Determining the Essentials: A Critique of Kevin DeYoung’s Article Entitled Where and How Do we Draw the Line

An Appreciation for Christians Like DeYoung is Warranted

Kevin DeYoung, the senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, recently contributed an article to the July 1st, 2012 edition of Tabletalk Magazine entitled Where and How Do We Draw the Line found here, which attempts to lay out a set of guidelines that will enable one to determine what are the essentials and non-essentials of the Christian faith.  Before I became Catholic, when I was a Reformed Protestant, the question concerning what are the essentials in order to determine which groups with whom one should fellowship and which groups with whom one should not fellowship was one of the most important questions for me, especially since I greatly desired to see unity among the various Protestant denominations.  I saw some Protestants who claimed other groups were “sending people to hell” while other Protestants claimed that same group was not doing anything of the sort, and both Protestant groups appealed to the Scriptures as their ultimate authority in their assessment of the other group.  I knew that both groups could not be right and one of them was misinterpreting the Scriptures, but I did not know definitively which group was the one that misinterpreted Scripture because my decision would also be based on my own subjective interpretation of Scripture.   For this reason,  I must say I appreciate Protestants who attempt to answer the question of what are the essentials and non-essentials of the Christian faith,  in order that there might be greater unity in the Church.

DeYoung’s Suggestions for How to Determine the Essentials and Non-Essentials

DeYoung’s first suggestion is to “[e]stablish the essentials of the faith” in order to determine the core of the Christian faith.  He suggests that one examine the Pastoral Epistles, especially the “trustworthy sayings”, the different creeds Paul quotes, which doctrines Paul claimed were false teachings, and which doctrines are linked to the Gospel.   This is definitely a good start in determining the essentials and the non-essentials.  The trustworthy sayings, various creeds, and doctrines Paul identifies as the Gospel definitely help to determine the essentials and the teachings that Paul identifies as false teachings are helpful in determining the essentials and non-essentials.  As DeYoung notes, they enable us to determine that “God is glorious; we are sinners; and Jesus Christ is our Savior and God. Jesus Christ is the Son of God and God in the flesh; He died and rose again; He ascended into heaven; He is coming again. Salvation is by sovereign grace, according to the converting power of the Holy Spirit, through faith, not according to our works.”  However, the standards DeYoung suggests do not identify all of the essentials and non-essentials of the Christian faith nor are they explicitly clear on some of the doctrines in the Pastoral Epistles.  For example, do the Pastoral Epistles, or the rest of Scripture, determine whether or not baptismal regeneration and infant baptism are essential to or contrary to the Christian faith?  Lutherans believe that an infant is regenerated in the waters of baptism, but there are other Protestants that believe such a view is contrary to the essential doctrine of justification by faith alone.  How does one determine which group is correct, especially when Christians such as Calvin believed “infants cannot be deprived of it [baptism] without open violation of the will of God” (Inst.4, 16, 8), while many Protestants would disagree?  Is there any indication that the Pastoral Epistles, or the rest of Scripture, determine that the Eucharistic sacrifice of the early Christians was a non-essential or even worse, contrary to the Gospel?  Catholics maintain this doctrine is essential and can be found in the Old and New Testaments, while most Protestants would view this doctrine as contrary to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and many would conclude that this doctrine makes the Catholic gospel a false gospel.  Do the Pastoral Epistles or the rest of Scripture, affirm Calvin’s view that a right understanding of the Eucharist is essential for salvation? (Petit traicté de la Sainte Cène, 1541)  Some Protestants such as Lutherans and Anglicans believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, while Baptists and Charismatics do not.  Do the Pastoral Epistles, or the rest of Scripture, determine which books belong in the canon of Scripture in order to determine which teachings are essential and which are non-essential?  Catholic maintain the deuterocanonicals are Scripture, while most Protestants do not.  Depending on which books belong in the canon will determine which teachings are essential and non-essential.  For example, if one only includes the Pentateuch in the canon of Scripture, then the fact that Christ is fully God and fully man and consubstantial with the Father, will be pretty hard to determine and probably wouldn’t make the list of essentials.  Whereas, if one includes the books in the Protestant canon then they will be much more likely to define Christ’s deity and humanity as an essential doctrine.  DeYoung himself notes “If we get that doctrine wrong [the doctrine of Scripture], we are bound to mess up everything else.”  This is a trustworthy saying and makes the question of which books belong in the canon essential before DeYoung can determine which doctrines are essential and non-essential.

