Help! I’m looking for examples of “theological triage,” “doctrinal taxonomy,” or “dogmatic rank”

For a research project, I’m looking for examples of the reasoning that goes into what’s been called, among other things

  • “theological triage,”
  • “doctrinal taxonomy,” or
  • “dogmatic rank.”

I’m referring to the process of distinguishing between various levels of importance when it comes to theological statements/positions.

So, for example, the Trinity would usually be considered a “first-order” or “primary” doctrine—a “dogma,” if you will. But a specific view of the end times would usually be considered a “second-order,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” doctrine—AKA “adiaphora.”

But how should we go about making these doctrinal distinctions?

What’s the reasoning that goes into the triage?

That’s what I’m really interested in.

Here’s what I’ve found so far. If you can think of anything else, please let me know!


John Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.7

Freedom in “things indifferent” with proofs from Romans, 7–9

7. The third part of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves “indifferent,” we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions. Today we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion over the unrestricted eating of meat, use of holidays and of vestments, and such things, which seem to them vain frivolities.

But these matters are more important than is commonly believed. For when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of. . . . (Calvin illustrates the downward spiral of conscience that can occur.)

Here begins a weighty controversy, for what is in debate is whether God, whose will ought to precede all our plans and actions, wishes us to use these things or those. As a consequence, some, in despair, are of necessity cast into a pit of confusion; others, despising God and abandoning fear of him, must make their own way in destruction, where they have none ready-made. For all those entangled in such doubts, wherever they turn, see offense of conscience everywhere present.


D.A. Carson, “On Disputable Matters.” Themelios 40, no. 3 (December 2015): 383–88.

  • Notes 1 Cor. 6:9–10 and Rom. 14:5–6 as scriptural support for every generation’s need “to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience” (383).
  • “The matters where Christians may safely agree to disagree have traditionally been labeled adiaphora, ‘indifferent things’” (383). Yet, because adiaphora are not unimportant, Carson prefers “disputable matters” to “indifferent matters.”
  • Some decisions, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ being essential, are easy. Other decisions are more complicated. Carson notes “that some things that were thought theologically indisputable in the past have become disputable” (383). Culture and history can/do play a role.
  • Carson notes the contemporary debate over homosexuality as an example of the adiaphora question’s relevance.

He provides “ten reflections on what does and does not constitute a theologically disputable matter” (384).

