Hermeneutical Essentials

05 Feb

[Part 9 in our series on Hermeneutics]

In this last post on the hermeneutical process, I want to step outside of the textual/interpretive issues and look at a broader question: what is an essential doctrine (that all orthodox Christians must agree upon) and what is a non-essential (where faithful Christians can disagree and arrive at different faithful answers)?

Some issues/theological positions have been considered “essentials” to believe to be part of historical orthodox Christianity. Examples of “essential doctrines” include the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. Generally these are the issues you find addressed in the historical creeds. Examples of “non-essential” items are things like end-time theology, whether creation is a literal 7 days or not, different theologies of worship or sacraments, etc. While people may be passionate about these issues, it not essential that all Christians agree. There can be multiple faithful readings and faithful answers. Our approach to theology should be in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas which translates as “In Essentialsunity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity (love).” (This phrase is often wrongly attributed to Augustine but comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius.)

So the big question becomes how do you determine what is an essential and what is a non-essential? This is not always as easy a question as it may sound. The best writing I have seen recently on this issue comes from theologian C. Michael Patton.  He proposes a four-pronged test to see if an issue is an essential or non-essential.  He argues (and I agree) that to be considered an essential, the issue in question must meet all four tests — if it only meets 3 of 4, for example, it is a non-essential.

Here are the four tests/questions that Patton sets out (you can read his whole argument over on his blog… here I am quoting directly):

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

This first criteria is one of historical agreement. This is a form of “consensual faith” (consensus fidelium). This criteria of universal consensus follows the canon of Saint Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): 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 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 the Catholics and the 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 they are often explicit regarding that which is of essential importance. For example, 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).

In addition to what I quote above, Patton has another post here that looks at how this plays out with specific issues, with specific denominations, etc. You can read that post here.  He also has posted a helpful “test” here for you to look at and determine which issues are essentials and which are non-essentials (he actually presents the essential/non-essential as a continuum with more nuance, but that is more than we need to go into here).

So as a good transition into our discussion of what the bible says and does not say about homosexuality (which I will start next week), let’s first apply Patton’s 4-pronged test and see
if this is an essential issue (that all Christians must agree upon and is a salvation issue) or if it is a non-essential (that Christians are free to disagree on and there may be multiple faithful answers.

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

I think on the issue of homosexuality, you would have to say generally YES this question. The consistent teaching of the church universal prior to the 20th century has been against homosexuality. In the 20th century forward, with the advent of modern psychology and a more complex understanding of human sexuality, sexual orientation and the difference between orientation and behavior, many churches and denominations (and Christians) (mostly in Western Christianity) have taken a different view on this issue — but that has been (and, still is) a minority opinion. So overall, I will assess this as a YES on the topic of homosexuality.

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

On this issue I am going to say YES & NO — kind of half and half.  On the one hand, I know of no orthodox church that confesses homosexuality as a central issue. On the other hand, many churches do confess the nature of marriage and human sexuality as central issues in the Christian life.  So I will give this a HALF POINT for YES.

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

Obviously this is the debate at hand in many denominational circles these days. And this is the very issue we will be taking up shortly as we look at all the relevant passages on the topic. So I am going to withhold judgement on this issue at this point. 

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

On this question, I think you have to say NO. Even the most traditionalist view does not claim that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is an essential issue for Christians or the church. 

So based on Patton’s test and my assessment, homosexuality scores somewhere between a 1.5 and 2.5 on the YES SCALE (depending on how we land on Question #3) — and since an ESSENTIAL issue needs to score a 4, either way homosexuality is a NON-ESSENTIAL issue.

So what does this practically mean? Simply that there is going to be disagreement on this issue (and often, passionate disagreement) but that we affirm that different faithful Christians can and will come to different faithful answers on this issue. And that we can agree to disagree without resorting to name calling, questioning people’s salvation or love for Jesus, etc.

Interestingly, because most of the ESSENTIAL theological issues have really been worked out by the historical church, most of our contemporary disagreements and fights within the church are over NON-ESSENTIAL issues that people feel passionately about.  Other examples — in addition to the homosexuality issue — include things like divorce, birth control, war/pacifism, death penalty, environmental issues, ordination of women, nature and role of sacraments, church governance issues and models, etc.  So to say that issues are NON-ESSENTIAL is not to say they are small, unimportant or that we shouldn’t care. Only that we can allow diversity of opinion and that faithful Christians will fall on a CONTINUUM of thought on these issues.

The idea of the continuum, I think, is a helpful one in understanding these issues.  For example, when it comes to WAR, there is a continuum of Christian thought that runs from Pure Governmental Pacifism, Personal Pacifism, Just Peace Theory, Just War Theory, etc etc.  Is there one right answer? Maybe — but we will never know it this side of heaven. Is this issue important?  Absolutely — literally millions of lives (and deaths) hang in the balance of how this issue is resolved.  But it is not black-and-white, faithful Christians disagree on this issue, and because we understand it as a non-essential, we can agree to disagree.

And the same can be said of all the other issues we mentioned: ordination of women, sacraments, church governance, end-time theories, birth control… etc etc… and homosexuality.

All of that said, one of the things I hoping as we explore the relevant texts about homosexuality over the coming weeks is that each of us would come to a better understanding of WHERE WE ARE ON THE CONTINUUM OF BELIEF ABOUT THIS ISSUE and as importantly WHY ARE WE THERE ON THE CONTINUUM — and then remember always in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

In the meantime, two areas of discussion we can have here are:

1. Do you agree or disagree with Patton’s 4-pronged test? Why?

2. Do you agree or disagree with my application of Patton’s test to the issue of homosexuality? Why?

Looking forward to your thoughts…



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