• Jamie McClanahan

Theological Triage and Local Church Cooperation (Part II)

Updated: Mar 15

Triage is a necessity in the medical world; it is a matter of life and death. In the world of theology, it can also mean spiritual or physical life and death. In the last post on this topic, we considered the importance of fleshing out the brilliant statement by Rupert Meldinius in the 17th Century about church cooperation. He wrote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”[1] His statement invokes the need to think about theology in prioritized categories. Gavin Ortlund and Al Mohler prescribe several ways to rank theology, with both categorizing doctrines in at least three stages. Both encourage us to process theology in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary issues. Ortlund adds a fourth, which he refers to as adiaphora or “indifference”. Primary doctrines are essential to the Gospel. Secondary doctrines are essential to the health of an individual church or denomination, but not necessarily related to the integrity of Gospel. Third-rank doctrines, while important theological issues, should not divide believers. Finally, fourth rank doctrines are unimportant to the gospel altogether. These are based on preference and opinion.


Our focus now is to consider how theological triage can be compromised and how it has been applied historically in the church. For the past 2000 years, the church has relied upon various Councils, Creeds, and confession statements to apply triage and maintain unity. Certain writings of believers have clarified primary and secondary issues. Throughout church history there has been much confusion over how to apply these categories, at times resulting in death and exile of God’s people.


In the first eight centuries of the church there were seven ecumenical councils. They began in 325 with the First Council of Nicaea and ended in 787 with the Second Council of Nicaea. These councils were formed to root out error and maintain first-rank theological concerns. For example, in the First Council of Nicaea, Arius, a priest from Alexandria, taught that Jesus was created by the Father. He believed and taught that the Father was greater than the Son. Alexander of Alexandria argued that Jesus was begotten of the Father, not created and was fully equal with the Father. The council agreed with Alexander and the divinity of Jesus was preserved in the local church.[2] In this case, theological triage prevailed and preserved a Gospel essential. The Council sided with the orthodox, composing the first form of what would become known as the Nicene Creed.[3] Throughout the next few centuries a pattern arose with a false-teaching proclaimed, a church council formed to address it, and an orthodox conclusion reached to maintain first-rank theological issues. Some had to do with the humanity of Christ and others the Divinity of the Holy Spirit.


Creeds were developed to summarize the Scriptures and affirm agreed upon truths upheld by various councils. From the creeds, denominational confessions were developed. Archibald Alexander defines a creed as “the systematic statement of religious faith; and by the creeds of the Christian church, we mean the formal expression of “the faith which was delivered unto the saints.”[4] The most well-known, and oldest, are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The former is often referred to as the Creed of Creeds.[5] Its teaching represents apostolic gospel teaching in summary form, and includes a wonderful statement about the Trinity, which should always remain a first-rank theological issue essential to the gospel.


The Church and its leaders do not always get theological triage correct. In fact, even when they do get it right, they sometimes apply their convictions violently. Baptism in the 16th century was example of this confusion and chaos. As we alluded in a previous article, baptism is considered a secondary issue in theological triage. However, during the time of the Anabaptist Reformation, it was thought to be first rank. The question was not so much about whether one should be baptized; instead, the battle was waged over the mode of baptism. It is hard for us to imagine believers so entrenched in their view that death was considered appropriate for those who disagreed with them. However, in the 16th Century, believers were willing to die for their position and kill those whose position differed.


Ulrich Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther, was Pro-Reformation, but not as radical as some of the Anabaptists in his attempts to revitalize the doctrine of pedobaptism. Felix Manz was a friend of Zwingli’s; yet, because of their differences, they had trouble getting along. W.S. Reid explains the tension between the two men. He writes:

Manz, however, came to reject Zwingli’s view that the ultimate authority in any reformed movement must be the civil authorities, and he did not accept the other reformers’ distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” church—i.e., those who professed faith and those who truly did believe. He believed that the church must be made up of only those who have true faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Therefore, he denied the right of infants to baptism. [6]


It was a struggle for Zwingli and those he considered his brothers. Christian History Magazine summarizes the tension he felt.

Zwingli apparently felt the choice was between orderly change and ecclesiastic anarchy. He urged moderation and patience and engaged the radicals in a series of public debates, but when the radicals began re-baptizing in February, 1525, he sided with the Council in its decision to outlaw private meetings and require that all children be baptized. [7]


The final chapter for the first Anabaptist martyr came on a cold day in 1527. The Roman Catholic Church levied a guilty verdict on Felix Manz, and sentenced him to death by drowning in the River Limmit. Zwingli was silent and did not oppose this sentence or punishment. Meldinius’ statement emerges from the depths of the ice River Limmit. “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In Felix Many’ case, there was no liberty and charity. In our theological triage, we must hold our convictions firmly and with grace toward those who disagree.


References [1] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/ [2] https://www.challies.com/articles/7-councils-the-first-council-of-nicaea/ [3] Brett Scott Provance, Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 43. [4] Arch. B. D. Alexander, “Creed, Creeds,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 741. [5] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-know-apostles-creed/ [6] W.S. Reid, “Manz, Felix,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 451. [7] “A Gallery of Family, Friends, Foes, and Followers,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 4: Zwingli: Father of the Swiss Reformation (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1984).

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