Book Review: Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (The Gospel Coalition)

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.



Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (The Gospel Coalition), by Gavin Ortlund, 176pp, Crossway Books.

Gavin Ortlund, PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California).

I have seen more than enough theological and doctrinal debates in my time. So I was eager to read this book by Gavin Ortlund.  Given I am not a pastor, I don’t come from the same background as Ortlund. But I do direct two apologetic ministries and have seen plenty of debates and how Christians treat each other over their differences.

Ortlund tells his own journey of his experiences with denominations  and how it has been a challenge to always adhere to specific doctrinal positions.

Ortlund is rightly concerned about unity. As he says, “To affirm the unity of the church is to affirm that there are not multiple, distinct groups that constitute separate peoples of God. Jesus does not have a plurality of brides. He has one bride, and her unity is so important that, as Paul stipulates in Ephesians 2:14, it was among the intended aims of Jesus’s atoning death: “he . . . has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” In context, Paul is speaking of the union of Jews and Gentiles, but his point is certainly relevant to all expressions of unity in the body of Christ, including among various estranged Gentile groups.”- pg 33.

In his chapter on The Dangers of Doctrinal Sectarianism, he says:

“One does not need to be particularly well studied in church history to know that churches are not often known for their unity. Though estimates of the number of Protestant denominations are often exaggerated, the fragmentation is undeniable. Thoughtful Protestants have always lamented this fact. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, for example, commented that “the rise of sectarianism that has accompanied the Protestant movement is a dark and negative phenomenon.”17 In the context of his treatment of the church’s catholicity (that is, universality), Bavinck stressed the importance of recognizing a distinction between fundamental and nonfundamental truths. He went so far as to claim that the inability to recognize true Christians outside one’s own circle leads to the spiritual detriment and ultimately to the death of that group.”- pg 35.

He rightly notes, “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.”- pg 36.
Ortlund highlights some of Paul’s admonitions  in a desire for the godliness of the churches Titus and Timothy are serving. Consider the concerns Paul articulates in the following passages:

  • “Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:3– 4).• “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).
  • “He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (1 Tim. 6:4 –5).
  • “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20–21).
  • “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14).
  • “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16).
  • “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23).
  • “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3– 4).
  • “Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:13–14).
  • “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).

Paul never tells us the exact nature of the false teaching Timothy is facing in Ephesus, or Titus is facing in Crete. Repeatedly, Paul commands that Titus and Timothy steer clear of these controversies because they do not produce godliness.- pgs. 39-40.

Ortlund says: doctrines can be “secondary” or “nonessential” to the gospel and yet still make a difference in how we uphold the gospel. When it comes to doctrine, or doctrines, he says there are:

  • First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel.
  • Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church).
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

He says he uses the term “important” for the third category deliberately, though because he realizes it could be misleading. It reflects the concern of this chapter that many doctrines are significant even if we don’t divide over them. “Important” is, of course, a relative term—hopefully, placing it after “urgent” and “essential” will make it clear that I do not mean “important for salvation” or even “important for productive collaboration.” But again— to press the point—the fact that a particular doctrine is not important for salvation or partnership does not mean that it cannot be important in any sense.- pgs. 47-48.

Ortlund is not advocating a sharp awareness of doctrine or theology. Not at all. He says “ There is a sad poverty of awareness in simply bypassing all this historical discussion and adopting an up-for-grabs mentality in which theology functions like the people in the book of Judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).” – pg 54. He also notes that “ Most of us recognize that a pugnacious, mean-spirited attitude toward theological controversy is antithetical to the gospel. But we must also say that so is an unwillingness to fight over doctrine. Doctrinal minimalism and doctrinal indifferentism have no backbone.”- pg 58.

