Monday, December 28, 2015

Essential and Non-Essential Critique

Criticism can help.  Some doesn't help at all -- for instance, name-calling, like the scoffers do of 2 Peter 3:3.  A few weeks ago I wrote again on the essential and non-essential doctrine, and it was linked at an online forum, whose owner, Aaron Blumer, wrote a short critique.  I'm happy he wrote it, because it sheds light on the subject.  Here's what he wrote:

Essential for what? 
I'm sure he means well, but the reasoning is messed up... and putting all truth on the same level of certainty and importance is far more damaging than even incorrectly discerning how truths relate to one another. 
That everything is not equally clear in the Bible is indicated in the book itself (e.g. 2 Pet. 3:16) 
The revelation God has given us includes evidence of priorities. Since it relates ideas to one another, and encourages us to use reason to relate ideas to one another, what truths are essential and nonessential to other truths is part of what God has revealed. 
It is impossible for everything to be essential for everything else. This should be self evident. You could be stranded on a desert Island with only fragments of Genesis and John and still be able to discover the gospel and come to faith in Christ. 
"Essential" is a synonym for "necessary" and it can never stand alone as a concept. The question the term always begs is "essential for what?" The fact that Mary who sat at Jesus feet in Luke 10 is the same Mary who poured perfume on Jesus' feet in John 12:3 is essential for something or it would not be revealed. But you could definitely get your Marys mixed up and still fully understand and live the gospel. 
Since violations of commandments in the Law of Moses have penalties of varying severity, yes, I have to accept that they do "rank commandments in heaven." (See also Matt. 23:23, in which Jesus clearly indicates that some matters are weightier than others... and that failing to see these differences is a serious error.)

I wish he had interacted with my actual post, which exposed what Jesus said in John 8, or with the other exegesis I've done on the subject.  Not one person has yet done that.  Years ago, Phil Johnson promised he would and didn't.  I get why someone wouldn't.  Their teaching is totally debunked by scripture.  Nonetheless, I'm happy that Aaron did at least what he did.  Let's think about it together anyway.

To start, the essential and non-essential doctrine directly relates to justifying doctrinal and practical error for the sake of keeping together coalitions.  If men unify around essentials and separate only over essentials, they will have a bigger group, it's true.  That's what motivates the doctrine and it is what it is all about.  However, does the Bible teach that?  One should be asking if that is taught somewhere in scripture.  If someone does not start with that understanding, he is not going to get a correct evaluation of the essential and non-essential doctrine.  I want to take Aaron's critique one point at a time.

Aaron says my reasoning is "messed up," but he doesn't deal with what I wrote.  He doesn't point out anything in particular that I've written (except for one minor one that I will mention later), any quote, to show how it is "messed up" in its reasoning.  In so doing, he erects a straw man, which isn't uncommon.  Much of what he writes here is just a distraction, or what some people have termed, "a red herring."

By nature truth is certain.  It's the truth.  It is certain.  I'm not talking about what isn't true, but what is true, which is certain.  There is no such thing as a sort of certain truth.  You either are a disciple of Christ or you are not.  The idea that that are various levels of certainty to truth fits a postmodern view of the world.

Certainty and importance are not the same subject.  The Word of God is truth, so it is certain.  The word "important" doesn't occur in scripture, so "importance" as it applies to scripture must be defined.   What is someone saying when he says that one doctrine is more important than another?  Depending on how someone defines that, I could agree to it.  For instance, I would rather someone murder me in his heart than physically to murder me, so that I'm not breathing any more.  I still get to breathe when someone murders me in his heart.  The death penalty doesn't apply to mental murder, so that means mental murder isn't important, right?  Murdering in the heart is important to God.  It will condemn a person as much as physical murder will.

I have no problem discussing priorities.  Before I start talking about particular acts of obedience to someone, I might deal with his salvation.    Salvation is foundational, but is it more important than sanctification?  Aaron uses the word "damaging" and then doesn't explain it at all.  I see ranking of truths as more damaging than not ranking them.  If someone does all of them, because he believes they are all certain and they are all important, what damage has that done?  On the other hand, someone ranks "truths" as to certainty and importance, and then doesn't do the "unimportant and uncertain" ones.  Aaron is saying that the former is damaging and the latter is what?  Not damaging? The latter is what happens because of the essential and non essential doctrine.