  1. “That something is disputed does not make it theologically disputable, i.e., part of the adiaphora.” (384).
  2. “What places something in the indisputable column, then, is not whether or not it is disputed by some people, or has ever been disputed, but what the Scriptures consistently say about the topic, and how the Scriptures tie it to other matters. At the end of the day that turns on sober, even-handed, reverent exegesis—as Athanasius understood in his day on a different topic.” (384).
  3. “My third, fourth, and fifth observations about disputable matters arise from a close reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul does not assert that Christians should not eat meat that has been offered to idols. . . . Nevertheless, Christians with a “weak” conscience . . . must not eat such meat, lest they do damage to their conscience. Eating the meat that has been offered to idols is not intrinsically wrong, but violating one’s own conscience is wrong.” (385).
  4. “an action belonging in the disputable column is not necessarily one that Christians are free to take up. Rather, Christians may rule the action out of bounds either because they admit they have weak consciences, or, knowing their consciences are strong, because they voluntarily put the action aside out of love for weaker believers.” (385).
  5. “actions that may belong to the adiaphora, i.e., that are rightly judged disputable, may in certain cultural contexts become absolutely condemned, thus now belonging in the indisputable column. More briefly: in the right context, what belongs in the disputable column gets shifted to the indisputably bad column.” (386). Illustrates this with the odd apparent contrast between what Paul has to say in 1 Cor. 8 and 1 Cor. 10:14–22.
  6. “Sometimes the theological associations of an action, in a particular context, establish whether an action is right or wrong. In one context, it may be absolutely right or wrong, and thus belong in the indisputable column; in another context, the action may belong to the adiaphora.” (386). Illustrates this with Titus (Gal. 2:1-5) and Timothy (Acts 16:3) re: circumcision.
  7. “Under the new covenant, there is a deep suspicion of those who, for the sake of greater spirituality or deeper purity, elevate celibacy or who prohibit certain foods or who inject merely human (i.e., biblically unwarranted) commands, or who scrap over minor points (e.g., Mark 7:19; 1 Tim 4:3-4; 1:6; 2 Tim 2:14, 16-17; Tit 1:10-16; cf. Rom 14). Such people try to elevate matters that should never be placed in the indisputable column to a high place in the hierarchy of virtues.” (387).
  8. Has moral law been relativized into the disputable column? Carson notes that some make argument from Rom. 14:5–6 relativizing observance of days → Sabbath → Decalogue → moral law. Carson admits that the issues are complicated here, but he provides a few ways of salvaging Sabbath, Decalogue, and moral law from Rom. 14:5–6. He also thinks that homosexuality is different, since “in the Bible there is no text whatsoever that hints that homosexual marriage might in some cases be acceptable.” (387).
  9. Re: William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals and the redemptive movement hermeneutic, Carson points out that Webb himself clarifies why it doesn’t apply to homosexuality. But Carson agrees with Grudem’s critique of Webb. We must follow the trajectories within the Scriptures, “but that does not justify treating the trajectories beyond the Scriptures as normative, the more so when such trajectories undermine what the Scriptures actually say” (388).
  10. Instead of asking questions in the sense of “What are we allowed to do? What can we get away with?,” we should be asking “What will bring glory to God?” (388).

Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) Spiritual Heritage Committee, “The Bible, Dogmatic Rank, and a Statement of Faith: Part 1.”

Regarding “Dogmatic Rank”:

Reformation and post-Reformation scholars, theologians, and pastors delineated dogmatic rank in three ways, in order of importance. The first, the fundamental articles of faith or doctrine,[2] focused on “the basic doctrines necessary to the Christian faith [which] are distinguished from secondary or logically derivative doctrines.” These are the “doctrines without which Christianity cannot exist and the integrity of which is necessary to the preservation of the faith.”

The second, the secondary fundamental articles, recognizes that some of the fundamental articles “such as those concerned with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, might be lacking in a person’s faith, or at least lacking in correct definition, and that person still be saved in the promises of the gospel, since forgiveness of sins rests on faith in Christ, as witnessed in the Word, and not on acceptance of the doctrines of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Despite these differences and divides, the conclusion was that adherents of the other view were “Christian and participated in the promise of salvation in Christ because of their acceptance of the primary fundamental doctrines of the person and work of Christ,” even though they voiced concern that the other person’s doctrinal system was considered endangered.

The third, the nonfundamental articles, focuses on “articles the denial of which does not endanger salvation since they are not fundamental to the maintenance of Christian truth and are not concerned with the objects of faith,” e.g., identity of the Antichrist and the nature of angels. “Such doctrines, nonetheless, are scriptural and, therefore, if rightly stated, edifying.”[3]

https://www.efca.org/sites/default/files/resources/docs/2019/05/the_bible_dogmatic_rank_and_a_statement_of_faith_-_introduction_0.pdf

Here, the EFCA document has a couple of helpful footnotes:

FN2:

“The Protestant Scholastic Reformers referred to these three levels of dogmatic rank in the following way: articuli fundamentals, the fundamental articles of faith or doctrine, the articuli fundamentals secundarii, the secondary fundamental articles, and the articuli non-fundamentales, the nonfundamental articles.”

FN3:

“Cf. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 40-41.

Furthermore, in FN4, they list some examples of doctrinal taxonomy:

“For a few examples of others who have provided helpful means of determining dogmatic rank, cf. R. Albert Mohler Jr., “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” See also the excellent treatment by Erik Thoennes, Life’s Biggest Questions: What the Bible Says About the Things That Matter Most (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), “Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine,” 35-37. Mohler’s “theological triage” is probably the most widely known, but Thoennes’ taxonomy is likely the most helpful. Finally, Gavin Ortlund has written an exceptional book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (forthcoming).”

