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A call for theological triage and Christian maturity
June 07, 2004
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
In every generation, the church is commanded to “con-tend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” That task is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack.
Today’s Christian faces the daunting task of strategizing which Christian doctrines and theological issues are to be given highest priority. God’s truth is to be defended at every point, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention.
A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage -- a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. The same discipline that brings order to the hectic arena of the ER can also offer great assistance to Christians defending truth in the present age.
A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency. With this in mind, I would suggest three different levels of theological urgency.
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central to the Christian faith. Included among these would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith and the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures. A denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an even-tual denial of Christianity itself.
The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominations, these boundaries become evident. Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism.
Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology in this category. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.
A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.
This structure of theological triage may also help to explain how confusion can often occur in the midst of doctrinal debate. If the relative urgency of these truths is not taken into account, the debate can quickly become unhelpful.
The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is inevitable.
Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.
Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the “treasure” that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the ER just might help.