Aristotle introduces his Nicomachean Ethics with these words: “Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good; and so the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims.”
While Aristotle identifies different intermediary goods on his way to his ultimate good (happiness), he underscores the importance of the question, “Good for what?” In Aristotle’s view, we can’t really define good until we understand at what goal the good aims. While his conclusion is problematic, his line of questioning is insightful.
Likewise, we can’t answer the question “What are the essentials?” until we first answer the question, “Essential for what?” One popular website asserts that, “The Bible itself reveals what is important and essential to the Christian faith. These essentials are the deity of Christ, salvation by God’s grace and not by works.”
While this sounds like a helpful enough answer, I wonder upon what basis the writer identifies these doctrines over others as essential. Are these intermediary essentials or they ultimate essentials?
To answer this biblically we have to answer the question of what is the central or single-most important issue in all of the Bible. The most common response to that query is the doctrine of salvation. But can we justify that biblically? In Ephesians 1 Paul discusses the role of Father, Son, and Spirit in the salvation of the believer. In 1:6 the Father’s predestining and choosing is “to the praise of the glory of His grace.” In 1:12, the redemptive work of the Son is “to the praise of His glory.” In 1:14, the sealing work of the Holy Spirit is “to the praise of His glory.” These passages give us insight into the reality that salvation is good, but it is an intermediary good rather than a final one. Salvation is not the end or the ultimate good, but rather salvation serves the purpose of contributing to His glory. We can examine the biblical accounts of every revealed work of God, and each serve one purpose: His glory. It is worth noting at this point that if a person is seeking his or her own glory we would understand that person as narcissistic, but we have to remember two important ideas when we think about God’s glory.
First, the word doxa has to do with quality or splendor, and can be understood much like the expressive sense in which an artist creates. We speak in terms of “expressing oneself,” and I would suggest that is exactly what God is doing with His universe. He is expressing His character, and does it all for the ultimate purpose that His splendor (or character) will be clearly manifested to all creation at the time of His choosing.
Second, God warns us against pride because it takes our eyes off of Him (e.g., 1 Jn 2:16-17), but He is not bound by the ethics He gives to us. Some accuse Him of hypocrisy at this point—being a bad parent or role model, illogical, unfair, etc., but these accusations (besides being problematic in themselves) miss the point that as the Creator He has certain sovereign rights and the perspective needed to make everything work for His intended purpose (to His glory). I can dislike that all I want, but my dislike doesn’t change reality. Of course, if I take the time to get to know Him, then I can appreciate Him a bit more and understand—to the extent He has revealed—what He is all about. But I digress…
As we understand Ephesians 1, we recognize that salvation is an intermediary rather than final good. So back to our original question: “What are the essentials?” If salvation is an intermediary good, then I cannot consider only those things necessary for salvation as essential. Ironically, to do so would be narcissistic, as I would be asserting that the only things that really matter are the things pertaining to my own salvation. What a self-centered view of reality this would be. And yet, so many of us understand essentials in this way. In light of this, I would suggest there are three layers of essentials we should consider: (1) essentials for God’s glory, (2) essentials for salvation, and (3) essentials for knowledge and understanding.
Essentials for God’s Glory
If God’s glory is the ultimate good, and if we understand that all things are designed for that end, then everything is an essential. What business do we have of declaring something as of greater or lesser importance when we have no comprehension of how those things contribute to the greatest good that is God’s glory? We have no tools for making such estimations (the Bible doesn’t make such distinctions, but rather points us constantly and simply to God’s glory). Paul tells Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Tit 2:1). The focus is not on the importance of a teaching, but on its accuracy or correctness. Ours is not to create a hierarchy of doctrinal importance; ours is to handle doctrine (or teaching) accurately.
Essentials for Salvation
When we are considering salvation (or any other intermediary good, for that matter), we can justifiably look to the Bible for essentials pertaining to that good. With respect to salvation, we simply consider what are the necessary elements for one to be saved (that is not to say other aspects are unimportant, just that they are not central to salvation itself). In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul describes the Gospel as that “by which you are saved” upon receiving, and highlights the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. John records Jesus words in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that the believing one in Him will not perish but has eternal life” (translation mine). Later John summarizes the purpose for the writing of his Gospel as “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. Simply put, salvation comes by belief in the person and work of Jesus. Yes, there are nuances and interesting discussion points, but the Gospel itself is just that simple.
Essentials for Knowledge and Understanding
Whereas we understand that God’s glory is the ultimate good and purpose for all things, and we understand that there are intermediate goods that contribute to that ultimate good (salvation, for example), we must consider another category of essentials—the essentials of how we know or understand. What is essential to our understanding of reality? God has revealed Himself in creation, the Bible, and His Son. Creation introduces us to God (Rom 1:18-20), the Son explains the Father (Jn 1:18), and the Bible communicates many details of God’s character and plan. God communicated (in the Bible) using specific human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). To understand what He has said, His audience must follow sound hermeneutic principles—to handle the words according to the rules and usage of the languages at the time the scriptures were written (this is often described as the literal grammatical-historical method). Hermeneutic method is foundational in the discussion of essentials, because it provides the vehicle for understanding what God has communicated. Hermeneutic method is grounded on several biblical presuppositions: (1) the biblical God exists (Gen 1:1), (2) He has revealed Himself (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21), (3) natural man is broken by sin and cannot properly assess God’s word (Ps 14:1; Prov 1:7, 9:10; 1 Cor 2:6-16) and needs divine help (not for understanding the words, but for judging them rightly), and (4) interpreters must use a consistent, proper hermeneutic to handle the word accurately (e.g., 2 Tim 2:15; 2 Pet 1:20-21).
Presuppositions and hermeneutic method are critical, and most doctrinal disagreements can be directly traced to either or both. Paul tells the Corinthian believers to agree (or speak the same thing, 1 Cor 1:10), based on the straightforwardness of God’s revealed word (the gospel, 1 Cor 1:17-18). If we differ in our presuppositions and hermeneutics, we will differ in our doctrinal conclusions, and we will certainly disagree regarding the nature of biblical essentials. Rather than focus on our disagreements in the realm of conclusions, we can give attention to the basics—presuppositions and hermeneutics, and in so doing we can uncover the origins of some of our disagreements and begin to remedy them in a biblical way.