Part-Time Recommendation: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

I recently received Gavin Ortlund's book Finding the Right Hills to Die On as a gift and was able to read it while traveling for the holidays. It's what I like to call a "bullet point" book - it has solid material, but it was mostly strong bullet points filled out with a lot of anecdotes and examples to make it work as a fleshed out book. I would argue that with bullet point books (unless you are completely unfamiliar with the subject matter) a good synopsis gives you the meat of the book. This isn't true for all books, which often defy "boiling down" - synthesis - or brief summaries. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who is not familiar with the idea of "theological triage" - the concept of prioritizing which Christian doctrines are worth fighting over and which ones we should agree to disagree on. Ortlund gives a fine introduction to the basic concept, providing personal stories and strong examples of doctrines that belong in each one of his tiers. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this for anyone already fairly familiar with the concept, as Ortlund stops short of providing a comprehensive projection of where the current theological landscape sits on his tier system or cares to interact with some of the more fundamental issues that arise with this endeavor (I'm thinking here of Christian Smith's articulation of the interpretive pluralism problem). That said, I think works as an excellent introduction for young Christians or those thinking about this topic for the first time.

Part of my reading process is to synthesize and paraphrase major quotes/ideas from the book to make a book summary. I thought you might get something out of the summary I created so I've shared it with you below. Keep in mind that this is my synthesis of Ortlund's key quotes (meaning it's mostly composed of his words) with a bit of light paraphrasing of my own. If you enjoy the synthesis, you can purchase the book HERE.


It’s easy to lose your balance when you’re standing on one foot. The strongest posture is one of balance between both feet: one of poise. In our theological life as well, we need poise. The character of the gospel is complex. It contains both truth and grace, both conviction and comfort, both hard edges of logic and deep caverns of mystery. It is at one moment as bracing as a cold breeze and the next as nourishing as a warm meal. Faithfulness to the gospel, therefore, requires more than one virtue. We must at times boldly contend and at other times gently prove. In one situation we must emphasize what is obvious, and in another we must explore what is nuanced.

This book is about finding the happy place between caring too much about doctrine and caring too little – the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times. In other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.

Albert Mohler has developed a helpful metaphor for this idea: theological triage. Triage is essentially a system of prioritization. We must acknowledge that different doctrines have differing importance, urgency, and require difficult decisions. We are all forced to do some form of this doctrinal triage – the real question is whether you will do it reactively by our circumstances or proactively by Scripture and principle. Ortlund lays out a theological triage of four different ranks:

  • First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself. (Ex. Trinity & Justification by Faith)
  • 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. (Ex. Baptism & Cessasionism vs. Continuism)
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians. (Ex. Millennium & Creation)
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.
Why is it important to make doctrinal distinctions? It helps us to steer clear of the twin problems of doctrinal sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism. Equating all doctrines leads to unnecessary division and undermines the unity of the church. This is known as doctrinal sectarianism. It might initially sound good to say that ‘all doctrines are equally important,’ but it is a difficult statement to justify biblically. Paul, for instance, speaks of the gospel as a matter of ‘first importance’ (1 Cor. 15:3). On other topics, he often gives Christian greater latitude to disagree. 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. We should steer clear of theological wrangling that is speculative (goes beyond Scripture), vain (more about being right than being helpful), endless (no real answer is possible or desired), and needless (mere semantics).

Yet, the overall trajectory of our culture, particularly among younger generations, probably tends more toward doctrinal minimalism than sectarianism. Doctrinal minimalism is the mind set that refuses to take hard stances on any doctrine if it leads to division and wants to just focus on unifying actions. As much as we may appreciate the intention, carrying out this statement is not so simple. For instance, to ‘stop dividing and just love Jesus,’ we must define ‘Jesus.’’ When we do that, doctrinal division is unavoidable. Believe anything, and you are disbelieving its opposite and therefore dividing, in some sense, from those who don’t share your belief.

In the space between the wide roads of doctrinal sectarianism and minimalism lies the path of theological wisdom. We desperately need to cultivate the skills to do wise theological triage so that even when a doctrinal division becomes necessary, it is done with minimal collateral damage to the kingdom of God. In theology as well as in battle, some hills are worth dying on. If they are lost, everything is lost. This theological wisdom does not consider doctrines in the abstract, instead it considers doctrines in their ‘real life’ influence on actual people and situations and churches. You can get a secondary or tertiary doctrine wrong and still have a fruitful life and ministry – but the denial of a first-rank doctrine is a vital loss. First-rank doctrines are worth fighting for because their denial weakens the authoritative, corrective role that God’s word is supposed to have over us.

Ortlund offers the following set of four questions when attempting wise theological triage:
  1. How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
  2. What is the doctrines 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?
Several distinctions can help in our task of wise theological triage. First, we should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as characteristic of growth in Christ over time. In addition, when a first-rank doctrine is denied, we must distinguish between a denial based upon ignorance or confusion and a knowing, willful denial.

Also, keep in mind that judgments about the personal salvation of others are precarious. Judgment is ultimately God’s to exercise and it is wise for us to be cautious. Rather than insisting on a positive articulation of every first-rank doctrine for salvation, a more careful statement would be that if someone knowingly and persistently denies a first-rank tenet, we can have no confidence of that person’s salvation. But it would probably be better to restrict our focus to whether we would allow such a person into the membership of our church than to speculate about the state of his or her soul. It is God’s business to regulate entry to heaven, and ours to regulate entry to the church.

The appropriate mentality corresponding to first-rank doctrines is courage and conviction. The book of Galatians reminds us that there are hills to die on and that justification by faith alone is one of those hills. Again, there are nuances involved in the doctrine of justification that genuine Christians can disagree on. But the fundamental claim that we are right with God by faith in Christ alone, apart from our good works – this is integral to the gospel and to every practical aspect of the Christian life. For instance, it bears directly upon how we relate to God on a daily basis, how we worship him, how we fight sin in our lives, and how we function as the church.

The appropriate mentality for second-rate doctrines is wisdom and balance. Second-rank doctrines are not essential to the gospel, but they are often important enough to justify divisions at the level of denomination, church, or ministry. These are issues outside the Apostles’ Creed but more important than, say, your interpretation of an obscure passage in Daniel. An example of a second-rank doctrine is baptism. While we should not downplay baptism, it would also be a mistake to elevate it to a first-rank issue alongside the gospel. Baptism does not set the boundaries of orthodoxy, such that those who get it right are orthodox and those who get it wrong are heretics.

The appropriate mentality regarding third-rank doctrines is circumspection and restraint. Most of the battles you could fight, you shouldn’t. And I’d go so far as to say that the majority of doctrinal fights Christians have today tend to be over third-rank issues – or fourth. We deeply need to cultivate greater doctrinal forbearance, composure, and resilience. But it is a historical irony that American evangelicals have tended to divide over the peripheral aspects of creation and eschatology while ignoring the more central aspects of these doctrines. Thus, many evangelicals focus more on the timing of the rapture, the identity of the anti-Christ, and the nature of the millennium (all, in my view third-rank doctrines) than they do on the second coming of Christ, the final resurrection, or the final judgment (all, in my view, first-rank doctrines)…Fighting over tertiary issues is unhelpful. But fighting over tertiary issues while simultaneously neglecting primary issues is even worse.

Finally, approaching the divisiveness surrounding any doctrine involves not merely its content but also the attitude with which it is held. The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable. Friends, the unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that he died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.