A couple of things sparked my interest in writing this post. First, there is the recent discussion over the band Switchfoot and other music that is hotly disputed among Christians. Secondly, there is the continuing assault on the core tenets of the Christian faith (mostly from within I might add). Thirdly, there was a string of posts at Pyromaniac (one excellent one by John MacArthur) which calls for a renewal of emphasis on the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In the course of dialogue, discussion, and debate, there will be many issues that will arise, and we must be careful as to which issue we choose to address, how we address it, and when we address it. To this concern, I am reminded of the first lecture in Dr. Moore’s Systematic Theology class when I first heard of Dr. Mohler’s idea of “theological triage.” Here’s a brief explanation:
Taking the illustration of the Emergency Room, Mohler describes how doctors need to make intelligent and prudent decisions based on the importance and urgency of the patients in the room. For example, someone with a broken finger must take deference to someone who has a gun-shot wound to the head. Obviously, attention and care is given immediately to the person with the gun-shot wound rather than the person with the broken finger. This idea of “triage” as Mohler shares, comes from the French word trier which means “to sort.” Therefore, in “theological triage” there must be some strategizing or “sorting” of issues to determine what he we should die on and what hills to avoid.
It is not that all matters need addressing or that all issues concerning Christianity is important. Rather, it is, as Mohler says, that certain issues are to be given “highest priority in terms of our contemporary context.” This prioritizing is structured in three different levels. The first-level theological issues are the non-negotiables, the “fundamental articles of faith” as MacArthur puts it, which are the essence of Christianity. To fudge or nudge on these issues is to deny the Christian faith and be anathemized (accursed), or to be wrong on these issues is revelatory on whether or not you are “of Christ” or “not of his sheep.” Examples of first-level issues are the incarnation of Christ, deity of Christ, full humanity of Christ, the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and justification by faith. The second-level theological issues are those which Christians can disagree on, but such disagreement produces boundaries and differences which determine whether or not you fellowship with them. Here, you find the differences in denominations and congregations. This happens within the Christian community, although the community is fragmented over these issues. Examples of second-level issues would be women serving as pastors, church government, and the meaning and mode of baptism. Finally, the third-level theological issues are matters in which Christians disagree but have relatively little consequence. You can have differences and still maintain close fellowship with the person with whom you disagree. The third-level is analogous to that of a scraped knee while the first-level would be the gun-shot wound. Some examples of third-level matters are views of eschatology (end times), social drinking, interpretation of certain difficult texts, or others like the KJV debate.
I think it is justifiable to say that we are in days of “theological trauma” in America, and it is imperative that we have this triage set up in our minds if we are going to address the assaults and “once and for all contend for the faith.” I am sure that we will find ourselves addressing issues on all levels, but let us be clear on this matter: when we differ, let it be second or third level matters. And if one errs on first-level issues, then it is the responsibility of a confessional Christian community to rise up and correct such a professor with the truth in love. It is tempting to pick on petty issues and make a mountain out of a molehill, and if don’t be careful, this is what we will be known for. Mohler makes a very succinct conclusion about the difference between liberalism and fundamentalism along these lines:
“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 the inevitable result.
Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends towards 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.”
I think Mohler nailed it here. We have two ditches to avoid, and hopefully this theological triage will give us greater discernment and sounder decision-making when it comes to when and how we address certain theological issues. You may differ with me on Switchfoot or the rapture, but these issues are third-level matters. Yet we must not differ on the person and work of Jesus Christ, His Word, the Trinity, and justification by faith. There are great challenges before us, and even greater ones to come. What must arise from the moral fog is a clarion voice and a sound message, one of which MacArthur says:
Nothing is more desperately needed in the church right now than a new movement to reemphasize the fundamental articles of the faith. Without such a movement to restore true biblical discernment, the true church is in serious trouble. If the current hunger for ecumenical compromise gains a foothold within evangelicalism, it will result in an unmitigated spiritual disaster. Reckless faith will virtually have free reign in the church. And far from strengthening the church’s witness to an unbelieving world, it will spell the end of any clarion voice of truth.
May God grant us grace and truth as well protect the treasure which has been deposited to us and join the ranks of our brothers who have gone before in creed, in conduct, and in great cost to give us the glorious heritage of this faith that has been handed down to us. May generations to come benefit because of the skilled workmen and humble stewards of the “mysteries of God.”