The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
To Bauder—a Surrejoinder
Even granting that there is no real difference between us, we have not yet finished with this topic. To this point you have emphasized the importance and the fundamental nature of the gospel. You have also indicated that Christians cannot stop with the gospel alone but must move on to other aspects of the faith-once-delivered. Well and good. If we end the conversation here, however, we risk leaving the impression that the rest of the Christian faith is an entirely separate thing from the gospel.
To anticipate an objection, I certainly agree that Christianity includes something besides the gospel. If we make Christianity equal to the gospel alone, then we are likely to fall into one of two errors. The first is to depreciate everything in the faith that does not fit our definition of the gospel. The second is to expand our definition of the gospel to include other forms of Christian belief and activity.
The first error is committed by those who wish to limit biblical inerrancy to the Bible’s saving message. Doing so allows them (as they see it) to affirm inerrancy while also affirming that the Bible makes mistakes in matters of science and history. Since science and history are supposedly not part of the Bible’s saving message, they do not count against inerrancy.
The second error is committed by varieties of people who wish to “front-load” the gospel with their pet doctrines and theories. An example is those folks who insist that we do not have God’s Word unless we have all of God’s words, and that we have all of God’s words only in their particular version of the Bible. At the opposite end of the theological spectrum, representatives of the emergent church make a similar mistake when they try to include social, psychological, or environmental concerns as part of the gospel.
Some doctrines and practices are essential to the gospel. Others are not. Error in the essentials constitutes apostasy. Error over non-essentials does not. If we fail to maintain this distinction, we will end up charging with heresy anyone who disagrees with the details of our doctrine or practice. Such a charge is clearly not warranted: a person who holds the wrong view of the sons of God in Genesis 6 is not an apostate.
Nevertheless, we must not drive a wedge between the gospel and the rest of the faith-once-delivered. Simply because a teaching is not the gospel does not mean that it is unimportant. Simply because a teaching is not essential to the gospel does not mean that it is disconnected from the gospel.
In fact, absolutely everything in the faith is connected to absolutely everything else. The Christian faith is a system of doctrine and practice. The elements of this system are integrally related. A discussion of Christology, for example, may lead into soteriology or anthropology, and from there it may wander into hamartiology, only to turn eventually toward ecclesiology or eschatology.
Everything in the system is connected. For that reason, changes to one element of the system typically produce a ripple effect throughout the system. A denial or alteration of one doctrine frequently leads to denials or alterations of other doctrines.
A good example can be found in the Seventh Day Adventist denial of an immaterial soul. Adventists teach that humans are souls, and therefore the soul does not exist as a distinct, immaterial substance. This alteration of the theological system necessarily implies that no soul survives death. For this reason, in Adventist eschatology, when people die they simply blink out of existence. At the resurrection they are again reconstituted (sometimes this doctrine is called soul sleep, though it is really personal annihilation and reconstitution).
This Adventist construct sends shock waves throughout the system. It makes an eternal hell almost impossible. It also creates significant difficulties for the incarnation. After all, what happened to Jesus between His crucifixion and resurrection? Did the second person of the Godhead blink out of existence? Or was the incarnation simply dissolved for three days and nights?
My purpose here is not to argue with Adventists, but to illustrate how one doctrine leads to another and, consequently, one error tends to lead to another. Within the system of faith everything is connected, and the importance of any given doctrine may be gauged by the influence that it exerts upon the system as a whole. Some doctrines affect the system more directly and comprehensively, while others affect it less directly and in more limited ways.
The hub of the system of faith is the gospel. This means that the gospel is inside the system, not outside of it. Because it is inside, it is connected to absolutely everything else in the system. No doctrines or practices of the Christian faith are isolated from the gospel.
Of course, all doctrines and practices are connected to all other doctrines and practices. The gospel, however, is the nexus of the web. Everything runs through the gospel. The links to the gospel tend to be the most direct as well as the most dramatic in their effects. Ultimately, everything in the faith depends upon the gospel. In the fullest and most genuine sense, the Christian faith is gospel-centered.
This gospel-centrism is actually an important element in theological method. When we are weighing theological options, we need some sort of a preliminary direction to launch our investigations—otherwise, we would just wallow in data. Often, our initial guess at the correct answer to a theological question can be derived from the gospel itself. We simply ask which alternative best comports with the truth of the gospel.
Our answer to this question gives us only a prima facie answer, not a final one. We still have to do the hard work of assembling and weighing all of the evidence. We may end up rejecting our preliminary answer. If we do, however, we should be able to show how our final answer comports even better with the truth of the gospel.
Therefore, when I talk about “going beyond the gospel” in Christian doctrine and practice, I want to be careful with that language. Yes, much of the Christian faith is “beyond the gospel,” in the sense that it is not an aspect of the gospel per se. Nevertheless, all of the Christian faith—the whole system of doctrine and practice—is grounded upon, held together in, and critiqued by the gospel. We may recognize some teachings as secondary, but we must never dismiss them as incidental.
That is why it is never good enough to be just a fundamentalist. Naturally, I think that being a fundamentalist is a good thing (whether or not we choose to use that label). Fundamentalism is about the fundamentals or essentials of the gospel. Necessary as fundamentalism is, the rest of the faith is also needful.
Of course, there is more to say. By now, however, I’ve used up my welcome, having completed the traditional four-part exchange. So I suggest that you go on and finish your essays on the difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. As I recall, the fourth difference was over the matter of separation. The time has come to open that subject.
Your most devoted admirer,
Kevin T. Bauder
George Herbert (1593-1633)
I have considered it, and find
There is no dealing with thy mighty passion:
For though I die for thee, I am behind;
My sins deserve the condemnation.
O make me innocent, that I
May give a disentangled state and free;
And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy,
For by thy death I die for thee.
Ah! was it not enough that thou
By thy eternal glory didst outgo me?
Could’st thou not grief’s sad conquests me allow,
But in all victories overthrow me?
Yet by confession will I come
Into the conquest. Though I can do nought
Against thee, in thee I will overcome
The man, who once against thee fought.
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.