This term was employed by Protestant theologians to distinguish the essential parts of the Christian faith from those non-essential doctrines, which, as they believed, individual churches might accept or reject without forfeiting their claim to rank as parts of the Church universal. During the seventeenth century, the view that doctrines might be thus distinguished into two classes was widely current in the various reformed bodies; and several well-known divines endeavoured to determine the principle of the division. In some cases their aim was mainly practical. They hoped in this way to find a dogmatic basis for union between the separated churches. More often, however, the system was used controversially to defend the position of the Protestant bodies against the arguments of Catholics.
The first to advance the theory seems to have been George Cassander (1513-66), a Catholic by religion, but apparently little versed in theology. In his work "De officio pii ac publicae tranquilitatis vere amantis viri in hoc religionis dissidio" (1561), he maintained that in the articles of the Apostles' Creed we have the true foundations of the Faith; and that those who accept these doctrines, and have no desire to sever themselves from the rest of Christendom are part of the true Church. He believed that thus it might be possible to find a means of reuniting Catholics, Greeks, and Protestants. But the proposal met with no favour on either side. The Louvain professors, Hesselius and Ravesteyn, showed that the theory was irreconcilable with Catholic theology and Calvin no less vehemently repudiated a system so little hostile to Rome. Among Protestants, however, the view soon reappeared. It seemed to afford them some means of reply to two objections which they were constantly called on to meet. When Catholics told them that their total inability to agree amongst themselves was itself a proof that their system was a false one, they could answer that though differing as to non-essentials they were agreed on fundamentals. And when asked how it could be maintained that the whole Christian world had for centuries been sunk in error, they replied that since these errors had not destroyed the fundamentals of the faith, salvation was possible even before the gospel had been preached. It is asserted that the first to take up this standpoint was Antonio de Dominis, the apostate Archbishop of Spalatro, who, during the reign of James I, sojourned some years in England. Whether this was so or not, it is certain that from this period the distinction becomes a recognized feature in English Protestant polemics, while on the other hand Catholic writers are at pains to show its worthlessness. It fills an important place in the controversy between Father Edward Knott, S.J., and the Laudian divine, Christopher Potter. At this time, the term fundamentals was understood to signify those doctrines an explicit belief in which is necessary to salvation. Thus, Potter in his "Want of Charity justly charged on all such Romanists as dare affirm that Protestancy destroyeth Salvation" (1633) says: "By Fundamental doctrines we mean such Catholique verities as are to be distinctly believed by every Christian that shall be saved" (p. 211). Knott had no difficulty in showing how hopelessly discrepant were the views of the more eminent Protestants as to what was fundamental. His attack forced his opponents to change their ground. Chillingworth, who replied to him in the notable book, "The Religion of Protestants a safe way to Salvation" (1637), while defining fundamental articles in a manner similar to Potter (op. cit., c. iii.20), nevertheless conceded that it was impossible to draw up any list of fundamental doctrines. He urged indeed that this mattered little, since the Bible constitutes the religion of Protestants, and he who accepts the Bible knows that he has accepted all the essentials of the Faith (op. cit., c. iii, n. 59). Yet it is plain that if we do not know which doctrines are fundamental, salvation cannot be conditional on the explicit acceptance of these particular truths.
The doctrine of fundamentals was destined to become notable not merely in England, but in Germany and France also. In Germany if assumed prominence in connection with the Syncretist dispute. The founder of the Syncretist school was the eminent Lutheran theologian, George Calixt (1586-1656). A man of wide culture and pacific disposition, he desired to effect a reconciliation between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. In a treatise entitled "Desiderium et studium concordiae ecclesiasticae" (1650), he argued that the Apostles' Creed, which each of these three religions accepted, contained the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and that the points on which they were at variance were no insuperable bar to union. These differences, he held, might be composed, if it were agreed to accept as revealed truth all that is contained in Scripture, and further all that is taught by the Fathers of the first five centuries. This eirenicon brought down upon him the most vehement attacks from the extreme party of his coreligionists, above all from Calovius, the representative of rigid Lutheranism. The keenest interest was aroused in the question, and on both sides it was warmly debated. The effort, though well meant, proved quite abortive.
