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First is first, but second is not nowhere

by
05 February 2016

There is no gulf between matters of primary and secondary importance in Anglican teaching, argues Mark Pickles

THE legendary Bill Shankly once said: “First is first, second is nowhere.” Although it pains me to disagree with the great man, I have to say that I think he was wrong. To rip his words out of context, mangle them, and apply them theologically, it is not true to say: “Matters of first importance are primary, while matters of secondary importance are nowhere.”

As Director of Anglican Training at Oak Hill, I have a goal, which is to help to train ordinands who are unswervingly committed to matters of “primary importance”, while also being Anglicans from conviction who wholeheartedly embrace Anglicanism’s distinctive teaching on secondary matters.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul reminds his audience: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”

The matters of primary importance, Paul says, are the apostolic gospel, the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ, and the authority of scripture. Classic Evangelicalism unites around the truths of the gospel, and a commitment to the authority of scripture.

 

ONE of the great strengths of Evangelicalism has been its ability to cut across denominational boundaries because of its unity in these primary matters. In particular, this has led to great effectiveness in evangelism. For example, the work of UCCF and the vitality of many university Christian Unions has been used by God to bring people to Christ, and to nurture them in the faith.

Part of the genius of these organisations and others like them is precisely that they focus on issues of primary importance, and do not divide over issues of secondary importance.

Such an emphasis on matters of primary importance, however, can either unwittingly, or even perhaps at times intentionally, convey the idea that issues of secondary importance are insignificant.

For me, the decision to leave parish ministry to come to Oak Hill was prompted by an increasing conviction that, as Anglican Evangelicals committed to parish ministry and the flourishing of the gospel within our denomination, we need both an unswerving commitment to the things of primary importance, and an understanding of, and commitment to, the historic Anglicanism of the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Prayer Book, and the Ordinal.

What might be deemed issues of secondary importance (in that one’s salvation does not depend on these things) are important, even though they are secondary. It is vital that Evangelical ordinands have an understanding of historic Anglican distinctiveness in areas such as ecclesiology, polity, and the sacraments.

 

OF COURSE, “primary” is always primary. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 not because the Corinthians did not know what the gospel was, but because we always need to be reminded of that which is most important, lest it is simply assumed, then ignored, and finally forgotten. The great need of the hour in the Church of England is a commitment to and a proclamation of the biblical gospel.

It is easy to misunderstand a nuanced approach to secondary issues. We can put secondary issues together with, or even above, issues of primary importance, so that we become narrow and isolationist. We grow wary and suspicious of anyone who does not hold to our lengthy list of the necessary components of orthodoxy; or we can misinterpret “secondary” to mean “unimportant”.

Like many other theological complexities, this choice is subject to pendulum swings of reaction and overreaction. In our present day context within Evangelicalism, however, I fear that we may be more prone to the latter error.

When considering full-time gospel ministry, issues of secondary importance inevitably come into play, and need to be thought through carefully and prayerfully.

 

AT OAK HILL, we have Independent and Anglican students working side by side, thinking about and discussing such issues; so we hope that it provides a natural context to foster humility in holding their convictions and gracious doctrinal clarity.

If you are an Anglican ordinand, for example, you cannot get away with thinking that infant baptism is unimportant, and therefore that it really does not matter what you think about it. At the same time, you will not be able to leave Oak Hill with unformed and unclear opinions about infant baptism which you have not thought through. Your Independent neighbour will be quick to challenge you and force you to scrutinise your theological position in the light of scripture.

Such an environment demands that you think through your understanding thoroughly and biblically. Furthermore, you cannot get away with concluding that infant baptism might be wrong, but that you will continue to pursue Anglican ordination because you deem it to be “the best boat to fish from”. Issues of integrity and doctrinal consistency come to the fore.

The Declaration of Assent, made by deacons, presbyters, and bishops when they are ordained, affirms both that the Church of England “professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds”, and that “it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies.”

Although it is helpful to make a distinction between primary and secondary matters, the whole point of doctrinal integrity and consistency means that there is a seamless connection between them. The Declaration of Assent superbly encapsulates this. There is no tension between a wholehearted commitment to the biblical gospel and the authority of scripture, and an enthusiastic, convinced embracing of historic Anglican distinctiveness.

 

The Revd Mark Pickles is Director of Anglican Ministry Training at Oak Hill, where he also teaches courses in Homiletics and Gospel-Driven Leadership

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