A New Way of Seeing Theological Triage

HEOLOGICAL Triage” is a term I first learned at Southern Seminary as developed and explained by Dr. Albert Mohler. It is a way of differentiating issues that are central to the gospel from those that are denominational distinctives, or even preferential. It has been a really helpful model for me. But starting today, I’m going to change the way I explain it.

I had coffee with a student this morning who plans on doing PhD work at a secular university. He asked me for advice on how to prepare himself for the change he is about to experience going from a close-knit Christian community to one where his worldview will be in the minority. I began by emphasizing the importance of finding a faithful and vibrant local church near the school.

Having seen a loved one walk away from the faith, he wanted to make sure he is thinking through issues he may very well face in the not too distant future. How might he respond to all of the questions he might be asked and all the challenges he might face? Where should he begin?

Because this student had me for my theology class at Cedarville, he is familiar with Dr. Mohler’s model of theological triage. For anyone not familiar with this model, it has three tiers or levels and is often illustrated as a pyrmaid. The bottom layer (Tier #3) deals with issues of preference which Christians who belong to the same church can disagree. The second layer (Tier #2) deals with those issues that separate churches (think Presbyterian verse Baptist), on issues like the mode of baptism. The top layer (Tier #1) are those issues essential to the gospel.

As we discussed the importance of keeping the gospel central, I realized I no longer like the pyramid metaphor for theological triage. Here’s why. It can imply that the bottom layer is in some way foundational. It can make it look like the gospel is in some way supported by those lower levels regarding denominational distinctives or preferential matters. Here’s why that matters.

I have often heard about those whose slow departure from the faith began with the dismantling of non-essential doctrines. For example, maybe someone feels like a “Tier #3” doctrine is demonstrated to be false. For someone who doesn’t well distinguish between those issues upon which faithful Christians can disagree, the individual might feel that this brings into question the trustworthiness of the gospel message itself. In the pyramid model, it looks as though dismantling a level three or two doctrine necessarily makes the gospel unstable. It doesn’t.

Just because a person’s walk with the Lord, and understanding of the Bible, might lead them to adjust certain denominational distinctives or doctrinal preferences, doesn’t have to mean they are doubting the gospel. That’s why the illustration I plan to use for theological triage in the future is that of concentric circles.

When you drop a pebble in a pond, there will be an immediate splash that expands into a circle and forms other circles. The concentric circles expand in size yet diminish in strength. This is similar to theological triage.

The core of the gospel can be outlined in a relatively small list of fundamental propositions. The irreducible minimum of the gospel elements is that which all Christians have agreed upon throughout two-thousand years of church history. And as the Apostle Paul described, the gospel is the power of God until salvation (Romans 1:16).

There are, however, a number of things believers can disagree over just like the expanding circles on a pond. But the closer you get to the center, the more important the issues become. It is the mere gospel that unites all true believers.

I am so thankful for the model of theological triage developed at a crucial time in the history of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. I use it often. From now on, though, I will illustrate it differently.