Let's say that I agree with Aaron that not all parts of the Bible are equally clear, or as Peter wrote, some parts are harder to be understood.  Does that mean we are exempt from the parts harder to be understood?  That is the essence of the essential and non-essential doctrine.  If it's harder to be understood, some people get a pass.  Some things can't be understood, but that is not the Bible.  The Bible can be understood, just that some parts are harder than others.  Was Peter saying, "You're not responsible for those hard parts"?  Of course not.  Just the opposite.  He's saying that false teachers choose those texts in particular to attack in order to cause doubt about the second coming, because they think they can do more damage with passages harder to be understood.  The essential and non essential movement picks up where those false teachers left off: "You can doubt the second coming because the prophetic passages are harder to be understood."  Aaron seems to agree along with most evangelicals today.  Their essential and non essential doctrine says that same sex marriage is a non essential.

The desert island argument isn't Bible.  Would I want people to have John instead of Leviticus?  Sure.  So what?  That argument doesn't mean John is either more certain or more important than Leviticus.  For someone who isn't saved, I start with salvation passages in the Bible.  It's true.  Again, that doesn't make them more important or more certain.  All through John I see Jesus say that He does everything that the Father tells Him to do.  The people who follow Jesus will do the same.  When Jesus said, "continue in my word," was He saying, "Continue in my essentials," or "Continue in what is certain," or "Continue in what is important"?  No.  The essential and non-essential doctrine makes Jesus the Lord of the essentials, which He, the Lord, doesn't determine.  We do.  That is messed up reasoning.

You can still be saved if you don't properly label the correct Mary in the Gospels, or "mess your Mary's up."  What does that prove?  Does that prove that you can sprinkle infants?  I would agree that you can still be saved and not know exactly what happened to Jephthah's daughter.  That is not an argument for ranking doctrines.  It is not necessary to know Esther to be saved.  That doesn't say that Esther isn't certain or important.  All of this is a red herring or a strawman, because that's not the point of the essential and non-essential doctrine.  The messed up reasoning is the following:  since I don't separate over a mislabeling of Mary in the gospels, then I don't separate over mode of baptism or eschatology.  We have a basis for thinking that all of the Bible is certain and important  I've already long ago laid out many biblical arguments that have never been answered.

The only place Aaron touched on the article I wrote was in my side argument that in heaven they do not rank doctrines.  By saying that, I'm saying that in heaven they do everything that God said to do.  Aaron's argument against that is that they do rank doctrines in heaven because the Old Testament gave different severity of punishment to different crime.  Heaven still does everything God said and if someone in heaven decided to rank a doctrine as less important and didn't do it, he would be banished from heaven.  If we do the will of God on earth like they do in heaven, we will do all of it.

At the end of Hebrews 6, God says that different rules apply to what God says than what man says.  Man needs two or three witnesses to verify the truth.  Man needs oaths to verify his promises.  God cannot lie, so He doesn't need witnesses or oaths.  The punishments of the law were set up for sinful men, because men violate those laws:  eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life.   Those punishments taught justice, equal retribution.  You couldn't take more or less for the crime committed.  That didn't mean that taking an eye wasn't serious or unimportant.  You still took an eye for an eye, but you couldn't take a life.  Not taking a life didn't mean that taking a tooth was unimportant or uncertain.

In Hebrews 2, the punishments under the law were sure, they were certain. That was an argument for not escaping the neglect of the salvation spoken by the Lord and those who heard Him.  If someone took a tooth in heaven, he wouldn't be in heaven any longer, because not one sin is allowed in heaven.  This is why in James 2:10, James says that one offense of the law, any point of law, is an offense of all the law -- all of it.  I'm saying that Aaron's reasoning is messed up.

Aaron says that Matthew 23:23 justifies the essential and non-essential doctrine, because Jesus said that the Pharisees did not obey the weightier matters of the law.  The word for "weighty" is barus, which has the understanding of "more difficult," that is, "heavier."  Something that is heavier is harder to do.  The Pharisees ranked God's laws.  This is a big irony here.  The Pharisees were guilty of ranking laws by those that were the most difficult for them to do and those that were the least difficult.  Tithing of little herbs was easy for them, and so they did that.  What was impossible for them, weighty, they didn't do.  A Pharisee couldn't keep all the law, so he ranked it and kept what he deemed important.

