What is “essential” doctrine?

One of my profs in the D.Min program once said that he judged the essential nature of certain doctrines by applying the “would I take a bullet for it test?” Granted, there’s a subjective nature to such tests since not everyone is ready to take the same bullets. There are two problems in this regard. One is the problem of some wanting to be bullet-proof which they maintain by retreating from any and all doctrinal discussions. They are theological pacifists who avoid theological nuance at all costs. When “doctrine” is mentioned they make for ready retreat. Opposite that, you have some that think every doctrine should be fired from the same canon with equal velocity. They load their dogmatic muskets with everything they think they know and then take aim on any and all dissenters leaving theological carnage in their wake. Until recently I have noticed very little helpful discussion of this until I saw Mark Dever offer the following test:

A Fourfold Test for Doctrine

  1. How clear is it in Scripture?
  2. How clear do others think it is in Scripture? (Especially those that you respect as teachers of God’s word).
  3. How near is it to the Gospel? (Or how near are its implications to the gospel itself?).
  4. What would the affects be doctrinally and practically if we allowed disagreement in this area?

I think these are good questions and thoughtful reflection will reveal a great amount of subjectivity still. His grid is not perfect but it’s a start. However, for church leaders I would propose a few more questions to add to the list:

  1. Should there be more “essentials” (however you define it) for church leaders than for members? What would this practically look like for your church (membership, baptism, multiple doctrinal statements)?
  2. How can seminaries, mission’s agencies, etc. highlight doctrinal “essentials” without going the way of theological minimalism?
  3. How do you balance the essentials in your expository preaching since being in a book study for some time can take one away from certain doctrines for a period of time?
  4. Is there a “norming norm” or a foundational doctrine which determines how one lands on this issue (e.g., inerrancy)? Asked another way: what is the theological starting point for determining what is essential (theology proper, bibliology, Christology, anthropology, etc.)?

6 responses to this post.

  1. If I had to weigh in, I would say that a doctrine is essential if it has to do with:

    (1) the nature and character of God (He is eternal, triune, holy)
    (2) the nature and character of Christ (He is eternal, sinless, virgin-born, has all authority in heaven and earth)
    (3) Jesus’ work on the cross (that He truly died and rose again, that His blood paid for our sins)
    (4) the completeness, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible. That it was spoken to men by the Holy Spirit. That as Peter said, “prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carries along by the Holy Spirit.”
    (5) our salvation (by faith and not works, we cannot “earn” it, Jesus is the ONLY way)
    (6) He is going to physically, visibly return one day.

    This is by no means exhaustive, but I believe that these are points we cannot compromise. If we do, then we are worshipping a false God, we are following a false Christ, we are able to save ourselves (and thus men will never know true salvation), and we cannot trust the Bible.

    For these things, I would probably take bullet :)

  2. Posted by CalebKolstad on October 11, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    Jude 3 tells me that there is a non-negotiable body of objective truth…Defining what it is may be way more difficult! It’s something we must consider though. Phil Johnson has posted some helpful thoughts on this in the past.


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