Review of “Is There Any Biblical Warrant for the Doctrinal Triage?” by Eric Powers
This is not a normal review as the content under examination is not a published work readily available for resale, but a thesis written by a Master of Divinity student (Eric Powers) from The Master’s Seminary (my own alma mater). His thesis can be accessed here and is well worth a read.
Overview: Powers engages the premise of doctrinal triage, the division of theology and doctrines into helpful categories of importance. Powers does not necessarily ask the question, “is doctrinal triage helpful?” but focuses on an even more important question. Namely, “is doctrinal triage biblical?” Because this concept of dividing doctrine into primary, secondary, and tertiary areas of importance was made popular by Albert Mohler over a decade ago (his original article on the subject is available here), few have bothered to ask this question. Until now.
Argument: Powers divides his thesis into three chapters. The first chapter seeks to understand and determine the origin and purpose of doctrinal triage. The second examines biblical texts in an effort to either confirm or deny the validity of doctrinal triage. The third and final chapter examines the approach from a theological angle. This seems to me to be a thorough way to go about answering his question. I’ll give you the “Reader’s Digest” version.
Chapter 1 begins with a brief history of the practice of triage in its original setting, military medicine. Powers credits the practice of categorizing wounded and sick soldiers for the purpose of prioritizing medical care to Napoleon’s chief surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey. This may seem like an unimportant historical detail, but it was the purpose of the practice that catches Powers’ eye. Decisions were made to treat or not to treat certain patients based on their needs because of the limitations of available resources. In other words, there were not enough doctors and supplies for all and so only those who were in immediate need received care. This sort of pragmatism is necessary on the battlefield, but is it indicative of Christ’s church? Powers states, “But the Christian has the entire corpus of God’s Word. Therefore, the Christian does not have a shortage of doctrinal resources” (p. 9).
The concept of triage eventually caught on throughout western culture and was adopted in America in civilian healthcare after World War II. But this concept did not appear, as such, in the realm of the church until Albert Mohler first published his article, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” in 2004. Powers is quick to point out that at least during the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, there was talk of dividing doctrines into “Things Essential” and “Things Non-Essential.” But not by any of the reformers themselves. Powers includes a quotation from Martin Luther on the topic: “Just as in the days of the Apostles, so at this day we are forced to hear from certain denominations that we (by our obstinacy to adhere to the truth) do offend against love and unity in the churches, because we reject their doctrine. It would be better (they say) that we should lit it pass, especially since the doctrine in dispute is what they call ‘non-essential.’ And, therefore, (they say) to stir up so great a discord and contention in the church over ‘one or two’ doctrines (and those not the most important ones) is ‘unfruitful’ and ‘unnecessary.’ To this I reply: Cursed be that love and unity which cannot be preserved except at the peril of the word of God.”
Powers includes a similar quotation for Charles Spurgeon, but I’m going to make you read the thesis to get that one (and it’s juicy!).
Powers concludes that, unlike medical triage (which purposes to treat a large amount of patients with limited resources), doctrinal triage has as a goal and purpose the unity of interdenominational relations. Rather than a high view of God and His Word, this movement has a high view of ecumenism.
Chapter 2 takes the reader through the Scriptures in order to find any shred of evidence that might indicate that God desires His church to set aside some doctrines as of lesser importance. One should compare the Scriptural evidence given by Powers in comparison to Dr. Mohler. Of the 75 pages containing his thesis (not including appendices), 48 of them deal with the biblical text. That’s 64% of his paper! Because this is only a review, and I want you read it for yourself, I’ll simply tip my hat to Mr. Powers and say, “well done, sir!” That is how we deal with new ideas in the church. We submit them to God’s Holy Word and allow Him to have the final word. But I’ll give you a sample of his findings.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that [that’s a purpose statement, y’all] the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
I just don’t see Paul drawing any distinction between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, degrees of doctrine there. ALL SCRIPTURE is God-breathed and good for the church. Period.
Chapter 3 is Powers’ shortest yet arguably the most important. In this third chapter he revisits the doctrine of God and His indivisibility. In summation, Powers reminds his readers that God cannot be compartmentalized, but is the totality of all His attributes all the time. If God cannot be divided into parts (essential and non-essential), then neither can His Word. That, my friends, is the stake to Dracula’s heart.
Conclusion: It should come as no surprise at this point that Powers does not see the practice of doctrinal triage as biblical, helpful, or even practical. Truth divides, but it also unites. The church is not called to an ecumenical group hug, but to unite in Christ through obedience of His TOTAL Word.
Assessment: In my ever so humble opinion, this work is a must read for all church leaders who must communicate these truths to all church members. The errors of approaching the Scriptures in this man-centered fashion are unfounded and downright dangerous. This sort of thinking must not penetrate Christ’s Church, and where it has already penetrated, it must be fought. I implore you to read this thesis in its entirety and then send it to your pastor and your elders for them to read it. I’ll close, as did Powers, with God-breathed words of undivided truth:
“Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14)