Last week, Tom Ascol expressed his concerns about the vision of Baptist Identity and in particular, their rejection of theological triage using a chapel message delivered by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell on October 30, 2008 at SWBTS chapel.  The message Dr. Yarnell preached was entitled “The Essentials of Christianity” (MP3) wherein he argued that a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ renders theological triage untenable because every doctrine pertaining to the Lordship of Jesus is inherently essential.

Within hours of the publishing of Ascol’s post, the Baptist Identity bloggers were in an uproar, calling Ascol names and demanding a retraction and apology.  Additionally, within 24 hours after his post, Dr. Yarnell teamed up with Robin Foster of SBCToday to write a six-page response (PDF) spinning the same language of “theological maturity” and verses Ascol used in his post (Philippians 3)–a paper Foster claims to have started “earlier this week.”  With both the serious and sophomoric responses received, it is important to consider the substance of what is at hand in this matter.

Reviewing Theological Triage

First, we need to review the idea of theological triage.  Dr. Mohler makes the case for three tiers of determining the weight of various doctrinal issues, noting that without such distinctions there can be no “theological seriousness and maturity.”  First-tier doctrines are those “most central and essential to the Christian faith” and include “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.”  Mohler goes on to say the following:

“These 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.” (emphasis mine)

At the heart of first-order doctrines is what it means to be Christian.  At the heart of being a Christian are matters pertaining to the gospel, such as substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, and full deity & humanity of Christ.

Second-tier doctrines are those about which, Mohler argues, Christians have serious disagreements that result in various boundaries, such as denominations. An example of a second-tier doctrine is the meaning and mode of baptism.  Mohler does not diminish the importance of baptism, but specifically categorizes it into the second tier because being wrong about it does not necessarily constitute one not being a Christian (i.e., the first tier). Although second-tier doctrines are important and carry enough weight to divide Bible-believing Christians, Mohler rightly asserts that

“Christians across a vast denominational range can stand together on the first-order doctrines and recognize each other as authentic Christians, while understanding that the existence of second-order disagreements prevents the closeness of fellowship we would otherwise enjoy.” (emphasis mine)

To summarize the difference between the two tiers, it can be argued that the first-tier defines what it means to be Christian via the gospel while the second tier defines what it means to be a Baptist, Presbyterian, etc. via ecclesiology.  Utilizing theological triage helps us appreciate and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ as the company of the Redeemed who together shared in the stewardship of the Great Commission while at the same time faithfully holding–without apology or compromise–the doctrines found in the second-tier that define our ecclesiology.

Yarnell’s Conflation of First and Second Tier Doctrines

Where Ascol takes issue with Yarnell’s chapel message is in its elevating second-tier doctrines to the first-tier, or more accurately, where it does away with the theological triage idea altogether.  Yarnell’s concern is that placing something like believer’s baptism in the second-tier is undermining its importance or making it somehow nonessential. For instance, Yarnell and Foster write:

“The Christian who relies upon the ‘first-order’ doctrines errs when this becomes an excuse for ignoring or downplaying ‘second-order’ and ‘third-order’ doctrines.” (emphasis mine)

Again, they argue:

“We do spiritual harm to an immature Christian when excusing their immaturity; and we diminish Christ’s Lordship when we glibly refer to His commands as ‘secondary,’ ‘tertiary,’ or ‘non-essential.'” (emphasis mine)

One more, for good measure:

“To term such doctrines [e.g, believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, NT communion] ‘secondary’ in the sense of ‘insignificant’ or ‘unnecessary’ or ‘indifferent’ is not only a misuse of theological triage; it may be more egregiously a subtle but significant downgrading of Christ’s Lordship over His church.” (emphasis mine)

I can see where they may come away with that conclusion, but theological triage is not intended to minimize the importance of a doctrine but simply to make the distinction that there are certain doctrines that are so foundational to being a Christian that, should one reject them, he or she would depart from biblical Christianity.  When they speak of the misuse of theological triage of late, are they not implicating the author himself, since Mohler employed the meaning and mode of baptism as a second-tier doctrine?

What Yarnell essentially does by saying that there are no secondary or tertiary doctrines under the Lordship of Christ is to conflate what it means to be Christian and what it means to be Baptist. Consequently, Ascol is correct in saying that Yarnell’s stated vision of Christianity reveals that “baptism is just as essential as the deity of Christ or salvation by grace through faith.”  The implications of this conflation would necessarily include the idea that only Christians baptized by immersion are true Christians and therefore should not fellowship or cooperate with anyone outside the Baptist tradition.  It is not surprising, therefore, to see spokesmen of the Baptist Identity vision referring cooperation with non-Southern Baptists holding to the same fundamental doctrines in the first tier as “ecumenical compromise.”

While Yarnell would never say that baptism is essential to salvation, implying that it is equal to a first-tier doctrine leads the reader to the conclusion that believer’s baptism is necessary to the same degree that other first-tier doctrines are necessary to be a Christian.  It is in response to this conflation that Ascol writes,

“That kind of narrow-mindedness strikes me as more than simple theological immaturity. It strikes me as dangerous to biblical Christianity.”

