The Theological Triage
In the vast world of theological controversies, there are first order issues, second order issues, and third order issues. Unfortunately, most of our time is spent dealing with secondary and tertiary issues, when we should be focusing our attention on the primary issues. Primary issues are those that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. A student once asked Lewis Drummond how one should relate to Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Drummond replied, “You relate to them as lost people.” He was exactly right. Those who deny the bodily resurrection are not believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is a first order issue.
Second order issues are those that would prevent two Christians from joining the same covenant community, even though they would still call one another “Christians.” A church, for example, will either baptize babies or it will not. A church will either ordain women as pastors or it will not. This does not mean that we would necessarily say that those who ordain women as pastors are non-Christians; nor would we say that those who baptize babies are non-Christians (despite the appalling lack of the aforementioned “tradition” to support those practices). Nevertheless, we must affirm without apology that a theological seminary, a denomination and even individual churches will have to stand with one confession, not a multiplicity of diverse choices. These second order issues are the right place to focus much of our debate – so long as we remember where they rank.
Third order issues are those that would not prevent two Christians from joining together in a covenant community. These are not unimportant issues; all truth is important. Yet they are not of such importance that disagreement on them means we cannot cooperate with each other. Many current debates within our churches – including everything from questions about the timing of the millennium to issues of cultural engagement – stand on this third level. As such, they are ripe for discussion, but they should not become a cause for division.
Without the discipline of a theological triage, we are constantly at risk of confusing third order issues for first order issues – the original besetting sin of fundamentalism. At the same time, we are also at risk for first order issues – the besetting sin of liberalism. Keeping our equilibrium requires that our triage be clear and self-conscious, articulated and accountable.
Heresy is about the first order issues. There are several issues that I break with fellow Christians on, because I feel that their positions are unscriptural and have no basis in the beliefs of the church fathers. However, there is a distinct difference between unscriptural and counter-scriptural, between non-traditional and anti-traditional. Heresy lies in the denial of the Gospel – nowhere else.
Next post – heresy and the Catholic Church. Those who have been stopping by will, I hope, find the subject of interest.