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The following quotes caught my attention as I read Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (TGC/Crossway, 2020).


Sometimes we flatten out all doctrine—either because we want to fight about everything or because we want to fight about nothing. More commonly, we have some kind of functional theological triage, but we have not thought it through very self-consciously. As a result, it is determined reactively by our circumstances and temperament rather than proactively by Scripture and principle. (18)

It is false to think that doctrinal minimalism is necessarily or inherently more destructive than doctrinal sectarianism. Errors in both directions can diminish our gospel impact. (33)

Theological zeal must be subjected to the test of love. Not all zeal is from God. Even when the error we oppose is a deadly heresy, our aim must be to heal, not to disgrace. (42)

If our identity is riding on our differences with other believers, we will tend to major in the study of differences. We may even find ourselves looking for faults in others in order to define ourselves. (42)

Everything God reveals in Scripture is essential for something, or it wouldn’t be there. . . . If we isolate everything outside the gospel as a matter of indifference, we end up trivializing the majority of what God has communicated to us. (49–50)

Most of us recognize that a pugnacious, mean-spirited attitude toward theological controversy is antithetical to the gospel. But we must also say that so is an unwillingness to fight over doctrine. (58)

Some first-rank doctrines are needed to defend the gospel, and others to proclaim the gospel. Without them the gospel is either vulnerable or incomplete. (76)

Theological triage is not primarily an intellectual exercise but a practical one. Theological wisdom does not consider doctrines in the abstract, concerned mainly with technical correctness. Instead, it considers doctrines in their “real life” influence on actual people and situations and churches. (77)

We should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. . . . Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as characteristic of growth in Christ over time. It would be unhelpful to require that every Christian affirm every first-rank doctrine at the moment of his or her conversion. . . . In addition, when a first-rank doctrine is denied, we must distinguish between a denial based upon ignorance or confusion and a knowing, willful denial. . . . We must distinguish between confused sheep and active wolves. (80, 81)

Rather than insisting on a positive articulation of every first-rank doctrine for salvation, a more careful statement would be that if someone knowingly and persistently denies a first-rank tenet, we can have no confidence of that person’s salvation. But it would probably be better to restrict our focus to whether we would allow such a person into the membership of our church than to speculate about the state of his or her soul. It is God’s business to regulate entry to heaven, and ours to regulate entry to the church. (82)

Biblical authority is one of the most pressing issues for the life and health of the church: it ensures that we remain the judged, not the judges, in our relation to God and truth. It is easy, even while having a notionally high view of the Bible, to let some other ideology or value filter which parts of the Bible function authoritatively over us. A healthy Christian will be continually corrected and repaired by God’s word, and will submit to—even delight in—this correcting process. One reason first-rank doctrines are worth fighting for is that their denial weakens the authoritative, corrective role that God’s word is supposed to have over us. (86)

Justification is not, in itself, the whole gospel; but it nonetheless touches the whole gospel. (90)

Many of us do not prefer, as a matter of temperament, theological polemics. We would rather preach the gospel than refute error. That is commendable as a matter of preference. Consider the way Jude expresses it: “Although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Celebrating the gospel should be a matter of eagerness; contending for it, a matter of necessity. Regrettably, for some Christians it is the reverse. (94)

The appropriate mentality corresponding to first-rank doctrines is courage and conviction. The appropriate mentality regarding third-rank doctrines is circumspection and restraint. Our mentality concerning second-rank doctrines should be wisdom and balance. (95)

Doctrines do not exist in a theological vacuum. Each doctrine finds its ultimate meaning in relation to the entire gospel. Thus, some doctrines may appear to be relatively minor in themselves but utterly essential in the way they function toward other doctrines—like a plank in a bridge that looks relatively unimportant but in fact keeps it from collapsing. (98)

Any effort to refocus on the center will inevitably engage at least some of the periphery. Similarly, it is false to think that just because an issue is distinct from the gospel, it has no bearing on the gospel. This is at the heart of the recognition of second-rank doctrines as a category. (119)

In both war and theology, there are battles to avoid. Just as we can be ineffective because of compromise or inertia, so too we can be ineffective because of impulsiveness or haste. In fact, I would suggest that a wise theologian, like a wise military general, will be characterized by patience far more frequently than by action. Most of the battles you could fight, you shouldn’t. And I’d go so far as to say that the majority of doctrinal fights Christians have today tend to be over third-rank issues—or fourth. We deeply need to cultivate greater doctrinal forbearance, composure, and resilience. (125)

The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. (147)

Some worry that too much focus on humility will make us wishy-washy. But humility is not the antonym of strength. On the contrary, those who tremble at God’s word are those most likely to stand against human opposition. (148)

Our zeal for theology must never exceed our zeal for our actual brothers and sisters in Christ. . . . If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything—if it doesn’t hurt—then you probably are not adjusting enough. (149, 150)

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