Thursday, December 9, 2010

"In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity"

An email that I received on Tuesday (12-07-10), brought back to the fore the oft quoted phrase: "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity". Many who have quoted this phrase have attributed its first usage to Augustine; however, a number of scholars have established that this quote did not originate with Augustine; rather, it is "the product of an irenic Lutheran theologian and pastor living in Augsburg during the early seventeenth century with the name of Peter Meiderlin." (See Rollman's online esaay, "IN ESSENTIALS UNITY".)

In order to understand the intent and meaning of the statement, one needs to examine the original historical context which prompted the phrase from Peter Meiderlin's pen. Hans Rollman provides a concise, and excellent summation:

Meiderlin lived in a very troubled time, a time exposed to the ravages of the Thirty Years War and one of much strife between Lutherans and Calvinists as well as a period of internal discord within Lutheranism itself. In this so-called "Confessional Age," the Lutheran movement became a battleground for competing political forces such as the territories of Saxony and the Palatinate. But especially vexing for the soul of the religious reform movement were the numerous doctrinal disputes which in part had their origin in the theological differences of the Reformation leaders themselves. In the period after Luther's death, there emerged an intense competition as to who represented the Lutheran theological heritage most authentically. An attempt to forge an authoritative doctrinal norm binding for everyone produced the Formula of Concord (1577) but resulted also in much cantankerousness about the legitimacy of the formula. The period that followed has also been termed the age of "Lutheran Orthodoxy," in which theologians increasingly would use scholastic philosophical means to define more specifically their Bible-oriented faith, which became tied to the emerging Lutheran confessional norms. A new wave of theological disputes spread through the protestant universities during the early 1600's which cannot be detailed here sufficiently but is documented and studied amply in a protestant doctrinal history such as the one by Otto Ritschl. ("In Essentials Unity".)

A bit later, Rollman furnishes a more 'personal' aspect to the impetus behind the phrase:

Peter Meiderlin's argument for peace in the church starts out with a story about a dream he had. In it he encounters a devout Christian theologian in a white robe sitting at a table and reading the Scriptures. All of a sudden Christ appears to him as the victor over death and devil and warns him of an impending danger and admonishes him to be very vigilant. Then Christ vanishes and the Devil appears in the form of a blinding light, moonlight to be exact, and claims to have been sent on a mission from God. He states that in this final age the Church needs to be protected from all heresy and apostasy of any kind and God's elect have the duty to safeguard and keep pure the doctrinal truths they inherited. The devil then alleges that God has authorized him to found a new order of these doctrinally pure elect, some sort of a doctrinal heritage coven. Those who join will bind themselves to an oath of strictest observance to these doctrines. The devil then extends to our devout theologian the invitation to join this militant fellowship for his own eternal welfare. Our theologian thinks about what he has just heard and decides to bring it in prayer before God, upon which the devil immediately vanishes and Christ reappears. Christ tenderly raises the trembling Christian up, comforts him most kindly, and before he departs admonishes him to remain loyal only to the Word of God in simplicity and humility of heart. For Meldenius, this dream depicted in a powerful way the state of his own church, and the resultant admonition is his own contribution on how to keep the peace. (Ibid.)

[I would like to recommend to all, that they read Rollman's entire essay, and then add the following online treatment: A common quotation from "Augustine"?.]

Now, back to Tuesday's email. The author of the email was David Cloud, an independent Baptist author, lecturer, minister. The email that I received was also published online at Cloud's "Way of Life Literature" website (HERE). Cloud, as so many Protestants of the period delineated above by Hollman, does not like Meiderlin's now famous phrase; from his email/online essay, we read:

The modern evangelical philosophy is often stated by the dictum, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”

Though commonly attributed to Augustine, it was actually first stated by the 17th-century Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius (a.k.a. Peter Meiderlin).

It became the rallying cry of the Moravians, who did many good things but retained such Roman heresies as infant baptism and a priesthood and promoted unity above the absolute truth of God’s Word.

It was adopted by the Fundamentalist movement of the first half of the 20th century. As a movement Fundamentalism focused on unity around “the fundamentals of the faith” while downplaying the “minor issues.” The objective was to create the largest possible united front against theological modernism.

This dictum has also been an integral philosophy of New Evangelicalism. They might stand for ten or twenty or thirty “cardinals,” but they refuse to make an issue of the WHOLE counsel of God. Particularly when it comes to one’s associations, they believe that there are “non-essentials” that should not get in the way of unity.

Many Independent Baptists are buying into this error.

And a bit later:

There is no support in the Bible for the “in essentials liberty” doctrine. The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to teach converts “to observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:20).

The Apostle Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that the reason he was free from the blood of all men was that he had preached the WHOLE counsel of God (Acts 20:27). The more plainly you preach the whole counsel of God, the less likely it will be that you will join hands in ministry with those who hold different doctrine.

Paul instructed Timothy to keep the truth “without SPOT, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14). A spot is a small, seemingly insignificant thing. That particular epistle contains commandments about such things as the woman’s role in ministry, which is widely considered a “non-essential” today. Paul taught Timothy to have an entirely different approach toward such teachings.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul said to the church at Corinth, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in ALL things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” This passage deals with hair length and the Lord’s Supper, which are widely considered to be “non-essentials” today, yet Paul praised the church for remembering him in all things.

We know that not all doctrine has the same significance and weight, but none of it is “non-essential” in any sense.

I challenge anyone to show me where the Scripture encourages the believer to treat some doctrine as “non-essential” or to “stand for the cardinal truths and downplay the peripherals.”