Does the New Testament itself suggest that any and every Joe Blow is able to simply open up the Bible (once the canon is determined) and determine which doctrines are essential and non-essential?  If so, why does Peter say “There are some things in them [Paul’s writings’]that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”?  Does one have to be very well educated in Greek and Hebrew before they are able to determine the answer?  Does one have to have an incredible amount of knowledge of which manuscripts and variant readings in the textual tradition of the New Testament are the readings of the autographs in order to determine the essentials?  Does one first have to determine which books belong in the canon and whose interpretation of these books are correct before they are able to determine the essentials and the non-essentials?  These are all questions that must be answered before one can know that their answers to which doctrines are essential and non-essential are sound.

DeYoung’s second suggestion is to “[l]isten to the communion of the Saints.”  However, he is quick to add that “Tradition must never trump Scripture.”  One wonders if DeYoung is referring to Apostolic Tradition, that is tradition that is of Apostolic origin, or tradition with a small “t”, that is traditions that are not of Apostolic origin.  If it is the former, why would tradition that is of Apostolic origin be made subordinate to Scripture when even Scripture itself binds Christians to follow it (2 Thess. 2:15)?  If it is the latter, then what are the “traditions” in 2 Thess. 2:15 a Christian must follow and why did the early Christians believe these traditions were not passed on, at least not explicitly, in the Bible (see St. Chrysostom’s comment on 2 Thess. 2:15)?

Aside from the issue of whether or not Apostolic Tradition is synonymous with Scripture and if not, if it is of equal or less authority than Scripture, DeYoung’s second suggestion is a very interesting suggestion since a study of Christianity prior to the Protestant Rebellion yields a different understanding of Christian doctrine and essentials.  For example, most Christians prior to the Protestant Rebellion believed in baptismal regeneration and the Eucharist as a real sacrifice (I am not aware of any denying this doctrine but just in case a few can be found I used the words “most Christians”).  DeYoung notes that “we should be extra cautious before believing something almost no Christians have believed before…and extremely hesitant before rejecting something almost every church has accepted.”  One must wonder why he has chosen to reject baptismal regeneration and the Eucharist as a real sacrifice in light of the fact that these doctrines have been maintained by most Christians prior to the Protestant Revolution.

DeYoung notes the value of the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon but he must determine why these creeds have value while other ecumenical councils are outright rejected by many Protestants as contrary to the Christian faith (for example, Nicaea II).  DeYoung must also demonstrate why he would affirm the creeds of these councils yet reject many of the doctrines these councils took for granted (the papacy, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the intercession of the Saints, merit, a distinct Christian priesthood, Bishops, apostolic succession, etc.)  Since most Christians prior to the Protestant Revolution believed these doctrines, one struggles to see DeYoung’s consistency in affirming some widely held doctrines of antiquity, while rejecting others, in affirming some ecumenical councils, while rejecting others.  One even struggles to see why DeYoung seems to pick and choose which parts of an ecumenical council he desires to believe.  For example, DeYoung values the creed of Chalcedon but he rejects the very foundation for the creed, which was the authority of the Pope Leo, “Peter has spoken thus through Leo”!

DeYoung’s third suggestion is to “[d]istinguish between landing theology and launching theology”, that is a distinction between doctrines which Christians start with the same premises but come to different conclusions and doctrines which Christians do not start with the same presuppositions and come to different conclusions.  Again, one fails to see the consistency here.  Isn’t the difference between the Catholic doctrine of justification and the Protestant doctrine of justification a matter of “landing theology”?  If landing theology, in this matter touches on an essential doctrine, yet landing theology in matters such as amillenialism and postmillennialism touch on non-essentials, isn’t this argument inconsistent and begs the question: how does one determine which doctrines of landing theology are essential and which are non-essential?