The most famous by far of the controversies on this subject, however, was that between Bossuet and the Calvinist Jurieu. Jurieu's book, "Le Vray Système de l'Église" (1686), marks a distinct stage in the development of Protestant theology; while the work in which Bossuet replied to him was one of the most effective attacks ever levelled against Protestantism and its system. "Le Vray Systeme" was an attempt to demonstrate the right of the French Protestants to rank as members of the Church Universal. With this aim Jurieu propounded an entirely novel theory regarding the Church's essential constitution. According to him all sects without exception are members of the Body of Christ. For this nothing is necessary but "to belong to a general confederation, to confess Jesus Christ as Son of God, as Saviour of the world, and as Messias; and to receive the Old and New Testaments as the rule and Law of Christians", (Système, p. 53).
Yet among the various portions of the Church we must, he tells us, distinguish four classes: (1) the sects which have retained all the truths taught in the Scriptures; (2) those which, while retaining the more important truths, have mingled with them superstitions and errors, (3) those which have retained the fundamental truths, but have added doctrines which are incompatible with them; and (4) those which have set the fundamental verities altogether aside. This last class are dead members of the mystical body (ibid., p. 52). Those who have retained the fundamental articles of the faith are, one and all, living parts of the Church. When he comes to define precisely which in doctrines are, and which are not, fundamental, Jurieu bids us fall back on the rule of Vincent of Lérins: Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus. Wherever all bodies of Christians still existing, and possessing some importance in the world, agree in accepting a dogma, we have, in that agreement, a criterion which may be considered infallible. Among truths so guaranteed are, e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity, of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, of the Redemption, the satisfaction, original sin, creation, grace, the immortality of the soul, the eternity of punishment (ibid, 236-237). This work was followed, on 1688, by another entitled "Traité de l'unité de l'Église et des articles fondamentaux", written in reply to Nicole's criticisms. In the same year appeared Bossuet's famous "Histoire des Variations des Eglises protestantes". The Bishop of Meaux pointed out that this was the third different theory of the Church advanced by Protestant theologians to defend their position. The first reformers had accepted the Scriptural doctrine of an indefectible visible Church. When it was demonstrated that this doctrine was totally incompatible with their denunciation of pre-reformation Christianity, their successors took refuge in the theory of an invisible Church. It had been made patent that this was contrary to the express words of Scripture; and their controversialists had, in consequence, been compelled to look for a new' position. This Jurieu had provided in his theory of a Church founded upon fundamental articles. Bossuet's polemic was the death-blow of the new theory. Jurieu, it is true, replied; but only involved himself in yet farther difficulties. He argued against the main thesis of the "variations" by contending that changes of dogma had been characteristic of the Christian Church from its earliest days.
Bossuet, in his "Avertissement aux Protestants sur les lettres de M. Jurieu", was not slow in pointing out that if this were true, then the principle, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus--according to Jurieu the criterion of a fundamental article--had ceased to possess the smallest value. (Avertissement, I, n. 22.)
In regard to the relation of the fundamental doctrines to salvation, Jurieu is in agreement with the English divines already quoted. "By fundamental points", he says, "we understand certain general principles of the Christian religion, a distinct faith and belief in which are necessary to salvation" (Traité, p. 495). Precisely the same view is expressed by Locke in his "Reasonableness of Christianity". After enumerating what he regards as the fundamental articles of faith, he says: "An explicit belief of these is absolutely required of all those to whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, and salvation through his name proposed" (Works, ed., 1740, I, 583). Waterland's "Discourse of Fundamentals" should perhaps be mentioned, since it is the only work by an Anglican divine explicitly devoted to this subject. Its professed aim is to determine a basis for intercommunion among various Christian bodies. But the whole, treatment is quite academic. It had become patent how impossible was the task of determining which, articles were fundamental. No one could decide what should be the principle of selection.
