But how do we get our doctrinal priorities straight? How do we know when to place special priority on a particular doctrine and when to avoid overstating the significance of another? Several years ago Albert Mohler proposed a helpful typology for sorting our doctrinal priorities. His "theological triage" suggests three levels of Christian doctrine we ought to distinguish. First-level issues are essential to the Christian faith---issues that separate Christians from non-Christians---such as the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Second-level issues may not define the Christian faith but have such significance for the organization and function of the church that they still separate Christians into distinct churches and denominations. The mode of baptism and the ordination of women might fall into this second category. Finally, Christians may disagree over third-level issues and yet still work peaceably with one another even in the same churches and denominations. Millennial debates would fall into this third level. Mohler's theological triage helpfully provides the categories necessary for maintaining charitable relationships with like-minded believers (say, fellow evangelicals) without diminishing the importance of denominational distinctives, such as baptism or church polity.
Derivative SignificanceIn a different context, Jesuit theologian Edward T. Oakes has suggested another helpful way that we might go about the business of doctrinal prioritization. Speaking of the distinctions within Roman Catholic dogma, Oakes writes,
The church has long recognized that she speaks with different levels of authority and addresses issues of greater and lesser moment. Indeed the very truths she seeks both to propound and to defend are themselves arranged according to a certain hierarchy, with some doctrines of greater significance (among which would of course include Christology) and others not so much of lesser significance but ones that gain their force, so to speak, by their relation to the truths of greater moment. Of course, truths that are implications of "higher truths" are not less true; rather, they gain their truth-value from their relation (as implications) to more fundamental doctrines.One need not embrace Oakes's understanding of the Roman Catholic Magisterium in order to appreciate his point. Doctrinal truths of "greater moment" are integral---that is, non-derivative. Or, to switch from a mathematical to an artistic metaphor, certain doctrines are primary colors in the theological palette. Doctrines of "lesser moment" are not "less true" but derive their significance from their relation to the primary doctrines.