Fundamentalists, Liberals, and Evangelicals Charted

Tuesday night, at “Coffee and Theology” at the Credo House, I taught what might very well be the most important lesson I have ever taught for “Coffee and Theology.” It was over the necessity of creating a hierarchy of belief, helping people learn to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, cardinal beliefs and non-cardinal beliefs, those things that we should be willing to die for and those things that are less important.

My goal during people’s initial exposure to this subject is not to tell them what the essentials and non-essentials are, but to help them understand that these categories exist in Christianity. Beliefs matter very much in our faith, but not all beliefs matter equally. Part of the discipleship process of any Christian is to begin to work through these differences.

Here is the basic “Concentric Circle of Importance” that I often teach from. I have used it here many times on this blog.



The very center circle represents those issue of the faith that are “of first importance.” Paul spoke in such terms in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. “Of first importance” for Paul was the person and work of Christ. Who Christ is and what he did come before all else.

Instead of filling in this chart with all that I believe fit in each circle (an impossible task to do exhaustively), I want to show this how this chart might look in differing traditions. I hope that the graphs explain themselves without too much controversy. Please understand, I use the words “Fundamentalist” and “Liberal” here more as adjectives than nouns. And it should be obvious that I am using “Evangelical” in an idealize form here.






9 Responses to “Fundamentalists, Liberals, and Evangelicals Charted”

  1. Carolyn Smith June 20, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I always considered myself an evangelical, but with these diagrams, I’m much more of a fundamentalist.

  2. Michael –

    The chart starts from an evangelical paradigm. Chart #1 labels the central circle as “essential for salvation.” That’s very evangelical language. So, of course, it’s the evangelicals that get everything balanced. We just end up “preaching to the choir” – ourselves. :)

    Of course, I believe in salvation, and we should (though I’d posit the concept is a bit different in the scriptural setting than a modern idea). But I wonder if it would be worth changing the label given to that most central circle in chart 1?

  3. Scott:

    Are you looking to clarify the term salvation? That is label it either soterian/individual salvation as compared to the idea of salvation being the restoration of all creation (ala Wright, McKnight) – which includes individual salvation?


  4. A helpful set of diagrams – thanks :)

  5. I notice you grant liberals exactly one dot in the center. Now what is that thing liberals believe is needed for the salvation they do not believe anyone needs? :)

  6. Michael,

    Your chart on evangelical beliefs and the essentials of salvation have 6 dots.

    I know they are symbolic, but the dots represent SOMETHING.

    What are the 6 essentials, or Sine Qua Non, necessary for salvation?

    Those 6 dots are the making of your next great post.

    This issue has been in the back of my mind for the 34 years I have been saved….namely what is the minimum (or maximum) content of saving faith… what doctrines are essential one must believe before one can be saved… and what doctrines must one believe to become saved?


  7. Robert Eaglestone July 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    @Jeff: I’m sure it starts with 1 Corinthians 15:1-6…

  8. Robert Eaglestone July 8, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Essential for orthodoxy: John 3:18.

  9. Robert Eaglestone July 8, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Also essential for orthodoxy: baptism.


    Important, but (perhaps) not essential: the MODE of baptism. Perhaps. Even though my Baptist upbringing cringes at the thought that believer’s baptism (by immersion!) might not be ESSENTIAL for true orthodoxy.

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