There is a certain idea afoot, whose proponents claim that it can help us all get along better. Take almost any energetic debate on Christian faith and practice, and someone will bring up the concept. Even guys like Al Mohler, who tend to get pigeonholed as theological crankypants of the first degree, affirm and advance the framework.
Let’s compare it to a medieval cathedral. It is a beautiful mess of arches, buttresses, and pillars. Take a stone out of one of the big central columns, and a new French mountain will quickly form on top of your head. That is a first-tier error, like denying the Trinity. Take out a major—but not load-bearing—interior wall, and that will change the function of a big part of the building. Or, pull down one of the outer supports. Everything seems fine. But over the years, cracks appear. In time, at least part of the building will fall down. These are second-tier errors, things like infant vs. believers-only baptism or the different sides of the women’s ordination debate. Then there are the gargoyles, the statuary, and the precise position of rainspouts. Plenty of substance to argue over, little risk of destroying the edifice. The third-tier errors, and things indifferent. Vestments, music, and which tax rates to support. Matters too far removed from core doctrine to be risky, or matters that Scriptures leave to Christian freedom and prudent judgment.
Full disclosure time: I agree that theological triage is an important and useful concept. It also has a really good historical pedigree. One version or another of it has been around at least since the time of the Church Fathers, and it never really went away.
But sometimes people ask too much of this framework. We try to make it do things that it can’t. To allow us to set aside all heated debate, or to identify some Mere Christianity basis that will finally unify the Church. Or we abuse the concept, using it not to protect the proper unity of the church but as a weapon. To pit unity against purity, or to delegitimize a debate in progress.
So this post does not become obscenely massive, I will try to make each point quickly and move on. (Me? Write an over-long post? Never…) If feedback demands it, and time allows it, I may expand on some of them in future posts.
Implied Common Assumptions:
There are right and wrong answers. There are matters on which God has not given us a word. Since no one can say, “thus says the Lord,” disagreement on these matters does not implicate core doctrine. That said, this system of ranking and triage rests on the assumption that theology matters. If there are not right and wrong answers in theology, then there is not core doctrine.
Yet Jesus, Paul, and the rest vigorously denounce the errors of their opponents. Not just their attitudes, or their lack of love. Their ideas. Their understanding of who God is and what He wants. The New Testament is full of stern commands to shun false teachers. So to claim that there are no wrong answers in theology is to be pursuing a different venture than New Testament Christianity. You aren’t having a dispute over the rules of the game if one team on the field is playing football and the other team is playing American football. Likewise, to deny that Christianity has normative doctrine, or to consider it all to be socially constructed religious myths, is not to remove a stone from the cathedral. It is to deny the cathedral, or to splash universal acid over the whole edifice.
Error has consequences. Christianity is about salvation. That is not all that it is about, but to deny that is to make a new religion. Christian theology serves, in part, to tell us 1) who God is, 2) what this God wants, and 3) how to be made right with this God. To get it wrong is to pursue the wrong God, do the wrong things, and/or fail to be reconciled with God. Jesus affirms this, because he criticized the theology of his opponents as well as their practice. And he considered their errors fatal. “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and … you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Likewise, Paul goes so far in denouncing the circumcision party in Galatians that he says, essentially, “if you are preaching a different gospel, go to hell!” (Galatians 1:9) To deny that any doctrine imperils the soul is to deny that there are any first tier errors. It is as if every stone in the cathedral is decorative.
What theological triage can’t do:
Settle a debate. While triage helps us to prioritize the disputes that arise among Christians, it cannot settle them indefinitely. Even for the proverbial church divisions over carpet color, you can point out that carpet color is as theologically inconsequential as a debate can get. But darn it, a meeting place needs flooring. Some action, or lack of action, needs to be decided upon. All one can hope to achieve by pointing out the minor nature of the debate is to restrain the pride of the victors and soothe the fury of those who lost.
Universally define what ranks where. Different theological systems suggest different understandings of theological priorities. For those who hold to the regulative principle, music, vestments, and forms of worship are not indifferent matters. It is the difference between lawful worship of God and idolatry. In that case, the form of worship is at least a second-tier matter. For many of my colleagues at the GTU, acceptance of women’s ordination is a core implication of the Gospel. To get it wrong is to distort the heart of the Christian message and the mission of the church. Attempts to frame it as a matter of freedom will get you almost nowhere. Historically, some of the fiercer theological debates have been over whether a given teaching or practice is core doctrine, important doctrine, or a minor issue. Even the defenders of Nicaea were at some point accused of being divisive over minor points!
Excuse error. There are matters which God seems to have left to godly, prudential judgment. Still, a lot of the third-tier issues involve conflicting interpretations of what God has taught and commanded us. Even if an error on these points is not as problematic, not all of the competing positions can be correct. Second-tier matters are ones that involve major differences in faith and practice. Some of these differences represent complementary claims. Many more are directly contrary claims. Someone is in error, even if we cannot agree who. And a willful error, in the face of compelling Biblical claims, is a problem. Ignoring biblical evidence, or playing the sophist with the word of God, is still wrong, even if the actual error is fairly minor. Even a minor sin is still a sin against God.
How theological triage can be abused:
Manipulation. One way or another, a decision needs to be made in most disputes. Sometimes, one side or another is tempted to win by default, by shaming or manipulating the others into giving in. Used improperly, the theological triage framework can be very effective towards that end. Move quickly, apply it in a one-sided way, and then chastise your opponents for being divisive on a minor point. Instead of a tool for following the rule of charity, distinguishing between major and minor issues can become a political tool.
Burying real disagreement. Christian theology is highly interconnected. When pondering the doctrine of salvation, you should be brushing into the Trinity (we are reconciled to the Father by the merits of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit!), Christology (who Jesus is and what He does), and anthropology (the human condition, our need individually and collectively). This means that a higher-level disagreement can lie behind a bottom-tier dispute, or vice versa. To bury the big issue by setting aside the minor one is to dodge the more fundamental cause of disunity. Theological triage is about charitable engagement with our Christian brothers and sisters, not avoiding painful points of difference.
Setting priorities sociologically. Let’s face it, we prefer not to embarrass our friends. When we like someone, or think it would be useful to ally with a given group, we aren’t so inclined to provoke a theological fight. Many evangelical fans of Catholic social teaching, for example, get touchy when people highlight the theological gulf that divides Catholicism from historical Protestantism. This despite the fact that the Magisterium defines many of the points of difference as salvation issues. Likewise, you don’t have to be a strict Calvinist to see many problems on second- and first-tier matters in Catholic theology. That doesn’t mean that Catholics and Protestants can’t be friends, or even allies and partners on many important matters. It is one thing to agree to differ, even on major points, in order to cooperate in areas where we have strong common ground. It is another thing to downplay or downgrade the points of disagreement so as not to disrupt the alliance.
Sanctifying indifference. Just because a doctrine is less central to the faith does not mean it is unimportant. The triage framework is geared towards identifying which errors are more likely to undermine faithful Christian teaching and practice. It is not a measure of value, much less of practical value. It is choosing, in love, not to let our disagreements interfere with common effort based on what we have in common.
Minimalism. While it is common to warn against making everything a first-tier matter, it is far too common, in practice, to put almost nothing in the first tier. This is something I noticed a lot in my Biola years. It goes hand-in-hand with theological indifference. When faced with a sticky theological question, or a heated debate, it is easy to either make an unwarranted appeal to mystery, or to push the disputed point down to the lowest tier possible. Before you know it, it is easy to be functionally relativistic or universalistic.