DeYoung’s fourth suggestion is to “[d]istinguish between the explicit teaching of Scripture and the application of scriptural principles.”  This seems to be a problematic criteria for determining the essentials and non-essentials since Christians for example believe baptismal regeneration is explicit in Scripture and not just an application of scriptural principles.  They would ask is the “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5 merely an application of a scriptural principle or is it explicitly teaching that regeneration occurs in the washing of the baptismal waters?  How does one determine which view is correct if two Christians with differing views on this matter appeal to Scripture?  It should be noted that Luther believed the words “hoc est corups meum” (This is my body, Luke 22:19) explicitly teaches that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist and not just symbolically, and Calvin, as noted above, believed a proper view of the Eucharist was essential for salvation, while others Protestants would say Christ is not present in the Eucharist and the issue of the real presence isn’t an essential doctrine because, so they would say, it isn’t explicitly taught in Scripture.

DeYoung’s fifth suggestion is to “[d]istinguish between church existence and church health”, meaning there are some doctrines that are essential for the existence of the church, while there are other doctrines that are not essential for the existence of the church, but are merely important for the health of the church.  Yet, this begs the question, how does one distinguish between the two?  Some Protestants, based on their understanding of the Scripture, would argue that a certain understanding of justification by faith alone is essential for  church existence.  For example, R.C. Sproul, sees Luther’s view of justification by faith alone as essential for church existence while other Protestants such as Alister McGrath see Luther’s view of justification by faith alone as a “theological novum” (Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, pages 184, 186-187), arguing that Luther’s view cannot be found in church history prior to Luther.  If this is true then the church did not exist prior to Luther, if it is not true then it at least demonstrates that well educated Protestants cannot agree on something so important as justification by faith alone and whether or not it is essential for the existence of the church.

DeYoung’s sixth suggestion is to “[a]void foolish controversies” because some doctrines are not worth disputing.  Though it is true we should avoid disputing over some doctrines, since this is what St. Paul tells us in the New Testament, there are some doctrines worth disputing, as can be seen by St. Paul himself who in Acts 17:17 disputed with the Jews in the synagogue.  Now, the question: how do we know which doctrines are worth disputing and which doctrines are not worth disputing, is a worthy question and must be answered.  Are the differences between Catholics and Protestants worth disputing?  If so, how do we know this?  If not, why should Catholics and Protestants remain outside of communion with one another, especially in light of St. Paul’s admonition that there be no schisms among us (1 Cor. 1:10)?

DeYoung’s seventh suggestion is “[a]llow for areas of disagreement, especially regarding “conversion baggage.”  This suggestion is problematic for the same reasons as the previous suggestion, who determines which doctrines are “conversion baggage” and which doctrines are incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Concluding Thoughts

DeYoung should be given credit for attempting to lay out some suggestions for how to determine what are essential doctrines and what are non-essential doctrines.  He should also be given credit for his desire to answer these questions for God’s glory and for our good.  However, his attempt does not seem to answer a great number of questions that need to be answered before one could seriously begin to determine the essentials and non-essentials.  Perhaps DeYoung should not be faulted for this because he does note that “I can’t begin to do all the necessary biblical, theological, historical, and practical exploration in this article” but he at least believes that he has possibly laid out “an outline of some important considerations.”  Some of his suggestions such as the first suggestion, help to a certain extent, but at the end of the day his first suggestion, like the rest of his suggestions, leave one with more questions than answers.

For an alternative way of determining the essentials and non-essentials of the Christian faith, it is suggested that one considers the Catholic position of authority.  A couple introductory articles on who has the authority to determine the essentials and non-essentials from the Catholic perspective can be found here and here.

Ad Gloriam Ecclesiae!

Pio

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