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Can Bible Doctrine Be Ranked According to Level of Importance?

Posted by Matt Postiff November 14, 2014 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology 

Recently there has been a lot of talk about theological triage [1], also described by phrases like weighing doctrines, gospel issues [2], doctrinal priority, or statements such as how directly a doctrine touches on the gospel.

In almost all of the material I have seen on the subject, it is simply assumed that there are different levels of doctrine. The reader is whisked past that foundational question and introduced to other questions such as 'which doctrine goes into which level?' and 'does the Bible teach us how to know which doctrines go into which level?'

A while ago, I began to ask myself about the logically prior question, and that is what I want to address here. That is, does the Bible itself teach that doctrines can be sorted into different bins based on their importance? Does it teach that we should privilege certain doctrines over others? What is the significance of it if we can do so (or cannot)? These questions troubled me because it seemed that Christians were teaching that doctrines can be—and indeed should be—so sorted, and this in turn seems to lead to an almost anything-goes mentality with certain lower-level doctrines. But where does the the assumption of doctrinal levels come from? We profess that the Scriptures are our only infallible authority for faith and practice, so it must be found in the Bible somewhere. I pondered on that question for a while. Over the course of some months, I have come to more clarity on the subject, although I am not done yet by any stretch.

I will admit that I didn't think in a critical way about this for years. I simply accepted the premise, and went merrily on my way saying that I believe the five or seven or eight fundamentals, the essentials of the Christian faith. I believed a lot more than those, but I raised those to the highest level and just assumed that was right and good, because everybody was doing it!

The idea of doctrinal prioritization has, at least for me, troubling "theoretical" implications for how we treat the Word of God. Some Bible teachings become third-level or doctrina non grata because they are unpopular in many churches, too difficult to understand, or are impossible to reconcile with modern science. Other doctrines are just simply not that important. What does that do to a preaching ministry that is devoted to explaining and applying the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)? Is that wrong to do with respect to the third-level doctrines?

And then there is the problem that there are some doctrines that many Christians immediately classify as third level—but which to me are obviously far more important to the system of Christian truth. Downplaying them has what I believe are disastrous consequences for one's belief in the Bible and a plain interpretation of it.

The idea of weighing doctrines also has "practical" implications. For instance, a young missionary couple left a mission over its inclusion of a precise statement on the doctrine of eschatology. They had come to the conclusion that including too much detail on eschatology was skewed theological triage, elevating a tertiary issue to a level where it dictated partnership. The doctrinal statement had been formulated and used by the mission and by likeminded churches for decades before these missionaries were even born, yet it now was skewed and worthy of separation over. Another example: Mark Dever wrote in 2009 that Christian leaders are in sin if they lead their congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular Millennial view [3]. Obviously this topic has important real-life ramifications.

One very important ramification has to do with how we think. We cannot slice and dice our Christianity into pieces like "the doctrinal piece" and "the behavioral piece." You know—"if we just behave Christianly, then it matters little what we believe about the second and third order doctrines." I challenge that notion because belief is behavior. That is, like proper behavior is the Biblical discipline of the body and actions, so proper belief is the Biblical discipline of the mind and thinking. It is wrong to believe something as true that is not true. God cares about how we think. How we think affects how we act, and how we act affects how we think. If we think some doctrines are not that important, it will show up over time in our lives and churches.

Let us turn our attention to a passage that may shed some light on the subject. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (NKJV)

First, consider the matter of the comparative word weightier. The Greek word refers to 'heavy' things, often metaphorically as in the content of letters (2 Cor. 10:10) or legal matters (Acts 25:7). Here it denotes the comparative idea of the relative importance or significance of a matter compared to another. The Lord Jesus thus demonstrates that there are laws in the Mosaic system that were more important than others, obedience to which was definitely required.

Second, note that our Lord said, "These [the weightier matters] you ought to have done, without leaving the others [the lighter matters] undone." Because of the relative importance of justice, mercy, and faith, the Lord teaches that the scribes and Pharisees most certainly should have carried them out. But, and this is the point of this paragraph, they were still supposed to do the lighter matters. They were not to swap out the lighter for the heavier: they were to do both. We might read into this the idea that the Lord would more readily excuse a failure to tithe some of one's cummin, or at least condemn it less harshly; but He most certainly does not excuse a failure in the matters of justice, mercy, and faith.

I would suggest that our Lord gives us here a framework by which to consider the various Bible doctrines. Indeed some are weightier than others. But the lighter ones are not disposable. They must be believed and obeyed as well. Using a triage model, we do treat gunshot wounds and heart attacks more urgently and at a level 1 trauma center; but that does not mean that we ignore small lacerations. Even relatively insignificant cuts need to be cared for properly because they can become infected and kill the patient just as surely as a gunshot wound can.

To transition from the medical metaphor, intermediate or small wounds may be likened to doctrines that many Christians today have been (wrongly) convinced are tertiary. One's view on creation and the millennium, for example, may not seem significant until you connect a few dots and realize how they impact the whole body of doctrine. Ben Edwards gave a good example of the bodily resurrection of believers in his post [2]. He wrote there, "your first inclination would probably be to say 'I don't think it reaches first level importance.'" Edwards rightly concludes that the believer's bodily resurrection is a gospel issue. But I am approaching this entire question from a different perspective: my first inclination would be the opposite of what he suggests. I would default to the position it is important simply because God's word teaches it clearly. And I would be quickly affirmed in my belief when I asked this question: "Would a gospel that cannot raise me from the dead really be good news?" Not according to the apostle Paul!

One's view of triage also reveals a general approach to reading God's Word which may lead in a very dangerous direction. Far too often, the modern church's reading of such texts amounts to a "hath God said?" which turns the Scripture upside down. May such an attitude toward God's word be far from us.

More to come, D.V. ...

For further reading.

[1] Albert Mohler, A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,, May 20, 2004.

[2] Ben Edwards, Gospel Issues and Weighing Doctrines, Theologically Driven, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, September 16, 2014.

[3] Justin Taylor, Dever: You are in sin if you lead your congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view", The Gospel Coalition, July 13, 2009.

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