Thursday, March 12, 2020

27. Finding the Right Hills to Die On

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Gavin Ortlund. 2020. [April] 176 pages. [Source: Review copy] [Christian nonfiction; theology; christian living]

First sentence: There’s an old saying (I can’t remember where I heard it): “There is no doctrine a fundamentalist won’t fight over, and no doctrine a liberal will fight over.” Strictly speaking, that’s not quite fair to thoughtful liberals and fundamentalists. But we can probably recognize these two instincts. Most of us have a tendency in one direction or the other—to fight over doctrine too much or too little.

I loved, loved, loved FINDING THE RIGHT HILLS TO DIE ON by Gavin Ortlund. The premise is simple: Are there theological doctrines worth fighting for? (Yes) Are all theological doctrines worth fighting for or fighting over? (No.) How does one distinguish between the doctrines worth fighting for and the ones not worth fighting for? How does one discern which doctrines are so fundamental and essential to understanding, proclaiming, and believing the gospel...that they must be fought for and preserved...and which doctrines are secondary or even tertiary? Theological triage is the practice of discerning and deciding these matters.

"Ortlund usefully develops four tiers in his theological-triage system: (1) doctrines that are essential to the gospel; (2) doctrines that are urgent for the health and practice of the church, such that Christians commonly divide denominationally over them; (3) doctrines that are important for one branch of theology or another, but not such that they should lead to separation; (4) doctrines that are unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration."

There are dangers in the two extremes: The first extreme being people who refuse to fight for (stand up for, defend, protect) ANY doctrine; unity must be preserved no matter what. The only absolute perhaps being UNITY AT ALL COSTS. All other absolutes can be whittled down, thrown out, reinterpreted, given a new spin. The weakness of the first extreme, in my opinion, is that every opinion counts or matters--except the Voice of God. The Bible has lost authority, lost status, lost a place. Perhaps that is the extreme of that extreme. Perhaps that is the worst case scenario of that extreme. But certainly when a denomination values being in step with the times, with the culture, with the world, with unbelievers and sinners, with majority-voted morals and virtues, rejecting the idea of absolute truth, etc., they are essentially throwing out the Word of God and saying we know better than God.

The second extreme being people who are willing to fight for (stand up for, defend, protect) ALL doctrines. It doesn't matter the doctrine, if you don't agree with me--then we're at odds and can't work together or be unified. You're my enemy and Christ's enemy if we're not 100% in sync with one another. Neither extreme is healthy or ideal. The second extreme has SO MANY PERCEIVED ENEMIES that their focus tends towards being right, being proved right, getting the best of others. Little room for love, lots of room for hate. The weakness of the second extreme Ortlund writes, "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."

As Christians live their lives--during the week and on Sunday--they will encounter those who disagree with them. How does one react? How does one live peacefully? How does one come to terms? Which disagreements are worth speaking up about, fighting about, fighting for, defending. And which ones are best avoided and pushed aside? He writes, "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."

Ortlund quotes from others who have written about this subject. (It hasn't always been called triage, but Christians have been calling for discernment and defense for centuries.)

"Erik Thoennes offers a helpful list of criteria: 1. Biblical clarity 2. Relevance to the character of God 3. Relevance to the essence of the gospel 4. Biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it) 5. Effect on other doctrines 6. Consensus among Christians (past and present) 7. Effect on personal and church life 8. Current cultural pressure to deny a teaching of Scripture."

"Wayne Grudem provides a list of questions that churches and organizations should ask when considering whether to draw a new theological boundary: 1. Certainty: How sure are we that the teaching is wrong? 2. Effect on other doctrines: Will this teaching likely lead to significant erosion in other doctrines? 3. Effect on personal and church life: Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church? 4. Historical precedent: Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history? 5. Perception of importance among God’s people: Is there increasing consensus . . . that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement? 6. Purposes of the organization: Is the teaching a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the organization? 7. Motivations of advocates: Does it seem that the advocates of this teaching hold it because of a fundamental refusal to be subject to the authority of God’s Word, rather than because of sincerely held differences of interpretation based on accepted hermeneutical standards? 8. Methods of advocates: Do the advocates of this teaching frequently manifest arrogance, deception, unrighteous anger, slander, and falsehood rather than humility, openness to correction and reason, kindness, and absolute truthfulness?"

I would say primarily this book might be best suited for pastors, elders, church leaders, teachers. But I think all Christians could benefit from reading this one.

  • Do we have a “warm corner in our hearts” for every single true Christian, even if we strongly disagree with him or her on various issues?
  • A good prayer to pray is this: Lord, give me a “warm corner in my heart” for other Christians, especially those I am tempted to reject or despise. I know that I cannot solve all the divisions in your church, but show me what the next step might be for me personally to pursue and cultivate and honor the unity of your bride.
  • The Bible itself commends an attitude of eager responsiveness to God’s word in its entirety.
  • Confusion may be an understandable response to some passages, and grief to others; but indifference should not be our response. A casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude about theology is totally incompatible with how we are to receive the word of God. Its contents may call for trembling and tearing of clothes, but never shrugging.
  • The truth is unchanging, but culture is constantly changing; so there will always be points of friction between truth and culture.
  • The gospel is simply too controversial, too disruptive, not to be attacked. Therefore, there can be no effective, long-term ministry of the gospel without a corresponding willingness to engage in its defense.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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