As a student in Bible College and then graduate school, I allowed my zeal in new theological discovery to overcome Christian humility and gentleness, engaging in fruitless and occasionally destructive arguments. Though I hope I have matured over the years, discerning what battles to fight can be difficult. Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On is intended to help all of us who engage in theology to think about theological triage, or discerning what battles we should fight and where and when we should fight them. I was pleased to receive a copy of Finding the Right Hills as part of the Crossway blog review program. Ortlund offers wise guidance in these matters; I was deeply convicted of my own failings in theological triage and the pride with which I have handled many theological discussions.
Theological Triage – Overview of Finding the Right Hills
Ortlund has borrowed the phrase “theological triage” from Al Mohler, defining it as “a system of prioritization,” intended to help us discern the degree of importance among different doctrines so that we can discern what “hills are worth dying on” and to discern what issues are most urgent and worth the effort of argument (17-18). He wants to offer a via media between two extremes, the hyper-conservative desire to battle over everything and the hyper-liberal desire to hold all things as loosely as possible. He urges that we should fight some battles, but many battles we do fight are unnecessary. To aid in theological triage, he offers 4 categories in which doctrines might fit:
First rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration. (19)
Ortlund does not discuss “Fourth-rank” doctrines in the book, focusing on the first three categories. Though he discusses various issues under each heading (the virgin birth being first order, baptism being second order, and the nature of the millennium third order), he is less concerned with gaining the reader’s agreement than illustrating the wisdom of these categories. He also makes the important clarification that though third rank doctrines, for example, may not be significant enough for division, this does not mean they are unimportant and have no practical impact. I find that given this system, his categorization of various doctrines is agreeable.
In Part 1, Ortlund explores the nature and necessity of “theological triage.” In chapters 1 and 2 looking at the opposite extremes of sectarianism and minimalism. In chapter 3, he provides a personal perspective from his journey with secondary and third rank or tertiary doctrines. In Part 2, Ortlund explores the nature of the first three categories and various examples of them at work. In these chapters, the intricacies of theological triage become apparent, for in many cases the doctrine debated is merely the expression of more significant issues (the virgin birth, for example, often betrays a more fundamental equivocation on the authority of Scripture and or the deity of Jesus). In the 4th chapter, he discusses two lists of criteria for determining the importance of various doctrines, from Erik Thoennes and Wayne Grudem, but settles on a more compact, four-point list to use “in a pinch”:
1. How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
2. What is this doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
4. What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today? (79)
For Ortlunds wise guidance in these matters and the needed call to humility, I highly recommend the book, especially to those who are just beginning their theological journey. However, to conclude this review, I want to consider the difficulties of theological triage, the reasons it is necessary, and its place within the overall evaluation of doctrine and the nature of theological method itself.
The virgin birth and creation days, which Ortlund classifies as first and third-order doctrines respectively, illustrate the ambiguities involved in theological triage. For example, the creation days debate has implications for doctrine and practice that extend much farther than the virgin birth, affecting our doctrines of being “in Christ,” imputation, the new creation, theology of labour, purpose of the created order, etc. It also appears many more times in Scripture than the virgin birth. However, Church history has been far more divided on this issue than on the virgin birth, and the latter topic has been a touchstone for the doctrine of Christ’s deity. So in one sense, it is very easy to defend Ortlund’s categorizations in this regard: it is hard to imagine someone rejecting the virgin birth without rejecting the verbal authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ. Yet, I can imagine a (flawed) linguistic argument sincerely held by a true Christian to the effect that Mary was only a young woman, in which case the virgin birth would not seem to be a first-order doctrine. And even though I cannot disagree with Ortlund on his classification of the creation days, this is the tip of the iceberg for a lot more significant issues, such as inerrancy, the appropriate hermeneutic for reading the Bible, the historicity of Adam, the nature of the curse, the cultural or kingdom mandate, and the nature of our new creation hope. Ortlund rightly recognizes the additional factors that make theological triage hard, including unintended ignorance and the complexities of different situations. Though this is more clearly the case with second and third-order doctrines, even first-order doctrines may be re-ordered given various circumstances (few would wish to exclude Justin Martyr from the communion of the saints though his doctrine of Christ is seriously deficient in light of the Bible). These difficulties in performing triage bring us to the purpose of triage.
The Purpose of Theological Triage
Ortlund makes a compelling case that theological triage is necessary; if we are to be the united body of Christ and work together across churches and denominations, we need some way of picking which doctrines are worth dividing over. If we pick a fight over the interpretation of every passage, every practice, and every doctrine, we will end up with millions of “churches” consisting of one or two isolated, like-minded members. So triage is necessary, but its role seems to be restricted to this question, with whom should we communion. Though “creation days” is not nearly as important in the abstract as the deity of Christ (which happens to be a significant aspect of my PhD thesis, so I clearly think it’s important), I would contend that it is worth the effort to argue over. It is not worth dividing over—many if not most of my friends disagree with my conclusions on the issue—yet it is the touchstone for many significant doctrines. Making the case here secures key hermeneutical ground—namely, the clarity of Scripture—and the historicity of Adam, which is essential for understanding the covenantal nature of our union with Christ and the imputation of His righteousness. It is important because it is so easily dismissed today in light of modern science and yet it gives light to many passages in the Old and New Testament. It appears, then, that triage as established by Ortlund is valuable in discerning the practical questions of what disagreements can we maintain in serving at a church, pastoring a church, being ordained in a certain denomination, being mentored and mentoring, or studying at a school. The question of what doctrines should be taught, wrestled with, and given attention is discerned by a far more complex web of the teaching of the Bible, current cultural climate, current relationships and needs, and the reasons for disagreement. The complexity of these issues should caution us against a certain type of theological disagreement, guilt by association. It is hypothetically possible that someone could reject the virgin birth without denying Christ’s divinity or the authority of the Bible, so we need to clarify why they would reject the doctrine. We cannot assume that because someone rejects the creation days, for example, they reject inerrancy and a historical Adam. But this brings us to the last reflection I want to make, on the nature of theological method.