In asking how we know whether something is a “first rank” doctrine” Ortlund quotes Erik Thoennes who offers a helpful list of criteria:

  1. Biblical clarity2. Relevance to the character of God

    3. Relevance to the essence of the gospel

    4. Biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it)

    5. Effect on other doctrines

    6. Consensus among Christians (past and present)

    7. Effect on personal and church life 8. Current cultural pressure to deny a teaching of Scripture.- see Erik Thoennes, Life’s Biggest Questions: What the Bible Says about the Things That Matter Most (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 35–37.

    He also repeats Wayne Grudem’s list of questions that churches and organizations should ask when considering whether to draw a new theological boundary:

    1. Certainty: How sure are we that the teaching is wrong?

    2. Effect on other doctrines: Will this teaching likely lead to significant erosion in other doctrines?

    3. Effect on personal and church life: Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church?

    4. Historical precedent: Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history?

    5. Perception of importance among God’s people: Is there increasing consensus . . . that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement?

    6. Purposes of the organization: Is the teaching a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the organization?

    7. Motivations of advocates: Does it seem that the advocates of this teaching hold it because of a fundamental refusal to be subject to the authority of God’s Word, rather than because of sincerely held differences of interpretation based on accepted hermeneutical standards?

    8. Methods of advocates: Do the advocates of this teaching frequently manifest arrogance, deception, unrighteous anger, slander, and falsehood rather than humility, openness to correction and reason, kindness, and absolute truthfulness.- see Wayne Grudem, “Why, When, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Chris tian ity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 362–69.

Ortlund then summaries these lists in four questions: 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?

As Ortlund notes, when it comes to “first ranked” doctrines, sometimes people define essential doctrines as those that must be affirmed in order to experience salvation. In certain circumstances, however, people experience salvation with very limited information. The thief on the cross is a classic example. It is not clear that the thief personally affirmed the Trinity. It seems very likely he did not possess this information in his circumstance. Supposing, for the sake of argument, that this is correct, this would not in itself exclude the Trinity from being a first-rank doctrine. Several distinctions can help us in this regard. First, we should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. Some Christians will lack the mental capacity, theological awareness, or communicative ability to express various first-rank doctrines.”- pg 81.

Ortlund then spends time unpacking what he considers to be “second” or “third” ranked doctrines such as the following: The nature of baptism, Continuationism versus Cessationism, Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism, the Millennium, Creation models, etc. Obviously, some will consider these to be first ranked doctrines and fight over them. Some of them do impact various functional aspects of local congregations (Continuationism versus Cessationism, Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism). But none of them are essential to the Gospel. They don’t impact one’s salvation.  But Ortlund notes in most debates, one side provides their texts to support their position and the other does the same. Things are not as straightforward as we want them to be. We don’t like ambiguity. But we need to ask ourselves are some of these issues worth a fight.

He notes “ we should never think that avoiding a fight is a sign of weakness. So often, in life and in theology, it is the exact opposite—to avoid a fight takes a deeper and nobler strength than to engage in one. Doctrinally serious Christians must remember this, particularly when it comes to third-rank doctrines. We should eagerly pursue the kind of theological conviction and strength that is willing not only to fight for the truth but also to avoid fighting in order to promote the gospel. This is the best kind of strength.”- pg 144.

What did I like about Ortlund’s book?

It is a reminder that unity and love are very close to heart of our Lord (see his prayer in John 17).  In reality, if we can’t learn to treat each other with love over disagreement over second and third order doctrines, what kind of witness is that to the world around us?

As far as the apologetics community, I sometimes see the lack of love in disagreement and debate. Sometimes there is a tendency to define someone by their doctrinal purity. I see this happen all the time. We need to show grace to people who may not know or understand various doctrinal positions and why they matter to our faith and practice.

This book isn’t an extensive treatment of the topic. For those that want more on some of the debates second and third order doctrines mentioned, one may want to read the Four and Five Views books that have been put out by Zondervan.  Overall,  Ortlund brings some important reminders to the surface here. He has displayed courage in writing on an important topic.

Comments are closed.