Waterland enumerates no less than ten different views on this point, which he rejects as inadequate. "We have", he says, "almost as many different rules for determinating fundamentals as there are different sects or parties." Needless to say, his own principle has as little authority as those which he rejects. The theory had, in fact, been weighed and found wanting. It afforded neither a basis for reunion nor a tenable doctrine as to the constitution of the Church. From this time it appears to have ceased to occupy the attention of Protestant writers. Doubtless the ideas which the theory embodies still have a wide range. There are numbers today who still think that while the differences between the various bodies of Christians are unessential, there is a residuum of fundamental truth common to all the principal groups of believers. From time to time, this view has taken effect in efforts after partial reunion among certain of the sects. These events, however, fall outside our scope: for they stand in no historic connection with that doctrine of fundamental articles, which in the seventeenth century filled so important a place in Protestant theology.
It remains briefly to notice the manner in which the theory conflicts wlth Catholic dogma. For a formal refutation the reader is referred to those articles in which the Catholic doctrines in question are expressly treated.
(1) In the first place the theory is repugnant to the nature of Christian faith as understood by the Church. According to her teaching, the essential note of this faith lies in the complete and unhesitating acceptance of the whole depositum on the ground that it is the revealed word of God. The conscious rejection of a single article of this deposit is sufficient to render a man guilty of heresy. The question is not as to the relative importance of the article in question but solely as to whether it has been revealed by God to man. This is clearly put by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica II-II:5:3: "In a heretic who rejects a single article of the faith, there remains the virtue of faith whether as united with charity [formata], or as severed from charity [informis]. . . The formal object of faith is the Supreme Truth in so far as revealed in the Holy Scripture and in that doctrine of the Church which proceeds from the Supreme Truth. Hence if anyone does not hold to the doctrine of the Church as to an infallible and divine rule, . . . he does not possess the virtue of faith." The Church does not deny that certain truths are of more vital moment than others. There are some as to which it is important that all the faithful should possess explicit knowledge. In regard to others explicit knowledge is not necessary. But it denies emphatically that any Christian may reject or call in question any truth, small or great, revealed by God. On the other hand the system of Fundamental Artcles, in each and all of its forms, involved that while some truths are of such importance that they must of necessity be held, there are others of less importance which an individual Christian or body of Christians may freely deny without forfeiture of grace.
(2) No less complete is the disagreement as to what is requisite in order that a body of Christians may be a part of the true Church of Christ. In the system under review it is maintained that all the sects which accept the Fundamental articles of the faith are partakers in this privilege. The Catholic Church knows of one and only one test to determine this question of membership in Christ's body. This test does not lie in the acceptance of this or that particular doctrine, but in communion with the Apostolic hierarchy. Such is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers from earliest times. By way of illustration the words of Saint Irenæus may here be cited: "They who are in the Church", he writes, "must yield obedience to the presbyters, who have the succession from the Apostles, and who with the succession of episcopate have received . . . the sure gift of truth. Let them hold in suspicion those who sever themselves from the succession. These have all of them fallen from the truth" (Adv. Haer., IV, xxvi, 2). The theory which finds the one requisite in the acceptance of a series of fundamental articles is a novelty without a vestige of support in Christian antiquity.
(3) It is manifest that the theory is destructive of that unity in faith and in corporate communion, which Christ Himself declared should for ever be the guarantee of the Divine origin of the Church (John 17:21), and which the Catholic Church has ever exemplified and taught. Jurieu, it may be noted, frankly owned that on his theory the separate sects might be in a position of mutual excommunication, and yet remain members of the Church.
To sum up: the system of fundamental articles is repugnant to the religion of Christ. It is a stage in the disintegration of religion, consequent on the admission of the principle of private judgment in matters of faith; and it is a stage which is necessarily destined to lead on to the complete rejection of revealed truth.
APA citation. (1909). Fundamental Articles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06319a.htm
MLA citation. "Fundamental Articles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06319a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.