Spend some time online perusing blogs and articles shared on social media, and you are likely to stumble across writers who, with confidence and conviction, label other Christians as heretics or false teachers. Sometimes the descriptions are apt, as they refer to people who, for example, deny the Trinity and thus fall clearly outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Other times, however, the use of heresy refers to an area where Bible-believing, orthodox Christians disagree over doctrine or practice, such as speaking in tongues or the ministry of women in the church.
What happens online rarely stays online, and unnecessary division can easily spread to churches, where pastors and lay leaders find themselves in controversies over Christian leaders they may associate with or whose works they recommend. Whenever I see labels like heresy and false teaching being overused, I’m reminded of the great philosopher Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
These controversies raise an important question: What constitutes false teaching? How do we know the difference between areas in which we may “agree to disagree” or areas where the compromise is so dangerous as to obscure the gospel? What do we do when doctrine divides people who love Jesus, believe the Bible, and agree on the fundamentals of the faith?
Prioritization of Doctrine
Two recent books, in different ways and with different audiences in mind, seek to provide helpful context and counsel on these questions. The first is Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway/TGC, 2020). Ortlund’s book is concise and accessible (160 pages), designed for discussing the analogy of “theological triage,” introduced by R. Albert Mohler Jr. in an article from 2005. Triage assumes prioritization in medical contexts. A doctor on the battlefield cannot treat every wounded soldier simultaneously; he or she must rely on a process to determine which injuries you treat first.
Ortlund uses the concept of triage in the context of theology in order to make two points. First, doctrines have different kinds of importance. “Some hills are worth dying on,” Ortlund writes. “Others are not.” Second, triage assumes that some needs are more urgent than others. “The more demanding the issues, the more you have to make hard decisions.”
Building on this concept, Gavin Ortlund makes the case that “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; and fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.” (19)
Examples of Triage
Ortlund offers the Trinity as an example of a first-rank doctrine, baptism as a second-rank doctrine, and the timing of the events surrounding the return of Christ as a third-rank doctrine.
In personal correspondence with Gavin, I asked about Calvinism (a doctrinal divide not addressed in his book), and he and I agreed that Calvinism and Arminianism would be a third-rank doctrine when the debate remains focused on the narrow soteriological distinctions. This means people could have multiple views even within the same congregation or among the church leadership. In some cases, however, the focus may widen into a range of cultural and practical issues that flow from Reformed theology or revivalist impulses as a whole, and thus cause the debate to drift toward the second-rank category. This explains why some denominations have grown up around different soteriological positions and the cultural and ecclesial practices that follow from them.
Ortlund not only establishes a ranking for these doctrines, but also helps us develop an appropriate mentality for each: courage and conviction in holding to first-rank doctrines, wisdom and balance concerning second-rank doctrines, and circumspection and restraint for third-rank doctrines (95). Along the way, he warns against “doctrinal minimalism” that leads to an underestimation of how closely connected some doctrines are to the gospel. “Secondary” doctrines may not be first-rank when it comes to the gospel, but they still make a difference in “how we uphold the gospel” (47). They may picture the gospel, protect the gospel, or pertain to the gospel in another way (57-58).
Criticism of Theological Triage
Some have pushed back on the idea of theological triage, which, like all analogies, breaks down at certain points. Why should we assume that we are the doctors treating doctrinal error? Aren’t we all likely to be “infected” with some level of theological error of which we remain unaware? Do we dare rank the commands of Jesus to us, as if some are more important than others? Might this become a clever way of excusing or justifying wrong belief or behavior?
Critics of theological triage make salient points, and the analogy is not without its problems. Still, the fact that the apostle Paul speaks of the gospel as being “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3) while giving freedom for Christians to agree to disagree on other topics (Phil 3:15; Rom 14:1) shows that, at some level, he understood that some doctrinal disputes matter more than others. Theological triage is an analogy that, while not perfect, helps us guard the unity of the church while we passionately “contend for the faith” (Jude 3)—a faith, we should remember, that includes the importance of church unity. Our Lord prayed for unity, and his apostles pursued it. We must not sacrifice the pursuit of unity for a pursuit of purity when it comes to third-rank doctrines.
Doctrinal Diversity in Evangelicalism
Rhyne Putman’s When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Crossway, 2020) is a much longer book (313 pages) with a more ambitious goal. Putman interacts with the “theological triage” analogy, but in a way that places it within a wider scope. Doctrinal taxonomies or dogmative ranks have long been part of the Reformation tradition, in which “foundational doctrines are given greater weight and authority in a theological system, while other doctrines take a place of secondary or tertiary importance” (204).
Putman’s aim goes beyond explaining and applying this analogy. His is a larger task: developing a theological method that “explores the nature of doctrinal diversity from a distinctly evangelical point of view.” To that end, he hopes to address “big-picture questions about the nature of doctrine, the sources of theology, and the processes by which we develop doctrine” (29).
Likewise, Putman’s questions are more expansive. “How do Christ-followers with similar convictions about Scripture and the gospel come to such drastically different points of view in matters of faith and practice?” he asks. “What should otherwise like-minded Christians do about the doctrines that divide them?” (30)
The first part of the book answers the first question, giving readers a greater understanding of the reasons we approach the task of biblical interpretation and application differently. We read imperfectly (as fallible interpreters), we reason differently, we feel differently (and here is where Putman makes his unique contribution—helping us understand the role of emotions in Bible interpretation), and we come to the text with different biases.
Not surprisingly, Putman recommends reading deeply and widely in the broader Christian tradition in order to see that even as we are “both aware of our interpretive fallibility and committed to the truthfulness of God’s word, we should at least contemplate why other Bible-believing Christians throughout history have come to opinions contrary to our own” (167).
Need for Humility
A theme that runs through both of these books is the need for personal humility and forbearance with others. Forbearance requires us to give people space who have not come to a firm conclusion on these matters. Not all pastors on the spectrum have spent adequate time assessing disputed topics, and they should not be forced into sides prematurely. Withholding judgment on a topic may be wiser than rushing to a conclusion (Putman, 198-199).
Personal humility requires us to recognize our fallibility. It does not mean we loosen our convictions or throw up our hands in frustration. Humility comes from acknowledging our own limitations. “The frailty of human interpretation should give us pause from interpretive pride and theological arrogance,” Putman writes (266). Similarly, Ortlund observes that “the greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable” (147).
I heartily recommend both of these books to students. Ortlund’s work will be more accessible to lay leaders in the church who are not seminary trained. Putman’s deeper dive into these issues provides a larger foundation for further thought and reflection. Both are well-written, well-reasoned, and well-structured, providing a solid contribution to a topic of utmost importance for the church today.
This review was included in the Spring 2020 edition (forthcoming) of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Journal of Theology.