Vitals, n. – 1. Those parts or organs of the body, esp. the human body, essential to life, or upon which life depends; the vital parts. 2. Parts or features essentially necessary to something; essential points, essentials.

Oxford English Dictionary

There seems to be some confusion here recently about the definition of the word “vitals.” Vitals is from the Latin word vitalis which describes things pertaining to life. Used as a noun it describes things necessary for life. In anatomy, vitals describes indispensable body parts, those essential for life. In other words, the heart, the brain, the lungs, the liver – parts without which one would die. The eyes are not vitals. Fingers are not vitals. You can live without eyes or fingers or even legs or ears. Although those things are fundamental to the human body, and without fingers, eyes, ears, or legs the human body would not be whole, without these body parts the human body can still live. Vitals are parts of the body without which the body cannot live.

In the BCO and RAO (sorry if you’re not a PCA polity wonk, but this is kind of inside baseball here) the standard for presbyteries to judge the allowance of ministerial stated differences to the confessional standards is to judge whether the scruple, “is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion,” (BCO 21-4.f). This is a very carefully constructed sentence. In it being “out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” is defined as either being “hostile to the system,” or, striking at “the vitals of religion.”

This sentence is the core of our good faith subscription system in the PCA. In the PCA we do not require our pastors to strictly subscribe to every statement or proposition of doctrine in our confessional standards. In our polity, which all ministers have sworn to practice, we leave it to the word of the ministerial candidate and the judgement of the Presbytery to determine if any stated differences with the Westminster Standards are acceptable because they are “not out of accord.” The criterion for judging whether a stated difference is out of accord or not is consistent and uniform in the BCO, something is out of accord if it is either hostile to the system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion.

This criterion admittedly places a lot of responsibility on the Presbytery. The Presbytery must act with both knowledge and wisdom in order to properly adjudicate a candidate’s stated differences. Different presbyteries will handle this process differently, for sure, with some stated differences being acceptable in some presbyteries but not in others. That is a feature of our polity as it currently stands, like it or not.

Some though are not comfortable with this feature and wish to make lists. In discussing the content of these lists and the theory behind them it seems that there is not a consensus on what is hostile and what are vitals. Rather, there seems to be confusion on the definition of these words and how they apply to our polity.

Vitals of religion are aspects of the Christian faith which give it vitality, make it alive. A vital of religion is something without which a person’s faith would be dead. For example, faith is a vital of religion. Without faith in Christ, one’s religion is dead. Love is a vital of religion. Without love, all the knowledge and doctrine in the world is just noise. Knowledge does not save a person. Faith in God expressed in love for God and neighbor is what makes religion vital. Truth is also a vital of religion. There are certain truths that have to be believed in, or at least not disbelieved, if one’s faith is to be considered alive. What are those vital truths? According to the historic usage of the phrase, “vitals of religion” as demonstrated in the Oxford English Dictionary, a vital of religion would be, “Parts or features essentially necessary to something; essential points, essentials” What are the truths that are essential to Christianity? What is a sina qua non of our religion? We may debate these things, but certainly internecine debates over paedocommunion (or padeobaptism even), the covenant of works (or covenant theology as a whole even), or six day creation (or full on theistic evolution even) are not vitals of religion. As much as we may disagree with these positions, we would still consider our Baptist brothers just that, brothers. We would consider our dispensationalist brothers just that, brothers. We would consider those who affirm speciation, or even human evolution, as brothers in the Lord. As long as they have a vital faith, a vital love for God and neighbor, and maintain the essentials of Christianity expressed in the Nicene Creed (we can discuss how far to draw this line out, but this is not my main point) we would call them brothers and sisters in Christ. At least we should. Brothers, we are not sectarian. We are Catholic Christians.    

What then are things that are “hostile to the system of doctrine”? There is more leeway for discussion on this matter for sure, because here we are not saying that someone is not a Christian, but that someone is not Reformed. You can’t be a PCA pastor or elder (or deacon) if you are not Reformed. What is hostile to Reformed theology? In order to determine this, we have to branch out a bit from the text of Westminster itself. We have to know a bit about the players in the discussions and debates at Westminster and their various views. We have to know the broader scope of Reformed theology leading up to the writing of the Westminster Standards, including the other Reformed confessions. We even need to be well educated in subsequent debates and discoveries in the Reformed world. Most important of all, we must be able to search the scriptures for answers to these questions. There is another depository of truth besides the Westminster Standards to which we are bidden by the Standards themselves to go, the Holy Scriptures, which alone are the supreme judge of all controversies of religion. Indeed, the Westminster divines affirm that all councils may err, including their own. The Holy Spirit speaking through the Bible is the final arbiter. Thus, it takes a good deal of knowledge and wisdom to determine whether something is hostile to the system. One cannot come to a conclusion regarding this cavalierly.

It seems to me that something that is “hostile to the system” is something that attacks or degrades the system itself. The difference between the meaning of the words “fundamental” and “vitals” is very subtle. One describes something essential for life (vitality). The other describes “an essential or indispensable part of a system.” Fundamentals seem to be in the arena of essential truths, tenets, or beliefs. Vitals are in the arena of life itself. Therefore something that is hostile to the system, would seem to be something that would attack a fundamental belief or truth in our system of doctrine, in other words, if you believe that thing you are no longer Reformed. So, we PCA types would say that paedobaptism is fundamental to our system. We would agree that holding to credobaptism (solely) would be hostile to our system. But would holding to paedocommunion be technically hostile to the system? Does the system of doctrine fall if one espouses a belief in paedocommunion? We would agree that assenting to covenant theology is an essential to our system of doctrine. We would agree that holding to dispensationalism would be hostile to the system, and therefore not an acceptable view. But should we say the same thing about someone who does not affirm the covenant of works? Does belief in the views of Murray (and others in various articulations) make one no longer Reformed? We would agree, according to our GA position paper on creation and evolution, that theistic evolution as defined there would be hostile to our system. But should we say the same thing about someone who does not affirm six-day creation?

These are not rhetorical questions. And though you can probably discern my answers to them, I will not discuss them here. Yet in our polity it is the individual presbyteries who have to determine the answers to these questions, along with many others. In answering them we are participating in the essence of what we as a denomination have agreed it means to be presbyterian. Being presbyterian means that we agree to practice these things, until such a time as our Constitution is changed on these matters. But in order to decide them, I would argue, we need to understand the various issues at play. To not do so would be failing to keep our vows.

I’ve often wondered why the BCO states both “hostile to the system” and “striking at the vitals of religion.” It had seemed to me that if something strikes at the vitals of religion it would also be hostile to the system of doctrine. So why do you need the “strikes at the vitals” part? Over time I have come to realize that there are things that strike at the vitals of religion that are not strictly in the realm of doctrine. Lack of faith strikes at the vitals of religion. Lack of love strikes at the vitals of religion. Discord strikes at the vitals of religion.

We need to be soberly reminded of these things. I need to be reminded of these things. Knowledge, though important, is not everything. We as Christians are called to hold the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We are told that, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” We are warned that a person who “stirs up division” is “warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” We are told that for those overlooking, allowing, and covering up abuse and systemic sin in the church, “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” There are things that are vital to our religion that are not a part of our system of doctrine. James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe– and shudder!”

Let us not assume that those who wish to uphold unity and peace, to avoid discord and division, to love the brethren, and to call out systemic sin are not being confesssional. Let us not assume that such elders and pastors do not care about doctrine or being careful about doctrine. And let us also not assume that just because someone is careful about doctrine that they do not care about unity or peace. But let us all avoid discord and strive to believe the best about each other, because that is the essence (vital, fundamental) of what good faith subscription is all about.