A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
The Melanchthon Formula
September 15, 2011
St. Augustine has often been cited as the source of a saying related to church controversy: In essentials, unity; in differences, liberty; in all things, charity. While this quote is consistent with Augustine’s general theology, this specific language arose only much later, with the Reformation. One of the earliest figures associated with this formulation is Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man, and a formidable theologian in his own right.
One of the Sorge family members who became Mormon has traced our name back to Melanchthon. So perhaps I am exhibiting merely a genetic disposition when I declare my appreciation for this formulation that presses the question, “For which doctrines ought we go the mat, and with which can we permit variation?”
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin lists three faith essentials: God is one, Christ is God, and God is merciful. Which Christian would disagree with these bedrock convictions? Precisely the point. Calvin’s list is less notable for what it includes than for what is absent from the list – things such as doctrines of Scripture, Sin and Salvation, Church, Sacraments, or the Holy Spirit, all of which mattered to Calvin a great deal.
The question of essentials presses hard upon us today as some among us consider whether they can continue to be part of our denomination. They wonder, does the PCUSA still affirm the essentials of Christian faith?
If Calvin’s list is sufficient, the PCUSA certainly does still affirm the essentials of Christian faith. But is affirming essential articles of faith a sufficient basis for authentic Christianity? James had something to say about one of these essential affirmations: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19) For James, what matters is not abstract affirmation, but concrete demonstration of our faith. He famously concludes, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
He’s not saying that our works save us. Rather, genuine faith in essential matters is necessarily demonstrated by a way of living that is consistent with that faith. When I affirm that Jesus is God, I have no choice but to become his disciple, to do as he says. And that is a tall order full of life-shaping consequences.
Most of our current denominational struggle concerns not the first part of Melanchthon’s formula, but the second and third parts: What is the extent of the liberty that we permit in non-essentials, and what is the nature of the charity that we demonstrate in things over which we differ? These are the questions urgently before us as we negotiate our deep differences in regard to our form of government and our ordination standards. And let us make no mistake – a bare majority vote does not itself settle our differences. It may set policy, but it does not guarantee peace. May God grant us grace to walk together with integrity in Christian essentials, and with generosity in non-essentials – and the wisdom to know the difference.
Seeking the mind of Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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