More than ten years ago, Al Mohler wrote a seminal blog post outlining what he called “theological triage.” Borrowing the term from the emergency room, Mohler discussed the need for Christians to prioritize certain doctrinal issues over others.
In what can be the chaos of an emergency room, medical professionals need to know how to weigh the urgency of various patients’ needs against one another; that is, a gunshot wound should be prioritized over a sprained ankle. Similarly, in the theological world, Christians must understand the difference between (a) “first-order” doctrines—where to hold an errant position actually precludes one from being a true brother in Christ—and (b) “second-” and “third-order” doctrines—issues on which two genuine Christians can disagree and nevertheless be truly saved. In other words, we need to be able to discern the difference between erroneous teaching (on non-fundamental issues) and heresy.
All biblical doctrine is important. I would go so far as to say all biblical doctrine is essential. It is difficult to put any doctrine into a second or third tier, because it somehow feels as if to do so is to say it’s not important. But employing theological triage doesn’t mean that everything that’s not first-order is unimportant, any more than a doctor’s prioritizing a gunshot wound necessarily thinks a sprained ankle is unimportant. But the fact remains: genuine Christians can disagree on things like the mode and recipients of baptism; but if two people disagree on the triunity of God, one is a Christian and the other isn’t.
The Reality of Damning Error
Some people reject the very notion that disagreements about doctrine could preclude someone from salvation. After all, no one has perfect theology, and we’re saved by believing in Christ, not by believing in doctrine, they say. And it’s true, regeneration does not promise protection from all error. But it does promise protection from some error—that is, the kind of error which, if believed, indicates you’re not a child of God at all. We know that that kind of theological error exists because the Apostle Paul wrote Galatians 1:6–9:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Paul wrote that about the error of the Judaizers, which, if you think about it, by some evaluations was quite a fine point of doctrinal disagreement. Think about everything the Judaizers shared in common with the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. They believed in one God, who exists eternally in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believed in the deity and humanity of Christ. They believed that He was Israel’s Messiah in fulfillment of the Old Testament. They believed in penal substitutionary atonement—that Christ bore the punishment of God’s wrath against the sins of His people when He died on the cross, so that they might be free from sin’s penalty and power (and one day its presence). They believed that He was buried, and that He rose on the third day. And they believed that repentance and faith in Christ was absolutely necessary for forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God in heaven. That is a lot of really important doctrine that they got right!
Their one issue boiled down, basically, to whether good works were the cause or the result of salvation. Was law-keeping the ground or merely the evidence of saving faith? Are we saved by faith alone, or by faith in Christ plus our religious observance? Now, that point of disagreement is an admittedly fine distinction! And yet Paul still employs the harshest language of condemnation for their error. “A different gospel” (Gal 1:6). “No true gospel at all” (Gal 1:7). “Let him be anathema”—condemned to hell (Gal 1:8, 9). “Severed from Christ” (Gal 5:4). “They will bear their judgment” (5:10). “I wish they would emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:12). Strong words for a disagreement on the ordo salutis! What it teaches us is, at the very least, there are certain things which, if believed, preclude someone from salvation, because to believe those things is to believe a different gospel, which is really no true gospel at all, and therefore which cannot save but can only condemn.
What Are the Fundamental Doctrines?
That brings us to the natural question: How much can one get wrong and still be a true child of God? Or said another way: What are those false doctrines which, if believed, by definition indicate that someone is not truly saved?
I think we get a clue by understanding why Paul so severely condemned the Judaizers’ doctrine. It’s because there was something fundamental to that teaching that denied—was mutually exclusive to—the Gospel of grace. That’s how we answer the question of what’s bad doctrine versus what breaches the bounds into heresy. The wrong beliefs that indicate someone is not saved are those teachings, which believed, necessarily undermine or deny the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone for the glory of God alone.
But what are those wrong beliefs? I think we answer that question by asking a number of questions that span several categories of Christian doctrine.
We have to start here, because the question, “What false doctrines preclude salvation?” is a fundamentally soteriological question. We should ask: Does this teaching instruct us to trust in ourselves to contribute to our righteousness before God, even in part? Does this teaching encourage us to trust in anything else other than Christ alone for righteousness? Does this teaching teach us that salvation is something other than our redemption and deliverance from sin through the work of God in Christ?
The Roman Catholic Church’s denial of sola fide is a false doctrine that requires an affirmative answer to those questions. By denying that sinners are declared righteous through the instrumentation of faith alone, Roman Catholicism actually makes the very same error as the Judaizers (they just advocate adding different works to Christ’s righteousness). See this post for more on this.