Some try to use Romans 14 to support this philosophy, but Romans 14 does not say that some Bible doctrine is non-essential. It says that we are to allow one another liberty in matters in which the Bible is silent! The examples that Paul gave were eating meat and keeping of holy days. Those are things that the New Testament faith is silent about. There is no doctrine of diet in the New Testament, so it is a matter of Christian liberty.

This reminds us that the only true “non-essential” is a personal opinion not based solidly upon Scripture.

Jude instructed every believer to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). As Jude didn’t delineate what part of the faith is to be defended, the obvious meaning is that whatever aspect of the faith is under attack at a particular time, God’s people should rally to its defense rather than pretend that it is a “non-essential.”

Since the Bible doesn’t identify a “non-essential” doctrine, who is to say what this might be?

The fact is that once one adopts the “non-essentials” philosophy, his list of “non-essentials” tends to grow as time passes and as his associations broaden.

Cloud's appraisal of Meiderlin's dictum sure seems to be a more consistent, and 'honest,' take when addressing the Protestant movement as a whole. Many anti-Catholic apologists invoke Meiderlin's phrase when dealing with the RC and EO churches, but the so-called "unity in essentials" remains, at least to the mind of this beachbum, quite nebulus in nature, if not mere empty words. Right or wrong, Cloud's thoughts on this matter are a 'breath of fresh air', an 'in your face', non-compromising stance that exposes the "unity in essentials" myth.

Grace and peace,


UPDATE: On August 20, 2014, Steve Perisho posted a comment which demonstrates that it was NOT the Lutheran Peter Meiderlin who first coined the phrase, "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity"; but rather, it was the Catholic bishop Marco Antonio De Dominis, who did so nine years earlier. See  THIS LINK for the convincing support.


Anonymous said...

So, do you agree with him?

Ken said...

You and Cloud are right on the fact that the statement comes not from Augustine, but from the Lutheran Meiderlin, and the historical context of the 17 Century, the 30 years war, and the dis-unity that began with the Prostestant Reformation.

I also think that part of the overall historical context (even if not in Meiderlin's mind, I don't know) is not only between the Lutherans and Calvinists at that time; but also the other groups of Protestant groups that started (especially the Anabaptist tradition).

I looked at Cloud's statement of faith - there are several things that they put up on the "essentials" list:

1. JKV only; textus receptus Greek text only.
2. Pre-Millennialism
3. Pre-Tribulationism
4. Separation from other groups who disagree on these issues.
5. Probably alcohol drinking (at all) is included in this.(Under separation from the world.)

Your point, it seems to me, is trying to say that Sola Scriptura does not work, along with the "unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials" saying, because Protestants mostly use it against Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and yet so much disunity inside of Protestantism, etc."

Certainly it took a while for the Christian world to work things out and stop killing each other any more.

I, for one, think the Fundamentalists Baptists like Cloud go too far in exalting KJV onlyism, (The NASB, NIV, and ESV are good Bible translations); Pre-Trib, and Pre-Mill, and all alcohol drinking as essentials. (there maybe other things also)

It would be better to use the phrase for "essentials in the gospel and salvation issues", for some aspects of baptism and some aspects of the details of the Lord's supper and eschatology and alcohol use are not "essential to the gospel issues".

Although I disagree with infant baptism and Theonomy, and Pre-Mill and pre-tribultionism as dogmatic, for example, I still consider advocates of those positions true believers and valid churches.

The Gospel Coalition and "Together for the Gospel" are good coalitions of unity over the essentials of the gospel, but liberty in issues of some aspects of baptism and eschatology and church government, for example.

Fred Noltie said...

Hmm…now, what was it that we were saying about the erroneous Reformed doctrine of perspicuity just last month…?

think think think…


Thanks for the reminder, David :-)


David Waltz said...

Hi SH,

You asked:

>>So, do you agree with him?>>

Me: Yes and no—yes, in that SS demands that there can be no outside authority apart from Scripture that determines faith and practice, which suggests to me attempts to make a concrete distinction between essentials and non-essentials are suspect; no, in that reason suggests distinctions, in some sense, do exist—is not the sin of idolatry much more ‘serious’ than gluttony?

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hello Ken,

Thanks for responding; in your post you wrote:

>>It would be better to use the phrase for "essentials in the gospel and salvation issues", for some aspects of baptism and some aspects of the details of the Lord's supper and eschatology and alcohol use are not "essential to the gospel issues".>>

Me: Two ‘problems’ with the above: first, the list of “essentials” was much broader in the 16th-18th centuries; and second, even among conservative, present-day Prots, important differences exist over the “essentials”.

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hi Reginald,

So good see you back. As you, I too have some difficulties with the issue of “perspicuity”, which is directly related to the “essentials” and “non-essentials” debate. To be totally honest, at this time in my walk of faith, I just don’t have a ‘good’ answer to the multiple divisions among Christians, which troubles me much more than so many of our Evangelical brothers—schism is a grave sin, and yet Paul states that there must be “schisms”…got to get going, may have more to say on this issue this afternoon, the Lord willing.

Grace and peace,


Steve Perisho said...

You cite the Georgetown site without noticing that it cites me citing H. J. M. Nellen to the effect that *not* Peter Meiderlin but the renegade Catholic bishop Marco Antonio De Dominis, writing in 1617, about nine years before Meiderlin, is the current best candidate for originator of the maxim. See

David Waltz said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks much for dropping by and informing me of the needed correction. Have been very busy of late with family, and chores in and around the house, but will make the correction in my opening post sometime later this week (the Lord willing).

Thanks again and God bless,