The task of identifying essentials has been a debate within the Presbyterian Church for some time now. The failure to identify essentials and exercise discipline concerning such essentials has been blamed for the lack of theological unity of the mainline denomination. Theological diversity is even highly praised in many quarters, not just diversity in expression or diversity within the Reformed tradition, but even diversity that includes positions that are heretical according to our Confessions and thus outside the bounds of all Christian theology. The terminology of “Reformed” has even been coopted to mean that we may believe whatever we want to believe.One of the challenges is that to speak of the essentials of Reformed theology is to write a new Confession. No matter how much one tries to avoid this conclusion, I am coming to think it may be inescapable — even if one is not literally written. And this stems from the very nature of Reformed theology. Reformed theology is a truly systematic theology. It is a system of theology — it is a representation of the teachings of Scripture in another form. It is a system that observes how Scripture interprets Scripture. It is a system where the various parts contribute to the whole. Reformed theology is a systematic theology like no other systematic theology because it is the only system that makes a whole circle (in other words, it is thoroughly internally consistent) — it is the only systematic theology that is a complete world-view. If systematic theologies in general do not lend themselves to making a list of essentials, then Reformed theology finds the task that much more difficult. Lists simply do not make a system. All of the teachings of a system are interdependent and interrelated — they are connected.
Some Confessions articulate more of the system than others. Take, for example, the Scots Confession and the Westminster Standards. The Scots Confession was written to answer particular questions and not to explicate the entire system of theology. However, the design and goal of the Westminster Standards was to set forth a summary of the system. We might be able to write a shorter summary or to write Confessions or Catechisms that address pressing contemporary issues in light of the system, but to be Reformed is to believe in the system.
It is a fundamentalist impulse to believe in a short or long list of essential tenets. This is not a particularly Reformed impulse. This is why the ECO task force on theology resisted making a list but instead made paragraphs. The Reformed impulse is to want people to see the beauty of the system of Reformed theology because they appreciate how it accurately interprets Scripture. We defend not individual tenets but a system of theology. We want people not to merely agree to a list of teachings, but to agree with the whole system.
Where the challenge has appeared then is where can one disagree with particular teachings? We know that there are things that are integral to the system of Reformed theology that are in the Confessions and there are things that are more peripheral and not essential to the system. We know this if for no other reason than not all Reformed Confessions agree about some of the details. Where there is some disagreement between these historic confessions it is likely this points to something that is not an essential part of the system. And there are details that if someone did not agree with them we would still say that the system does not depend upon those details to still stand. This invites a more case-by-case approach rather than subscription to a list of essentials — if they disagree with this point for these reasons, does the system fall apart? if they disagree with a host of Reformed teachings, at what point are they simply borrowing from the Reformed system to create a new one (that is internally inconsistent)? The problem is that these questions are rarely on our minds and usually we want people to self-police.
Of course, if one’s positions are outside the bounds of Christianity then one’s positions are not Reformed. Reformed theology should be understood as more specific, not more general than Christian orthodoxy. One might say that Reformed theology is the Christian doctrine of God thoroughly consistently carried out into all other areas. Thus all Christians would agree with the doctrine of God expressed in Reformed theology, but not all Christians would follow us as we (correctly) apply it. Reformed theology understands that everything we are to believe is either expressly stated in the word of God or it can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from it.
Part of my own reservations, though I understand the need, concerning naming essentials is that we are asking for too little. We should be asking those who will be serving in the leadership of the church if they agree with the whole system. The Confessions were designed with a great amount of latitude and to be gracious. There are a number of positions that they sought to rule out of bounds but also many that they wanted to leave as open questions. It is true that sometimes people will want to ask more of someone in leadership than the Confessions ask of them, though in our context the opposite problem is more prevalent.
Perhaps then what is necessary is to go through the Confessions and to identify those things that are essential to the system — what doctrines if they were not present would cause the system to fall apart — for example, without a Reformed doctrine of God one would not be a Christian let alone Reformed; but then also without a Reformed doctrine of salvation, one would not be Reformed; and without a Reformed doctrine of Scripture and the role of the commandments of God, one would not be Reformed; without a Reformed understanding of the decrees of God, one would not be Reformed; and without a Reformed understanding of the Sacraments, one would move outside the system. Even just making this short list reminds us of the interconnected nature of these teachings and makes me want to keep making the list longer and longer because it is a system and not a list. And even with this list you can see that these are simply general areas of teaching and not specific points, thus much work needs to be done. Some doctrines or details in our Book of Confessions that are not essential to the system of Reformed theology would include the role of civil government, what precisely it means that Christ “descended into hell,” and the prohibitions regarding the ordination of women and paedocommunion. This list too could be much longer. And once one has identified the things that are essential to the system or not you could write a new Confession with the portions that are and leave out those parts that are not.
In any case, these are just some rambling thoughts on the challenges of identifying essentials for those who are Reformed. No matter what, we are to remember that the Confessions are for us a subordinate standard. They are subordinate to Scripture. They are not a “secondary authority” (as the ECO essential tenets mistakenly says) but a subordinate authority (as their own document asserts elsewhere). They are subordinate because they come “under” Scripture. They are not to be lifted above Scripture. Despite my bold assertions above regarding the Confessions positively, let me not be misunderstood as exalting them above Scripture.
I offer these thoughts to you for you to wrestle with and respond to so that I may be further refined in my own thinking. Soli Deo Gloria.