“Finding the right hills to die on” Book review

Finding right hills
Are there matters on which Christians can agree to disagree that do not compromise “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”?  

There is often an attempt at avoiding drawing distinctions between doctrines on the one hand by concentrating on mission - getting on with the job – or on the other hand emphasising the lowest common denominator in order to ‘walk together’ in unity. However if the church is unsure and unclear about its message it will not succeed in a culture that prides itself on ‘finding one’s own truth’.

In his book “Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage” Gavin Ortlund adapts an analogy used by Albert Mohler Jr. in 2005 and develops a framework he calls theological triage for recognising which doctrines are worth guarding as core beliefs - on which church unity is based - and which are at the level of convictions and opinions.

It is worth noting that prioritising is necessary to defend the faith and also essential to unity, which is a doctrine in itself.

As a starting point he breaks down the priorities into a fourfold ranking:

  1. doctrines that are essential to the gospel itself
  2. doctrines that are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
  3. doctrines that are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
  4. doctrines that are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.

In short: essential, urgent, important and unimportant.

He draws attention to all Scripture being God-breathed and its teaching being true and important. “The supreme judge …. can be no other than but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.” (Westminster Confession of faith).  If we play fast and loose with one doctrine it raises the question of acceptance of biblical authority and since Jesus preached the scriptures maybe we have a problem with him too. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul distinguishes things of first importance (1 Corinthians 15.3) with other matters where we may disagree. (Romans 14.5).

Whereas differences in doctrines that are not of first-rank importance may “boil down to different interpretations among those who uphold the authority of scriptures, the acceptance or rejection of first-rank doctrine is often part and parcel of the acceptance or rejection of Scripture itself”

He commends reading widely, understanding Christian tradition and why other Bible-believing Christians come to different opinions. He quotes Turretin, a 17th century theologian, who categorised certain issues as central to biblical theology and opposed the elevation of what he regarded as false doctrines into articles of faith, as well as opposing the elevation of true but secondary doctrines to become necessary articles of faith. Turretin’s concern was that it led to unnecessary separation among true Christians.

Dr. Ortlund gives his own views from personal experience on issues such as baptism, the millennium, and spiritual gifts but not so as to win you over, rather to give a steer on an approach to engaging with others and the implications of differentiating ‘hills worth dying on” from matters of opinion.

The tension is how do we pursue the realisation of Christ’s prayer for the unity of the church (John 17:21) without disobeying Christ’s charge to teach and obey all that he commands (Matt. 28:20)? And how in practice do we deal with questions such as “What partnerships and alliances are appropriate among Christians of different denominations, networks, or tribes? What kinds of attitude and speech are most helpful in our interaction with those in the body of Christ with whom we have significant theological disagreements? What does it look like to handle, with integrity and transparency, personal differences of conviction that may arise with your church, boss, denomination, or institution?”

In conclusion he spends some time in encouraging humility, ‘the pathway to unity’ (Philippians 2.2,3). We can testify to the truth of the gospel by speaking with kindness and moderation as we navigate our theological disagreements whilst fighting for and adhering to truth with courage and resilience.

This is a book for our times when the church is confronted by the pressures of a secular society as it examines its affirmation of the truths of the Bible