Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund is definitely a book for our times. Although, if you think back through the history of the church, you’ll see it’s a book for any age where Christians disagreed on various secondary doctrines. In other words, someone should have written this book a long time ago. Ortlund’s premise is simple. Not every doctrinal hill is worth fighting for and dying on. Not every doctrine is worth sowing division among believers and splitting the church. The question is how do we determine which doctrines are worth fighting for and which aren’t?
Ortlund writes in the introduction, “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.’” That’s an oversimplification, as old sayings often are. However, you don’t have to look far to find the grain of truth in it. Ortlund goes on to write:
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 other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.
Al Mohler’s idea of “theological triage” inspired the idea and subtitle for Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. In the medical world, triage is the process of prioritizing, when faced with many injuries, what injuries get treated first. What gets the quickest and most attention? You don’t want to be treating a sprained ankle when someone is bleeding to death a few feet away.
I remember watching M.A.S.H as a kid. When the helicopters brought the wounded in from the battlefield, Hawkeye and the other doctors quickly went from one gurney to the next determining who needed to go immediately to the operating room, who could wait, and who was too far gone to help. That’s the triage process.
Sometimes we flatten out all doctrine—either because we want to fight about everything or because we want to fight about nothing. More commonly, we have some kind of functional theological triage, but we have not thought it through very self-consciously. As a result, it is determined reactively by our circumstances and temperament rather than proactively by Scripture and principle.
Ortlund proposes four basic categories to help determine which hills are worth dying on. Doctrines that are—
- “essential to the gospel itself”
- “urgent for the health and practice of the church”
- “important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.”
- “unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.”
The goal in all of this is the unity of the church. Ortlund points to Jesus’ prayer in John chapter 17. Jesus prays in verse 23, “I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.” Jesus prays for unity. The ultimate purpose of this unity is not just internal church health, but the advancement of the gospel.
Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes two chapters on both the dangers of sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism. I may be overemphasizing this point, but it’s important to note that Ortlund is not recommending that we ignore heresy for the sake of unity. He calls ignoring heresy doctrinal minimalism, which he labels dangerous. Ortlund doesn’t even recommend that we ignore differences of opinion. He points out that throughout church history people have been martyred for various nonessential doctrines. What he recommends is that we have a thoughtful process to determine which differences of opinion or errors are worth causing division in the church.
Part 2 of the book demonstrates the practical application of “theological triage at work.” Ortlund walks through each of the four categories he suggests using specific doctrines as examples. He suggests helpful questions to ask oneself, or for churches to ask themselves, to determine where doctrines rank for the individual or the church.
For example, Ortlund uses the doctrines of the virgin birth and justification by faith alone as examples of the first category—doctrines essential to the gospel itself. He walks the reader through the thought process for why he places those doctrines in that category. He looks to scripture, church history, and previous theologians to demonstrate how he came to his determination that those doctrines are essential and worth fighting for.
I found it extremely helpful that Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes the differences in opinion of very well-known and respected theologians throughout church history on secondary and tertiary issues. It’s eye-opening to realize that Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, John Owen, John Knox, Martin Luther, and so on did not all agree on every doctrine. Yet, most thoughtful and reasonable Christians would not call them heretics.
A call to humility
Ortlund closes the book with a call to humility. He writes:
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.
I know I personally need to learn and apply that. When discussing doctrines with people who have differing opinions, too often I find myself valuing being right, rather than valuing their relationship and the unity of the Church. In the age of Twitter and discernment blogs, Finding The Right Hills To Die On is a valuable book. You can get a copy here.