I fear the the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message — in fact, it has undermined the very definition of Christianity. When I meet someone today and they tell me they’re a Christian, I’m sorry to report that it tells me very, very little about what they actually believe. I know people who call themselves Christians, but deny the unique deity of Christ, or deny the historicity of the resurrection, or other key doctrines I would consider “essential”. This leads to an obvious question — what does it mean to say,”I’m a Christian?” If I make that claim, what does it mean that I believe?
John Wesley is reputed to have said, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”. But what if we can’t agree on what the essentials are? About 10 years ago, I started teaching a lesson series called “Essential Christian Doctrines,” or ECD, with the goal of answering this very question. Many of the issues we deal with among Christians are secondary issues, those which we can discuss and debate but not divide over. This includes young-Earth versus old-Earth creation, Calvinism versus Arminianism (and Pelagianism and other variants), and basically every flavor of eschatology (end-time theology) including pre-trib, post-trib, amillennialism, premillennialism, dispensationalism, and so forth. When we boil it down to the simple question of the Centurion in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved,” it even relegates evangelical sacred cows like inerrancy and the canon of scripture to secondary status.
So what essentials remain? The easiest way to do this is to examine what the first Christians considered essential – those beliefs that they thought and taught were necessary for salvation.
There are a number of places in Scripture where we can turn for guidance — for example, 1 Timothy 3:16. In this one verse, you have the deity of Christ, His incarnation (humanity), resurrection, and ascension. Another key passage, perhaps the most well-known on this issue, is 1 Cor 15:3 – 5. Like the verse in Timothy, this passage affirms the death, the atonement, and the resurrection. Most theologians believe that these two passages are the foundation for what later became the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, we can look at Peter’s sermon (commonly called the “Kerygma”) in Acts 10:36 – 43. This passage is perhaps the best expression of the core doctrines maintained and taught by the early church. It affirms the deity of Christ, the personality and power of the Holy Spirit, the humanity and death of Christ, His resurrection, his second coming and final judgment, and salvation by faith in Christ.
So, based on the stated beliefs and doctrines of the first Christians, we can eliminate quite a few from the “brainstorming” list above. Those that remain, those that were taught by the followers of Christ, include:
i. The Deity of Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit (the Trinity).
ii. The humanity of Christ (the incarnation).
iii. The death and resurrection of Christ (the substitutionary atonemtent).
iv. The sinfulness of man.
v. Salvation by grace through faith.
If you do not affirm these basic, core beliefs, then you do not fall under the minimum essentials to be called a Christian. If you believe the essential doctrines, and do not hold to others that are contradictory to these, then you can confidently and proudly proclaim that you hold to the same historic Christian faith taught by Christ and the apostles. To be sure, there is some room for discussion here…but I think this is a fair conclusion based on an examination of the relevant Scriptures and Christian history. What to you think?