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

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Our generation is bad at 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. So, 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.

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

  1. “So, 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.” I know as a Calvinist, you adhere to a lot of his teachings, but let’s not go overboard here. I wouldn’t invite Martin Luther to an Anti-Defamation League meeting and I certainly wouldn’t bring John Calvin to an ecumenical council, at least not without wearing fire retardant clothing. All you have after you leave this world is your reputation, which is why remembering both the good and the bad that people do is so critical. To white wash that is to make light of the moral choices all of us make in our every day lives, especially as Christians.

    • Thanks, Dean! You’re right, we shouldn’t go overboard in any direction. We shouldn’t uncritically quote anyone. Likewise, I’d say we shouldn’t reject out of hand someone just because they sinned (in significant ways!). Instead, since all truth is of divine origin, when we find it, wherever we find it, let’s use it. Chew the fish, spit out the bone!

      So, with Calvin, when he speaks rightly, I’m happy to quote him approvingly. And, as I’ve told my students in my recent Calvin seminar, when he speaks or acts badly, let’s not make excuses. Here, however, Calvin is on the right track with his words. So, I’m happy to learn from them while acknowledging that Calvin had significant faults. As they say, our best men are men at best.

      Also, given your comment about “fire retardant clothing,” it seems you may be helped by this piece from Dr. Michael Haykin. https://www.crossway.org/articles/5-myths-about-john-calvin/

      Blessings, brother.

      • Thanks for the link. I read it and I’ve heard those arguments repeated many times. I think you need to re-evaluate your sources, it’s pretty clear to me that John Calvin is responsible for the death of Servetus, you can try to whitewash it all you want, but I for one am confused why an objective person would want to, as if we don’t need higher standards for our heroes than “NOT being a murderer”. More fundamentally, however, it doesn’t really do your theology justice to tie it to this man, especially one with this reputation of “NOT being a murderer”. I think it was Jesus who said we should love our enemies, is that one of the doctrines of grace? What do I know.

      • Thanks again, Dean. I’m glad you read the article. Dr. Haykin (who wrote that piece) is one of the leading evangelical historians of our day. As for your other comments, I appreciate your passion brother. We certainly condemn many of the things John Calvin was involved in and disagree with him on a number of theological issues (after all, we are Baptists!). And you’re correct. We should love our enemies. No argument there at all.

        Blessings and grace to you, Dean.

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