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What is the Most Central Doctrine of Christianity?

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, April 3, 2008

This week I’ve been speaking at the West Coast Presbyterian Pastors Conference at Mt. Hermon, California, in the verdant mountains above Santa Cruz. That’s rather ironic, given the fact that I am no longer a parish pastor and no longer living on the West Coast. My involvement at this conference also helps to explain why my blogging has been a bit irregular this week.)

My theme for the week is “Refreshment for Muck-Sucking Pastors.” Yes, I realize this title needs some explanation. Perhaps I’ll provide that later on. For now, however, I want to comment on something said by the other main speaker at the conference.

james jim edwards whitworthI’ve been teamed up with Dr. James Edwards, the Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University in Washington. Jim Edwards has a wide range of expertise, especially New Testament studies. At the conference he’s been doing a series of word studies on Greek words such as episkiazo (to overshadow), schisma (tear, schism), and proserchomai (to approach). Jim is a fine scholar and an engaging speaker. It’s been a privilege to join him as a speaker and to sit at his feet.

Jim began his teaching with one of those broad questions that tease the mind: What is the most central doctrine of Christianity? Which doctrine makes Christianity truly Christian? Immediately my mind began cycling through basic Christian beliefs: the existence of God, the Trinity, the love of God, the goodness of God, the grace of God, salvation through the cross, etc. Before Jim answered his question, I had settled on the one doctrine that, it seemed to me, is the hub of the wheel of Christian theology.

When Jim answered his question, I felt like an elementary school kid who got the right answer on the daily puzzler. His take on the most central doctrine was mine as well. That doesn’t mean we’re right, of course, but it does raise the likelihood that our answer has merit.

What do Jim Edwards and I think is the most essential or central of all Christian doctrines? The incarnation of the Word of God. The extraordinary fact that the God of the Universe, the God who is spirit, became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. As the Gospel of John celebrates, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Why is this doctrine so central to Christianity? Well, for one thing, as Jim noted, it is that which sets Christianity apart from other religions. To my knowledge, none of the major religions of the world believes that God became a human being. Many of them, like Islam, for example, find the notion of the incarnation to be blasphemy. Moreover, within Christian theology, the incarnation accounts for the saving efficacy of the cross and resurrection. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ because he is both God and human. The incarnation doesn’t save us, but it makes salvation possible.

The incarnation also is the center of the Christian view of divine revelation. Though we believe God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in community, and in our hearts, the paramount self-revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Christians believe that Jesus reveals, more fully and perfectly than anything else in all the universe, the character of God: his righteousness and justice, his grace and mercy, his kindness and love.

What do you think about this? Agree? Why? Disagree? Why?

Topics: Theology |

11 Responses to “What is the Most Central Doctrine of Christianity?”

  1. Kevin Davis Says:
    April 3rd, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Why would we say that the Incarnation is the most central Christian doctrine without at once saying the Cross? Afterall, if it were not for the Cross we would still be dead in our sins. It is conceivable that God could become man and it have no effect pro nobis (for us) except on some noetic-existential level (indeed, much of liberal Protestantism has affirmed an Incarnation along these lines). The point of the Incarnation was the reconciliation of man in the Son’s substitutionary sacrifice — we have to keep the two together, otherwise we can misinterpret the Incarnation as beneficial simply for the “revealing of true humanity” and thus having effect on an existential level — but the holiness of God and the guilt of man requires more.

  2. Jennie Says:
    April 3rd, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Mt. Hermon rocks! WAY better than Forest Home (just don’t let Southern CA folks hear). Hope you had a great week and got some refreshment as well as encouraging others to do the same!

  3. Mark Goodyear Says:
    April 3rd, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    I’m no theologian, but as a writer and editor and poet and reader, my favorite passage was always John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

    It’s the best verse in the Bible. And arguably the foundation of everything.

  4. Mark Roberts Says:
    April 3rd, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Kevin: Your point is a very good one. I would say that the cross depends on the incarnation, theologically. So though the cross is absolutely essential, it only makes sense in light of the word having been made flesh. As I said, the incarnation alone doesn’t bring about salvation. But neither does the cross alone. The cross without the incarnation is just a very sad and terrible event.

