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The cardinal doctrines of Protestants

Common Protestant & non-Protestant
beliefs. Niagara Bible Conference. Conflicts.

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Common Protestant beliefs:

There appears to be a general consensus by conservative and some mainline Protestant faith groups that a list of common beliefs might include:

bullet The Trinity,
bullet The deity of Jesus,
bullet The sinless life of Jesus,
bullet Jesus' bodily resurrection,
bullet Jesus' ascension towards Heaven,
bullet The atonement as a result of the life, and particularly the death, of Jesus,
bullet Personal salvation by grace,
bullet The inerrancy of the Bible
bullet The inspiration of the Bible's authors by the Holy Spirit
bullet God's inspiration of the Bible's authors,
bullet The virgin birth, and
bullet The anticipated second coming of Jesus.

But there does not appear to be an agreed upon single list that most Protestant faith groups accept as the most important or "cardinal doctrines."

Beliefs of non-Protestant groups:

This essay deals with the cardinal beliefs of Protestant groups. However, Protestants do not form the entirety of Christianity. Consider just two other groups:

bullet The very earliest Christian movement were the Jewish Christians. This was a group originally formed in Jerusalem under the leadership of two of the principal disciples of Jesus: James the "brother" of Jesus and Peter. They were the main followers of Jesus' teachings in the period immediately after Jesus' execution and before the arrival of Paul. They might not be considered Christian by today's standards. That group apparently did not believe in the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, salvation by grace, or the virgin birth and many other beliefs that other Christian groups later developed. They attended services in the Jerusalem Temple, sacrificed animals, considered themselves Jews, circumcised their male children, followed the Mosaic Code, etc. They expected that Jesus' second coming would occur sometime in the first century CE, not millennia later.


The Roman Catholic Church expects its members to believe in a much larger list of cardinal beliefs than is listed above. One example that is not shared by Protestants is the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at death. Pope Pius XII wrote in Munificentissimus Deus:

"... we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith." 1

Cardinal doctrines according to the Niagara Bible Conference:

The Bible Conference of Conservative Christians at Niagara, initially known as the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study, was organized in 1868 and met annually from 1883 to 1897 at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. In 1878 they created the "Niagara Creed" -- a list of fourteen fundamental points of Christian belief.

Among the fourteen points, the five principal beliefs were:

bullet The verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible,
bullet The total depravity of man, a Calvinist doctrine.
bullet The necessity of being born again in order to achieve salvation,
bullet Substitutionary atonement, and
bullet Premillennial return of Christ.

These were later discussed in The Fundamentals -- a series of pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915. From these pamphlets, the term "fundamentalism" developed; before that time, fundamentalists were referred to simply as conservatives. 2,3

A conflict over cardinal doctrines:

In 1910, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) derived the following essential tenets from the Westminister Confession of Faith. This is the foundational document that they share with other Reform denominations:

bullet The inerrancy of Scripture.
bullet The virgin birth of Jesus.
bullet The substitutionary atonement.
bullet Jesus' bodily resurrection.
bullet The miracles generated by Jesus were authentic.

In 1916 and 1923, their General Assembly ruled that all ordination candidates had to agree with all of the above beliefs in order to be accepted. A fundamentalist / Modernist split occurred in the denomination that focused around this requirement for ordination. Some ministers suggested that the Bible was not necessarily inerrant on matters of science and history. Others believed that there were other valid principles by which the functioning of the atonement could be explained

Debate reached a fever pitch, much like the conflict over ordination of women and ordination of gays and lesbians in loving committed relationships were to generate conflict within some denominations in later decades.

Some liberals in the denomination met at the Auburn Seminary in northern New York state in 1924 and agreed on the Auburn Affirmation. It stated, in part:

"...we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship. 4

It asserted that Presbyterians at the time should:

bullet "Safeguard liberty of thought and teaching of its ministers";

bullet Prohibit restricting the church to rigid interpretations of scripture and doctrine; and

bullet Refuse to rank ecclesiastical authority above the conscience swayed by the [Holy] Spirit. 4

That document prompted the 1925 General Assembly to form a Special Theological Commission "to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for the end that the purity, peace and unity and progress of the Church may be assured." Their report influenced delegates to the 1927 General Assembly to institute a type of local option within the denomination. They declared that it is the individual presbyteries, not the General Assembly, which would determine what their clergy must affirm theologically. A schism occurred in 1936 when Fundamentalist members left the PCUSA to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America under leader J Gresham Machen. 5,6 Another schism happened later over female ordination.

There is a concern that a similar schism may happen in the future to mainline Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopalian denominations over issues related to homosexuality.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Pope Pius Xii, "Munificentissiumus Deus," Vatican, 1950-NOV-01, at:
  2. David O. Beale, "S.B.C. House on the Sand?" Although this essay is available on the Internet, the publisher states that "Permission must be link to this page." We have requested such permission.
  3. Mark Sarver, "Dispensationalism," Sermon Links, at:
  4. Text of the 1924 "Auburn Affirmation" is online at:
  5. "Lesson 2: On the history of the church's ordination standards," Ordination Standards: Biblical, Theologican, and Scientific Perspectives, North Como Presbyterian Church, Pages 139 - 140. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  6. D.G. Hart, "Machen and the OPC," Orthodox Presbyterian Church, at:

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Copyright 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAR-10
Latest update: 2011-JAN-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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