It needs to be asked, why do we encounter disagreement on these matters? That is, all the first, second, and third-order issues Ortlund raises are not issues that entertain mutually compatible interpretations: they imply a decision one way or another on the meaning of a Biblical passage or a set of passages. There is a whole other set of issues, what we could call the applications or implications of Scripture, on which different conclusions cannot be practically held together and yet imply no such disagreement over the meaning of Scripture. I would argue that several different forms of church government could be defended Biblically, yet any single church needs to choose one over the other. The use of certain musical instruments and types of music in worship would also be such an issue. These are issues that necessary cause physical division and yet need not cause spiritual division; we may not be able to work in the same church if we have different views on the best form of government for a specific setting, yet we can work together in the same community to achieve the same Gospel purpose. These are generally 4th tier issues, which I would argue—in contrast with Ortlund—should be the primary reason we have physical divisions among churches and denominations: we should aim for theological unity but have flexibility in application. The issues Ortlund has in mind are not these issues; instead, he is concerned with issues that involve interpretive disagreements. We should ask ourselves, why do we disagree over these things?
What are the Causes of Disagreement?
In some cases, there may be a lack of skill or knowledge involved, such that one interpretation is better; in this case, humility would ideally lead one person to concede their position in light of the evidence from the Bible. In other cases, there may be a moral failing, an unconscious or conscious dismissal of a position because it is offensive in one way or another. In this case, if unconscious, someone pointing out the teaching of Scripture may resolve the issue; in the case of a conscious dismissal, a heart problem is present and arguing or triaging away the issue would fail to deal with a serious problem, the rejection of Christ’s lordship. In other cases, there might be a genuine ambiguity in the text; in these cases, an application drawn from that text is by definition a 4th tier issue, a case where many mutually exclusive applications are possible. A final possibility is that disagreement lies in the interpretive approach brought to Scripture. My analysis of these possibilities presupposes a certain method or interpretive conclusion, that Scripture is clear and that all doctrine should be firmly grounded and arguable from Scripture. I would suggest that this meta-issue, the nature of doctrine, separates many divisions of Christianity—Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism—and is at least a second-order issue if not a first-order issue. If we accept this conclusion, an important perspective on the matters discussed by Ortlund is revealed.
In every case, I would argue, the disagreement lies here, in hermeneutic or interpretive lens brought to Scripture. We must ask ourselves, where in the triage does this hermeneutic lie? On the one hand, it has an overwhelming influence on every doctrine, so it must be first-order; yet, on the other hand, it has been debated throughout the history of the Church, so it cannot be first-order. Further complexity is added by the fact that most arguments over the issue of hermeneutics (or the interpretive lenses we bring to Scripture) occur before we consider doctrine; it is considered a matter of prolegomena or something that is brought to and not taught by Scripture. However, if our most significant theological disagreements come down to the question of hermeneutics, can we afford to say that this is an issue not spoken about in Scripture? However, if Scripture guides us in this matter, then we have no choice but to make hermeneutics a first-order teaching of Scripture, for it shapes all other doctrines. This conclusion doesn’t immediately resolve many of the issues Ortlund brings up, for all of these issues are inter-Protestantism debates concerning which all the proponents share—to some degree—the same hermeneutical lens and (on the surface at least) the same commitment to the authority of Scripture.
For example, as Ortlund recognizes, Complementarians and Egalitarians alike divide between what the text says and its timeless principles, they just come to different conclusions on the latter. So all the disagreements Ortlund brings up as second or third order, those most discussed among Evangelicals—whether they ought to be or not—come down to in house debates that are not resolved by appeals to Scripture but by the extra-biblical material brought to the Scriptures or a difference in interpretive lens. This should be a shocking conclusion and should raise a first-tier issue for us; what is the point of having a clear Bible if its clarity does not affect our understanding of key issues? More importantly, why is our hermeneutic, the fundamental ground of our doctrine, not clearly rooted in Bible it interprets? If Scripture does not speak about these issues, then we are in serious trouble; the Bible is not clear where we need it most. But if the Bible does speak about these issues, we are also in serious trouble, for we do not agree on this issue. I have tried to articulate a hermeneutical model derived from Scripture in my book The Gift of Reading – Part 1 & Part 2, hoping to give a theological voice to what has largely been a philosophical issue. Those books are not the final word, but I believe it could start a conversation in the right direction; can we outdo one another in being the most Biblical about our approach to the Bible? Theological triage in the manner Ortlund has outlined is necessary as long as hermeneutical differences remain, but if we can settle this matter, then triage would take a different form. It would focus on discerning what applications and possible ways of living out the Bible ought to take priority as we choose where, when, and how we will unite our purposes with fellow Christians.