Book Review: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

I saw this book fly by and it caught my eye immediately. As a Pastors/Elders, one of the frequent tasks we are called to is untangling false teaching. How can we do that in a way that is gentle, and sensitive [2 Timothy 2:24-26]…yet still fulfills the Biblical command to “protect the flock from wolves?” [acts 20:28-30]

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, is written by Gavin Ortlund. It’s my first time reading anything by Gavin, but I have been immensely helped by his father Ray’s writings and teachings.

Gavin rightly points out from the jump, that the term “theological triage” is something that Albert Mohler developed, which the author does a masterful job of taking further and theory and application.

All doctrines are not created equal and it is actually essential that we make accurate biblical distinctions. You would think that a focus on doctrinal distinctions would create more division, but Ortlund rightly points the dangers of simply equating all doctrines “What is at stake? For starters, equating all doctrines leads to unnecessary division and undermines the unity of the church.” [43]

How do we do this well and not make everything a heresy hunt…because [gasp] not every doctrinal difference is heresy. [Despite what the pitchfork-weilding mobs on Twitter may say.]. Christians have to find a way to unite, without compromising on what is actually heresy. Ortund’s heart is seen quickly in this book, calling us to examine our own hearts, asking “Do we want unity? Is it a value to us, as it is to Jesus?” [59]

Yes, we do. Or…at least we need to want unity. We should. Christians aren’t the only ones who read the Twitter wars, you know.

What buckets do we separate doctrinal issues into? [Chapter 2]

  • 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.

I genuinely loved Chapter 3, which was a transparent testimony of Ortlund’s own journey through the waters of doctrinal triage. I loved how he worked through big issues, like baptism, creation…with an open Bible and lots of conversations. That’s the thing I think we are missing in all this – we need to have more conversations. Not skirmishes. Conversations.

That being said, Ortlund is calling us to overlay some very important clarifying questions on top of the doctrinal triage buckets: [129]

  1. How Clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
  2. What is the doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
  3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
  4. What is the doctrine’s effect upon the church today?

Ortlund immediately gives us some practical handles to grab on to this concept. As always, it isn’t always black and white. “We should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what most not be denied. Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as a characteristic of growth in Christ over time.” [131]

Why? Because people are in the middle. One of my favorite quotes nails this “We must distinguish between confused sheep and active wolves.” [133]

In the world of “first-rank” doctrines, we are talking about things like the virgin birth and justification by faith alone. When we start exploring the implications of alternate views based on the clarifying questions above, it quickly becomes apparent, there are definitely some hills worth dying on. Just not all of them.

As for “second-rank” doctrines we look to issues such as baptism, spiritual gifts, and women in ministry. Ortlund immediately notes that these issues are harder to rank and not “ever doctrine fits neatly into one of three or four categories. Doctrines to not exist in a theological vacuum, context and usage matters, and so do attitudes. Theological triage is, therefore, about far more than technical correctness in adjudicating this or that doctrine. It involves our whole posture towards theology.” [167-8ish]

Gavin navigates each of these issues deftly and humbly in the book, bringing in questions 1-4 above to increase focus, teasing out different angles to make us think more critically on these issues, as opposed to just making a call.

“Third-rank” doctrines include things like the millennium and days of creation. The central thought behind it being just because we could fight a battle…doesn’t mean we should. I love that, our default position should not be one of battle, but of humility.

Ortlund thinks the same way has he ends the book with the conclusion chapter “A Call to Theological Humility.” He writes “In doing theological triage, humility is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing. It is our constant need, no matter what issue we are facing.” [258]

This directly relates to the unity of the church. “If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything – if it doesn’t hurt – then you probably aren’t adjusting enough.” [266]

What a great book. I could see this book becoming a great resource for new elders, deacons, or small group leaders. It is also a very well researched book. There are extensive chapter end notes, for further study.

This book is not for theological nerds or Twitter hit men looking for a fight. It is for all of us. We should all be wanting to better engage in doctrinal conversations and promote humility and nity in the church. Grab this one and keep it on your shelf!


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