‘Most of us have a tendency in one direction or the other – to fight over doctrine too much or too little.
This book is about finding the happy place between these two extremes – the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times.’
In Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund raises the question, “how do we maintain both gospel clarity and gospel unity?”
How can we be truly faithful to the gospel, not dismissing doctrine out of zeal for unity? How can we be equally committed to unity in the church, not severing ties with other believers too quickly in our zeal for doctrine?
His answer – through ‘theological triage’ (a metaphor he credits to Albert Mohler) as a means of distinguishing between more and less urgent theological issues.
In some ways there is familiar ground here as UCCF has long emphasised a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ issues for gospel partnership.
However, Ortlund is more nuanced in his approach than the familiar binary framework suggests – recognising some doctrines as essential for the integrity of the gospel, some as urgent for churches to address but not essential for gospel-partnership, some as important theologically but not so urgent for churches to take a position on, and some which are unimportant to Christian witness and collaboration.
The book is short, coming in at 152 pages, and easy to read. The keen theology student could consume it in an afternoon. But it is rich and full of thoughts worth pausing to dwell upon.
It is divided into two sections: the first laying out the vision theological triage, and the second demonstrating theological triage at work across the first three levels of the framework.
Part 1 – Why Theological Triage?
‘As Martin Luther noted, “Softness and hardness… are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.” The same could be said of all Christians.’
Ortlund first addresses the danger of doctrinal sectarianism. In his sights is any attitude, belief, or practice that contributes to unnecessary division in the body of Christ. This tendency, he writes, comes from a right desire to uphold gospel truth, but a failure to recognise different levels of doctrine.
After making a convincing case for recognising more and less urgent doctrines and elaborating on why neglect for unity is such a serious issue for the gospel, he closes the chapter with a poignant call to those who tend to fight too much to re-examine the gracious heart of the gospel.
In the next chapter he addresses the other extreme – doctrinal minimalism. Despite the familiar caricature of the brash theology student, newly enamoured with Calvinism and (overly) zealous for reformed theology, the majority of us theology students likely swing to the other end of the pendulum, naturally prioritising harmony and perhaps even indifferent towards doctrine.
‘Four hundred years ago, if you took a different view on baptism, you may have gotten drowned for it. Today we rightly recoil at that, but I worry that we sometimes swing to the opposite extreme. This is the mindset that says: “Let’s stop dividing over doctrine! It just hurts people. Let’s just love Jesus and feed the poor.”’
But, as Ortlund goes on to point out, doctrinal division is inherent even in something as seemingly simple as invoking the name ‘Jesus’. Theology students should be familiar with at least some of the main disagreements over the person and work of Jesus in church history – whether that’s the Christological heresies of the third and fourth centuries or the modern ‘quests’ for the ‘historical’ Jesus. Such division is unavoidable, so it is important to do so gracefully and with nuance.
Even the primary-verses-secondary-issues framework can obscure the significance of non-essential doctrines in their framing of the gospel and impact on every-day Christian life. As such, Ortlund elaborates upon his four-tiered scheme of essential, urgent, important, and indifferent doctrines. He closes this chapter with the call to be courageous and take the gospel seriously enough to fight over it.
Part 1 ends with Ortlund’s own journey of wrestling with various doctrines. His story of shifting from positions that he grew up with in the context of theological study will resonate with many theology students on similar journeys, whatever the specific doctrines they are wrestling with. It certainly resonated with my own ongoing journey in theology.
Part 2 – Theological Triage at Work
In the second half of the book, Ortlund takes a chapter each describing the first three ranks of doctrine in more detail, outlining the relative significance of each to the gospel. He gives plenty of examples which illustrate the nuance involved, even within each ‘rank’, readily admitting the limitations of any hard-and-fast system of ranking doctrines.
Throughout these chapters he supplies wise postures that we can adopt when handling theology at these various levels and in our various contexts of fellowship, partnership, and reflection. It would be difficult to summarise this section without giving away the entire book – for more detail you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Gavin Ortlund exemplifies humility and wisdom, both in this book and in his broader engagement in ecumenical conversations as an evangelical. Finding the Right Hills to Die On is a call to that same humility and wisdom – two virtues vitally important for the student of theology to nurture.
As theology students we are positioned uniquely to influence and model good posture to our circles of Christian friends and colleagues on theological issues. For us, learning to operate with a zealous confidence in the truth of the gospel AND a burning passion for the unity of the Church in the grace of the gospel has enormous weight. We must become theologians of strength-clothed-in-gentleness, of knowledge-clothed-in-humility, of truth and grace – in all things motivated by love.
Placing himself firmly (and I believe rightly) between two extremes, Ortlund’s book is a challenge to greater faithfulness to the grace and truth of the gospel, whatever your natural inclination. For many this book is only the start of the journey, but it is a road on which I hope that you will travel.
You can purchase the book here: Finding the Right Hills to Die On, by Gavin Ortlund.