Fundamental and Non-Fundamental Doctrines


The doctrines of Holy Scripture have been fittingly divided into fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines. The purpose of this division is not to discard certain teachings of the Word of God as practically unimportant or unnecessary. Such a procedure would be in direct opposition to Scripture itself. Matt. 28, 20: “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Rom. 15, 4: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” According to these words, God demands of the Christian theologian that he teach the entire Scriptural content, adding nothing and taking away nothing. Nevertheless the distinction of which we speak is fully Scriptural and serves an excellent purpose. It helps the Christian theologian to recognize and distinguish those doctrines of God’s Word which “are so necessary to be known that, when they are not known, the foundation of faith is not savingly apprehended or retained.” ( Hollaz.) In other words, the fundamental doctrines are those “which cannot be denied consistently with faith and salvation, being the very foundation of the Christian faith.” (Quenstedt.) 

In order that we may understand this, we must remember that not everything that Holy Scripture teaches is the object or foundation of justifying and saving faith. For instance, we are not saved by believing that David was king or that the Pope in Rome is the great Antichrist. However, the Christian theologian does not for that reason deny these facts, for they are taught in God’s infallible Word. But these truths, which the theologian accepts as such, are non-fundamental as far as saving faith is concerned. Saving faith is faith in the forgiveness of sins through the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ, or trust in the statement of Scripture that God justifies a sinner without the works of the Law, for Christ’s sake. That is the essence of the Christian religion, the foundation on which the entire Christian hope is built. Of this essence and foundation nothing can be removed without destroying the whole Christian religion. Any one who denies even a particle of this fundamental doctrine is outside the pale of the Christian Church. Luther says very correctly : “This doctrine [of justification by faith] is the head and corner-stone, which alone begets, nourishes, builds up, preserves, and protects the Church, and without this doctrine the Church of God cannot exist one hour.” (St. L., XIV, 168.) Again: “As many in the world as deny it [justification by faith] are either Jews, or Turks, or papists, or heretics.” (IX, 29.) Because of its paramount importance our Lutheran dogmaticians have called the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ’s vicarious atonement “the most fundamental of all doctrines” (articulus omnium fundamentalissimus). The doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in Christ’s atonement, however, presupposes and includes other fundamental doctrines. These are:

a. The doctrine of sin and its consequences. All who deny the Scriptural doctrine of sin cannot have saving faith; for saving faith is implicit trust in God’s gracious forgiveness of sins. The true Christian believes that all his sins, both original and actual, are fully pardoned for Jesus’ sake. In other words, he believes both the divine Law, which condemns sin, and the divine Gospel, which pardons sin. Both doctrines, the doctrine of sin and that of forgiveness of sins, are fundamental. This truth our Savior affirms when He says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name among all nations,” Luke 24, 47. According to Christ’s direction the preaching of repentance for sin, or of contrition, must precede the preaching of forgiveness. Our divine Lord further illustrates this great truth by the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee, who did not believe the Scriptural doctrine of sin and therefore did not regard himself as a sinner, could not be justified; in his opinion he had no need of justification and forgiveness. The publican, on the other hand, believed the fundamental doctrine of sin, declared himself guilty and lost, and, trusting in divine grace, received forgiveness through faith. In short, saving faith can exist only in a contrite heart, that is, in a heart which is terrified and sorry because of its sin. Is. 66, 2: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembleth at My Word.” Is. 57, 15: “I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” Ps. 34, 18: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” Cp. Ps. 51, 16. 17; Luke 4, 18; Matt. 11, 28. Hence we rightly classify the doctrine of sin among the fundamental doctrines of Holy Scripture. 

b. The doctrine of the person of Christ. The doctrine of the person of Christ is fundamental because saving faith is trust in the divine-human Redeemer, who died for the sins of the world. For this reason the denial both of Christ’s true deity and of His true humanity makes saving faith impossible. Our divine Lord very severely discountenanced the opinions of those who regarded Him as John the Baptist, Elias, Jeremiah, or as one of the prophets and required of His disciples that they believe in Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Matt. 16, 13-17; cp. also 1 John 1, 1-4. Modern rationalistic theologians, who deny the true deity of Christ and ascribe deity to Him only honoris causa ( cp. Ritschl’s declaration: “In our judgment we ascribe to Him the value of a God”), are not Christians, but Unitarians and therefore extra ecclesiam; that is to say, the doctrine of God which modern rationalistic theology inculcates is essentially paganistic, since it rejects the true God of the Bible. It is self evident that true faith in the divine Christ must include also faith in the Triune God. In other words, the true Christian, who believes in the deity of Christ, believes also that the true God is none other than the unus Deus, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; for without faith in the Father no one can believe in the Son, Matt. 16, 17; 11, 27; and again, without the Holy Ghost no one can call Jesus Lord, 1 Cor. 12,3; Rom. 8, 15; John 16, 13-15. The Scriptural doctrine of the Holy Trinity is therefore as fundamental as is that of the deity of Christ. However, also the doctrine of Christ’s true humanity is fundamental; for the denial of the substantial humanity of Christ ( cp. the error of the Docetae) implies the denial of His actual suffering and death. Saving faith is trust in the vicarious atonement of the theanthropic Christ, John 1, 14-17: “The Word was made flesh; . . and of His fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. . . . Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Hence we rightly classify among the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, of Christ’s true deity, and of His true humanity. 

