Theological triage and the problem of divergent boundaries

There are issues on which I have an entirely open hand. There are other issues on which I have a much tighter grip. I am an infralapsarian, for example (if you’ve never heard of that, it probably shows you how important it is as a view). But it is not beyond the realms of possibility that somebody one day might convince me otherwise. Nobody has yet, but I’m not closed to the possibility I may be wrong on that issue. Even if I am fairly sure of my view on this issue, it’s not going to impact my fellowship with those who call themselves supralapsarians (or those who just don’t care, for that matter!) By contrast, I believe the Lord Jesus Christ was literally and bodily raised from the dead. That’s not a view I hold as though we may differ on the matter. Should somebody convince me one day that the resurrection never happened, I will have left the faith. I hold that one pretty tightly. Not only that, there is not a chance I can have gospel fellowship with someone who denies that Biblical doctrine.

The first view does not alter one’s standing in the faith and, on certain conceptions of the alternative, might not even have a drastic knock-on effect on other areas of my faith. The latter issue very much affects my standing in the faith and has such significant knock-on effects for almost every other theological belief I may hold I am, essentially, following a different religious belief. We all have issues that are open-handed and closed-fisted.

But there are issues that aren’t quite so clear-cut. I, for example, am Amillenial in my eschatology. I don’t think those who hold to alternate views belong outside the faith. Nonetheless, it might affect their theology at various points. With how tight a hand ought I to hold this view? Likewise, consider one’s position of the days of creation or age of the earth, Calvinism and Arminianism (or Molinism and Amyraldianism), egalitarianism and complementarianism, cessationism and continuationism (or charismata and Pentecostalism), or any number of other issues? These are all things that might affect my theology at various points but none of them would write me out of the faith altogether.

Al Mohler has called for theological triage on such issues. He defines three classes of issue: first, second and third order issues. First-order issues are such things as the doctrine of the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ and salvation by faith alone. Mohler states, ‘first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself’. Second-order issues are things like complementarianism, baptism and polity. Mohler states, ‘believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers’. Third-order issues would include matters of eschatology or the age and style of the music we sing in church. Mohler states, ‘third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations’.

Most interestingly, I think Mohler offers an important insight:

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 the inevitable result.

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, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.

Whilst I think Mohler’s call is really helpful, the issue is that very few within the Evangelical world consider themselves genuinely Liberal or Fundamentalist. Steve Chalke continues to own the Evangelical label despite most Evangelicals insisting he has departed the camp. Likewise, there are those who own the label Evangelical who, without doubt, are Fundamentalists. It evokes a comment made by John Piper (which I cannot find but approximates from memory), ‘everyone to the left of me thinks I’m Fundamentalist; everyone to the right of me thinks I’m Liberal’. The issue with theological triage is that we all draw the boundaries in different places.

There are those on all sides of the cessationist/continuationist/charismatic debate who I know have been thoroughly upset that someone else has cut them off because of their views on the issue. At best, this has to be a secondary-issue. One’s view on this clearly does not write one out of salvation altogether. But it becomes complicated because I can see how certain expressions on this spectrum would make it very hard to be in the same church whilst, at a certain end of the spectrum, we’re talking about little more than the language we use to describe the same phenomena. Despite this, plenty place these things at least in the primary category and won’t have meaningful fellowship.

Likewise, consider matters of polity and baptism. Mohler (rightly) places this in the secondary issue category as one that, understandably, delineates along denominational lines. The problem, however, has come with the rise of the ‘gospel partnerships’. The laudable desire to work together across denominational lines in the gospel means that certain secondary issues are put to one side. Few within the gospel partnerships would fall out over polity or baptism despite being strong on it within their own churches. But compare that to a different secondary issue and most would find it much harder to belong to a fellowship, for example, complementarianism, despite the fact that few would call that a first-order issue. To be clear, I am not denying complementarianism nor that the boundaries drawn are wrong. I am simply noting that we don’t apply our own understanding of first, second and third order issues consistently in gospel partnership. We clearly deem some secondary issues, whilst not denying one’s salvation, mean we can’t have gospel partnership while others, evidently, mean we can.

If you’re waiting for the point of this post, I must apologise. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got a solid one. I see the value of Mohler’s triage whilst seeing that it doesn’t entirely resolve the issue for us. We can apply secondary issues as though they are tertiary in different scenarios. Likewise, different people apply the boundaries differently. The problem remains that we draw our boundaries differently. I have been hurt by those who consider me beyond the pale and I’m sure I’ve hurt others by suggesting I couldn’t maintain fellowship given certain of their views. I, of course, believe I am right and reasonable on these things. But everyone else seems to think the same too and they don’t agree with me nearly as often as they ought. I guess I am just pressing us to ask, how are we going to agree our boundaries together?