in non-essentials, liberty;
in all things, charity."
These words are often attributed to Augustine, but it is more likely the phrase was coined by an early Lutheran, Rupertus Meldenius, about 1630. Philip Schaff, the distinguished church historian called this popular saying, "the watchword of Christian peacemakers", and it has become even more popular since he described it that way in the 19th century. Perhaps there are more peacemakers now.
It's hard to disagree with. We certainly need a lot of charity and it's important to recognize the distinction between essentials and non-essentials in matters of doctrine. That's the easy part. The hard part is deciding what's essential. Since the days when Meldenius coined the phrase, more and more of the contents of the "Essentials" column of doctrines have been cut and pasted into the "Non-essentials" column, all in the name of charity. Our charitable theology is now bulging with non-essentials that many of our forefathers were willing to die for, or at least fall out over.
It's hard for us today to acknowledge that some things are worth fighting for, even fighting our fellow believers over. In coming blogs we will look at a few of the issues where our forefathers considered that it would have been cowardly and truly uncharitable not to engage in conflict, since so much that was for our good hinged on getting it right.
One such famous falling out took place in Marburg in 1529. It is no exaggeration to say that 500 years of European history have been affected by the political and religious reverberations of that dispute over the finer points of doctrine.
On that occasion, the key players were the great Reformers, Luther and Zwingli. Philip of Hesse was one of the German princes seeking to bring about a religious and political alliance between the Swiss and German elements of the Reformation, to strengthen the cause. So he invited Zwingli (from Switzerland) to meet with Luther at Marburg. But the sticking point on which the two great men could not agree concerned the nature of the Lord's Supper. The two groups were unable to achieve unity, and the division has been reflected in the course of European history since that day.
What were the differences? Luther had rejected the Roman Catholic position of transubstantiation, the idea that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substances are miraculously transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ. But he still held to the idea that Christ was miraculously and really present in the sacrament. Zwingli insisted that there is no need for this kind of "sacramental union" of Christ and bread and wine, for the Lord's Supper is "a sign of a sacred thing". He could not accept that Christ was really there in a real (albeit mysterious) body. Communion is valuable, he argued, because of what it signifies, and is practiced as a simple memorial of what has already been accomplished.
The two men wept at their impasse; none would question their charity toward one another. But still Luther is reported to have responded: "You have a different spirit". They parted as friends, but not as brothers. They could not have shared communion together.
Our intention here is not to try to settle the issue on which they were disagreed, but to highlight the point on which they actually agreed with each other, and on which, ironically they would both agree to disagree with most of us today. They agreed that one's theology of the Lord's Supper was not minor or secondary; it could not be relegated into the "Non-essentials" category.
Carl Trueman has pointed out that if you look at the amount of space the New Testament devotes to the Lord's Supper you might conclude that the subject is not one of the big ones; you need to appreciate church history to realize how significant it is. And when we consider the heavyweights like Luther and Zwingli, who are we to say that it is non-essential? In fact, much as we might like to hide ourselves in the little saying "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity", who are we, and how are we, to decide what is essential? An historical perspective would suggest that many things that we consider minor issues today have been major issues to those who have gone before.
Our forefathers may not have been right in their conclusions on essential doctrines, but they were right that there really were essential doctrines. They were probably more right than us is seeing that more was truly essential than we care to admit today. They were certainly right in seeing how much was at stake in the issues they wrestled with as essentials. Centuries of history have unfolded out of these controversies; they were not a storm in a teacup. Some things are worth fighting for. But what things?