Monday, June 11, 2007

The significance of the hierarchy of truths

The basic message of this blog entry is that there is truth, but some of it is not essential or even significant. Now I am not sure if the author, Chris Hilliard, Pastor of Newell Baptist Church, realizes that is the road he has gone down, but it certainly seems to be where he has landed.

Mr. Hilliard references a system of theological triage that he uses to divide up God's truth into categories of: essentials to be considered Christian (1st tier), non-salvific doctrines that should not be compromised (2nd tier), and things everyone agrees we just are not sure about (3rd tier).

There are some basic problems with this system. The first is the fractured nature of the communities (and therefore fractured witness to Christ - see John 17:20-23) that this type of thinking causes. Specifically by the second tier truths. Things that everyone agrees are important, because each group considers them clearly revealed in God's Word. So important that these Christians are no longer in communion with each other if they disagree about them. Our Lord and Saint Paul had a few things to say about divisions and lack of unity. They were not positive things.

You do not divide the Body of Christ. It is as plain as that. Christ has one body, even though it has many parts. As Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ." And in Ephesians 4:1-4, "I therefore...beg you to walk...with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit..." Saint Paul warns about those who cause divisions in Romans 16:17, "I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them."

The first thing anyone who casts themselves off of the body must know is that they will perish. Again Saint Paul says, "If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?...If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body." (1 Corinthians 12:17, 19, 20) Without the body, the parts lose their meaning and ability to function as Christ intended.

I have no suggestions for those in Protestant communities on how to resolve this issue amongst themselves except to take a good hard look at what their forefathers did by casting themselves off of the body in protest. If nothing else it should be plain to all that formally separating themselves from Christ's Church has only guaranteed that error is being taught as truth. Every time a group splits from another over a 1st or 2nd tier issue, only one of them can have the truth (they both could be wrong of course, but let us give the benefit of the doubt). If the original group had the truth then the new group has left over something that they were wrong about. Not only were they wrong, but it is now incorporated into their teaching as truth. Multiply that by every denomination you find in just your local phone book and you can see how quickly error is disseminated. Even if the new group is the one leaving the error it quickly becomes impossible for one group to recover all of the truth. That is why humans apart from the protection of God can not undertake such an enterprise as spreading the Good News within the fullness of Truth. That is why Christ took it upon himself to build his Church and promised to always be with her. (Matthew 16:18 & 28:19-20)

The Catholic Church proclaims a hierarchy of truths. An article from Catholic Faith magazine gives a good overview of the hierarchy of truths. In the article Cardinal Schönborn, the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is quoted from the Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 42, "the 'hierarchy of truth' does not mean ‘a principle of subtraction,’ as if faith could be reduced to some ‘essentials’ whereas the ‘rest’ is left free or even dismissed as not significant. The ‘hierarchy of truth . . . is a principle of organic structure.’ It should not be confused with the degrees of certainty; it simply means that the different truths of faith are ‘organized’ around a center." Simply put everything that God has revealed to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, is important. Just because I am personally less certain about something does not make it less truthful or significant. It certainly does not mean that I no longer have to believe it.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the three tier system was how things should be done. Another underlying problem quickly becomes apparent. Who gets to decide what truth goes in what tier. Mr. Hilliard readily admits this, by some examples of what would go in which tier, at the end of his entry,

Personally, I believe we have allowed some 3rd tier doctrines to come into the argument and confuse us. Is baptism by immersion a 1st tier, 2nd tier, or 3rd tier? Is it necessary for salvation? No. Is it clear in Scripture? Yes. Thus it’s second tier. Is being a continuationist/cessationist a 1st tier doctrine? Is it necessary for salvation? No. Is it a second tier issue? Is it absolutely clear in Scripture? Debated, in my opinion. Thus, it’s a 3rd tier doctrine.
By his own reckoning his first example of baptism should be 3rd tier because someone (for instance a Catholic) finds the proposition that baptism is not necessary for salvation incorrect (i.e. debatable). He proceeds to say that being a continuationist/cessationist is debatable as to whether it is clear in Scripture. He then qualifies that statement with 'in my opinion.' Because he has decided that it is debatable it is third tier. As you can see most things quickly degenerate into 3rd tier (and by definition inconsequential) truths. It makes you wonder where this system of 'theological triage' would be rated amongst its own tiers...

