Finding the Right Hills to Die On…

If you know me at all then you’ll know that I quite enjoy a good theological discussion, a good theological debate. I’ve spent hours over the years talking about, learning about and defending certain points of doctrine which has all been good fun. One of the interesting things over the years has been how my theology has changed, all of those changes have taken place because I was convinced by Scripture not because I was won over by a certain rhetoric. But this has meant that one of the phrases I’ve probably used a lot in recent years is “it’s not a hill I’m going to die on”.

Theology is hugely important and every single person who has thoughts about God is a theologian, the pressing issue then is that we all try to be the best theologians we can be!

In ‘Finding the right hills to die on’ Gavin Ortlund speaks about theological triage, meaning that there are different doctrines that must be addressed at different times with different approaches. Some doctrines are very important and will determine if we can or cannot work with certain groups of people, whilst on other matters we are able to agree to disagree and continue to work alongside each other.

Ortlund suggests four basic categories for doctrines that will help you determine which are the right hills to die on…

– First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
Second-rank doctrines 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.
Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.

One of the things I like about this book is that Ortlund is honest about his own theological journey, which is not too dissimilar from my own. He explains how over the years, through studying the Scriptures, his position on certain things have changed (for examples; baptism and the gifts of the Spirit). Ortlund helpfully says that there are two extremes when it comes to doctrine; sectarianism and minimalism. On the one extreme people might be tempted to let their theological differences divide them unnecessarily, but on the other extreme people might be tempted to minimise the important of sound theology and think of it as not important at all.

We might think that we aren’t in danger of either extremes, but we are probably more in danger than we think we are. Ortlund helps us see the importance of holding firm to our convictions and to Biblical truth, whilst also showing grace to those who might disagree. Often theological disagreements can be brushed under the carpet with the reasoning ‘this doesn’t unite us, therefore, we need not discuss it’. Here’s what Ortlund says about unity…

“Pursuing the unity of the church does not mean that we should stop caring about theology. But it does mean that our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements.”

It is important for us to be honest about where we stand in history and to see where our tendencies may lie, regarding whether or not we let doctrine divide us unnecessarily or if we diminish the importance of theology.

“The overall trajectory of our culture, particularly among younger generations, probably tends more toward doctrinal minimalism and indifferentism…. This is the mind-set that says: “Let’s stop dividing over doctrine! It just hurts people. Let’s just love Jesus and feed the poor.” This is doctrinal minimalism.”

In this book Ortlund discusses topics like the millennium, the gifts of the Spirit, baptism, complementarity v egalitarianism, calvinism v arminianism. He doesn’t approach these topics in order to convince you of his positions on them, but rather to help the reader think through the category, or ranking of importance, that they should come under. Ortlund helpfully gives you 4 questions to help you consider the importance of a articular doctrine…

1. How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
2. What is this doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
4. What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today?

These questions are not final deciding factor on the importance of a doctrine, but they are a helpful starting point.

I found this book quite helpful and enjoyed reading it, I think one of the things it was missing was that it wasn’t as practical as it could have been. It would have been good to give more concrete examples or to flesh out the ramifications of certain disagreements and doctrines. However, I do understand that a book cannot do everything, especially when it is short and talking about a big topic. I would recommend this book to those who are in, or thinking of going into, church leadership (whether pastors, elders, ministry leaders, etc.). I think this would be a good book for the team of elders and pastors in your church to read, it will help you see the importance of sound doctrine and the need for clarity.

I would challenge you, Christian and church elders/pastors, read this book and then come up with a list of the doctrines using the four categories that Ortlund speaks about in this book. This practice could be helpful for you to consider who and how you work with in the future and how you approach certain theological discussion.

You can buy the book here from Crossway or you can pre-order it in the UK here from 10ofThose and it will be available from June 1st 2020.

Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of Anselm’s Pursuit of Joy and Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation.

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