Regarding the EFCA:

With the Bible and the gospel foundational to our doctrine and life (1 Tim. 4:16), we have identified four categories of dogmatic rank, which is the notion that not all doctrinal claims stand on the same level:

1. Of First Importance
2. Of Second Importance
3. Of Third Importance
4. Disputable Matters

[…]

We have also developed a taxonomy/grid by which we determine this rank, the category in which a certain doctrinal issue most appropriately fits.

1. Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
2. Connection to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
3. Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
4. Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
5. Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine or practice in the Church of both the past and present
6. Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine or practice to us today?

https://www.efca.org/sites/default/files/resources/docs/2019/05/the_bible_dogmatic_rank_and_a_statement_of_faith_-_introduction_0.pdf

Finally, note that this EFCA document references an earlier one and a later one:


Millard J. Erickson, “Degrees of Authority of Theological Statements,” in Christian Theology (3rd ed., Baker, 2013), 65–66.

  1. Direct statements of Scripture.
  2. Direct implications of Scripture.
  3. Probable implications of Scripture.
  4. Inductive conclusions from Scripture.
  5. Conclusions inferred from the general revelation.
  6. Outright speculations.

Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (IVP, 1996), 70–77.

  • The chapter is titled “Theology’s Tasks & Traditions.” The section is titled “Theology’s Critical Task.”
  • “Theology’s critical task is to examine beliefs and teachings about God, ourselves and the world in light of Christian sources, especially the primary norm of the biblical message” (70).
  • After a belief is determined to be valid, then we categorize it based upon relative importance.
  • “Over the centuries theologians have developed three main categories of Christian beliefs: dogma, doctrine, and opinion.
    • “A belief is considered a dogma if it seems essential to the gospel. In other words, if its denial would seem to entail apostasy—rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ—then it is a dogma.
    • “A doctrine, as the term is used here, is a belief that is considered important without being essential. That is, a particular Christian church or denomination may consider the belief a test of fellowship without claiming that its denial amounts to apostasy. The denial of a doctrine may be considered heresy but not necessarily outright apostasy.
    • “A belief is relegated to the status of opinion when it is considered interesting but relatively unimportant to the faith of the church. One is allowed to believe whatever one wishes about the matter so long as it does not conflict with a dogma or doctrine. Denial of an opinion is simply a difference of interpretation.” (73).
  • Grenz and Olson acknowledge that “there is no universal categorization” (74). This is “one major reason for the existence of different denominations” (73).
  • Dogma was the first category to develop in the history of the church, mainly around the ecumenical creeds and the deliberations behind them.
  • Doctrines have to do with particular traditions/denominations and criteria for membership.
  • Opinions are judged to be matters of private interpretation.
  • “One of the major activities of theologians, then, is to discover the proper location in this schema for each valid Christian belief. (Of course, if a belief is criticized as invalid or false, it is left out of the schema entirely)” (76.)
  • Some churches push everything toward the category of opinion, evacuating dogma and doctrine. Others push everything into dogma, evacuating doctrine and opinion.

(LUTHERAN) “X. Church Practices,” in The Formula of Concord (1577)

  • Article 10 of the Formula of Concord is devoted to the controversy “Concerning ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been introduced into the Church for the sake of good order and propriety.”
  • The main question/debate was “whether, in time of persecution and in case of confession, even if the enemies of the Gospel have not reached an agreement with us in doctrine, some abrogated ceremonies, which in themselves are matters of indifference and are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, may nevertheless, upon the pressure and demand of the adversaries, be reestablished without violence to conscience, and we may thus [rightly] have conformity with them in such ceremonies and adiaphora. To this the one side has said Yea, the other, Nay.”

Affirmative Statements (from the Epitome/Summary)

  1. “the ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been instituted alone for the sake of propriety and good order, are in and of themselves no divine worship, nor even a part of it.  Matt. 15:9 :In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
  2. “the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God.”
  3. “all frivolity and offense should be avoided, and special care should be taken to exercise forbearance towards the weak in faith.  1 Cor. 8:9Rom. 14:13 .”
  4. “in time of persecution, when a plain [and steadfast] confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in regard to such adiaphora, . . . For in such a case it is no longer a question concerning adiaphora, but concerning the truth of the Gospel, concerning [preserving] Christian liberty, and concerning sanctioning open idolatry, as also concerning the prevention of offense to the weak in the faith [how care should be taken lest idolatry be openly sanctioned and the weak in faith be offended]; in which we have nothing to concede, but should plainly confess and suffer on that account what God sends, and what He allows the enemies of His Word to inflict upon us.”
  5. “no Church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy Sacraments, according to the well-known saying: Dissonantia ieiunii non dissolvit consonantiam fidei, Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith.”

Negative Statements (from the Epitome/Summary):

“Accordingly, we reject and condemn as wrong and contrary to God’s Word when it is taught:

  1. “That human ordinances and institutions in the church should be regarded as in themselves a divine worship or part of it.
  2. “When such ceremonies, ordinances, and institutions are violently forced upon the congregation of God as necessary, contrary to its Christian liberty which it has in external things.
  3. “Also, that in time of persecution and public confession [when a clear confession is required] we may yield to the enemies of the Gospel in such adiaphora and ceremonies, or may come to an agreement with them (which causes injury to the truth).
  4. “Also, when these external ceremonies and adiaphora are abrogated in such a manner as though it were not free to the congregation of God to employ one or more [this or that] in Christian liberty, according to its circumstances, as may be most useful at any time to the Church [for edification].”

Al Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.

First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. […]

The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident. […]

Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology, for example, in this category. Christians who affirm the bodily, historical, and victorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ may differ over timetable and sequence without rupturing the fellowship of the church. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.

https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity/ Emphasis added.

Note: Mohler also has another piece online, “Part III: The pastor and theological triage,” in which he says much the same thing.


R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Confessional Evangelicalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2011), 77–80

Mohler makes much the same argument here as he does in “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” See above.


Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway, 2020).

I wish this book were out! It’s set to be published in April 2020.

From the publisher:

In theology, just as in battle, some hills are worth dying on. But how do we know which ones? When should doctrine divide, and when should unity prevail? Pastor Gavin Ortlund makes the case that while all doctrines matter, some are more essential than others. He considers how and what to prioritize in doctrine and ministry, encouraging humility and grace along the way. Using four basic categories of doctrine in order of importance, this book helps new and seasoned church leaders alike wisely labor both to uphold doctrine and to preserve unity.

https://www.crossway.org/books/finding-the-right-hills-to-die-on-tpb/

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Why Theological Triage?
    • 1. The Danger of Doctrinal Sectarianism 
    • 2. The Danger of Doctrinal Minimalism
    • 3. My Journey on Non-Essential Doctrines
  • Part 2: Theological Triage at Work 
    • 4. Why Primary Doctrines Are Worth Fighting For
    • 5. Navigating the Complexity of Secondary Doctrines
    • 6. Why We Should Not Divide over Tertiary Doctrines
  • Conclusion: A Call to Theological Humility

Rhyne R. Putman, In Defense of Doctrine: Evangelicalism, Theology, and Scripture (Fortress, 2015), 312n163.

Putman lists the following examples of doctrinal taxonomy on page 312 in footnote 163:

  • M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Zondervan, 2006), 143–76.
  • R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Confessional Evangelicalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2011), 77–80. (“Mohler offers a ‘doctrinal triage’ that organizes doctrines according to their ‘theological urgency’ [78]. He distinguishes between first-, second-, and third-order doctrines.”)
  • Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (IVP, 1996), 70–77. (Grenz and Olson “make a similar stratification with dogma, doctrine, and belief.”)

