Primary and Secondary Fundamental Doctrines

Primary and Secondary Fundamental Doctrines. 

The fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion may be divided into primary and secondary fundamental doctrines. This distinction is not only Scriptural, but also practical and useful, for it helps the Christian theologian to discriminate rightly between the fundamental doctrines themselves. As we have learned, fundamental doctrines are such as constitute the foundation of the Christian faith; yet not all fundamental doctrines constitute this foundation in the same manner. Hollaz rightly observes: “All the fundamental articles of faith must necessarily be known, but the grades of this necessity are different.” (Doctr. Theol., p. 99.) Thus the primary fundamental articles are of such absolute importance that, if they are denied, there is no foundation whatever on which saving faith may rest. All the doctrines enumerated before under the heading “Fundamental Articles of Faith” are to be classified as primary fundamental articles ; for if these are cast aside, Christianity cannot exist. 

Secondary fundamental doctrines, on the other hand, while also serving as a foundation of faith, do not do so primarily and absolutely. Examples of secondary fundamental doctrines are those of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These two Sacraments, instituted by Christ have been given to us as a foundation of faith besides the Gospel; for the same grace and forgiveness proffered and conveyed to us in the Word of God are proffered and conveyed to us also in them. Acts 2, 38 : “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the remission of sins.” Matt. 26, 28 (Luke 22, 19 f.) : “This is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” On this gracious  offer of pardon, sealed by Christ in the Sacraments, the Christian faith rests, and in the same manner and to the same degree as it rests on our Lord’s offer of pardon in the Word. For this reason the doctrines of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are fundamental; they are the foundation of the Christian’s faith. Nevertheless a person may be ignorant of these doctrines, or he may even err with regard to them and yet be saved, provided he clings to the promise of forgiveness offered in the Gospel. 

The reason for this is obvious. The entire forgiveness which Christ has secured for sinners by His death on the cross is offered and conveyed to the believer in the Gospel, so that, if he trusts in the Gospel promise, he possesses by faith all the merits of Christ, together with spiritual life and eternal salvation. This does not mean that the sacramental promise is superfluous. The Christian Church can never dispense with the Sacraments, since they convey the spiritual blessings of the Savior in a particularly close and comforting manner. The Sacraments are the visible Word (Verbum visibile) and the individual application ( applicatio individualis) of divine grace. But the Christian believer who trusts in the divine promise of pardon which is offered in the Gospel to all men is already in possession of salvation. The Sacraments offer nothing new; they only seal and confirm the same grace and the same absolution which the Gospel announces, gives, and confers. In this sense the Sacraments are not absolutely necessary; and for this reason we call the doctrines of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion secondary fundamental doctrines. Nor should we reject this distinction; for it points out to us where we must draw the line between Christians and non-Christians. Thus the believing children of God in the Reformed churches err with regard to the essence and purpose of the Sacraments, and this error we must regard as one which is both dangerous and pernicious. Still they trust in the grace which is offered to them in the Gospel, and as long as they do that, we cannot deny that they have the saving faith. In other words, we must still regard them as Christians, though as weak and erring Christians and such as constantly endanger their state of grace by not accepting the whole Word of Christ. What has just been said of the children of God in the Reformed churches pertains also to the believers in other sects and in the Roman Catholic Church. As long as a believer trusts in the grace of Christ offered in the Word, as did the thief on the cross, he is saved, even though he has never received the blessings of the Sacraments. Hollaz is quite right in saying of the secondary fundamental articles as such: “A simple want of acquaintance with them does not prevent salvation, but the pertinacious denial of, and hostility to, them overturns the foundation of faith.” ( Doctr. Theol., p. 99.) 

