What is the minimum requirement for a sound Christian profession of faith? The answer to this question is as difficult as it is important. Some churches have tried to push back to “the fundamentals” in order to stem a rising tide of liberalism. Others have reacted to strict creedal subscription in favor of a “mere Christianity.” Elders interview people pursuing church membership in order to see if their confessions of faith in Christ are genuine. We often meet people who say they are Christians and we find ourselves wanting to know what they believe about God and Christ. In all of these cases, we are asking, “What are the fundamental articles of the Christian faith?”
The existence and nature of “fundamental articles” was important in classic Reformed theology. This topic became a standard feature of Reformed theological Prolegomena, or first principles. Francis Turretin (1623-1687) treated the issue of fundamental articles clearly, primarily in response to seventeenth-century Socinianism (Unitarianism) and to Roman Catholicism. He illustrates that the Scriptures distinguish between foundational articles of faith and things that do not strike at the foundation of biblical religion. He did so by stating the question clearly, by proving his position from Scripture, by showing the criteria for fundamental articles, and by addressing the number of fundamental articles. His treatment provides us with wise counsel to navigate questions that we all have to ask on some level.
The first thing that Turretin said about fundamental articles is that the question is “difficult and important” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Giger Translation, 1.14.1). Errors can exist both in defect and in excess. Socinians and Arminians err in defect by excluding things like the Trinity from the fundamentals. Roman Catholics err in excess by making “whatever the Romish church teaches” necessary for salvation (1.14.2). Even Lutherans, who “turn almost every error into a heresy,” err in excess at times, preventing unity among Protestants. In contrast to both, “the orthodox” (by which he meant the Reformed), “neither restrict them too closely nor extend them too far” (1.14.3). He likened fundamental articles to a foundation on which the entire house must be built (1.14.4). Christ is the foundation of the house of Christian theology (citing Matt. 16:18; 1 Pet. 2:6-7; 1 Cor. 3:11), but fundamental articles can also refer to “the first rudiments of the Christian religion” (citing Heb. 6:1-2). Turretin noted that historically, fundamental articles revolved around the Decalogue, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments and power of the keys, insofar as they were foundational to catechesis in the Christian faith (1.14. 4). He restricted fundamental articles further to those things which people must believe and cannot deny “without peril of salvation” (1.14.4).
In addition to Hebrews 6:1-2, Turretin next argued that the Bible distinguished between fundamental and non-fundamental articles (1.14.5). Paul distinguished the foundation of doctrine in Christ and the things built on that foundation (citing 1 Cor. 3:11-13). Denying or altering some doctrines overthrows the faith (citing Gal. 1:8) while weaknesses in other areas merely constitute a weak faith (citing Rom. 14:1; Phil. 3:15-16). There is a difference between doctrines needed for the being of faith and for its well-being; some things pertain “to the production of faith others to its perfection” (1.14.6). Pastors and those charged with teaching others have a higher responsibility in this regard than those who are taught (1.14.7). Incidentally, this would allow for a higher standard of creedal subscription and doctrinal unity among ministers and elders than it does among church members. The questions facing elders admitting members to the church usually relate to fundamental articles, while question related to unity among officers necessessarily go beyond them. By analogy, people leading any organization are expected to know more about that organization and its principles than those joining it. In line with Turretin’s teaching, the church is no different.
In Turretin’s view, then, how do we determine which articles are fundamental and which ones are not? First, he noted that some doctrines were primary and immediate while others were secondary and mediate (1.14.8). Secondary and mediate doctrines are built on primary and immediate ones, which include things like the Trinity, Christ’s role as Mediator, justification, etc. Shifting the analogy, he observed that, “As all truths are not of the same necessity, so all wounds inflicted upon the truth are not therefore deadly, nor is every error capital” (1.14.9). Errors can be against the foundation or simply about and around the foundation. The latter can still overthrow the foundation, however, as do the Roman Catholic doctrines of the Mass, purgatory, merit, and other things that overthrow the perfection of Christ’s work (1.14.10). Some errors are also verbal rather than real, meaning that they use the wrong words to describe the right things (1.14.12). This recognizes that some people may technically say false things without intending to deny fundamental articles. In this author’s experience, this is common among many Christians today in relation to how they speak about the Trinity. Their faith is basically sound, but their expressions and understanding are faulty. Privation of the means of salvation is also a defect, while contempt for those means is fatal (1.14.14). Others may hold the substance of a fundamental article while being faulty in “its mode or circumstances” (1.1.15). He gave the Eastern church’s denial of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed as an example.
