What Doctrines Are Essential to the Gospel?

A First-Rank Doctrine

In theology as well as in battle, some hills are worth dying on. If they are lost, everything is lost. 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.

What makes a first-rank doctrine essential to the gospel? And how do we know what is a first-rank doctrine and what isn’t? Here I suggest two overlapping but distinguishable reasons why we should fight for first-rank doctrines: Some first-rank doctrines are worth fighting for because they mark a fault line between the gospel and a rival ideology, religion or worldview (as with the virgin birth). And some first-rank doctrines are worth fighting for because they constitute a material point of the gospel (as with justification).

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.

We could probably articulate more reasons for the importance of first-rank doctrines, and we could certainly list other examples, but hopefully this brief treatment will highlight our need for courage and conviction in upholding doctrines that are essential to the gospel.

Ranking Different Doctrines

How do we determine how to rank the importance of any particular doctrine? Erik Thoennes offers a helpful list of criteria:

1. Biblical clarity
2. Relevance to the character of God
3. Relevance to the essence of the gospel
4. Biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it)
5. Effect on other doctrines
6. Consensus among Christians (past and present)
7. Effect on personal and church life
8. Current cultural pressure to deny a teaching of Scripture

A noticeable feature of Thoennes’s criteria is the recurring interest in the overall effect of a doctrine—on the doctrine of God (2), on the gospel (3), on other doctrines (5), on the life of the church and individual Christians (7), and so forth. This relates to an important theme: 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.

For this reason, intelligence and study are not the only or even necessarily the most important factors for doing theological triage well. At least equally important is a desire for godliness and for the flourishing of the church. This practical concern will generate the kinds of instincts that enable godly and wise judgments, and will help us steer away from self-referential considerations, such as our pet peeves, prejudices, and preferences. Even in our theological polemics, we must exhibit a self-restraint that subordinates our personal likes and dislikes to the concerns of the kingdom.

We must also remember that criteria such as those in Thoennes’s list function in a cumulative, general way. It is possible for a doctrine to be a first-rank doctrine without necessarily meeting all eight criteria. For instance, the virgin birth is referenced in only a few biblical passages (criterion 4), and yet it qualifies as a first-rank doctrine. Similarly, some doctrines meet several criteria and yet fall short of being first rank. For instance, some doctrines that have been affirmed widely by Christians throughout space and time (criterion 6) do not constitute matters of orthodoxy. Christian views of burial versus cremation might be an example.

Wayne Grudem provides a list of questions that churches and organizations should ask when considering whether to draw a new theological boundary:

Certainty: How sure are we that the teaching is wrong?
Effect on other doctrines: Will this teaching likely lead to significant erosion in other doctrines?
Effect on personal and church life: Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church?
Historical precedent: Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history?
Perception of importance among God’s people: Is there increasing consensus … that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement?
Purposes of the organization: Is the teaching a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the organization?
Motivations of advocates: Does it seem that the advocates of this teaching hold it because of a fundamental refusal to be subject to the authority of God’s Word, rather than because of sincerely held differences of interpretation based on accepted hermeneutical standards?
Methods of advocates: Do the advocates of this teaching frequently manifest arrogance, deception, unrighteous anger, slander, and falsehood rather than humility, openness to correction and reason, kindness, and absolute truthfulness?

Grudem’s list, like Thoennes’s, draws attention to the overall practical effect of a doctrine (especially 2 and 3). We must exhibit caution, of course, with criterion 7, since we cannot ultimately see into the motives of others. Grudem also lists several questions that are wrong to ask and should not be part of the consideration of a particular doctrine:

Are the advocates my friends?
Are they nice people?
Will we lose money or members if we exclude them?
Will the academic community criticize us as being too narrow-minded?
Will someone take us to court over this?

These questions draw attention to the danger of losing our objectivity while doing theological triage. An additional question along these lines I would propose is this: “Have I had to fight battles over this doctrine that have affected me personally?” It’s easy to exaggerate the importance of a doctrine that has a particular history with you.

The lists given by Grudem and Thoennes are a bit long. For a briefer set of criteria to consider “in a pinch,” we might use the following four questions:

How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
What is this doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today?

These biblical, theological, historical and practical questions are not all that need be asked, but they are a helpful start for doing theological triage.

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Excerpted from Finding the Right Hills to Die On by Gavin Ortlund, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Crossway.org.