Dear Church Family,
In the adult Sunday school class, we have been studying “Turning Points in Church History,” following the outline of the book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity by Mark A. Noll. And so, we have examined the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD), the Council of Nicaea (325), and the Council of Chalcedon (451).
In learning about the major ecumenical councils of the early church, we have seen God’s people wrestled with the proper understanding of the Trinity (the three Persons of the Godhead) and the proper understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures (divine and human) in the one Person of Jesus Christ. The creeds and statements that have been preserved and handed down to us (i.e., the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition) serve as important benchmarks of orthodoxy.
In our most recent class, as we discussed the importance of the Christology of the Chalcedonian Definition (Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures), we talked about how there are churches today that do not accept this council or this doctrine: Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian) and the Assyrian Church of the East (predominantly in Iraq).
During our discussion, in an effort to answer the questions that arose about the importance of doctrines that separate Christians from non-Christians, as well as Christians from one another, I introduced the concept of “theological triage.” In raising this concept, I borrowed from an article that I read years ago by Al Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.”
Mohler posits that just as medical personnel must assess and triage patients (assigning varying degrees of relative importance to particular conditions), the Christian must learn to conduct theological triage with respect to doctrines that have varying degrees of importance. Thus, Mohler describes three levels of theological issues:
(1) First-level theological issues: those doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith (they separate Christians from non-Christians). Here, Mohler lists such crucial doctrines as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. Mohler writes, “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.”
(2) Second-order theological issues: those doctrines over which various Christian traditions differ (they separate churches and denominations). Here, Mohler lists infant and credo-baptism, covenant theology, and the ordination of women. Mohler writes, “Many of the most heated disagreements among serious believers take place at the second-order level, for these issues frame our understanding of the church and its ordering by the Word of God.”
(3) Third-order theological issues: those doctrines over which Christians may disagree but remain in close fellowship (they separate individual Christians from one another). Here, Mohler describes the doctrine of eschatology and the specific details of the return of Christ. Mohler writes, “…standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.”
Mohler is quick to point out that this structure of theological triage doesn’t imply that there are any insignificant truths that are revealed in God’s Word. Still, understanding this structure does help to explain disagreements and confusion. Theological liberalism, points out Mohler, is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist, treating first-order doctrines as if they were third-order doctrines. On the other extreme, fundamentalism treats third-order doctrines as if they were of the first-order.
In our study of church history, understanding these three levels of “theological triage” is very helpful. As we have already seen, the doctrines which are taught in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition are of the first-order. A proper understanding of the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ is essential to the Christian faith. Those churches and individuals who do not accept these doctrines are not Christian, but heretical.
This month, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As we will see later in our class, some of the issues at stake in the eventual breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church were doctrines of the first-order: the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture. These first-order issues that gave rise to the Reformation are issues that still divide Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church.
Why is all of this important? Well, as we noted in the first session of our present Sunday school series, one of evangelicalism’s greatest weaknesses today is ambivalence, or even opposition to the study of history.
Understanding church history and the structure of “theological triage” teaches us to be discerning – to understand that there are first-order doctrines that separate us from other religions, and even from those who are Christian in name only. At the same time, understanding church history and the structure of “theological triage” teaches us humility – to understand that though there are second- and third-level doctrines that may separate us, we share a common faith with all true Christians.
In short, we learn how to be both “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch