Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mohler's Triage

Albert Mohler wrote something a whole back that talks about unity and doctrinal disagreement.
In every generation, the church is commanded to "contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints." That is no easy task, and it is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.

Today’s Christian faces the daunting task of strategizing which Christian doctrines and theological issues are to be given highest priority in terms of our contemporary context. This applies both to the public defense of Christianity in face of the secular challenge and the internal responsibility of dealing with doctrinal disagreements. Neither is an easy task, but theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.
What he is doing is encountering other people who claim to be Christians. He runs into problems when they disagree on matters of doctrine. He starts with the unspoken assumption that his doctrine is right and the other guy's is wrong. There is no wrestling with that at all. What he wants to think about is how big an error has this other guy made.
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.

In the earliest centuries of the Christian movement, heretics directed their most dangerous attacks upon the church’s understanding of who Jesus is, and in what sense He is the very Son of God. Other crucial debates concerned the question of how the Son is related to the Father and the Holy Spirit. At historic turning-points such as the councils at Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon, orthodoxy was vindicated and heresy was condemned – and these councils dealt with doctrines of unquestionable first-order importance. Christianity stands or falls on the affirmation that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God.

The church quickly moved to affirm that the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are absolutely necessary to the Christian faith. Any denial of what has become known as Nicaean-Chalcedonian Christology is, by definition, condemned as a heresy. The essential truths of the incarnation include the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who deny these revealed truths are, by definition, not Christians.

The same is true with the doctrine of the Trinity. The early church clarified and codified its understanding of the one true and living God by affirming the full deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – while insisting that the Bible reveals one God in three persons.
So he is saying the worst errors you can make are those that correspond to the earliest councils. Those that addressed the questions about the nature of Jesus. It is interesting to note that he excludes the first council at Ephesus in 431. It was before the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that he seems to include. It did deal with a Christological issue, namely the condemning of Nestorianism. But of course one of the issues dealt with there was whether Mary should be referred to as the Mother of God. The council said Yes, she should be given that title. So Dr Mohler has inconsistently pulled this out of his first-level list because he does not actually believe it or at the very least he knows many protestants don't.
In addition to the Christological and Trinitarian doctrines, the doctrine of justification by faith must also be included among these first-order truths. Without this doctrine, we are left with a denial of the Gospel itself, and salvation is transformed into some structure of human righteousness.
Now we jump ahead over 1000 years because he wants his pet doctrine to be considered first-level.  So we have gone from a little bit arbitrary to completely arbitrary. Why skip all those councils? Why include such a vague notion as "justification by faith." Certainly many, such as Catholics, would agree to some formulations of that notion and not others. What exactly does it means?
The truthfulness and authority of the Holy Scriptures must also rank as a first-order doctrine, for without an affirmation of the Bible as the very Word of God, we are left without any adequate authority for distinguishing truth from error.
Again, where does this come from? I agree with his conclusion that the scriptures are of primary importance. But his reasoning is false. 
These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.
What Albert Mohler has done here is define a dogma. That is precisely what the pope or a council does when doctrine is defined infallibly. It means that the statement is part of the deposit of faith and all Christians must ascent to it or they are not Christians. The trouble is, or the good thing is, he doesn't have the authority to do it. He does not claim that authority. Or does he? It isn't clear because he does not really deal with the possibility that he might be wrong. Not just wrong about what doctrines are true but also wrong about what doctrines define the Christian faith. 
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.

Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example, fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.
Again we are being quite arbitrary. Not addressing the question of how we know these are secondary. There is also the implicit devaluing of church unity. Because issues that necessitate an organizational split are seen as secondary it seems that maintaining the church as one physical body of Christ is not seen as enough to push an issue to primary status.
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.
This is good to affirm that not every disagreement needs to produce a split. Where does eschatology fit in? It depends on how often a pastor preaches on it. Some talk about it all the time. Can you show him this article and expect him to stop? Not likely. He does not have to recognize Dr Mohler's authority.
This structure of theological triage may also help to explain how confusion can often occur in the midst of doctrinal debate. If the relative urgency of these truths is not taken into account, the debate can quickly become unhelpful. The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.
I agree with this. Just one question. Where is this in the bible? The 3 levels might be practical but they are not in scripture anywhere. So liberalism and fundamentalism follow not from biblical errors but from getting extra-biblical matters wrong? That is quite a statement.
Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the "treasure" that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the Emergency Room just might help.
 What about looking at the bible? When we run into a Christian brother you have difficulties with you could use Matthew 18:15-17:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
There is just one problem with that. A protestant can't make any sense out of Jesus' words if he goes to a different church then the brother he has an issue with.  What church is Jesus talking about? Jesus just calls it THE church. Like there is only one and you have to listen to it. Almost like it has some gift to be able to get these matters right.


  1. Great writing and analysis, Randy--one of favorites from the blog so far.

    It all boils down to this: why should I believe what Mohler claims is first-order or third-order in 'importance'?

    As Mohler advocates for doctrinal purity, dogmatically defines a hierarchy of truths, all while appealing to early church councils, he sounds very Papist.

    I'm finding more and more as I read the leading Protestant figures that most are ideologically Protestant but practically Catholic--they recognize that the Protestant scheme just doesn't work when extended to its natural conclusions.

  2. Conservative protestants like Dr Mohler do want to respect tradition and they don't want to make every doctrine optional. Yet they are committed to Sola Scriptura. Then somebody says they studied the bible and they think abortion is just fine. Dr Mohler know in his heart this is not acceptable as Christian teaching but he does not know why. He can accuse the person of being dishonest in his scripture study. He can say the person is a quack and should just be ignored. Those don't seem charitable and they are basically unprovable.

    The only other option is to deny Sola Scriptura. He is kind of doing that here. Not quite but he seems to think there must be something beyond scripture to sort all these matters out. He takes a stab but does not ask where it comes from.

  3. Logically it is but that is not quite fair. He is trying to find truth and trying to be humble. But the level of humility is nowhere near high enough to allow him to accept what God is actually teaching. I can't say I blame him. I was there for a long time.