I call what the Pharisees did, "left wing legalism."  If you can't keep the law, then rank the law, so that you can keep it.  Reduce the law to that which you can keep, because the whole law is impossible to keep.  This is the legalism of the Pharisees, mimicked by the essential and non-essential doctrine of Aaron and others.


There was one other comment, you can read, by William Dudding.  He calls me a Diotrephes (3 John) for my exposure of the essential and non-essential doctrine.  Is that messed up reasoning? What I'm saying is that Diotrephes cast people out of a particular church.  In other words, he skipped all three steps of Matthew 18 to kick someone out of a church.  Our church has never done that.  In every practice of church discipline, we have gone through three steps and the third step is the church, not one person, removing someone from the church.  In other words, I have never done what Diotrephes did.  Ever.

With that in mind, what is Dudding talking about?  What have I cast people out of?  It's hard to understand, but that is the nature of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.  They are so twisted and corrupted in their thinking, so unscriptural, that you can't even understand what they are talking about.  That passes for acceptable teaching for most of them.

Perhaps the SharperIron crowd just ignores Dudding or what he said stands as acceptable interpretation and application of 3 John.


Let me give you an easy illustration to grasp the damage and danger of the essential and non-essential doctrine, why it is popular, and how it attacks the truth.  Someone breaks a small window in our house.  The police visit and tell me that they can't or won't do anything about it, because it isn't important enough.  If they had broken a big picture window, then that would get their attention, but the small window, they won't do anything about.  As a result, people do what they want and get away with it.  No one needs to point it out, because it isn't essential.

This is where our culture is.  Someone broke my car window and no one cared.  If they had murdered someone, that would get police attention.  Certain doctrines and practices have become meaningless with the essential and non-essential doctrine until now the churches have same-sex marriage on their hands.  This is what they have done.  They own this.


James Bronsveld said...

With Blumer's unelaborated comment about "ranking commandments in heaven," am I to understand that what he means is that some of the lesser commandments in heaven will be up for dispute there, open to subjective interpretation by the redeemed, and available for rejection by the glorified saints? Because that's the way he and other Fundamentalists apply this on earth, and it was illustrated by Don Johnson's reference to his "Presbyterian brethren" (italics his) in the comments section.

What about II Pet. 3:16? Yes, some things in the Scripture are hard to be understood. In context, religious, orthodox-sounding scoffers twist the Scriptures to deny the return of Christ in glory and power so they can live like the world; so they can profess Him as Saviour, but not as Lord; so they can spend their lives walking according to their own lusts while continuing in fellowship with the Lord's churches. Secondly, 3:16 is followed by 3:17-18 which command the readers of 3:16 to grow in the knowledge of Christ and assure them of certainty and establishment in all truth - even the hard truth. I fail to see how the verse buttresses any of Blumer's points.

In the comment section, a gentle rebuke is made for people who are simply misunderstanding Fundamentalism. The same old tired lines about "this isn't about five bullet points" gets trotted out, with its cousin that this is actually about discerning which doctrines are essential enough over which to do "battle royale." What exactly has Fundamentalism accomplished in its battle against Liberalism? Fundamentalism is more worldly today than ever, with less "fundamentals" than ever, and as a movement, is largely ignored in favour of the newer, sleeker, bigger, and more prosperous New Evangelicalism. And while it is argued that Fundamentalism "isn't about a mere five bullet points," that is precisely the terminal station at which Fundamentalism arrives, scrounging for allies as a hemorrhaging ecumenical movement left over from the early 20th century. The arguments to support it sound more appropriate coming from political officials solemnly declaring, "It looks like a new tax, but it's not. It's an environmental user fee."

DLF said...

Kent, I appreciate your insight on the subject of essentials and non-essentials. I believe that the non-essential doctrine that is being taught has much to do with the New Calvinism approach which is just this day's version of New Evangelicalism. I believe the following illustration helps me understand the issue even though I realize illustrations often break down at some point. But it is an illustration based on the Lord's use of building a house by the wise man and the foolish man in Matthew 7:24-27.

