Finding the Right Hills to Die On

Sometimes a book’s title is clever, or poetic, or deliberately opaque. Sometimes, though, the title just lays it right out in the open. This is the case with Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On. The subtitle clarifies even further: “The Case for Theological Triage.” This is a book, then, about assessing different doctrines to determine which are essential to the Christian faith and which are not. It is a book about determining which theological battles are worth fighting.

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Of course it’s not quite so simple, is it? Theology can’t be neatly categorized into “essential” and “non-essential” or into “major” and “minor.” After all, different points of theology overlap one another; there is no doctrine that stands alone, aloof from all others. And if every word of God is true, how could we dare say that any one of his words is unimportant? Yet it really is the case that some doctrines divide Christian from non-Christian and thriving Christian from wandering Christian. For this reason we need a way to prioritize some over others, a way to distinguish the ones that are most essential from the ones that are less so. Several years ago, Albert Mohler coined the term “theological triage” to describe this process, and in his book Ortlund relies on that metaphor, though he also expands it beyond Mohler’s original and relatively basic outline.

What’s demonstrably true about Christians is that some tend toward fighting over everything while others tend toward fighting over nothing. As the old saying goes, “There is no doctrine a fundamentalist won’t fight over, and no doctrine a liberal will fight over.” “This book,” he says, “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 other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.” Where Mohler divided doctrines into three categories, Ortlund expands to four:

  • First-rank doctrines are those that are essential to the gospel itself.
  • Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church to such a degree that they tend to be the cause of separation at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not important enough to be the basis for separation.
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.

Thus the four gradations are essential, urgent, important, and unimportant. He clarifies, of course, that no doctrine is unimportant in and of itself; rather, some doctrines are unimportant when it comes to cooperating on our God-given mission. This begs the question: What kinds of doctrines fall into each category. First-rank doctrines would include the Trinity and the virgin birth; second-rank doctrines would include baptism and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit; third-rank doctrines would include the timing of the millennium and the age of the earth; fourth-rank doctrines would include musical styles or the kind of instrumentation for corporate worship.

Finding the Right Hills To Die On is a relatively short book and one that follows a clear, simple outline. He begins by defending the very notion of theological triage, and does so by discussing the danger of doctrinal sectarianism and the equal and opposite error of doctrinal minimalism. He then provides a short autobiography in which he traces his own theological journey. His convictions on secondary and tertiary issues may seem eclectic, but probably only because he is being more honest about it than most of us. The second part of the book focuses a chapter on why primary issues are worth fighting for, a chapter on navigating the complexity of secondary doctrine, and a final chapter explaining why we should not divide over those third-rank doctrines. All the while his concern is not to win readers to his theological positions, but rather to help them assess the relative importance of those positions.

He concludes with “A Call to Theological Humility,” which is a plea for Christians to carry out theological triage in a spirit of both courage and love. “The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable.” His closing prayer aptly summarizes the tone and content of the entire book.

Lord, where we have sinned either by failing to love the truth or by failing to love our brothers and sisters in our disagreements about the truth, forgive us and help us. For those of us who tend to fight too much over theology, help us to remember that you also died for the unity of the church, your precious bride. Give us softer hearts. For those of us who tend to fight too little over theology, help us to feel our need for courage and resilience. Give us stronger backbones. Help us to be people who tremble at your word and therefore ultimately fear no one but you. Lead us toward that healthy, happy balance of adhering to all your teaching while embracing all your people. Amen.

Finding the Right Hills To Die On is a book that is just the right length (176 pages) and written at just the right level to appeal to a wide audience. It is my fervent hope that many Christians, pastors and laity alike, will read it and consider its core message. The church of Jesus Christ will be stronger and more unified for it.

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