Substance and Accidents

[This essay was published in the Christian Renewal, April 30, 2001]

One of the great needs of the hour in our churches is that we should learn to set theological priorities, to recover an old and very useful distinction between what is essential to our theology and what is not, between “substance and accidents.” This has nothing to do with making mistakes, but with distinguishing the important from the crucial. If one takes the dull tan cover from one’s computer, the central processing unit (CPU) continues to function. If one removes the motherboard, however, the CPU stops. The motherboard is essential to the computer, the tan cover is not. This is the difference between substance and accidents. Something is essential to Reformed theology if without it, one would not be Reformed. What makes a person Reformed is whether he confesses and believes the substance of the Reformed faith, what Caspar Olevianus called “the substance of the covenant of grace,” whether one has a Reformed view of Scripture (revelation and authority); God, man, Christ, salvation, church and last things. It is my conviction that whether one holds to the Framework, Six-Day or Analogical Interpretation of Genesis 1, makes no difference to the substance of the Reformed faith. If one holds that Genesis 1 intends to teach mainly the doctrines of God and man and to set certain basic creational patterns (chiefly the Sabbath), but does not intend to teach the length of the six days, how does it affect the system or substance of the Reformed faith? It does not.One who confesses the Reformed faith is bound to certain confessional views regarding God and man, which are quite of the essence of the faith. If, for example, one denies God’s Trinity, immutability or immensity or eternity or spirituality, one is not Reformed. If one denies that man was made in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in a covenant of Works with God, as the federal head of all humanity, one is not Reformed.

Whether one affirms, however, that the six-days of creation were twenty-four hours or that the text does not reveal the length of the days, one is obligated to hold that Christ is one person with two natures and that what is said about one of Christ’s natures can be said about his person, but not the reverse. This is not hair splitting, rather this teaching is essential to being Reformed. Because of our doctrine of Christ, we confess in Art. 35 that in the Supper, “truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior, by faith.” Because Jesus is true man (Hebrews 2:5–18), his body is not everywhere, but at the right hand of the Father. Because we have a representative at the right hand of the Father who understands us, who advocates for us, who is a sure pledge of our resurrection, who sends us his Holy Spirit (HC 49). In sum, Christ’s true humanity is of the essence of our doctrine of assurance.

It is remarkable therefore, that, as one talks with combatants in the Creation Wars, that one finds absolute certainty about the days of creation but relative disinterest about the doctrines of the Trinity or of Christ or the doctrine of justification and yet it is clear that one’s view of Christ is much more important to Reformed theology than whether one holds the Framework Interpretation, the Six-Day Interpretation or the Analogical Interpretation of Genesis 1.

This is not the old fuzzy distinction between those which are so-called salvation issues and those which are not. Such a distinction is not useful since one can hold the wrong view of the Christ’s two natures (e.g., the Lutheran view) and still go to heaven, but that does not entitle one to hold office in a Reformed church. Therefore it is essential to being Reformed to rightly understand the doctrine of the two natures. The same cannot be said, however, of the competing views of Genesis 1.

Let us hold vigorously to the substance of the faith and grant freedom to our brothers in matters accidental. The slogan, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity”, though perhaps wrongly attributed to Augustine, surely captures the spirit of this distinction.

Escondido, California

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