Book Review: Finding the Right Hills to Die On, by Gavin Ortlund
Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Crossway, 2020. 176 pages.
It’s hard to believe the term ‘theological triage’ is new. Once you understand the analogy to the medical profession, applying the concept of triage to doctrine is as intuitive as buying something on a smartphone is to a toddler.
Of course, evaluating the relative importance or priority of doctrines is not new. But like other crucial pastoral tools (such as the significance of the conscience), theological triage has fallen into serious disuse among many Christians and pastors. Not only do we live in a day where disagreeing with someone without vilifying them is an increasingly lost art, many Christians presume that division over any sort of doctrine is shameful, even if necessary.
Even pastors who love the Bible and believe it is God’s authoritative Word get nervous when they have to start drawing lines between believers. Theological triage, or something like it, is imperative for any Christian who wants to exercise doctrinal clarity and charity. In the ER, triage is how doctors determine who to save first; in doctrinal dispute, theological triage is how pastors determine which hill to die on and where to preserve the peace.
Triaging your doctrinal convictions helps you know who to fight, and how strongly to fight. It’s a practice that trains you to chart a course that helps you preserve the unity of the church in a religion where the Lord encourages individual, conscience-bound convictions in the heart of every believer.
In Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund describes and defends theological triage, explaining its usefulness and how to apply it. Let me cut to the chase: this book is good. You should read it, you should stock up on it to give away. Ortlund has provided pastors with a crucial pastoral tool. As you teach your congregation to care deeply about what the Bible says, you also need to teach them how to live with those who think the Bible teaches something different than what they believe.
MATTERS OF FIRST IMPORTANCE
The entire Bible is inspired by God, and therefore important. But not every biblical teaching is equally important. Consider Paul’s description of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: “I delivered to you as of first importance.”
Ortlund points to theological triage as the means of navigating between two extremes. Theological triage helps us think through when to fight, and when to let love cover over a multitude of disagreements.
The book consists of two sections. In Part 1, Ortlund provides his own doctrinal formation as an illustration of the importance of having multiple gears on your doctrinal bike. He begins with discussing the two ditches of doctrinal sectarianism and minimalism. Both assault and undermine our ability to fulfill the church’s mission: the first by undermining unity (33ff), the latter by undermining belief itself (46).
Part 2 then looks at three ranks of doctrinal importance. “First-rank doctrines are essential for the gospel. Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” The third tier consists of both doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church),” and “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant)” (47). In each chapter, Ortlund gives two to three sample doctrines and demonstrates why those examples belong in that rank.
ON SECOND ORDER ISSUES
Ortlund’s discussion of first-order issues is clear and direct. His discussion of second-order issues is careful and charitable—and, frankly, worth the price of the book. He doesn’t hide his personal position on the issues, but neither does he seek to persuade you to hold his view. Instead, he clarifies why some differing convictions ought to lead brothers and sisters in Christ to divide into different local churches. As a credobaptist who doesn’t accept infant baptisms as valid, I appreciated Ortlund’s careful and gracious discussion of the subject—even as he personally holds to a credobaptist position that does accept some infant baptisms. He ably defends the need for local churches (and denominations) to have clarity and unity on their view of baptism, for the sake of individual conscience and congregational life.
The discussion on third-order issues feels far more rushed and less articulated than the other two (which seems fitting). But as a whole, the book is a useful tool for introducing the concept of theological triage. As I think about investing in my fellow elders and future leaders in the congregation, this book now sits in the same category as Naselli and Crowley’s book on conscience: an absolute must-read.
HOW TO USE IT WELL
That said, let me provide some pointers for how to benefit from this book, and more importantly, the tool it promotes.
Theological triage is a tool for navigating controversy. As with any tool, it takes practice to use it well. When is a doctrine essential to the gospel (first-rank), and when is it merely urgent for the life of a local church? Ortlund deftly demonstrates how to answer those questions. For instance, Ortlund discusses the issue of spiritual gifts. Are views about the gifts third-rank issues that members of the same church can agree to disagree about? Or is it a second-rank issue that indicates you probably shouldn’t join that church? Ortlund argues, it depends (113ff). I’d argue it could even become a first-order issue, if miraculous gifts like tongues are required by a church. Theology may be a science, but teaching, correcting, and admonishing people according to it is an art. “Intelligence and study are not the only or even necessarily the most important factors for doing theological triage well. At least equally important is a desire for godliness and for the flourishing of the church” (77).
The danger with any tool, especially an important tool like triage, is that when someone first picks it up, every problem is addressed with that tool. You know the thing about a man with a hammer. This tool is for evaluating theological questions, not cultural, wisdom, or political issues that often threaten the unity of the church (22). This probably won’t be the tool to settle when your church should gather again after the coronavirus lockdown. It will help you think through whether this paedobaptist family or that tongue-speaking student should stay in your church.
FOR FELLOW PASTORS
Finally Let me offer a few brief comments to my fellow pastors on how second order issues should affect your ministry.
- Use your statement of faith in your teaching. If your church’s statement of faith has any historical grounding, much of the big picture work of triaging particular doctrines (at least first and second-rank issues from third) has been done for you. Refer to it often in explaining the church’s beliefs. Use it as a governor for what issues you as a pastor will argue with your members about.
- Develop multiple “speeds” in your preaching. You are preaching the Word of God, so it is good to speak with authority. But don’t speak as though all Christians stand with a particular interpretation when they don’t. Give permission for the people in the pew to disagree with you when it’s a third-rank doctrine you’re asserting.
- Speak with respect about other churches and traditions you disagree with. Speak with clarity about the disagreements you have with those you respect (when they’re significant). In my city, there are a few evangelical, gospel preaching churches ranging from Pentecostal to Presbyterian to Baptistic. I want my people to love and trust these other faithful evangelical churches. Some of them, I want our members to happily encourage their unbelieving friends to visit, or even join if they’re converted. How I speak about our differences is how my members will learn to love, not compete with, other gospel-preaching churches.
- Devote yourself to theology for the sake of the church. If triaging is an art, the only way to do it well and for the good of your flock is to understand what beliefs are required, what are necessary for church unity, and what are not worth dividing over. Pastor, be a workman approved, rightly handling the word of truth.
 Ortlund cites Albert Mohler’s The Disappearance of God, published in 2009 as an example of Mohler coining the term. I believe Mohler utilized and defended the concept in blogs beforehand.