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 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 Seminar (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]