One of the few YouTube channels I make time for these days is Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites. He is a pastor and academic who strikes an unusual balance between strength of message and serenity of tone. Ortlund promotes “irenic” Christian dialogue—from the Greek eirḗnē, “peace”—which, as the name implies, approaches theological topics (even arguments) with an attitude of respect and peace. In a world of many weak or slipping church leaders, I pray he forges onward along this narrow path of humility, kindness, and thoroughness.
At some point, I decided to read his books and see if they were as interesting as his videos. On my recent trip, I finished Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (2020) and also Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism (2021).
Theological Triage . . . What (and Why)?
Finding the Right Hills to Die On addresses an elephant in the room: namely, that we Protestants all have certain beliefs we give precedence over others, especially in matters of evangelism, church membership, and inter-church communion. Ortlund uses the word “triage” not to say that any beliefs ought to be ignored, but rather that certain beliefs must be addressed first before others, just as a doctor would determine which patients to treat first. Lately I have become keenly aware of theological triage in other people, and for myself, I desired heuristics to approach it with intention and understanding instead of personal bias.
I say this is a book for Protestants . . . it’s not that Ortlund seeks to exclude other groups, far from it. But from what I understand, Catholics and Orthodox receive their doctrinal hierarchy from church authority and tradition. Added to this their understanding of their own respective churches each being the sole universal Church (capital C, i.e. the complete body of Christ)—a view not absent from Protestantism but, in my experience, less common—and the paradigm changes completely for them. (I stand open to and grateful of correction by any practicing Catholic or Orthodox reader who wishes to comment on this.)
Most Protestants, however, take a sola scriptura view—or in my case, prima scriptura—in which doctrinal understanding and hierarchy are mainly derived from interpretation of Scripture, with tradition and church authority taking more of a supplementary role (if any). Many of us also view the little-c catholic (universal) Church as being comprised of all who hold to the little-o orthodox Christian beliefs outlined in the Nicene Creed, which would include many Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics combined. Thus, theological triage is extremely important in Protestants’ recognizing, understanding, and engaging with each other and within the international, universal Church.
Sorry for that firehose of information . . . but it’s a context I think is necessary to understand going into this book.
With all that said, how does Ortlund structure theological triage? He divides doctrines into four groups:
- First-rank: essential to the Gospel message, such as the Virgin birth
- Second-rank: urgent for church health and ministry, potentially divisive topics such as baptizing babies vs adults only
- Third-rank: important to theology but not worth disunity
- Fourth-rank: “practically relevant or intellectually stimulating, but they are not theologically important”
He builds up a case for why triage is Scripturally sound and gives specific examples of topics he considers ranks 1–3 in subsequent chapters.
I highlighted a fair number of passages . . . I don’t plan to go into all of them here, but one thing that deeply touched me was the need for Christian unity. Ortlund cautions against being needlessly divisive:
The unity of the church is not an optional add-on—something we can get to later, once we’ve gotten our doctrine straight. The church’s unity is foundational to her identity and mission. (ch 1)
As he observes, there can be destruction in the Church by “doctrinal minimalism” (that is, cowering away from upholding certain beliefs) but also destruction by “doctrinal sectarianism.” We can become too comfortable with dividing from our Christian brothers and sisters over issues that are not first or second rank, and this is incredibly harmful not just among ourselves but towards nonbelievers to whom we are trying to introduce Christ. Ortlund emphasizes that unity in the Church is essential to evangelism.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
I found this book to indeed provide guidelines, but the work of actually applying them to one’s own beliefs (at least for 2nd and 3rd ranks) has to be done personally. Ortlund shares his personal journey of his ordination, which was helpful for context—it does not directly apply to me, but I can appreciate the nuance he describes in what that process looked like for him. I think part of me was hoping for something a bit more imperative, something to tell me “Thou shalt—,” but it’s to his credit that this is not the sort of book to offer all the answers to your problems, which would be futile indeed.
On one specific note, I thoroughly enjoyed how he talked about end-times theories and how/why to approach them as tertiary doctrines. Ortlund is amillennial, whereas I come from a background of being taught premillenialism—essentially, two of a set of theories on the 1000 years mentioned in the (mysterious) book of Revelation. The important point he makes, and which I could not agree with more, is that such theories on “that day and hour no one knows” are not worth fighting over so fiercely as some may be inclined to do. Not only that, but by the effectiveness of his respectful messaging, I was actually motivated to reconsider the other theories.
All in all, I thought Finding the Right Hills to Die On was a good read, not too long but sufficiently thought provoking. It provides a framing and way of thinking about these things that is actionable without dictating outcomes. It left me wistful for easy answers, which is probably a good sign he didn’t overstep the mark. As aforementioned, Ortlund’s caution against making everything first- or second-rank doctrines is a warning I wish everyone would heed. It’s sadly rare to encounter the kind of reasonable approach you’ll find in this book.