to our EO or Orthodox brethren/people. I still consider both groups in a friendly manner! 🙂

    • Irene

      Here’s one article in particular, from the Catholic Encyclopedia, that has numerous dates and references.

    • @Irene: Very interesting, thanks!

      Here btw (from the article), here is what I was taught as an Irish Roman Catholic…

      “with us the prefix Roman is not restrictive to a species, or a section, but simply declaratory of Catholic.” The prefix in this sense draws attention to the unity of the Church, and “insists that the central point of Catholicity is Roman, the Roman See of St. Peter.”

    • Francis

      Wow, looks like I am a “Theological Minimalist”. Guess I am in no position to despise the likes of Osteen, even though I despise the likes of Osteen…

    • mbaker


      Yes, sometimes Ii think we all aschew the simple things in favor of the more complicated things. The Lord, as I understand it anyway, didn’t mean us to have advantage on either side, except for His. Yet I fear that is where we often go to the in body of Christ, much to the detriment of the gospel on either side.

    • mbaker

      Sorry, folks, that should had been spelled eschew instead of aschew. Please pardon my oops!

    • Jon Bartlett

      I trust ‘pop-evangelical’ should be ‘post-evangelical’?

    • Myself, I feel that the term and reality of “Evangelical” should be renewed, both theologically and historically. But it has a somewhat a broad base of course now. Back to this post, we can see this chart itself “maps” this to degree, with people at least. However, the British term “Open Evangelical”, that even NT Wright somewhat claims to be close to, is not so much an American understanding.

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