Not Every Thing is as Important as the Next Thing: John Calvin on Theological Triage

Our generation is bad a disagreeing. It seems, at least from certain perspectives, that if two people or groups disagree on an issue, they must be enemies. At least we too often act as if this is the case. Sadly, disagreement too often leads to open warfare. This is true whether we are talking about educational options, political debates, or theological controversies.

Now, I’m not capable of wading into most debates about education and politics, so I’ll steer clear. And, even though I’m a pastor of a local church who happens to be pursuing a Ph.D. in historical theology, I’m still not qualified to enter into many of our current theological controversies. What I want to do here is simply lean into the great reformation theologian, John Calvin, to help us think about how we might approach our disagreements with more wisdom and kindness. Calvin helps by reminding us that not every issue is of the same level of importance.

Here is the relevant section from Calvin’s Institutes:

…some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still not break the unity of faith.

Calvin continues:

…a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians. First and foremost, we should agree on all points. But since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation. (Calvin, Institutes, IV.1.12)

Notice how Calvin denotes some articles of faith as “necessary” while others are “disputed.” These disputed matters should not necessarily lead to fissures in the body. When we differ over “nonessential matters," they are pardoned if they “do not harm the chief doctrine of religion” (IV.2.1). That is, when there is an error in matters that do not undermine the fundamentals or essentials of the faith, we should exercise charity towards our brothers and sisters and not cause unnecessary division.

Now, we are remiss if we fail to note that Calvin certainly believed disagreement over necessary doctrine was grounds for schism. After all, he was a Protestant reformer who believed the Roman Catholic Church was apostate. Calvin writes, “as soon as falsehood breaks into the citadel of religion and the sum of necessary doctrine is overturned and the use of the sacraments is destroyed, surely the death of the church follows” and thus schism is justified (IV.2.1). According to Calvin, Rome had departed from the Word and perverted the sacraments. For Calvin, Word and Sacrament were the two marks of a true church. Thus, Rome had undermined the very things that marked out God's people from the world. In short, Calvin did not believe he broke with Rome over minor issues. He believed “necessary doctrine” had been affected and thus, the disagreements were issues of life and death. Therefore, his departure was necessary.

What Calvin is doing is what Albert Mohler has tried to do in more recent years (see here and here). Dr. Mohler makes a case for theological triage where we pay attention to first, second, and third-level issues. Determining where a specific doctrine falls is certainly something that requires wisdom, and Mohler is helpful. What we must do is pay attention to the reality that not every doctrine sits on the top. Not every theological issue demands warfare. Not every doctrinal disagreement deserves the same outrage on social media. Before Mohler unpacked this reality, Calvin was calling for a similar way of thinking.

In the end, what might help my generation disagree in more helpful and God-honoring ways is to pay attention to what Calvin had stated almost five-hundred years ago and what Mohler has outlined in the last decade. We should think more carefully about how close to the core of the faith certain theological issues land. If they land at the top, are "necessary doctrine," (e.g. the deity of Christ; salvation by grace alone through faith alone), then to war we go. Yet, if the issue lands further down the line, if it is a "nonessential matter, then let us tread a bit more lightly and graciously as we do our theology along the way.