Michael Root and James J. Buckley, eds., The Morally Divided Body: Ethical Disagreement and the Disunity of the Church (Cascade Books, 2010).

From Charles Raith II’s review of this volume in IJST:

One overview of the major divisive issues in Christianity goes like this: in the early centuries divisive issues pertained to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity; in the third and fourth centuries they were over trinitarian theology and Christology; the sixteenth‐century centered on soteriology and ecclesiology; and today it is moral theology. While this is an obvious oversimplification, there is no question that debates over moral theology are today wreaking havoc in Christianity. Michael Root’s and James Buckley’s edited volume The Morally Divided Body addresses this phenomenon head on. The volume is a collection of essays given at the 2010 conference ‘The Morally Divided Body: Ethical Disagreement and the Disunity of the Churches’ hosted by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, New York. Unlike issues that are historically divisive between Catholics and Evangelicals, however, the debates surrounding moral theology create disagreements deeply divisive not so much between different ecclesial communities – Catholics and Evangelical – but internally, within ecclesial communities themselves.

Robert Jenson’s opening essay, ‘Can Ethical Disagreement Divide the Church?’ is one of the more intriguing of the collection and makes valid the whole pursuit of the volume: if the answer is ‘no’ then the notion of a ‘morally divided body’ is a fiction. Jenson argues otherwise: ‘the unbroken unity in Christ of baptized believers divided in moral discipline or public moral witness obtains at the same level as does the unity of baptized believers divided in doctrine’ (p. 2). Note the subtlety of Jenson’s point: there can be division within unity, and for Jenson it is the underlying unity of baptized believers that should force them to argue over the divisive issues. But why should ethical issues lead to ending eucharistic and ministerial fellowship? Jenson answers (as does David Yeago in his essay ‘Grace and the Good Life: Why the God of the Gospel Cares How We Live’ and Federick Christian Bauerschmidt in ‘Doctrine: Knowing and Doing’) that certain teachings can be at once doctrinal and ethical. An obvious case for Jenson is with marriage, in which morality and Christology cannot be separated. Yeago gets at the interconnection between morality and doctrine through the imago dei, which is lived out through the divine law – the law being a ‘mirror’ to the divine righteousness and ‘counterpart’ to the imago dei in human beings – and perfected in Jesus Christ. Thus for Yeago, ‘disputes about divine law involve, in the end, disputes about Jesus Christ, and therefore disputes about the gospel’ (p. 79). Against the ‘service unites, doctrine divides’ mantra, Bauerschmidt argues that ‘to separate doctrine and service, faith and works, the speculative and the practical is precisely to unravel the fabric of the Christian life, to facture the ecology of Christian belief and practice’ (p. 32). Bauerschmidt uses the phrase ‘moral ecology’ to capture the complex web of beliefs, institutions, practices, social habits and so forth that work together to determine what we praise and blame, what we pursue and avoid. Bauerschmidt draws on the Donatist controversy to address the interplay between ‘doctrinal’ and ‘moral’ matters. As Bauerschmidt understands it, ‘The specific ‘doctrinal’ question of sacramental efficacy was embedded in a host of other sorts of questions that might strike us as ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ ones’ (p. 35).

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ijst.12178

Sawyer, “Doctrinal Taxonomy: Are All Doctrines of Equal Importance?,” in The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Zondervan, 2006), 143–76.

Here’s the chapter outline.

  • The Problem
    • Two Examples
      • Inerrancy
      • Eschatology
    • Scholastic Maximalism
    • The Content of the Christian Faith: The Apostolic Proclamation
    • Degrees and Ranking of Authority
  • The Components of Doctrine/Theology
    • Doctrine as That Which Defines the Community
    • Doctrine as Interpretation of Narrative
    • Doctrine as an Interpretation of Experience
    • Doctrine as Truth Claim
  • The Necessity of Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy
    • Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy Historically
      • Trinitarianism
      • The Two Natures of Christ
      • The Nature of Divine Grace
      • The Canon of the New Testament
    • Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy Exegetically
  • A Theology of Minimums?
  • Ranking Noncore Issues

James K.A. Smith, “On ‘orthodox Christianity’: some observations, and a couple of questions” (Fors Clavigera; 4 August, 2017).