    Jennie: Yikes! That’s heresy! I suppose it depends on what sort of environment you relate to best. Forest Home has the lofty mountains, but it’s pretty dry. Mt. Hermon has extraordinary forests and redwoods, but not much view.

    Marcus: Yep, that would be more of a Trinitarian starting place. In the end, Christian doctrines are so interwoven that I think it’s impossible to have one that is essential. Still, I like the intellectual and theological challenge.

  5. every square inch Says:
    April 3rd, 2008 at 10:49 pm


    It’s one of those questions that cannot be satisfactorily answered. I think in essence, what makes Christianity set apart from the other religions is encompassed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is why you can typically get to the root of error of various cults and world religions by finding out what they purport to teach about Jesus.

    To say only the incarnation is inadequate because as Kevin properly asked - what about the cross? To say the cross, as Kevin did brings it a little closer to the heart of the matter since the glory of the work of Christ finds its pinnacle in the cross. But then again, you’re the theologian.

  6. Evan Says:
    April 4th, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Oh,my. This is one of those situations where one can argue forever.

    For example, you have other religions purporting “avatars,” where “the divine nature takes on human flesh,” like Krishna or Buddha. Those adherents argue that Jesus was just another avatar. One can argue until the cows come over terminology like that.

    And if you ask what is THE most central doctrine of Christianity, one can bog down in definitions and whatever. For me, I would look to 1 Cor 15 and the Resurrection. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. Yet the Resurrection only makes sense if you have the Incarnation, but the Incarnation makes no sense without the Trinity… and if one says that the Resurrection presupposes both of those of necessity, we can have a festive argument over priorities, foundational truth, “centrality,” etc. It seems to me if you touch the Incarnation, of necessity you must include the Resurrection, which of necessity includes the Cross, etc., and vice versa.

    I recall how my liberal theology professors loved to demand that we submit a definition for “God,” and then shredded whatever looked like traditional Christianity via nit-picking and sophistry. I would simply assert via paraphrase of Ben Franklin that the foundational truths of Christianity only work if they hang together, because otherwise, they get hung up separately.

  7. Carl Franzon Says:
    April 4th, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Could we not say that the atonement is the central doctrine? If we understand the atonement in a fuller sense than often seen in America (see e.g. McKnight’s “A Community Called Atonement”)? The atonement is the work of God to reconcile sinful people to himself and begins with incarnation (a thought suggested for example by Brunner I think, that the reconciliation begins with the incarnation), and would also include both the death and resurrection of the Son of God. So we get it all - God reconciled sinful people to himself through the incarnation, death and resurrection of His Son.

  8. Lenny Ransil Says:
    April 4th, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    “… the incarnation accounts for the saving efficacy of the cross and resurrection. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ because he is both God and human. The incarnation doesn’t save us, but it makes salvation possible.”
    I would say “makes possible” rather than “accounts” for the cross etc.
    So I think the most central Christian doctrine is “The Finished Work of Christ” that enabled each believer to become one with Him through identification with Him in His crucifixion, (I was nailed to the cross with Him as was the Law) I Died with Him, I rose as a New Creation saint with/in Him and Ascended in Him and am seated in Him in heavenly places right now - all apprehended by faith because He says it is true (through Paul.)

    Though all this requires His Incarnation to happen, if He would have left earth (or sinned which was apparently a possibility otherwise the “temptations” would have been meaningless) before completing His Finished work, His Incarnation would have been pointless.
    I go into this in more depth in chapter 5 in my free online book at
    Thanks for inviting the input. I do the same on my site that compares worldviews.

  9. Mark Roberts Says:
    April 4th, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Lenny: Yes, indeed. “Makes possible” was what I intended in the inelegant “accounts for.”

    every square inch, Evan, Carl: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. This is a fascinating conversation.

  10. Dale Says:
    April 7th, 2008 at 12:03 am

    My Friend Jackson from Tacoma was thier and he said he got to hear you speak! How cool!

  11. Jay Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    I think Paul beautifully ties the Incarnation with the Cross and Resurrection thus the Atonement

    “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.”


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