But the Wesleyan Arminian’s doctrine of synergism, though unbiblical and rightly labeled as “bad theology,” is not a damning error. Perhaps the logical implications of it are—and if a synergist was truly consistent with himself it would lead to heresy. But Wesleyan Arminians avoid the damning errors of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism by confessing that the source of their faith in God’s grace alone, and not anywhere in themselves. Their doctrine of prevenient grace is not to be found anywhere in Scripture, and they can’t consistently account for why one believes in Christ while another doesn’t, but they are in a manner saved by their inconsistency, as they nevertheless look to Christ alone through faith alone for salvation.
2. Theology Proper
Because God Himself is the Author of salvation, we cannot be truly saved if we are trusting in anyone but the true God. Many people—even those who would call themselves Christians—profess faith in the God of the Bible. But some have transgressed so far that they have recast the true God into a god in their own image. There is something about their god that is fundamentally different from the true God. So we should ask: Does this teaching affirm something about God that is so false—so antithetical to His nature—that to believe it is to truly believe in a different God, and not the God of Scripture?
I think we have to answer “yes” to that question in consideration of the God of Open Theism, who suggest that God is “in process,” is learning, and does not know the future. This is an outright denial of the omniscience of God—the One who insists that He declares the end from the beginning, and brings to pass all the plans of His heart (Isa 46:9–10; Ps 33:11; Ps 139; Heb 4:13). This isn’t simply a misunderstanding about the God who is; this is a fundamentally different god.
But we would answer “no” to the above question with respect to the doctrine of the order of the divine decrees. Infralapsarians believe that God’s decree to create and ordain the fall of man logically (note: not chronologically) preceded God’s decree to elect and accomplish salvation. Supralapsarians believe that God’s decree to elect and save was logically prior even to the decrees to create and ordain the fall. Neither of these positions so distort the person and character of God as to make Him a different “god” than what Scripture reveals; neither does it undermine salvation in any way. So this is not a first-order issue.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul tells the Corinthians that the false apostles are proclaiming to them “another Jesus,” i.e., different from the One who exists. He also pairs that designation with the concept of teaching “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4). Since salvation comes only through the work of Jesus Christ, we must be sure to be trusting in the Christ who exists, and not “another Jesus” whom we’ve concocted according to our own understanding. So we must ask: Does this teaching affirm something about the person or work of Christ that is so false, so antithetical to His nature that to believe it is to truly believe in a different Jesus?
Arianism is such a teaching. Arians believe that Jesus is not of precisely the same substance (or essence) as the Father, but that He is of similar substance. Jesus is not truly divine, but neither is He merely human. He is god-like, but He is not God. Of course, the Christ of Scripture is God Himself—God the Son, the Second Member of the Trinity (John 1:1–3; 8:58; 10:30; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:8; 2 Pet 1:1). And there cannot be a more fundamental difference between One who is God and one who is not. Therefore, the Arians believe in a different Jesus than the Christ of Scripture—a Jesus who doesn’t exist, and thus a Jesus who cannot save.
But the doctrine of incarnational sonship is an example of a Christological error that is nevertheless not heretical. Those who hold to this teach that Christ did not relate to the Father as Son from all eternity, but rather that He became God’s Son at His birth (still others say only at His resurrection). But the distinction between ontological versus functional subordinationism (i.e., subordination in role, but not in essence) eliminates any concern of inequality in the Godhead. And when one understands the “begetting” of Psalm 2 and Hebrews 1 as an eternal begetting, not one that takes place in time, confusion subsides. God sent His only Son (John 3:16); He did not send One who became His Son. In any case, those who hold to incarnational sonship do not intend to undermine Christ’s deity or eternality in any sense; it’s a question of the roles or functions that Christ has undertaken, not something that is essential to His nature. Thus to believe incarnational sonship is not to believe in a different Christ.
We cannot forget about the Third Member of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is God just as the Father and Son are God. Thus, to hold to error with respect to the Holy Spirit is to have a false view of God, and warrants the same concern as issues of Theology Proper and Christology. Therefore, when evaluating pneumatological error, we must ask yourselves: Does this teaching affirm something about the person or work of the Holy Spirit that is so false, so antithetical to His nature that to believe it is to truly believe in a different God?
We ought to answer “yes” with respect to the Jehovah’s Witness’s doctrine that the Spirit is not a Person but merely a force. They must teach this if they insist upon denying the Trinity. But the Holy Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3–4), speaks (Acts 13:2), sends missionaries (Acts 13:4), prophesies (Acts 21:11), knows the thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:11), and can be grieved (Eph 4:30). A force can do none of these things; only persons can. To deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit is to deny something fundamentally true about the Spirit’s nature. It is to deny that the Spirit is God, and that God eternally exists in three coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial Persons. Thus, this is an error that crosses the line into heresy.
