Johannine Literature: Essential for Salvation?

Parchment and Pen has done it again - this time it offers a list of “essentials for salvation” followed by lists of other types of essentials and then non-essentials. What is most striking is that the essentials are a list of doctrinal beliefs. According to the New Testament, Jesus himself taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. Yet the list that is offered makes no mention of that. You must believe God exists, but love for God is not mentioned (doesn’t the Letter of James spring to mind?)

The next most striking thing is that most of the beliefs that are viewed as essentials are supported primarily or exclusively by appeal to the Gospel and Letters of John. Just about everything on the list is at the very least viewed through a Johannine lens. How can one claim as essential a doctrine which many New Testament authors failed to articulate clearly and unambiguously? Were these other authors not aware that they were being reckless, not emphasizing or even clearly stating the “essentials” and thereby presumably putting the souls of their readers at risk?

Admittedly this articulation of doctrinal essentials in a way that allows some texts to trump others is characteristic of Christian attempts at defining orthodoxy down the ages. Yet ironically, it is at the same time the reason why Christians have historically disagreed about their definitions of orthodoxy just as consistently as we have sought to define it using an approach of this sort.

  • C. Michael Patton

    Thanks for posting a link here James. The chart is about doctrines, not about essentials and non-essential in practice. There certainly could be a chart made of a hierarchy of practices, but this was not the purpose of this particular blog.The Scripture references were only examples, not meant to be an exhaustive list. So you may have misunderstood the purpose. I was not saying that John's literature was the most important, elevating it above the rest.Hope you can engage in the general idea of the post. It is, in my opinion, a very important subject that does not need to be discounted on the basis of ancillary arguments.Again, thanks for the interaction.

  • C. Michael Patton

    Also, concerning this:"How can one claim as essential a doctrine which many New Testament authors failed to articulate clearly and unambiguously? Were these other authors not aware that they were being reckless, not emphasizing or even clearly stating the "essentials" and thereby presumably putting the souls of their readers at risk?"Certianly you would not argue that the authors of Scripture were bound in everything they wrote to give a full list of all the essentials? Their are lots of implications in many of the letters. I think that Romans and John were both written for the purpose of making some of these issue explicit. You could argue that the other letters do not agree with Romans or John's or that they are simply silent. If they are silent, that does nothing to counter what I have posted. If they disagree, that is another issue, but not necessarily the subject of my post.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thank you for taking the time to respond and interact. I did note the verse from Romans that was included, but it remains the case that scholars continue to debate the nature (if you'll forgive the pun) of Paul's Christology – whether it involved pre-existence, whether it identified Christ with Wisdom understood as more than a personification, whether it viewed Christ as "God." Most of the debates about the meaning of Paul's Christology or the Synoptic Gospels is about what readers might have assumed prior to reading and understood on that basis. If one holds the belief in Jesus as God incarnate, one can certainly understand numerous passages in those terms. But it remains the case that those same passages can be understood in other ways by those who bring different assumptions. And I find it difficult to believe that doctrines that provoked controversy in later times were so widely accepted when these authors wrote that they could assume them without controversy. And if that is not what is going on, then either these authors didn't hold the beliefs in question, or didn't emphasize them. And so it still seems to me that your list considers essential some things that many New Testament authors may not have themselves believed. And it seems that eventually one might have to deny or at least doubt that various New Testament authors were Christians by such standards!Anyway, that's my take on things. I realize that we're both blogging and thus condensing things that are important to us to the length of blog posts and comments. And so I really do appreciate the opportunity to not simply blog and riposte but dialogue and converse!

  • C. Michael Patton

    You bet James. A lot of what you said I agree with. In fact, I do think that it is necessary to at least hold that the authors of Scripture would be at odds with one another in their personality and emphasis on certian issues. As well, I think that the inclusion of a theory of intra-canonical development is a must for us to read the Scriptures well.Finally, where you and I might part ways is not only in the interpretation that we may have of individual texts, but of how tradition plays a part in their development of understanding. I would certianly concede that I allow tradition an authoritative voice in my interpretation simply because of the implications that come from my belief in the resurrection of Christ.Therefore, to argue too much about this would be somewhat difficult and non-productive (at least with regard to this particular post). Other committments in historical issues such as the bodily resurrection of Christ shapes how I view all of history and understand the unity and authority of Scripture.

  • James F. McGrath

    There may be more things that we agree about than that we disagree about – hopefully we'll both agree that sleeping is more important than continuing this conversation late into the night rather than picking it up again tomorrow morning! :)I've often said that most Christians will agree with the principle "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." The trick is getting us to agree on what the essentials are! I'm glad you're addressing this important topic, even if we end up placing things in different rings on the diagram.

  • JD Walters

    Dr. McGrath,I greatly respect you as a scholar and I greatly enjoy your blog, but I must admit I get a little ticked off whenever I encounter the old 'doctrine vs. practice' canard. Ethical practice ALWAYS presupposes the truth of certain propositions about the world and about human beings. Christian charity and evangelism only make sense if Jesus has literally risen from the dead. Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, that favorite proof-text of Christianity-as-morality theologians, said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us "so that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." If the Father of Jesus Christ, who sends his rain on both the just and the unjust, does not exist, then there is absolutely no justification for love of enemies. Therefore, if a person does not have sufficient rational justification for and does not assent to the basic doctrines of the faith, then Christian practice, including practicing its ethics, is irrational.Of course this does not resolve the very real disagreement over which doctrines are essential, but I've never been able to see the force of the argument that doctrine per se is inessential. The very earliest Christian claim was a doctrinal one: that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead. Surely believing that, if nothing else, is essential for being a Christian.

