What is meant by “essential tenets”?

Within the Reformed faith, there is not a checklist of required doctrinal positions with which to agree in order to qualify as “Reformed.” There are two related reasons.

First, the Reformed faith values freedom of conscience, encouraging the people of God —as members of the priesthood of all believers—actively to discern the will of God in each new day. In this sense, every believer is charged to “figure out for him or herself what Christianity is about,” as Kathryn Tanner puts it.[1] (xiii)

Ordained persons are free to be “instructed,” “lead,” and “continually guided” by the confessions without being forced to subscribe to any precisely worded articles of faith drawn up either by the General Assembly or by a presbytery. ... Presbyteries (in the case of ministers) and church sessions (in the case of ruling elders and deacons) are free to decide for themselves what acceptable loyalty to the confessions means in their particular situation without being bound to any “checklist” prescribed by higher governing bodies of the church.[2]

Second, the Reformed faith is itself subject to revision by the living Word of God, revealed in Jesus Christ and borne witness to in the Scriptures through the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The reason our Book of Confessions is open is, in part, to make corrections and additions to our understanding of what constitutes the Christian faith. Our church’s teachings about women’s ordination, for example, have changed just in the last half century.[3] Finally, to have a strict list of beliefs would be to compromise on our identity, which is founded not in doctrines but in our relationship to the living Lord.

That said, the language of “essential tenets” as used in this question reminds us that the Reformed faith has authoritative, if not rigid, doctrinal content. While considered “subordinate standards” to the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ and written in Scripture, the confessions of the church “may not be ignored or dismissed,” according to the Book of Order [BOO] (F-2.02). Ministers of Word and Sacrament and ruling elders and deacons agree to be guided by these confessions as the church uses them to “instruct, counsel with, [and] even to discipline” them (BOO, F-2.02).

[1] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, xiii.

[2] Book of Confessions: Study Edition-Revised (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) 448–49.

[3] The Book of Confessions, The Scots Confession (1560) argues that “the Holy Ghost” does not “permit” women to preach or baptize (3.22) while A Brief Statement of Faith (1983) holds that the Holy Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the Church” (11.4).