20 Quotes from “Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage” by Gavin Ortlund

“Most of us have a tendency…to fight over doctrine too much to too little…This book is about finding the happy place between these two extremes–the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times” (17). Gavin Ortlund, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, CA, does exactly what he states here–he teaches us how to find the right hills to die on, and he does so with the intellectual skill of a scholar and the patient wisdom of a pastor.

The expression theological triage, initially developed by Albert Mohler, is essentially a prioritization system (17) and it draws on analogies with medical triage (12). The analogy suggests that, just like at the scene of an accident where medical profissionals need to make decisions for what ailments need to be treated first (aka what’s most important), Christians also need to determine what is of first importance, theologically. What are the hills that we ought to die on, and what are the areas we may have theological convictions about, but they don’t determine orthodoxy or even draw lines of fellowship?

More than that, Ortlund lays out that while the analogy to triage assumes some doctrines are more important than others, it also assumes that some doctrines need to be attended to more urgently than others. He writes “…triage assumes that the needs are urgent. You can spend more time fixing a broken arm when no one is hemorrhaging ten feet away. If you have neither a broken arm nor a dying man to attend to, you can give more attention to a chipped tooth or a bad bruise” (18).

This book is about how to apply wisdom to theological situations and not about what stances you should take on which doctrines. Ortland shares his stances on the doctrines he treats, but he does so to demonstrate appropriate triage, and he puts forward his stances with the appropriate courage and humility necessary. This book is a must read for anyone in church or ministy leadership, and I would also recommend it to all christians, generally. As a whole, the chruch needs to do a better job of exercising the strength and humility demonstrated in this book. Lord, start with me.

You can read a full book review by Matt Emerson here, and you can purchase the book here.

The following is a list of 20 of my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy!

1. Page 13

When he comes to concrete examples, Ortlund is less eager than you should agree with all his conclusions than that you learn how to think about the importance of theological triage.

D.A. Carson, Foreword

2. Page 27

Faithfulness to the gospel, therefore, requires more than one virtue. We must at times boldly contend and at other times gently probe. In one situation we must emphasize what is obvious, and in another we must explore what is nuanced.

3. Page 32

Calvin argued strenuously and at great length against the sin of schism, emphasizing that the church will always be mixed and imperfect until judgement day, and that much separatism comes from pride rather than holiness.

4. Page 34

Our unity is so important that Jesus gave his blood for it.

5. Page 36-37

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.

6. Page 45

Martin Luther compared human reason to a drunken man on horseback, who, when propped up on one side, will tumble over the other. So it is with our theological posture and the diffuculty of finding the wisdom of poise.

7.  Page 50

Confusion may be an understandable response to some passages, and grief to others; but indifference should never be our response.

8. Page 53

It is difficult to countenance the charred flesh of Latimer and Ridley, for instance, and then remain indifferent to the disputes about the Lord’s Supper that led to their cirumstance.

9. Page 57

Upholding a high view of God’s word will reverberate into practically every way we seek to fulfill our calling as the people of God.

10. Page 76

More simply: some first-rank doctrines are needed to defend the gospel, and others to proclaim the gospel. Without them the gospel is either vulnerable or incomplete.

11. Page 77

This relates to an important theme of this book: that theological triage is not primarily an intellectual exercise but a practical one. Theological wisdom does not consider doctrines in the abstract, concerned mainly with technical correctness. Instead, it considers doctrines in their “real life” influence on actual people and situations and churches.

12. Page 94

Our theology must have a category for the censorious tone of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the grit and resolve of Machen’s polemics. We must not reduce gospel witness to a generic niceness that is accommodating in every circumstance. There is a time to fight. There are certain hills that must not be surrendered, even if the cost is losing our lives.

13. Page 97

Thus, if we assume that all secondary doctrines are equally secondary, we may be in danger of glossing over important differences.

14. Page 100

Historically, Christians have not only divided from one another over [baptism]–they have killed one another.

15. Page 101

This is a constant danger with the sacraments–that the outer rite replaces, rather than spotlights, the inner reality of which it is a symbol.

16. Page 118

What all this amounts to is that while the complementarian-egalitarian discussion is not an issue on which the gospel is won or lost, it nontheless influences in important ways how we uphold the gospel.

17. Page 123

Just as courage is the great need surrounding first-rank doctrines, the great need surrounding second-rank doctrines is wisdom.

18. Page 125

In fact, I would suggest that a wise theologian, like a wise military general, will be characterized by patience far more frequently than by action.

19. Page 131

Sometimes church history can help us identify where our theological bandwith differs from that of other Christians.

20. Page 144

Often the very strength that would help you win a battle enables you to avoid the battle altogether.

Bonus Quotes:

21. Page 146

…disagreements over even relatively minor doctrines can cause untold destruction when approached in an attitude of entitlement and dismissiveness.

22. Page 147

Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.

23. Page 150

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.