Mr. Hilliard concludes,

If the BFM is simply a confession of 1st tier doctrines, then I believe we should be held accountable to them. If the BFM is a confession of 1st and 2nd tier doctrines we must ask whether or not we should be held accountable to it as well. If 2nd tier doctrines are as I defined them, I could possibly see the merit in saying yes. But, the problem with the BFM is that it contains what I believe are 1st, 2nd, and possibly even 3rd tier doctrines. Plus, I believe many are beginning to confuse 2nd and 3rd tier doctrines. And as long as the possibility lies that 3rd tier doctrines are currently a part of the BFM or might be in the future, we must not let the BFM become a “creed”.
So we have the logical result of this system, the removing or de-emphasizing of truth in order to rally around the 'essentials'. Who gets to decide what those 'essentials' are is pretty much left up for grabs. As the previously referenced article points out, "Sometimes a person does not see that the denial of one truth leads to the denial of another." It is pretty scary to see how quickly some truths are abandoned when we abandon the truth that Christ protects his Bride.

UPDATE - 6/28/07: See Division post for continuation of conversation.

7 comment(s):

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Enjoyed reading your thoughts on my post concerning essentials vs. non-essentials. Thought I would just add a few thoughts for your readers. First, my thoughts (and those of Dr. Al Mohler) are not a description of the way things are in the Protestant (and in my case Southern Baptist) church. The triage system is a proposition in it's infancy.

As well, your post is somewhat confusing because you are taking a Southern Baptist "in-house" discussion and you place it in the Catholic context.

I agree with the issue of division in the body but don't believe you have given a true and accurate picture. Would the Catholic church be willing to join us Southern Baptist as one church (no questions asked)? Of course not. Why? Because even though we have some similar views and definitions, there are numerous areas we disagree as to what God actually says in His Word. Therefore, division is necessary. The Bible is filled with division even amongst brothers/sisters in Christ. True, that isn't God's design or ideal but it is at times necessary. Just look at the church discipline passages.

Again, thanks for your thoughts and I regret that I did not know sooner about your post so that I could respond.

Todd said...


Thanks for your charitable reply. Just a couple of responses:

The fact that the triage system is just a proposition does not really affect my argument against it. I came across your blog by happenstance and the flaws of the triage system immediately jumped out at me and thought I would write a little about it.

As far as placing it in a Catholic context, it is the context I place everything in. Whether placing it in that context makes it irrelevant to you (and the supporters of the triage system) or not I will leave to your sensibilities.

In regards to your comments on division, I strongly urge you to read again the passages in Scripture that talk about division and challenge you to find your statement, "True, that isn't God's design or ideal but it is at times necessary." supported. I believe that if you remove some of your preconceptions about the necessity of division, you will find our Lord and his disciples strongly disagree with your assessment. Try and think of another topic that is so clearly spoken badly of and imagine yourself saying, “it is at times necessary.” Evil should never be done so that good may come of it. Especially when the consequences are that those who witness it do not believe that the Father has sent the Son and the great love he has for them. (John 17:20-23) What hypothetical ‘good’ of division outweighs that?

I am not advocating unity at the expense of truth (and neither is the Church), but saying that something evil is at times necessary is simply showing a lack of trust in God. Getting any further into some of this necessitates a discussion on authority and that is a bit off topic, so I will just leave it at that. Thanks again for your response and please take a look again at your presuppositions about division. I think you might be surprised.



"I am not advocating unity at the expense of truth"

Thanks for the thoughts again. Actually, the issue of "division" has been studied, meditated upon, and prayed about intensely by myself personally. I have faced the issue numerous times. The above quote is really all I'm seeking to point out. Unity IS God's ideal but God has also called us to divide when the truth is being compromised and/or denied by a certain of the Body.

Is not the final step of church discipline the separated of the church from an individual(s) who will not repent? It isn't the ideal but it is commanded by God. There are times when a minister must separate from a local church to "discipline" them because of sin and visa versa. And, as the Southern Baptist Convention is debating, there are times when certain groups or theological camps must be divided from to defend truth and expose lies. In order to do that though, you have to wrestle with what exactly is the truth that God's inerrant word proclaims. I believe the word is clear but I adopting a "confession" of what it teaches is sometimes necessary to separate from the heresies proclaimed by another.

I am by far NOT saying "evil is at times necessary." If God has called us to separate at times (and He clearly does in His word), it is not evil but in fact good.


In response to your request, "I strongly urge you to read again the passages in Scripture that talk about division and challenge you to find your statement, "True, that isn't God's design or ideal but it is at times necessary." supported," I offer just two examples (with my thoughts in parenthesis)

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother (reconciliation and unity, God's ideal and design). 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you (in other words, separate/divide, which is not the ideal but is necessary).
Matt 18:15-17 (HCSB)

And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter (and is unified with us in this, God's design and ideal), take note of that person; don’t associate with him (separate, not the ideal but the God commanded necessity), so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet don’t treat him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. 2 Thess 3:14-15 (HCSB)

Todd said...


Sorry to take so long to respond. Things have been kind of hectic. See this post for a reply.

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