  • Dustin

    It is interesting that Mr. Patton says this under the key essentials list:•Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3, Rom. 10:9)1 John 4:2 speaks of Christ ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα. I assume that Mr. Patton reads this as if the preposition ἐν really was an εἰς. Jesus coming "in flesh" is a phrase denoting humanity, not incarnation.As for Romans 10:9, Jesus is to be confessed as kyrios. Since Psalm 110:1 is the master christological text governing the theology of the N authors, this kyrious is non other than the adoni, the 2nd lord of the psalm. The title adoni in every one of its 195 uses in the Hebrew Bible refers to a non-deity figure.Therefore, it seems that neither 1 John 4:2-3 or Rom. 10:9 speaks of the so-called divinity or deity of Christ.James, what do you think?Dustin

  • Scott F

    Actually, I don't see Jesus' raising from the dead as any way essential to the teaching that we must love our enemies. If God commands it (and makes it possible?) then Jesus' post-crucifixion status is irrelevant. Were any of the prophets teachings less valuable or compelling because they were not resurrected? To follow the teachings of the Gospels (which I don't necessarily) I would require a "doctrine" that God exists, that God is interested in our conduct, yada yada yada… But I don't see the necessity of a resurrection.Now, if we want to move on to a hope for our own resurrection then Paul had definite views on that. Unfortunately we enter into serious Theories-of-Atonement territory where I quickly become lost.

  • C. Michael Patton

    Justin, in the context of 1 John 4:2, you have to ask what was the situation that gave rise to such a statement from John (to say nothing of John's belief that a propositional belief here is essential to knowing that God's spirit is with him.) What is it people were saying about Christ that would cause them to say Christ has not come in the flesh. What were they saying about him? Who was Christ to them?Once you do this, you will see why I interpret John here to be speaking about not only the incarnation, but the deity of Christ (at least in some sense–if not a nicean confession)

  • Dustin

    Mr. Patton,I think most commentators agree that the opponents were teaching a docetic Jesus, i.e. one who really only appeared to be human. Therefore, 1 John responds by saying that Jesus actually was a flesh and blood person by affirming it. I believer Raymond Brown's commentary actually argues against an incarnation interpretation here, as well as 2 John 7. Dustin

  • Steve

    J.D.,James is a big boy and can defend himself, but nothing he said on this post anyway argues for the sufficiency of practice without doctrine. He merely (apparently mis-)read Michael's list of "Essentials for Salvation" and thought, "Wait – is doctrine alone all that matters? And these doctrines?" (Of course, that's not what Michael was saying, but the point stands.)I understand your position (for that matter, the belief that only practice is essential is itself a "doctrine" of sorts), but I would be careful about these knee-jerk reactions. James may have at some point said something very much like "practice, not doctrine, is essential" (although I haven't read it) but he certainly didn't say it here.Our first task, it seems to me, is to discover what the earliest believers thought was essential, since presumably they at least would have met any "essential" qualifications. Where lovers of orthodoxy go so wrong is in the undeniable fact that it's no good simply relying on what believers hundreds of years later thought of as "orthodoxy", especially when scholarship can show how misled they occasionally were about what their forbears taught. By all means, we all want to discover what "right belief" is, and I certainly think we can do so by a close examination of Scripture. But we should use all tools at our disposal – not just Scripture as interpreted through one biblical writer or through the creeds – to excavate it.

  • James F. McGrath

    I did indeed want to raise the question of the prioritizing of doctrinal beliefs over matters of practice, but if I've ever suggested that what one believes does not affect what one does, then I didn't express myself clearly. Even if I were to place all beliefs in the category of non-essentials (this is just a hypothetical scenario, to be clear, and not a standpoint I'm advocating), that still wouldn't mean that I consider them irrelevant or unimportant – just not as important as some other things.I am debating whether to make this a separate post, but I would be interested in exploring a thought experiment. I particularly hope that those who feel comfortable using the language of "getting saved" and "essential for salvation" will chime in. At what point did the apostles, the earliest circle of followers of Jesus, "get saved"? Do we know at what point, if any, they would have adhered to all the beliefs listed?

  • John W. Loftus

    Interesting discussion! Here's my take on it.Cheers.

  • mikelioso

    I’m a big fan of a streamlined essentials for salvation chart. I think salvation would be understandable by even an unintelligent person and be articulated by Jesus personally and while He was alive (why do all the sermons and leave out the most important part?). The penitent thief seemed to get it with a few short sentences and other than dying didn’t any good deeds to prove his penitence.I would omit Christ bodily resurrection, the thief died unaware of Christ resurrection and the exact nature of the resurrection is more of a historical detail. Would the story change of God made Jesus a new body and left the old one in the tomb? Or if he was resurrected into a “spiritual” angel’s body? I suppose there were some that thought anything less but his dead corpse climbing out of the tomb wouldn’t be a proof of God’s favor on Him, since they would suppose, the world is full of restless ghost. From our perspective that Jesus still had the wounds or scars from his crucification doesn’t seem like a proof for resurrection. Couldn’t God heal his wounds if raised Him from the dead?As someone else pointed out it isn’t the belief in God that is important but the loving of God, and I don’t think it is necessary to know what God is to love God. How many people really have a correct definition of who or what God is?The essentials might merely be love God and love every body else and you will be saved. The problem for Paul may be expressed as “if I dont always love God and everyone else will I not be saved?” and the response could be condensed to “believe Jesus was right when he said you must love God and everyone else” the rest are only opinions on the best way to carry it out.The core of Jesus' philosophy seems to be that it is not the action but the attitude behind it that makes it good or bad. Good deeds from people with hate in their heart isn't really good and bad deeds from people with hearts full of love will be forgiven because they were either done in ignorance or the person will repent and seek mercy. We as people love though to have list of what are good and bad actions but often this becomes a substitute for real love of others.