Review of Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On

I have watched with no little curiosity as Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, has spent some time on social media extending a great amount of grace to particular ministers and priests who believe she should not be and should never have been ordained.

Rather than stake out her own position—although she obviously has a clear opinion on the subject of women’s ordination, being ordained herself—she has taken upon herself time and again to defend the right of these men to follow their own Christian conviction in the matter.  When Tim Keller (another notable Christian author) was set upon for speaking out against women’s ordination, Harrison spoke up on his behalf, abjured those who vilified him for his theological position, and made the point that while debate is welcome and some theological divisions are deeply important, the unity of the church and the love of believers for each other is paramount.

It was with those interactions in mind that I recently purchased Finding the Right Hills to Die On, a book about how to approach theological differences.

I do want to state clearly that this is a book about theology, not necessarily some of the issues popularly discussed by Christians in the public square.  When I say theology, then, I am referring to issues like baptism, millennialism, and the ordination of women: complex issues about which a great many Christians and denominations disagree. 

The author, Gavin Ortlund, is not interested in deciding who’s right and who’s wrong.  Rather, he wants to consider how believers approach their differences, follow the conviction of the Spirit, and yet maintain the unity of the church.

Of particular use to me were two distinct points made by Ortlund, the first of which is that doctrinal minimalism (“none of it matters!”) can be just as dangerous and damaging as doctrinal sectarianism (“everything always matters all of the time!”).  The second was his breakdown of doctrinal issues into four distinct categories:

  1. First-rank doctrines: those essential to our understanding of the Gospel itself
  2. Second-rank doctrines: urgent for the health and practice of the church (to such a degree that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of church, ministry, or denomination)
  3. Third-rank doctrines: important to theology but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians
  4. Fourth-rank doctrines: matters about which believers can afford to be indifferent (like worship style)

Ortlund makes clear that doctrinal issues exist on a spectrum, and that even a second-rank doctrine in a particular issue might resonate with first-rank importance. From here, he goes forward into some of the thornier doctrinal issues plaguing the church, their history, and varying viewpoints.  In doing so, he shares his own views and how he came by them, but manages to practice what he preaches here by making it clear he doesn’t expect everyone else to share them.

The book, in this regard, is dense.  If you don’t like reading about theology, and if you don’t like what seems at times like a very academic discussion of issues that don’t really keep you up at night, you might be ambivalent about reading this.  I found that I struggled through some of the chapters, simply because while I have clear views on some of the issues mentioned, I also have no trouble coming alongside Christians with different views.

But Ortlund’s point – and it is an important one – is that a unified church needs desperately to figure out how to move beyond our divisions, even while maintaining our convictions.  His call for humility, for the extension of generosity to those on the other side of a doctrinal divide, for an understanding of what doctrines we are willing to go to war over and those we aren’t, is very needed in a time where it seems any small issue, no matter how small, can split a church in two.

I came away convicted if only for my own lack of generosity of spirit over issues that I hold near and dear to my heart in terms of doctrine.  I am paraphrasing Ortlund here, but essentially: there is no sin in holding to and being clear about Spirit-led convictions.  But when those convictions lead me into a sense of superiority or self-righteousness over other believers, when they place in me a condescending spirit, I need to think carefully about my approach and what I am doing.

A note: Ortlund seems to be sticking primarily here to Reformed doctrines, so keep that in mind.

If you’re in the mood for something dense and chewy, this may be a good book for you.  If you are exhausted of the ability of Christian brothers and sisters to fight with each other over the interpretation of Scripture, this might make you wearier.  But the message is worthwhile, and one we see all too rarely in our divided time.

6 thoughts on “Review of Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On

  1. I saw this book several weeks ago and was interested in reading it eventually. Now I want to get it and start it as soon as possible. It sounds helpful for me in so many ways right now. Thanks for sharing your review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I am weary and tired of all the fighting. But I enjoyed your review! As for women being ordained, I think women bring so much depth to any faith. Heck, in the Catholic faith, we have a shortage of priests, so why not? Besides, we all know how hard working and essential our nuns are. I hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I empathize with that weariness! So many times when the debates come up I just think, “…again?”

      Women do, indeed. Even in traditions where they are not permitted to preach or be ordained (such as the tradition in which I was raised), I was astonished by the degree to which women managed to make a difference and really make themselves integral to the life of the local body.

      Is the shortage of priests a general issue for the Catholic church? I know I recently saw an article about a shortage in the Amazon, in particular – I wasn’t sure how widespread it might be.

      I am well and I hope you are, too (and still recovering!)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is wide-spread. Yes, the Amazon is a big issue, but domestically, we are desperately lacking priests. Young people today aren’t raised with a strong faith foundation. Culturally, it is unpopular, yet I see how my boys’ peers struggle and flounder like a ship out to sea with no anchor or sail. I have lost so many students to overdose and suicide. Heartbreaking. Parents believe they have a right to choose these values when they get older, and I am letting my boys choose their path, but they come from a foundation where they were taught our faith and participated in the Mass and sacraments. They can’t possibly understand “faith” as a concept if they have NEVER been exposed to anything. Kids are unlikely to smoke or drink if it is not something done at home, and their peer shun the practice, right? So, no faith at home and no reinforcement from peers or society=no exposure=no faith. Where do they possibly go from there? It breaks my heart, really.

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      2. Funny you should mention this. I was just having a conversation with an atheist colleague recently who refuses to let her child be involved in any activity that might be perceived as “spiritual.” I don’t doubt God can and will reach beyond such boundaries, but she acts as though she is freeing him to an open mind when in reality her beliefs are just as prescriptive as any that she imagines religious parents might impose. Even parents who leave their kids to “choose values” are effectively choosing a value set for them. As a culture, we’ve lost our sense of wonder, joy, and faith *in general*, and I think a large part of it is what you mention here: the loss of any faith foundation in the home.

        Liked by 1 person

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