Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.—Habakkuk 2.4.

[Essentials and Non-Essentials, from The Original Covenanter.]

Excerpted from:

VOL. II.        SEPTEMBER, 1878.        No. 7.
The poverty of language is often a matter of complaint, but the abuse is much more frequently just cause of complaint than the poverty of language. To this abuse may be fairly traced much of what is known as polemic theology. And controversialists whose feelings may be supposed more or less to obscure their intellectual perception, are less culpable in this respect than those who with studied duplicity formulate their standards of doctrine and order in equivocal terms. This was the method of the Arians in the early period of Christianity, and their example has been too closely followed by all who have since opposed divine truth. It is a fact to be deplored, that most of existing creeds, confessions, testimonies, covenants, are involved in such amphibology, that persons in the same fellowship may plausibly interpret them not only in a different but in a contradictory sense. Indeed, this is true even of the sacred Scriptures; but the fault here is not to be attributed either to the poverty or obscurity of the Bible, but to the blindness and perversity of the human mind. Perhaps, among popular phrases in constant use by professing Christians, none can be found more deceptive or susceptible of greater variety of interpretations, or mischievous in its tendencies than the one which is the caption of this article, "Essentials and Non-essentials." This equivocation and disingenuity may appear from the following observations:—

First, An adroit change is made of adjectives into a kind of plural substantives, tending to confuse the mind of the reader, for—{194}

Second, He is not informed as to the meaning of these unusual words, essential and non-essential. The inquiring reader would naturally ask—essential to what? for he understands that the word essential is immediately derived from the word essence which means being or subsistence. And he knows also, even without much intellectual culture, that whatever is essential to a person or thing, that person or thing cannot be without. Now as these terms—essentials, and non-essentials are commonly applied by writers to religious principles, truth and error; it is of the utmost importance to ascertain how and to what they are applied.

Third, The subject is the Holy Scriptures and the predicate is the salvation of sinners. Now it is true that a knowledge of the whole Bible is not essential to salvation, otherwise no sinner could be saved: but it is no less true that some knowledge of the Bible is essential to salvation. John 8.24.

Fourth, But this use of the words, "essentials and non-essentials," is deceptive. It falsely assumes that man is his own, and that his salvation is his chief end. Angels are greater in power and might, higher in natural dignity than man; yet those that "left their own habitation God did not spare but cast them down to hell." 2 Pet. 2.4. Neither essentials nor non-essentials avail for their salvation. We see that their salvation was not essential—essential to what? Surely the reader must perceive that the Bible contemplates some end more important than the salvation of man, since no part of it, nor the whole of it avails to the salvation of apostate angels. What, then, is the object of the Holy Scriptures? their chief and ultimate end? We answer—to display the glory of their Author. "Thou hast magnified Thy Word above all Thy name." Psalm 138.2. This is the highest end of the Bible as thus declared before the universe by its divine Author; and, doubtless, this is the reason why he closes the whole book with such awful comminations against those who either ignorantly or presumptuously add to, or take away from His word. Rev. 22.18,19.

Fifth, While, therefore, we cannot tell what part of the Scriptures, {195} nor how much or how little of them the Holy Spirit may render effectual to the salvation of any sinner; we may be assured that the whole Bible and every part of it is essential to the declarative glory of God: "Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled," Matt. 5.18. To speak then of essentials and non-essentials in the Bible, is worse than nonsense, it amounts to interpretative [or, implied] blasphemy. "All Scripture," yes, "all is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works," 2 Tim. 3.16,17. But good men have used the words, and made the distinction between "essentials and non-essentials." Doubtless this is true; but good men are not our rule. They may not be put in the place of the Bible—in the place of God. To insinuate that any part of Scripture is non-essential or unnecessary, either to the glory of God or the salvation of man, is to charge God foolishly, to mislead the unwary, and imperil the salvation of the person who incurs the guilt of such presumption.

A Note from the Editor (, 2005.)

It may be that some readers, besides objecting that, "good men have used the words," might also object that the Bible does speak of the foundations of the Christian religion (Heb. 6.1-3), which implies a distinction between what is foundational and what is not foundational. This, however, is no way contrary to the position advocated above. The author does not deny that there is a certain order and dependence of the doctrines of the Bible, but only that the fact that there is such order and dependence ought to be used as an excuse to presumptuously and blasphemously label some of Holy Scripture, or the teachings thereof, as "non-essential."

As an example of what good authors have said concerning foundational or fundamental doctrines, and what true Presbyterians maintain concerning this distinction, the following excerpt from George Gillespie will prove useful: "WalŠus (tom. 1, p. 57) saith, heretical churches do either err in the foundation, or only in some other things built upon the foundation. When Peter speaks of such heresies as take away the very foundation, Jesus Christ, he thinks it too little to call them simple heresies, but he calls these damnable heresies. But if you understand by fundamental truths all the chief and substantial principles, (I do not mean only the first rudiments, or A, B, C, of a catechism, which we, first of all, put to new beginners, but I mean all such truths as are commonly put in the confessions of faith, and in the more full and large catechisms of the reformed churches, or all such truths as all and every one who lives in a true Christian reformed church are commanded and required to learn and know, as they expect, in the ordinary dispensation of God, to be saved,) in this sense I may yield that heresy is always contrary to some fundamental truth."—Miscellany Questions, Chapter 9.