Special thanks to Matt Erickson for drawing my attention back to this 2017 blog exchange. It all started with James K.A. Smith wondering if it’s a mistake to use “(un)orthodox” language to describe contemporary debates about sexuality and marriage. Instead, Smith thinks/thought we should reserve “orthodoxy” language to refer to what’s explicitly stated in the ecumenical creeds.

So perhaps we should be more careful with how we use the adjective orthodox.  It can’t be a word we flippantly use to describe what is important to us.  The word is reserved to define and delineate those affirmations that are at the very heart of Christian faith–and God knows they are scandalous enough in a secular age.

Perhaps we need to introduce another adjective–“traditional”–to describe these historic views and positions on matters of morality.  Why?  Because otherwise these other markers will end up trumping the conciliar marks of the Gospel.  That is, the things we append as “orthodox” start to overwhelm and supersede what the church has defined as orthodox.

http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2017/08/on-orthodox-christianity-some.html

Smith’s post led to the following replies:


Taylor, “Levels of Doctrine” and “Not All Doctrines Are at the Same Level” (The Gospel Coalition, 2010 and 2015).

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor has covered this issue at least twice:

Taylor highlights and quotes from:

  1. Erik Thoennes‘ approach, which appears both in Life’s Biggest Questions and the ESV Study Bible.
  2. Al Mohler‘s “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.”
  3. Michael Wittmer‘s approach, as found in Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough.

Here’s Taylor quoting Thoennes:

The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories:

1. absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith;
2. convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church;
3. opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and
4. questions are currently unsettled issues.

These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye”:

Diagram is from Crossway.

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations:

1. biblical clarity;
2. 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); and
7. effect on personal and church life.

These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.

Here’s Taylor summarizing Wittmer:

Michael Wittmer, professor of theology and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, wrote a helpful book entitled, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough. He classifies Christian beliefs into  three categories:

1. what you must believe
2. what you must not reject
3. what you should believe

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 2.42.25 PM
Diagram from Zondervan.

Here’s Taylor interviewing Wittmer:

In a 2008 interview with Dr. Wittmer, I asked him to explain these categories:

These categories are my attempt to describe the relative importance of Christian beliefs, distinguishing between those beliefs essential for salvation and those essential for a healthy Christian worldview.

[What You Must Believe]

In the book of Acts, the bare minimum that a person must know and believe to be saved was that he was a sinner and that Jesus saved him from his sin. As Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:29-31; cf. 10:43). This is enough to counter the postmodern innovator argument that we can be saved without knowing and believing in Jesus.

[What You Must Not Reject]

But any thinking convert will inquire further about this Jesus. While he may not know much more at the point of conversion than Jesus is the Lord who has saved him, he will quickly learn about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, deity and humanity, and relation to the other two members of the Trinity. Anyone who rejects these core doctrines should fear for their soul.

According to the Athanasian Creed, whoever does not believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus is damned. However, since it seems possible for a child to come to faith without knowing much about the Trinity or the hypostatic union (this is likely not the place where most parents begin), I take the Creed’s warning in a more benign way—that we do not need to know and believe in the Trinity and two natures of Christ to be saved, but that anyone who knowingly rejects them cannot be saved.

[What You Should Believe]

The final category is important doctrines which genuine Christians may unfortunately misconstrue. I think that every Christian should believe that Scripture is God’s Word, know its story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, and know something about the nature of God, what it means to be human, and what Jesus is doing through his church. However, many people have been genuine Christians without knowing or believing these things (though their ignorance or disbelief in these facts significantly diminished their Christian faith).

