One common response that Protestants will use to defend or explain away their clear disunity in doctrine is by retreating into the dichotomy dogma, which they call the essentials of the faith, versus non-essentials of the faith. Their defense begins like this, ‘Our unity is found in that all true Christian churches agree on the essential teachings of the faith. We all may not agree on the non-essential teachings.’
Generally, what they mean when they say ‘essentials of the faith’ is to answer the question about what are those things that all true Christians must assent to/believe in to be saved. While it goes without saying that Protestants can’t agree on what the essentials of the faith actually are, here is a list of most of them in no specific order:
- Belief in God.
- Belief in Christ Jesus’ deity and humanity – that He is both God and man (Cf. John 1:1; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:1-4; Romans 10:9).
- Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (Cf. 1 John 1:10).
- Belief that Christ Jesus died on the Cross and rose bodily from the grave (Cf. John 2:19-21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
- Belief that grace through faith in Christ is necessary for salvation (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 3:1-2, 5:1-4).
Concerning #5 (grace through faith in Christ in necessary for salvation), some Protestants will use this to claim that Catholics are not true Christians because they deny this essential teaching of faith, because we think works play a role in one’s salvation (James 2:14-26).
After their list of ‘essentials’, comes a very long list of non-essential teachings that true Christians do not have to agree on for them to be saved. Some Protestants might classify the five item delineation above as ‘prime essentials’, and follow it with a list of ‘secondary essentials’, and then with ‘prime-non-essentials’ and ‘secondary non-essentials’.
In short, what Protestants would call an essential is what is perspicuous in Scripture, and what is non-essential is what is obscure in Scripture. For example, according to them, the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church are obscure in Scripture.
How NOT to Respond to this Argument
I’ve heard far too many apologists on Catholic radio try to refute the Protestant claim of there being essential and non-essential teachings of the faith by dragging in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura in hopes of demonstrating that the Bible alone does not teach that there are both essential and non-essential teachings.
The reason why you don’t want to use that argument is because there are a few verses of Scripture that they could use against you to prove you wrong, such as:
- “Here O’ Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
- “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
- “Welcome anyone who is weak in faith but not for disputes over opinions” (Romans 14:1).
- “Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity . . . “ (Hebrews 6:1).
- “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel” (Matthew 23:24).
If you don’t follow my advice and instead get yourself into this proof-text debate, a good way to segue into a more solid argument is to point that Paul was talking about sacred Tradition (Greek: paralambamo, for passed down) in 1 Corinthians 15:3).
A Better Way to Respond to this Argument
You Protestants are absolutely correct. There are things that all Christians must assent to be saved. We Catholics even believe that; that is why we have a long history of creedal statements, and recite one of them at every Sacrifice of the Mass. We Catholics also believe that there are non-essentials of the faith; that is, there are things that we can debate, but do not require assent to in either way. We cannot disagree about the Real Presence of Christ Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, or over the indelible mark created by the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Orders, but we can disagree about when capital punishment is necessary, or whether the Novus Ordo is better than the Tridentine.
So, we agree with you about their being essential and non-essential beliefs, but what we don’t believe is that by Scripture alone Protestants can know what is essential for salvation and what is not essential for salvation; nor have you been able to prove over the past half a millennium that you can all agree on what is an essential versus what is a non-essential. Nor, do we believe that your essentials answer for your lack of visible unity.
Moreover, because Protestantism lacks a definitive source of authority to define what is essential for salvation, it makes itself a perpetual scandal and burden of the faith. What I mean by that is, who are you to judge what a person must assent or not assent to? Where is your source of definitive authority to delineate what must be assented to and require it to be assented to? Again, that source of authority cannot be Scripture alone, because Scripture doesn’t say either of those things about itself; for, if it did then Protestants wouldn’t be disagreeing over what is essential and what is non-essential.
Therefore, while I can agree with you that there are such things as essential and non-essential beliefs of the faith, I cannot agree that you have the authority to delineate them or to enforce them, i.e. to enjoin them upon other Christians.