But we’d have to answer “no” to this question if it were asked about the continuation of the miraculous gifts. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a convinced cessationist, and so I regard the redefinition of the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing (as is done even in the conservative continuationist movement) as a prime example of “bad theology.” But it’s not heretical, because I don’t think the case can be made that it makes a different God out of the Holy Spirit. It simply says the gifts that He once gave He is still giving today. That’s not to say that there aren’t Charismatics who aren’t heretics; far from it. But those who cross that line do so for reasons other than the bare concept of continuationism.
We’ve spoken about Theology Proper, Christology, and Pneumatology—discussing doctrinal errors related to each Person of the Godhead. But we also need to speak about doctrine that relates to the three-in-oneness of God. The God who is One in His essence and being eternally exists in Three co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial Persons. To deny any aspect of this is to deny something so intrinsic to the very nature of God Himself that we would end up with a fundamentally different god. So we must ask: Does this teaching so distort the doctrines of either (a) the Trinity or (b) the unity of the Godhead, that to believe it is to undermine God’s Triunity, and thus to cause us to believe in a different God?
An example of a Trinitarian heresy would be Modalism, which denies the essential “three-ness” of the Persons of the Godhead. Modalists teach that there is One God who can be designated by three different names (‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit’) at different times, but that these three are not distinct persons. As mentioned above, this issue of personhood cuts to the very heart of what it means for God to be God. To say He is something other than One God eternally existent in Three Persons is to speak of an entirely different god. Thus, Modalism (the contemporary version of which is Oneness Pentecostalism) is heresy.
But a Trinitarian issue on which there can be disagreement between true believers is the Filioque controversy—the issue of whether the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son (note: filioque means “and the Son”). While this issue was important enough to split the Eastern and Western churches—and has implications for the person of the Father or the divine essence conceived generally is the ground of the personal subsistence of the Son and the Spirit—nevertheless it does not undermine the unity or identity of the Three-in-One.
The authoritative basis for all theological discussion is Scripture. Therefore, to believe something about the Bible that undermines its authority in any sense is to surrender a truly Christian epistemology and worldview, and exalt one’s own reasoning above God’s revelation. That means we have to ask: Does this teaching so distort the doctrine of Scripture that it undermines biblical authority? Does this teaching deny that authority in such a way as to invest that authority in oneself, another man, or a tribunal of men?
A denial of the inspiration of Scripture would clearly place one outside the bounds of orthodoxy. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). To claim that any portion of Scripture is not the Word of God, or to treat it such a way as to impugn the character of the God whose Word it is, is to exalt one’s own reasoning above God’s revelation. It is to extricate oneself from the authority of God and make one’s own understanding the measuring line of truth. This is no longer truly Christian, but humanistic, and as such it crosses the line into heretical doctrine.
But there are some bibliological debates upon which true believers may disagree. One example would be the debate over the manner of inspiration. Some Christians rather naively believe that inspiration implies dictation only—i.e., that God dictated revelation to the human authors and they simply transcribed what they heard. Now, there were certainly times where that was the manner of revelation (e.g., Exod 34:27), but it was not the only one. In general, Scripture is said to have been inspired by the superintending work of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20–21). The Spirit did not override the thoughts, intentions, and personalities of the authors of Scripture, but so sovereignly superintended them and worked with their thoughts, intentions, and personalities that they wrote precisely what the Spirit intended. Nevertheless, the dictation-only model of inspiration does not so undermine the character or authority of Scripture so as to preclude one from genuine Christianity.
The charge of heresy is a serious one. We cannot be trivial or frivolous in throwing around the term. But Paul’s response to the Judaizers (among many other passages of Scripture) teaches us that there are times when we must draw clear lines of separation, even among those who would call themselves Christians. If faithfulness requires that you do so, it will be important for you to ask the questions outlined above. If you believe a particular teaching warrants affirmative answers to those questions, you need to make a clear case for why that’s so.
And at the end of such an exercise, it’s important for me to say that I understand that we’re not saved by believing in sound doctrine per se, but by believing in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. We are indeed saved by faith alone, not by merely confessing faith alone. Nevertheless, the moment we ask, “Saved by faith in what?” we must respond with a doctrinal answer. We’re not saved by believing sound doctrine, but the faith by which we are saved must of necessity be doctrinally sound.
May we be found faithful stewards of the pattern of sound words entrusted to us as a treasure (2 Tim 1:13–14), for the purity of the Gospel, and for the glory of Christ.