Thus, I believe that every doctrine in this diagram is crucially important for sound Christian faith. And some are so important that we cannot even be saved without them.


Erik Thoennes, Life’s Biggest Questions: What the Bible Says About the Things That Matter Most (Crossway, 2011), “Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine,” 35-37.

See the summary of Thoennes given under the Justin Taylor entry above.


Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (IVP Academic, 2015), 45–53, 122–27, 196–220.

  • Note that Vanhoozer and Treier are attempting to articular “mere evangelical theology.”
  • They propose the model of an “anchored set,” in which the anchor is the being of the Triune God (52).

Mere evangelical theology, as an anchored set, can initially be characterized in terms of two principles, one material (substantive), one formal (stylistic), each with three entailments. As to substance, mere evangelical theology is (1) orthodox, conforming to the early creeds; (2) catholic, spanning all the times and places where there has been a local church; and (3) Protestant, affirming of the Reformation solas. As to style, it is (1) radical, first, because ancored in the root (radix) of the gospel—the triune God—and, second, because this rootedness leads it to confront the world with the claims of the gospel; (2) irenic, acknowledging that we need many perspectives and people groups fully to appreciate the gospel’s wealth of meaning; and (3) joyful, first because it takes its bearings from the best of all words that can be heard and, second, because it takes its energy from the Spirit, the minister of God’s word and the giver of God’s life. (52).

  • Here’s how they frame things a bit later in the book.

Mere evangelical theology likewise needs wisdom to know the difference between courageously preserving the truths of the gospel that cannot change and charitably acknowledging the interpretive diversity of nonessential truths. The material principles, the substance, of mere evangelical theology are strong Trinitarianism and strong crucicentrism, each focusing on what is in Christ. Lending credence to these material principles are the formal principles that run in tandem: the magisterial authority of the canonical Scriptures and the ministerial authority of the catholic tradition. (123).

  • Apostolicity: the magisterial authority of canonical judgments. To determine essentials here, Vanhoozer and Treier propose asking “what would preserve the integrity of the story of salvation” (124).
  • Catholicity: the ministerial authority of the scope of the Spirit’s illumination.
    • First-level doctrine:
      • “one that identifies the persons of the triune God on whom the gospel’s integrity depends”
      • “one in which the communion of the saints has already formed a consensus”
      • “the agreed universal judgments of the church: what Christians at all times and places must confess in order to preserve the gospel’s intelligibility (the material principle) and partake of the fellowship of the saints (the formal principle).
      • Dogmas: “teachings for which the Spirit has seen fit to illuminate the whole church. To deny a dogma is tantamount to apostasy or heresy.” (125)
    • Level-two doctrines:
      • “treat events (e.g., atonement, resurrection) and aspects of salvation history (e.g., image of God, sin, justification) that must be affirmed, though there is some scope for different interpretations”
      • “lack full catholicity: they are the doctrines on which evangelicals who affirm sola Scriptura have not reached agreement”
      • “often represent points of significant ‘regional’ difference—points important enough to require for membership and shared ministry within a church or denomination, yet without impeding all translocal cooperation between evangelicals” (125–26).
    • Level-three doctrines:
      • “allow for considerable freedom of opinion without fostering congregational division. For differences over them are not damaging to the gospel or debilitating for shared mission”
      • “That Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead is first order, the nature of the millennium is second order and the exact sequence of events pertaining to the millennium is probably third order” (126).
  • Wisdom: Increasing in (apostolic) word and (catholic) Spirit. (126–27).

Later in the book, Vanhoozer and Treier flesh-out this first-, second-, and third-order doctrinal framework with biblical engagement (196–207).

  • “Gospel versus heresy: Discerning dialogue” (summary of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15; pp. 198–201)
  • “Ministry and ministry: Maintaining fellowship” (conflict between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36–41; pp. 202–204)
  • “The same mind: Pursuing collaboration” (Paul’s instructions in Romans 14–15; pp. 204–7)

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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