Doctrinal uncertainty captures not just the difference in relative importance of doctrine, but also the difference between how clearly Scripture presents a doctrine. Doctrinal uncertainty is inherently more focused on the text of Scripture itself. In this way, doctrinal uncertainty is an attractive alternative to doctrinal tiers when dealing with the question of why Christians disagree on some interpretations of Scripture and which interpretations are within orthodoxy.
You have probably heard the phrase “doctrinal tiers” at some point if you have been involved at Church for any length of time. Each Church I have attended in both my childhood and adult life have either mentioned doctrinal tiers or explicitly included them on their Church website. Suffice to say, at some point in your life I have no doubt you will encounter doctrinal tiers if you attend a Bible-preaching Church.
But what are “doctrinal tiers?” Is it a helpful concept? Are there any problems with using it? And is there a better way to solve the same problems doctrinal tiers tries to solve? In this post, I want to answer each of these questions and, in particular, propose an alternative to doctrinal tiers which I call “doctrinal uncertainty.”
What are doctrinal tiers?
Doctrinal tiers are a means to categorize different Bible doctrines in order of importance, orthodoxy or necessity of belief. The number of tiers, what each tier contains, and how the tiers are used varies from person to person and from Church to Church. I have seen them formulated as a pyramid and as a target. Essentially, doctrinal tiers is a way to answer the question “what doctrines and biblical interpretations can Christians disagree on and yet still be considered orthodox in their theology?“
Knowing what Biblical doctrines are essential to be considered saved and orthodox and what doctrines are “secondary” is a vital and practical distinction to make. And that is really all the tiers are: a method of categorization. It is a way of saying “this set of biblical beliefs you must hold to in order to be considered Christian, but these other issues, while important, have varying valid, orthodox interpretations.”
Generally “first tier” issues are the foundational doctrines of the gospel:
- Who Christ is
- What the nature of Sin is
- What is the gospel
- How is one saved
And so on. In contrast, secondary or tertiary doctrines include:
- Infant baptism vs. believers’ baptism
- The various eschatological interpretations
- Views on Church structure
And others. From these lists, it is clear the first set deals with doctrines essential for saving faith while the second list deals with different practical matters of Church life and the interpretation of difficult passages.
Now, the concept of doctrinal tiers is important and helpful to a degree. By knowing where the lines of orthodoxy are drawn, Christians can contend for “essential” issues and agree to disagree on other issues. However, there are several problems with the doctrinal tiers model.
Issues with doctrinal tiers
1. Who decides how many tiers should their be and why?
This is a common problem I see when I read about doctrinal tiers: there is no “standard” for how many tiers one creates. Many Churches I know of have either two or three tiers. If you have two tiers, you divide up doctrines between necessary for orthodoxy and doctrines which Christians can disagree on. The three tier model adds another category, typically on doctrines which affect Church practice.
But hypothetically, one need not stop at two or three tiers. Why not four? Five? Ten? At some point the categories end up losing their usefulness, but I think this highlights an issue with the doctrinal tiers model: there is no limit to which you can categorize doctrines by degree of importance. As soon as you open the door for “ranking” doctrines so to speak, there is no reason you have to stop at two or three levels. This can create a situation where some doctrines are seen as “unimportant” simply because they are in a lower tier. Eschatology is a great example: I have met many people who refuse to study the topic because it is “less important.”
2. Who or what decides what doctrine goes in what tier?
This becomes more of a problem the more tiers you add to your model. Who decides which doctrines are essential and which can be safely disagreed upon? For the most part, Christians agree doctrines related to Christ and the gospel are tier 1. But what about different view on God’s providence in salvation? For some people, this is closer to a tier 1 issue than to other people.
Additionally, many of the tier 2 or 3 doctrines in Scripture have a direct relation to tier 1 doctrines. For example, your understanding of the doctrine of baptism (tier 2+) is not independent from what you believe about the gospel (tier 1). And as mentioned above, your view of God’s sovereignty in salvation (most of the time tier 2+) is integral to what you believe about the work of Christ on the cross (tier 1).
The issue with doctrinal tiers is someone has to sort all this out in a way that is not arbitrary. But if you examine what different Churches put into different tiers, you will find enough variation to call into question the process of how the doctrinal tiers are developed. Not every Church agrees with what doctrines goes into what tiers. How then does one discern what the “right” tier is to put a doctrine into? Without some objective or explicitly Scriptural process to decide what doctrines go into what tier, the decision potentially becomes arbitrary.
3. Is there a strong textual basis for doctrinal tiers?
A final critique of the doctrinal tiers model is the Bible generally presents itself as a unity of truth. What I mean by this is Scripture does not label its own doctrines or order them from “most important” to “least important”. Rather, the Bible is presented as God’s revelation to man as a whole. Moreover, doctrines are developed from synthesizing a wide variety of Biblical literature: poetry, prophecy, narrative, epistles, etc. Very rarely does Scripture explicitly say a certain doctrine takes priority over a different doctrine, such as ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) being in a “higher tier” than eschatology (doctrine of end times).
There are two potential exceptions to this general rule. The first is the Bible puts an enormous emphasis on God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.