Now, I am not an expert in building houses or buildings (I know we have experts on this in our church), but let’s compare building a house to the Christian life. I believe I am accurate in saying you must have a good foundation. Are there some things that are essential in building construction and some things that are non-essential? Most people would probably say, certainly! It is essential to have a good foundation. It is essential to have walls and a roof. You must have a door and a window or two, right? But beyond that (and I might have missed a so-called essential or two), do you really need all the other things like running water, heating and air conditioning, etc. Doesn’t it depend on who ordered the house to be built? A contractor cannot or certainly should not say, “Oh, they don’t need this or that; they can do without that, so I just won’t put it in. It’s a non-essential.” No, not if it is going to be built according the one who ordered or planned it according to the owner’s specifications. A builder can’t cut corners when ordering the concrete for the foundation and say just add more water (it’s not soup, you know). A builder can’t say, “It would be cheaper to use these little finishing nails to build the rafters than those big nails.” If you are going to build a house that serves a specific purpose and is going to be trustworthy and substantial, it has to be done right and everything is essential.

So, who has ordered or who has made the plans for building a Christian life? Is it not God Himself and He has given us the blueprint called the Bible. Everything, if it is going to be done as God has ordered, is essential.

Darrel Flaming

Greg Linscott said...

Kent, I've read you on this through the years, and I want to see if I understand you in the application. If someone tenaciously held to some version of the Gap Theory they learned a generation or two ago (a position I am assuming you believe to be incompatible with what Scripture teaches), but was otherwise in agreement so far as you could tell doctrinally with Scripture, could such a person be legitimately identified as a believer? If someone affirmed your church's doctrine and practice, including your polity, but had been a member of a church with a different form in the past, and did not believe that church was in gross error, would that prevent them from being accepted into membership at Bethel?

Here's another, Scriptural question. In the scenario Paul lays out in Galatians with Peter, is there any room in your mind for Peter to have been in the wrong for more than a momentary lapse of judgment? Could he have been holding to a wrong understanding or application of doctrine while still legitimately being a believer and even used of God to lead His church?

Farmer Brown said...

It is interesting that Fundamentalism was created to combat modernism, but it has, as a movement, nearly completely capitulated to the two most potent modernist attacks, the attack on the very words of God and the attack on God honoring music.

The weaknesses in these areas destroy the authority and spirit of churches, making them too weak to fight effectively, or to even know where the battle is happening. Instead of fighting that corruption, they spend their time fighting the revealing of that corruption and attacking the preachers who address it.

But this is a movement that was born of weakness and rooted in compromise, so I suppose it is naive to expect good and strong Biblical exegesis. Instead of fighting their own corruption, they fight to defend it. It is like a gangrene sufferer taking a delirious swing at the surgeon holding the bone saw.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Greg,

If someone tenaciously held to some version of the Gap Theory they learned a generation or two ago (a position I am assuming you believe to be incompatible with what Scripture teaches), but was otherwise in agreement so far as you could tell doctrinally with Scripture, could such a person be legitimately identified as a believer?


If someone affirmed your church's doctrine and practice, including your polity, but had been a member of a church with a different form in the past, and did not believe that church was in gross error, would that prevent them from being accepted into membership at Bethel?

Yes, but he might need to be baptized into our church, because of what we believe scripture teaches about baptism.

In the scenario Paul lays out in Galatians with Peter, is there any room in your mind for Peter to have been in the wrong for more than a momentary lapse of judgment? Could he have been holding to a wrong understanding or application of doctrine while still legitimately being a believer and even used of God to lead His church?

I wouldn't separate from Peter without three steps at least and being patient in between. Paul commanded, Be patient with all men. I often call this, "not cutting people off." Everyone needs time to grow. I've said this often here. This includes people in a church. How could someone obey 2 Peter 1:5-11 if there was no room for growth? I think that answers both questions. I'm quite sure the answer I just gave, which I've given many times doesn't sound like a Diotrephes either.

Kent Brandenburg said...

