Get your priorities straight. This is true in the realm of Christian doctrine, just as it is anywhere else in life. Doctrinal prioritization has a strong pedigree. Jesus himself placed priority on the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). The apostle Paul placed priority on the gospel proclamation of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—the message he considered to be “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). And so all theologians must prioritize. Certain doctrines have greater significance than others for the whole of Christian theology. The deity of Christ is more consequential for the Christian faith than the timing of the millennium. The latter is still important, but it is not “of first importance,” to borrow the apostle’s phrase.
But how do we get our doctrinal priorities straight? How do we know when to place special priority on a particular doctrine and when to avoid overstating the significance of another? Several years ago Albert Mohler proposed a helpful typology for sorting our doctrinal priorities. His “theological triage” suggests three levels of Christian doctrine we ought to distinguish. First-level issues are essential to the Christian faith—issues that separate Christians from non-Christians—such as the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Second-level issues may not define the Christian faith but have such significance for the organization and function of the church that they still separate Christians into distinct churches and denominations. The mode of baptism and the ordination of women might fall into this second category. Finally, Christians may disagree over third-level issues and yet still work peaceably with one another even in the same churches and denominations. Millennial debates would fall into this third level. Mohler’s theological triage helpfully provides the categories necessary for maintaining charitable relationships with like-minded believers (say, fellow evangelicals) without diminishing the importance of denominational distinctives, such as baptism or church polity.
In a different context, Jesuit theologian Edward T. Oakes has suggested another helpful way that we might go about the business of doctrinal prioritization. Speaking of the distinctions within Roman Catholic dogma, Oakes writes,
The church has long recognized that she speaks with different levels of authority and addresses issues of greater and lesser moment. Indeed the very truths she seeks both to propound and to defend are themselves arranged according to a certain hierarchy, with some doctrines of greater significance (among which would of course include Christology) and others not so much of lesser significance but ones that gain their force, so to speak, by their relation to the truths of greater moment. Of course, truths that are implications of “higher truths” are not less true; rather, they gain their truth-value from their relation (as implications) to more fundamental doctrines.
One need not embrace Oakes’s understanding of the Roman Catholic Magisterium in order to appreciate his point. Doctrinal truths of “greater moment” are integral—that is, non-derivative. Or, to switch from a mathematical to an artistic metaphor, certain doctrines are primary colors in the theological palette. Doctrines of “lesser moment” are not “less true” but derive their significance from their relation to the primary doctrines.
Cooperation with Integrity
This framework might prove useful as we consider how to engage in transdenominational ventures (like The Gospel Coalition) without surrendering the integrity of our denominational distinctives. This framework—call it the “derivative framework”—allows us, for instance, to affirm baptism as a gospel issue, without equating baptism with the gospel itself. Both Baptists and paedobaptists connect their understanding of baptism to their understanding of the gospel. Baptists believe their practice of believers’ baptism more faithfully preserves the necessity of regeneration and conversion in the life of every individual, including those reared by Christian parents. Paedobaptists, on the other hand, believe their practice of infant baptism more faithfully communicates God’s gracious initiative in the salvation of his covenant people. Both connect the ordinance to the gospel but from different angles and for different reasons. So both affirm the gospel-significance of baptism without equating it with the gospel itself. The gospel is integral to the Christian faith. Sacramental particulars are derivative—not unimportant, but derivative nonetheless.
We might also apply this derivative framework to issues within our own denominations. For example, Southern Baptist debates over Calvinism need not threaten the denomination’s missional cooperation. Calvinists and non-Calvinists can gladly join forces under the banner of their confessional document—the Baptist Faith and Message 2000—for the purpose of world evangelization. But this cooperation does not make their conflicting soteriological viewpoints unimportant or—and this is the important point—unrelated to the gospel. Calvinists believe that irresistible grace is a gospel issue; in their view, the gospel will have no success among the unreached peoples of the world without God’s effectual call. Likewise, non-Calvinists believe that resistible grace is a gospel issue; in their view, the gospel requires a (libertarianly) free choice of faith and repentance on the part of its hearers. Again, both connect their respective views to the gospel, but hopefully they do so without equating these soteriological particulars with the gospel itself. Oakes’s derivative framework might help them avoid such a misstep.
In the end, we all set priorities, including doctrinal priorities. Learning to distinguish between integral issues and derivative issues would go a long way in helping us to preserve our denominational and ecclesial integrity even as we gladly cooperate in certain ventures with fellow believers who may arrive at different conclusions.