Book Review: ‘Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage’ by Gavin Ortlund

Ecumenical. Non-Denominational. In certain circles of evangelicalism, these are dirty words. (“Catholicity” is another.) Critics say these words represent a weak or thin theology—one whose core conviction is that convictions don’t much matter provided we can all get along. For some, they represent a potential threat to the mission of the church or even the gospel itself.

Other believers take a friendlier view of conciliatory language. Without compromising their core convictions, they want to build bridges with a range of churches and Christian organizations around the world, joining together in mission wherever possible. These principles are central to the work of groups like the Lausanne Movement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Reforming Catholic Confession, and the Center for Baptist Renewal (where I serve as editorial director).

Yet even those of us who champion C. S. Lewis’s ideal of “mere Christianity” find it difficult to put into practice, especially in the face of entrenched theological and denominational divides.

Several years ago, Albert Mohler popularized the phrase “theological triage.” Although the basic concept shares a certain kinship with other “mere Christian” buzzwords, it sparked a renewed conversation about how and why Christians agree, disagree, or agree to disagree about various points of theology.

The term triage, of course, comes from the field of medical care. It refers to the choices medical professionals are compelled to make in the direst of circumstances, when a flood of patients (or a scarcity of resources) ensures that some cases must be prioritized. In the realm of theology, then, practicing triage means determining which beliefs are more urgent or foundational than others. More specifically, it has often meant sorting theological claims into three categories: the primary (what Christians must believe), the secondary (what denominations or groups can disagree about), and the tertiary (what individuals or local churches can disagree about within their denomination or group).

In his book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, pastor and theologian Gavin Ortlund addresses the basic questions raised by a triage mindset: When should doctrine divide, and when should unity prevail? Ortlund lays out both the blessings and dangers of theological convictions, while offering advice on weighing the relative importance of the doctrines we hold dear.

Sectarianism and Minimalism

Ortlund describes his own framework for theological triage like this: First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself. Second-rank doctrines are urgent to the church’s healthy functioning at the local and denominational level. Third-rank doctrines are important—but not important enough to justify separation among Christians. And fourth-rank doctrines are those that, in the final analysis, aren’t essential for the sake of gospel ministry or collaboration among believers.

Yet before we can even begin talking about the particulars of theological triage, Ortlund argues, we need to take care of some essential ground-clearing. Specifically, we need to we need to address the two major obstacles standing in the way: sectarianism and minimalism.

The danger of doctrinal sectarianism is that it creates unnecessary division among brothers and sisters in Christ. Rigid fundamentalists treat every Christian truth claim as of primary importance, so that there is scarcely any difference between affirming the bodily resurrection of Christ and affirming that the Bible condemns dancing as sinful. There is little to no room to disagree with the doctrinal sectarian. However, as Ortlund warns, theological triage is not as simple as sorting truth from error and giving no quarter to anyone who professes the latter. “The character of the gospel is complex,” he writes. “It contains both truth and grace, both conviction and comfort, both hard edges of logic and deep caverns of mystery. It is at one moment as bracing as a cold breeze and the next as nourishing as a warm meal.”

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Source: Christianity Today