While it is beyond the scope of a short post like this one to sketch all of Turretin’s counsel regarding how to determine fundamental articles, readers should begin to get a feel for his wisdom by these examples. He concluded this section with the following summary principles: first, the nature of the doctrines themselves makes some articles fundamental to the faith (1.14.20). Applying these principles to the Trinity, he wrote, “Hence as the grace of God by which we are elected, the merit of Christ by which we are redeemed, and the Spirit by whom we are sanctified are the principle causes of salvation and faith the instrumental (Jn. 3:16-17), repentance and conversion to God the necessary conditions (Heb. 6:1; Matt. 3:2), we say that all these doctrines are fundamental” (1.14.20). Second, Scripture itself declares some things to be fundamental to our salvation, of which he gives a partial list (1.14.21). Third, the Apostle’s Creed was traditionally used as a summary of fundamental articles, which includes the proper sense of the Creed rather than its words alone (1.14.22). Ultimately, fundamental articles are both theoretical and practical.
Lastly, what is the number of fundamental articles? The important point is that while “the orthodox” differ in how they number them, they agree in principle on their substance. They include,
The doctrines concerning the sacred Scriptures as inspired…being the only and perfect rule of faith; concerning the unity of God and the Trinity; concerning Christ, the Redeemer, and his most perfect satisfaction; concerning sin and its penalty – death; concerning the law and its inability to save; concerning justification by faith; concerning the necessity of grace and good works, sanctification and the worship of God, the church, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment and eternal life and such as are connected with these. All these are so strictly joined together that they mutually depend on each other. One cannot be withdrawn without overthrowing all the rest (1.14.24).
Several things are noteworthy about this list. First, it includes Protestant distinctives, such as the sufficiency as well as the authority of Scripture. Second, it generally follows and reflects a proper understanding of the Apostle’s Creed. Third, the doctrines listed are specific enough to be Protestant, but not so specific as to exclude believers with immature understandings at points. Fourth, the fundamentals are intertwined and inextricable from one another. He concluded by noting that the precise number fundamental articles is not all that important so long as we learn to apply biblical criteria in determining what is consistent with and what strikes at the foundation of faith in Christ (1.14.25).
We can now draw some lessons from Turretin’s treatment of this issue. Though the question of what constitutes a minimum for a confession of faith is legitimate and necessary, it can become unhealthy as well. What true believer could ever be content with the barest minimum knowledge of his or her Savior? Is there not something inherent in the new birth and in the nature of faith, hope, and love that drives us to grow continually in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ so that we might walk worthy of him (Col. 1:9-14)? Do we not long to know him as we are known and to see him as he is so that we might be made like him (1 Jn. 3:1-3)? It should be clear as well that fundamental articles are not the issue we should be addressing when considering confessional unity among church officers. Officers should be united around more than the mere fundamentals so that they can be united as they teach Christ’s people to observe all things that he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11-16). Fundamental articles exist. They may even increase over time as the church’s light and responsibility grow. The Bible and its teachings do not change, but we are more responsible to be sound Trinitarians now that we have Nicaea, to be solid in our Christology after Chalcedon, and to be clear about Justification by faith after Trent and the Protestant responses to it. It may be impossible (and even undesirable) to make a decisive list of fundamental articles. However, the fact that they exist should make us charitable and forbearing even as we continue pursue good things, both for ourselves and for others (1 Thess. 5:15).