In his remark concerning the secondary fundamental doctrines, Hollaz directs our attention to a very important truth. The distinction between primary and secondary fundamental doctrines must never be abused in the interest of tolerating false doctrine. A pertinacious denial of, and manifest hostility to, the secondary fundamental doctrines, the same as to all doctrines of Holy Scripture, must in the end overturn the foundation of the faith; for this implies resistance offered to the Holy Spirit. Of this we must continually remind all errorists, even if we cannot deny their state of grace. Let every Christian theologian remember : 

a. That he is commanded by Christ to teach all the doctrines of God’s Word and not to ignore or deny a single one. Matt. 28, 20: “Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” 

b. That every departure from the Word of God, according to God’s express statement, is a scandal, or offense. Rom. 16, 17: “Mark them which cause offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” No theologian can teach errors without giving offense to others; and this is a most serious matter. Matt. 18, 7 : “Woe to that man by whom the offense cometh !” Cp. also Luke 17, 1. Rom. 14, 13: “That no man put a stumbling-block, or an occasion to fall, in his brother’s way.” 2 Cor. 6, 3: “Giving no offense in anything that the ministry be not blamed.” 

c. That every one who sets aside the clear testimony of God’s Word in a single point rejects the entire Word of God as the only source and standard of faith; for Holy Scripture must be believed and taught not merely in its general application, but all its parts, indeed all its words, must be accepted as divine truth. Luther rightly says: “The Holy Spirit [speaking in Holy Scripture] cannot be separated or divided, so that He should teach and have us believe one doctrine as true and another as false.” (St. L., XX, 1871.) All the teachings of God’s Word are so intimately interwoven with one another that, if one is denied, all the rest are likewise affected by such denial; that is to say, “one error produces another,” as the history of dogma proves. If there are exceptions to this rule, they must be attributed to the wonderful sustaining grace of God alone. Due to God’s grace an erring theologian sometimes, by a strange “fortunate inconsistency,” does not personally believe what he officially teaches; or again, he does not, in his own life of faith, draw the deadly inferences which his rationalistic rejection of divine truth suggests. Thus many a synergist who officially affirmed man’s cooperation in conversion in his own personal dealings with God as a penitent sinner disavowed this pernicious error and trusted for salvation in God’s grace alone. Again, erring theologians who publicly and officially denied the universality of divine grace nevertheless proclaimed and asserted the universal character of God’s grace and of Christ’s redemption when they preached the Gospel to the common people. This fortunate difference between theory and practise they owed to the unspeakable mercy of God, who earnestly desires the salvation of sinners. 

However, also this truth must not be abused to promote indifference in doctrine. While we admit that there is a “fortunate inconsistency,” we must remember that there is an “unfortunate consistency,” by which theologians who offend in one point are led to offend in many points and even in all. In other words, the proclamation of one error consistently leads to the proclamation of others and in the end to the denial of the entire Scriptural truth. Against this fatal consequence of denying God’s Word and indulging in error Luther earnestly warns all Christian theologians when he writes: “You must not say, I purpose to err as a Christian. Christian erring occurs only from ignorance.” (St. L., XIX, 1132.) Luther admits that there is such an anomaly as “Christian erring”; that is to say, even a true Christian at times errs due to weakness or to ignorance. But this “Christian erring” becomes an “unchristian erring” as soon as a person deliberately and knowingly yields to error. Such “unchristian erring” must needs overturn the foundation of faith and endanger salvation. Let the Christian theologian, then, be warned. Indifferentism with respect to the doctrines of Holy Scripture and spiritual unionism resulting therefrom are diametrically opposed to God’s Word, which declares: “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition reject, knowing that he that is such is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself,” Titus 3, 10. 11. Holy Scripture never justifies the teaching of error, but always and most vehe-mently condemns it as ‘an offense. 

d. That the whole Church, in order to preserve unadulterated the purity of doctrine, must continually guard against every error by which Satan would cause divisions and offenses. To this end it must rebuke even the slightest error and departure from the truth that is in Christ Jesus. Gal. 5, 9: “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” It is the ”little leaven” of false doctrine with which the whole corruption of the entire Christian theology usually begins. Modernism, with its crass rejection of all the Scriptural truths that are necessary to salvation, is but the result of the indifferentism of such theologians and churches as allowed the ”little leaven” a place in their system of dogmas. Let errorists deny the doctrine of verbal inspiration, and the whole doctrine of inspiration will fall. Let the sola gratia be removed from the corpus doctrinae, and the rejection of Christ’s vicarious atonement will follow. The Christian theologian cannot err in ”little things” without sooner or later erring also in the “great things” of salvation. That is the “unfortunate consistency” of tolerating error. How deadly it is all earnest Christians know who have studied the history of the Christian Church in the light of Holy Scripture. 

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