I recently finished a book by Gavin Ortlund on theological triage. I found it tremendously helpful for thinking about how to fellowship and cooperate with Christians whom we disagree with doctrinally. Here are 20 of the quotes that most stood out to me:
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.
In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin warned against the error of "capricious separation" from true churches and Christians. He argued that what marks a true church is "the pure ministry of the word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments." If a church possesses these marks,
"we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.” Calvin further allowed that there may be errors in the way a church practices these two marks, and yet it is a true church: "Some faults may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church.”
Pursuing the unity of the church does not mean that we should stop caring about theology. But it does mean that our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements. As Spurgeon explained, talking about George Herbert:
Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Now I hate High Churchism as my soul hates Satan; but I love George Herbert, although George Herbert is a desperately High Churchman. I hate his High Churchism, but I love George Herbert from my very soul, and I have a warm corner in my heart for every man who is like him. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him... I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.”
Satan will pretend to any sort of strictness, by which he can mortify love. If you can devise any such strictness of opinions, or exactness in church orders, or strictness in worship, as will but help to kill men's love, and set the churches in divisions, Satan will be your helper, and will be the strictest and exactest of you all: He will reprove Christ as a Sabbath breaker, and as a gluttonous person, and a wine-bibber, and a friend (or companion) of publicans and sinners, and as an enemy to Caesar too.” (Richard Baxter)
As a result, Baxter warns that a harsh, critical spirit associates us with Satan:
“You think when a wrathful envious heat is kindled in you against men for their fault, that it is certainly a zeal of God's exciting: But mark whether it have not more wrath than love in it: and whether it tend not more to disgrace your brother than to cure him, or to make parties and divisions, than to heal them: if it be so, if St. James be not deceived, you are deceived as to the author of your zeal (James 3:15-16) and it has a worse original than you suspect.”
Much doctrinal separatism stems from finding our identity in our theological distinctives when we should be finding it in the gospel. As John Newton wisely warned, "Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as works!"
Therefore, even if we ultimately conclude that the interpretation of a particular passage is not worth our dividing from other Christians, it doesn't follow that we should relegate that passage to the realm of adiaphora and say, "Who cares?" Rather, our love for the Lord who breathed it to us—and our reverence for it as his breathed word—should compel diligent study and effort to understand it as much as we can, as the Bereans did.
“Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he had said to his opponents: ‘Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.’ Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord's Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.’ Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.” (J. Gresham Machen)
If lesser and greater truths have a relation to each other, then it is dangerous to assume that so long as a doctrine is not part of the gospel, it is of no importance to the gospel. Many second- and third-rank doctrines will influence how we experience and/or uphold the gospel. B. B. Warfield reflected this instinct when he wrote: "Why make much of minor points of difference between those who serve the one Christ? Because a pure gospel is worth preserving.”
Even in our theological polemics, we must exhibit a self-restraint that subordinates our personal likes and dislikes to the concerns of the kingdom.
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?
These biblical, theological, historical, and practical questions are not all that need be asked, but they are a helpful start for doing theological triage.
…we nould distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. Some Christians will lack the mental apacity, theological awareness, or communicative ability to express various first-rank doctrines. For instance, would you require an eight-year-old to positively articulate the relation of the divine and human natures of Christ before you accepted his faith as sincere? Of course not. But these are still first-rank doctrines; they are implicit in any confession of the gospel, and they must not be denied.
It is God's business to regulate entry to heaven, and ours to regulate entry to the church. As Herman Witsius put it long ago: "It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship, a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven."
…the fact that someone does not verbally affirm justification by faith alone does not necessarily mean that in that person's heart and conscience he or she is not trusting in Christ for justification. As John Owen observed, "Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.”
If you are wrestling with the doctrine of _____ here are several questions you might find helpful:
1. Is there anything in my heart that takes pride in my view or feels superior to Christians who are on "the other side"? If so, how can I direct my heart back to the gospel as the only source of my identity and "rightness"?
2. Is there anything in me that is disrespectful or dismissive of the importance of this issue? Do I appreciate why Christians have been willing to die for their differences over this issue? Do I feel superior to, or exasperated with, those Christians who elevate this issue more highly than I do? How can I better understand their concerns and thereby move toward them?
3. Have I taken seriously the urgency of Christ's prayer for the unity of the church (John 17), and am I looking to take whatever steps I can to pursue the realization of this prayer in my own life?
4. What is the right context for me to flourish both in maintaining my own convictions about _____ and in pursuing genuine fellowship and partnership in the gospel with those who differ?
Too often, each side assumes the worst of the other or associates everyone who holds a particular view with its worst representations.
We must be wary of labeling this a second-rank issue on paper but allowing it to occupy first-rank position emotionally and practically.
Many of us don't like to live with ambiguity. We like to have things nailed down. We want to know, once for all, what number to assign to each particular issue so that we can function in light of that judgment.
Unfortunately, real life is more complicated than neat categories allow. Many doctrines defy a once-for-all classification without consideration of context. So, just as courage is the great need surrounding first-rank doctrines, the great need surrounding second-rank doctrines is wisdom. Theological triage is not a matter of crunching the numbers. It is not a math equation. There are practical and relational nuances constantly in play.
We should eagerly pursue the kind of theological conviction and strength that is willing not only to fight for the truth but also to avoid fighting in order to promote the gospel. This is the best kind of strength.
“This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and however often you should ask me I would say the same, not because there are no other precepts to be explained, but if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, and behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.
…If you should ask, and as often as you should ask, about the precepts of the Christian religion, my inclination would be to answer nothing but humility, unless necessity should force me to say something else." (Augustine)
The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility.