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Book Brief: “Finding the Right Hills to Die On”

Written by Andy Cassler on

One of the interesting aspects within contemporary Christian culture is that some churches divide over unimportant issues while other churches accept all or most beliefs as legitimate. 

Either people are unable to distinguish between different kinds of doctrine, or they’re unwilling to do so. The former produces unnecessary division, while the latter produces superficial unity. I’m thankful that my church recognizes the importance of theological triage—a system that prioritizes doctrines based on their importance and urgency. 

Yet, that raises the question: how do we know which matters are essential, which are convictional, and which are disputable?

Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway 2020), aims to clear away such complexity by identifying how to avoid the two errors mentioned above and by establishing criteria for ranking the various levels of theological matters.

Error 1: Unnecessary Division

Unnecessary division, which Ortlund calls doctrinal sectarianism, “undermines the unity of the church” (29) and often “stems from finding our identity in our theological distinctives when we should be finding it in the gospel” (42). This is why biblical unity in diversity is so valuable. It discourages quarreling about unimportant doctrines while encouraging love among believers.

Error 2: Downplaying Differences in Doctrine

Ortlund calls the second error doctrinal minimalism, which downplays doctrinal distinctions. This error seems to have at least two forms: (1) Those who are indifferent toward affirming any essential doctrine whatsoever, and (2) Those who affirm essential doctrines but are indifferent to nonessential doctrines. Focusing on the second form, Ortlund writes, “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” (50). In other words, according to Finding the Right Hills to Die On, nonessential doctrines are still significant because they “make a difference in how we uphold the gospel” (47).

Understanding Theological Triage

In Part 2, Ortlund explains how to approach first-rank doctrines with courage and conviction, second-rank doctrines with wisdom and balance, and third-rank doctrines with caution and restraint.

Whereas third-rank doctrines should not cause Christians to divide and second-rank doctrines “are often important enough to justify divisions at the level of denomination, church, or ministry” (95), first-rank doctrines are necessary for defending and proclaiming the gospel. “Without them,” he says, “the gospel is either vulnerable or incomplete” (76). Additionally, a distinction is made between “what must be affirmed and what must not be denied” (80), for a willful rejection of a first-rank doctrine is more problematic than the absence of an affirmation. 

As a helpful starting point for doing theological triage, Ortlund provides his own list of criteria for ranking doctrines (79):

  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?

But no matter how one answers these four questions, in Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Ortlund appeals to the unity of the body as being marked by humility, love, and a reverence for the word of God. Ortlund explains that “[Humility] encourages us to engage in theological disagreement with careful listening, a willingness to learn, and openness to receiving new information or adjusting our perspective” (147). 

Brothers and sisters, let’s remain committed to biblical unity in diversity so that the mission of the church may advance!

Andy Cassler

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