c. The doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement. Saving faith is faith in Christ not merely as a Teacher of the divine Law or as an Ensample of Virtue or as the “Ideal Man,” as modernistic theology maintains, but faith in Christ as “the Mediator between God and men,” who has given His life as a ransom for many, and as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” 1 Tim. 2, 5. 6; Matt. 20, 28; Eph. 1, 7; John 1, 29. All who decline to put their trust in the vicarious satisfaction of Christ (Is. 53, 1-6) are obliged to trust for reconciliation and pardon in their own good works and thus exclude themselves from the grace of God secured by Christ’s substitutionary death, Gal. 5, 4. That is true of all who depart from the Scriptural doctrine of justification by grace, through faith, and reject the sola gratia and the sola fide. The Semi-Pelagianist, the Arminian, and the synergist, if they consistently hold to their error, are as much extra ecclesiam as the Unitarian and the Modernist. The warning of the Apology is well in place: “Most of those errors which our adversaries defend, overthrow faith, as their condemnation of the article concerning the remission of sins, in which we say that the remission of sins is received by faith. Likewise it is a manifest and pernicious error when the adversaries teach that men merit the remission of sins by love to God prior to grace. In the place of Christ they set up their works, orders, masses, just as the Jews, the heathen, and the Turks intend to be saved by their works.” (Art. IV, 22.) If within those churches which teach the pagan doctrine of work-righteousness individual persons still remain Christians, this is due to the surpassing grace of God, as the Apology rightly reminds us: “Therefore, even though Popes or some theologians and monks in the Church have taught us to seek remission of sins, grace, and righteousness through our own works and to invent new forms of worship, which have obscured the office of Christ and have made out of Christ not a Propitiator and Justifier, but only a Legislator, nevertheless the knowledge of Christ has always remained with some godly persons.” (Art. III, 271.) 

d. The doctrine of the Word of God. The Word of God, that is, the external Word of the holy Gospel, which Christ commanded His blessed apostles to preach and teach to all nations (Matt. 28, 19. 20; Mark 16, 15. 16) and which is set forth in Holy Scripture, is both the object and the means of saving faith. It is the object of saving faith because saving faith believes the Gospel, Mark 1, 15; Rom. 1, 1. 2; it is the means of saving faith since saving faith is engendered only through the Gospel, Rom. 10, 17; 1, 16; John 17, 20; Jas. 1, 18. Every “faith” that is not produced by the Word of God is not faith, but a figment of the mind, or fancy. Such faith Luther rightly styles “faith in the air.” True, saving faith is always God-made, never man made, 1 Tim. 6, 3. 1 Cor. 2, 1-5: “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” For this reason the doctrine of the Word of God is likewise a fundamental doctrine. The penalty of the rejection of the Gospel is damnation, Mark 16, 15. 16. 

e. The doctrine of the resurrection. Modern rationalistic theology discards the Scriptural doctrine of the resurrection, denying both Christ’s glorious resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead on Judgment Day. In place of the resurrection it teaches the immortality of the soul. Holy Scripture, however, affirms that the denial of the resurrection involves the denial of the entire Gospel of Christ, 1 Cor. 15, 12-19. It unqualifiedly condemns those who deny the resurrection as having made shipwreck of their faith and erred concerning the truth, 1 Tim. 1, 19. 20; 2 Tim. 2, 17. 18. Hymenaeus and Alexander, who denied the doctrine of the resurrection, were delivered by St. Paul “unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” The denial of the resurrection is therefore tantamount to blasphemy of Christ. It is for this reason that we classify the doctrine of the resurrection among the fundamentals of the Christian religion. When we speak of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion, we of course mean these doctrines as they are presented in Holy Scripture, not the dogmatic formulation of these teachings, or the dogmas of the Church. Dogmas may be faulty; the teachings of Holy Scripture are infallible. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that, whenever the doctrines of Holy Scripture have been formulated correctly, the rejection of such dogmas, or creeds, is nothing less than the rejection of Holy Scripture itself. Thus :Modernists, who reject the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed, reject the very Word of God; for the doctrines expounded and defended in these confessions are the teachings of Holy Scripture.

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