Theological Triage

A similar chart taken from the ESV Study Bible's article on Biblical Doctrine.

A similar chart taken from the ESV Study Bible’s article on Biblical Doctrine.

Ever have trouble thinking through how important certain doctrines are in relation to others? As Christian, we understand that all truth is important, but not equal in its significance for faith and practice. For example, believing there is a Triune God is far more important than believing the earth is young or old. So how are we supposed to make the proper distinctions between the various truths we come into contact?

The concept of triage comes to be a helpful illustration here. Triage is the practice of determining the significance of someones sickness/wound in order to know what needs to be treated first and what can wait. This helps doctors decide that the guy with the broken toe can wait and the fella with the gunshot wound to the chest needs immediate attention. Much like doctors who work in the ER, Christians too need to be able to perform theological triage as we meet various doctrines throughout the course of our life. We need to know what doctrines are vital to our faith and need to be carefully thought about and courageously defended and we need to know what we can flex on and have cordial disagreement about.

Three Levels of Importance

In order to give some organized thought to how you think about various doctrines, I find it helpful to ask yourself, is this a first, second, or third level issue? What are first, second, and third level issues? I am glad you asked…

First Level Issues. These are doctrines that have to do with things that are central and inextricable from apostolic, Christian faith. In other words, these are things that make or break your Christianity. Non-negotiable absolutes. Some examples of these doctrines would be things such as the Trinity, justification by grace through faith in Christ, the incarnation, etc. In order to be a Christian you must believe these truths.

Second Level Issues. These are doctrines that genuine Christians can believe, but they will most likely divide fellowships. Often times, these are the things that will most likely determine what church you attend. For instance, if you believe baptism should only be administered to those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ as their Savior, then you would go to a church that thought so too. You would most likely be uncomfortable in a church that sprinkled or dunked babies (yes, this happens). Other second level doctrines would be views on communion and possibly gender roles (especially within the church).

Third Level Issues. These are doctrines that Christians can hold and, if they disagree with one another, can still fellowship in the same local church. Some examples of third level doctrines are one’s views over the millennium or the age of the earth. Each church is filled with people who can disagree on various third level doctrines without affecting their unity or fellowship.

Determining the Level

Some of you may ask, how can I determine the level a particular doctrine falls into? How can I know it is a first, second, or third level issue? To answer that, I commend following seven questions (with a little help from my friend) to help you decide on the importance of any particular doctrine.

  1. How clear is the Bible on this subject?
  2. Is this closely connected to the character of God?
  3. Is this closely connected to the essence of the gospel?
  4. How often does the Bible speak about this doctrine?
  5. What significance or weight does the Bible put onto it?
  6. What is the effect this may have on other doctrines?
  7. What has the church thought about this doctrine historically and what do faithful church leaders think today?
  8. What effect does this have on personal and church life. 

None of these question is an end all, but taken together they provide helpful direction in making a choice about where a doctrine lands. Hopefully this is helpful to you. I know that when I first learned the three levels and the eight questions, I thought it to be a great tool to help me know how to think about various doctrines and even relate to others who may believe differently than I.

About Dana Dill

I'm a Christian, husband, daddy, pastor, professor, and hope to be a friend to pilgrims on their way home.
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