It is narrow-minded because it effectively nullifies what Mohler referred to earlier in “standing together . . . and recognizing each other as authentic Christians” who disagree on second-tier doctrines.  It is dangerous to biblical Christianity because Christians are defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ plus nothing, minus nothing.  To add something like baptism to first-tier doctrines or to conflate the two tiers would be tantamount to what the Judaizers did when they insisted upon circumcision in addition to faith in Christ. This is not the spirit of evangelicalism but Fundamentalism.  Mohler is correct to argue that theological maturity calls us to acknowledge all gospel-embracing believers as fellow Christians and to see that the gospel is not lateral but foundational to Baptist Identity.

Theological Triage and Lowest Common Denominator

Over the past couple of weeks, the Baptist Identity bloggers have referred much to the idea of “lowest common denominator” in particular with reference to Mark Driscoll at Southeastern Seminary.  In one of his articles, Foster writes,

“There is a systematic diverting of attention from doctrinal fidelity by the Southern Baptist (SB) ecumenist. This is being done by aligning oneself to the lowest common denominator for cooperation, a false redefinition of terms, and a pragmatic approach to missions cooperation.” (emphasis mine)

Really? Foster says this is done by aligning oneself to the lowest common denominator for cooperation.  For the Christian, what they would have most in common would be doctrines found in the first-tier–namely, the gospel which I have described as the greatest common denominator.  Interestingly, Yarnell and Foster blame theological triage as a culprit for fostering such ecumenical cooperation that supposedly undermines doctrinal fidelity.  Consider their words:

“While we affirm this paradigm as a laudable effort, what we have seen, as of late, represents a distortion of its employment. The misuse of this method can be seen especially in the spiral downward to a ‘lowest common denominator‘ approach to church fellowship and ethical conduct. We believe that when theological triage is used in this way, it is being used inappropriately.” (emphasis mine)

Later, they add:

“Our point here is that theological triage, while possessing a legitimate use, becomes a dangerous enterprise when used as a means to discover and then remain stagnant upon the least common denominator.” (emphasis mine)

What Yarnell and Foster do not do is explicitly state what exactly mean by “the least common denominator.”  However, it is obvious that they are talking about those first-tier doctrines of which all Christians have in common.  In his presentation at the Building Bridges Conference, Yarnell made the following statement:

“As you can see, Texas Baptists, who brought their pristine Baptist theology with them from many states both north and east, were committed churchmen before Landmarkers J.R. Graves and J.M. Pendleton ever came to their ecclesiastical doctrines, and I pray we will be committed churchmen long after Calvinists John Piper and Timothy George finish testing the ecumenical slope. Leaving the Hyper-Calvinists to kill their witness ever so slowly, the missionary Christians organized in the Union Baptist Association in the Texas of yesterday pursued a healthier path of biblical orthodoxy and missionary ecclesiology. Leaving the ecumenists to pursue their agenda, the missionary Baptists of today are pursuing the ‘unifying and healthy’ path of biblical theology, soteriology and ecclesiology, for we believe “true biblical unity is based upon certain unalterable doctrinal confessions as revealed in God’s inerrant Scripture.” (emphasis mine)

The necessary conflation of first and second tier doctrines is antithetical to theological triage which serves as the gateway to evil ecumenism, so Yarnell argues.  The missionary Christians are those who, with their “pristine Baptist theology,” forge ahead as committed churchmen, leaving the “ecumenists to pursue their own agenda.”  What Yarnell prays for, argues from history, and advocates for the future is nothing short of a vision of Baptist orthodoxy that eliminates any cooperation on first-tier doctrines focusing on the gospel.

It is important to note that while Yarnell dismissed the idea of theological triage as legitimate in October 2008,  last week Yarnell and Foster praised it, and are now policing it, crying foul if it does not meet their standard of legitimacy or appropriate use.

Conclusion

Yarnell and Foster, among others, have repeatedly warned of Southern Baptists who consider the Baptist distinctives as non-essential, unimportant, unnecessary, or indifferent, and they have tied those Baptists to the misuse of theological triage.  However, they have failed to show who, how, and where specifically this is happening today.  It certainly cannot be said of those within the vision of Great Commission Resurgence who emphasize the centrality and sufficiency of the gospel.  To speak in vague admonitions does not contribute to bringing clarity to the vision of Baptist Identity.

On the other hand, it has been shown how the Baptist Identity vision has conflated the Baptist-related tier (second) with the Christian-related tier (first) so that it leads one to confusion at best and dangerous equivocation at worst.  In addition, to argue that Baptists are the Great Commission Christians only further contributes to the proposed isolationism within the Baptist Identity camp.  From the beginning, Southern Baptists have held to the evangelical commitment derived from having been united to Christ by faith and united to one another by His Spirit.  Though there are serious differences among gospel-believing Christians, those differences should not overshadow what we have together in the inheritance of the saints.  We should be as “ecumenical” as Jesus who prayed thus:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

The unity we have in Christ through the gospel is the very means by which Christ prayed that he would be made known in the world so that others would believe.  May we learn to pray, to live, and to love in such a way that the prayer of our Savior is answered and our world is reached for the glory of His name.