James, Farmer Brown, and Bro Flaming,

All your comments were excellent and well written and I enjoyed them. I'm sure they were also a great help to others. Thank you.

Larry said...

Kent, I think Greg's question calls into question if you really believe what you claim to believe. There is a truth about the Gap Theory, yet you would allow for a person to have fellowship with you (and presumably be a member of your church) who intentionally believes something that is wrong. You previously (several years ago) said the same thing about the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6. You said you would not make that a test of fellowship or separation or church membership. In so doing, you are admitting that doctrine of the Gap or the sons of God is not essential for some things even though there is a right and wrong position on it.

Which leads to the point of Aaron's question of "essential to what?" What is essential to be a Christian is different than what is essential to be a Baptist or to be a member of your church or my church. To say something is "non-essential" needs clarification. All truth is essential to being right. But right belief about all truth is not essential to being a Christian or a church member. You couldn't be a member of our church because of our beliefs and your beliefs. We hold things to be essential that you do not. Likewise me with your church.

I also think you miss the point about certainty. I don't think Aaron was saying that truth isn't certain. I think the point is that our understanding of some truths is not certain. Not all things in Scripture are equally clear. All of our best exegesis by all of the godliest exegetes and theologians from all of church history still has not conclusively settled some matters. Take Gal 2 that Greg raised for a moment. Was that prior to Acts 15 or after it? And who are the men from James? And what exactly was the issue? Well, there is a truth about these things and that truth is essential to being correct. Yet I doubt you would break fellowship or deny membership to someone who disagreed with you about some or all of that. And once you admit that (which I assume you would), it seems you have to admit that not all truth is essential to fellowship with you or to membership. Someone can be wrong about some truth of Scripture and still be a member in good standing in your church. It might be you.

I was always taught that clarity, not essence, was the criteria for fellowship. If a doctrine is clear and someone denies it, we can have no fellowship with them. That is not some new teaching as you seemed to suggest several weeks ago.

Hope all is well with you and your family.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Larry,

The question was whether a person could be identified as a believer. Not everyone from whom I or our church separates would we consider to be unbelievers. Greg never asked if I would fellowship with the person, just whether I thought he "could" be saved or not. I don't know of anyone right now who believes the gap theory, but I did over 20 years ago. He was then a 70 something who had learned it in his training as a young person in a fundamental Baptist church. A certain era of fundamentalist believed the gap theory. Some of those who wrote The Fundamentals believed the gap theory. He had not thought through all the ramifications, as neither have many others, as to what that would do to the gospel (death preceding sin). He, his wife, and two sons gave evidence of salvation in their lives.

I think I've explained well enough what I think the essential and non essential doctrine is about, and how I see it being believed and practiced. I don't believe that the way it is believed and practiced is "what is essential for salvation." I am confused as to what you mean by essential, because it started with your saying it is what is essential for salvation, but in your second paragraph, you said I couldn't join your church because we have differing beliefs about what is essential or not. Do you think that I don't believe what is essential for being saved? That's where I'm confused on what you're saying.

Aaron mentioned degrees of certainty of truth. Truth doesn't have degrees of certainty. The degrees of certainty of truth is something I encounter all the time, but I don't believe it is true. Maybe Aaron doesn't believe that, but it is what he said.

I don't think you are representing the essential and non essential doctrine, as I have read it. I believe I represent what it is, as I have read numerous times all over the internet and have linked to it in other posts.

I don't think the essential and non essential doctrine is taught in scripture. I don't believe my consistency in my practice of what I say that I believe and practice is a good argument for the essential and non essential doctrine. It is the one most commonly used, as presented to me, but I don't think I am inconsistent with what I tell people we believe on that doctrine or issue. I believe the teaching of scripture is plain. I do think men will always need to grow. I do think men will differ on the precise meaning of a Greek preposition or of the meaning of a word or over who wrote Hebrews. That, I don't believe, is a biblical reason for the essential and non essential doctrine.

If you separate over more than the "essentials" than you don't believe the essential and non essential doctrine. If you will not fellowship with people who do not believe or practice a clear or plain "non-essential," an actual teaching in the Bible though, then you don't believe the essential and non-essential doctrine.

Thanks Larry. Thanks for your greetings.