Frontloading the Gospel
Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Much the same can be said of theology. For every error, there seems to be an equal and opposite error.
The last essay discussed the error of indifferentism. An indifferentist is a Christian who affirms the gospel but denies that the doctrines of the gospel must constitute an unbreachable boundary for Christian faith and fellowship. Though indifferentists believe the gospel, they extend Christian recognition and cooperation to people who deny it.
Indifferentism is a serious error. While indifferentists do not deny the gospel, they do demean it. They diminish its importance for Christian faith and fellowship. If we take seriously 2 John 8-11, then indifferentism is truly scandalous. At minimum, indifferentists are woefully deficient in discernment and obedience. Therefore, they must never be placed in positions of Christian leadership or held up as models of Christian faith and practice.
Another error exists that is almost the opposite of indifferentism. We could call it “everythingism.” An “everythingist” is someone who is committed to the “literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible, and the militant exposure of all non-biblical affirmations and attitudes” (this was George Dollar’s definition of “fundamentalism” in his History of Fundamentalism in America, published by Bob Jones University Press in 1973). While the indifferentist makes too little of the gospel and of fundamental doctrines, the everythingist makes too much of non-fundamentals, weighting these doctrines as if they were essential to Christian faith and fellowship.
Of course, very few people, if any, are pure everythingists. Almost everybody recognizes that at least some teachings are non-fundamental, secondary, or even incidental. Pure everythingism is hard to find.
Modified everythingism, however, is rather common, and it is not confined to fundamentalists. The modified everythingist does not elevate absolutely everything to the importance of the gospel but places beside the gospel some aspect of Christianity that is unessential to the existence of the faith.
Some Calvinists are modified (Reformed?) everythingists. They treat unconditional election, irresistible grace, and sometimes even limited atonement as if these doctrines were essential to the definition of Christianity. Then again, anti-Calvinistic everythingists treat the denial of these doctrines as essential.
Certain people treat a version of the Bible or a textual tradition as if it were essential to the faith. They condemn brethren who disagree with them, using terms like leaven, hypocrisy, and even heresy. They may even denounce other textual traditions or translation of God’s Word as “perversions.”
Both extremes in the controversy over Lordship Salvation have sometimes fallen into everythingism. The process begins when one extreme overstates its position, evoking a corresponding overstatement from the opposite extreme. Overstatement is then followed by overreaction. Each extreme pronounces its extremely stated position as essential to Christian faith and denounces the opposite denial as an incipient (or even an actual) apostasy.
Both Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians have sometimes been guilty of raising their conclusions to the level of fundamental truth. I have heard Dispensationalists wonder how amillennarians could even be Bible-believers. I have also read Covenant Theologians who traduced Dispensationalism as another (different) gospel.
Everythingism shows up in many forms. It can involve controversies over church polity, theories of special creation, the status of divorced people, the order of the divine decrees, and all sorts of other questions. Whenever a non-fundamental is treated as if it were essential to Christian faith and fellowship, the line into everythingism has been crossed.
Nothing that I have said should be taken to mean that non-fundamental doctrines or practices are unimportant. All biblical doctrines are important, even the non-fundamental ones. Some non-fundamental doctrines are more important than others. Some exert an influence across much of the faith, and they do affect fellowship. We ought to weigh all doctrinal questions carefully and soberly.
In other words, the fundamentals do not exhaust the biblical system of faith. We have a duty to learn, believe, and practice more than simply the fundamentals. We may find ourselves disagreeing about some non-fundamental doctrines, and those disagreements may be conducted with a great deal of gravity. What we must not do, however, is treat the non-fundamentals as if they were essential to the existence of Christianity.
The Reformers drew a distinction between teachings that were necessary to being of the faith and those that were necessary to the wellbeing of the faith. Those that are necessary for wellbeing are very important. They should never be neglected. But they must not be confused with those that are necessary for being of the faith. These latter doctrines are the fundamentals or essentials. To deny them is to deny the gospel itself.
Indifferentism and everythingism are equal and opposite errors. Neither constitutes a denial of the faith, but each is severely crippling to a biblical Christianity. We need to be on our guard against both.
Most Christians tend to be more sensitive to one error and to neglect the other. Many evangelicals are quick to perceive the intrinsic factiousness of everythingism, but in avoiding it they become tolerant of indifferentists. Fundamentalists go miles out of their way to avoid the compromise of indifferentists but are willing to put up with the everythingists. On both sides, political considerations sometimes become more important than integrity.
If we want a truly biblical Christianity, then we are going to have to avoid both errors. We are going to have to treat everythingists and indifferentists with about the same misgiving. Of course, in order to do that we shall have to become skilled at judging the importance of doctrines. We must develop special proficiency for discriminating fundamentals from non-fundamentals.
Christ Our Light
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
O Christ our Light, Whom even in darkness we
(So we look up) discern and gaze upon,
O Christ, Thou loveliest Light that ever shone,
Thou Light of Light, Fount of all lights that be,
Grant us clear vision of Thy Light to see,
Tho’ other lights elude us, or begone
Into the secret of oblivion,
Or gleam in places higher than man’s degree.
Who looks on Thee looks full on his desire
Who looks on Thee looks full on Very Love:
Looking, he answers well, “What lack I yet?”
His heat and cold wait not on earthly fire,
His wealth is not of earth to lose or get;
Earth reels, but he has stored his store above.
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|