April 26, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Church Dogma

I've been thinking for some time now about dogma, and so I wanted to write a post to outline just what dogma is, and give some questions (but no answers!) about what it's content ought to be and where it ought to come from.

First, dogma is not dogmatism. I positively despise dogmatism. Dogmatism is the practice of holding to one's beliefs in such a way as to utterly ignore alll evidence and arguments to the contrary. Dogmatism is the death of intellectual growth, and of Christian faith. A faith that does not allow itself to be challenged, or that stops questioning, stops growing. Christianity as I understand it is utterly opposed to dogmatism. This is because Christianity is vitally concerned with truth and anything concerned with truth is necessarily opposed to dogmatism. The dogmatist cannot find truth. In addition to all of this, dogmatism is intellectually and morally lazy and irresponsible. I don't claim to be totally innocent of all forms of dogmatism, nor am I advocating that our beliefs ought to be in constant flux; I am merely saying that we ought to give all the arguments and evidences we are presented with as much rational consideration as they deserve, and not discount anything without an intellectually principled reason for doing so. This is an ideal to strive for.

Now that I've said what dogma is not, let me say what it is. 'Church dogma' is the name given to that body of doctrine (where 'doctrine' means any collection of teachings or beliefs) which forms the test of orthodoxy within a given church or denomination, or within the Church as a whole. So, for instance, the doctrines of salvation in Christ and the triune nature of God are both matters of Christian dogma in general. That is, they define orthodoxy for Christianity as a whole. On the other hand, papal infallibility is a Catholic dogma only; it defines Catholic orthodoxy, but for those of us who believe that orthodox Christianity is broader than merely the Roman Catholic Church, it is not part of Christian dogma. Now, the big question to me, just at the moment, is this: where does dogma come from?

In the Roman Catholic Church, dogma is formed by councils and ex cathedra papal statements. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, dogma is formed primarily by Scripture and ecumenical councils (seven councils are recognized as being ecumenical), but doctrines can become sort of unofficial dogmas through wide acceptance over time. I don't know if someone would really be branded a heretic in the Orthodox Church for denying something that hadn't been clearly proclaimed by Scripture or an ecumenical council, but had merely come to be taken for granted in the Church. There are a lot of grey areas in Orthodoxy.

Now, the Protestant Reformers reacted against this sort of thing, famously formulating the doctrine known as sola scriptura. For some time now, I have been wondering what the end of this sentence is really intended to be; in short, I want to know, 'Scripture alone ... what?' I suspect there are a wide range of answers to that question among Protestant theologians (and I intend to do some serious reading on the subject in the near future), but one piece of the formula is very common: that Scripture alone is 'binding' on the believer. That is, Scripture alone is the source of Church dogma. This way of finishing the sentence (by the way, I don't know of any Protestant theologian who says only this) seems eminently reasonable to me, especially in comparison with some other imaginable endings to the sentence (e.g. 'Scripture alone is the source of all our knowledge of God' - how then could we know the truth of that statement, which would in fact be a piece of knowledge about God? And how would this be compatible with Romans 1:19-21?) but is not without problems, as we shall see shortly.

This is played out in different ways in different Protestant churches. It seems to me that it is taken most seriously by the non-denominational 'Bible churches' and the other neo-Evangelical groups who are not in the habit of writing authoritative doctrinal statements. In these cases, the Bible is simply identical with Church dogma. To be orthodox is to believe the Bible in all things; to be heterodox is to disagree with the Bible at some point.

On the other hand, most traditional Protestant denominations do write doctrinal statements intended to be authoritative at leats in some degree, and therefore to define dogma (for that particular denomination). The difference here, however, is that unlike the council statements of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, these statements are considered valid only insofar as they can be seen to derive from Scripture, and they do not consider them to define Christian dogma, but only the dogma of that one denomination. (Note the "be seen to" - in Orthodoxy the decisions of ecumenical councils and all other matters of dogma are considered in principle to have their source in Scripture, but if some particular person or group is unable to see how they are derived, this is irrelevant because the councils are infallible.) That is, I understand (and I may be wrong, I am no expert) that the Presbyterian Church teaches something like: "we say that the Westminster Confession is a correct interpretation of Scripture, and in order to be an orthodox Presbyterian you must agree with this; however, our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible, and if our interpretation should happen to be incorrect, it doesn't particularly matter whether or not you are an orthodox Presbyterian. Our interpretation is fallible; the Scripture is not." Now, another question is as to whether someone who misinterpreted the Scripture on a matter not dealt with in the Confession would be considred heterodox. I'm not sure about this, but I suspect not. If, then, my understanding of the Presbyterian position is correct (and there's some extrapolation going on here, so I'm really not very certain), Presbyterian dogma is derived from Scripture but not identical with Scripture. If the Presbyterian Church doesn't actually teach something like this, I'm sure some other church does, which is sufficient for this discussion.

Now, I mentioned that there were some problems with the Protestant understanding that 'Scripture alone is a source of Church dogma,' although, as I said, I think this formulation is, on the whole, quite reasonable. The first problem I want to point out is, from where do we derive the canon? The obvious step, as I see it, is to say that Protestant Church dogmatics takes the canon of Scripture and the authority thereof as an axiom of the system, and builds from there. Now, this may be a perfectly good system, but you will need some explanation outside the system itself for why we ought to accept this system and not some other, and this will be difficult.

The second problem is that there seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formulation of the trinity as three persons (Greek hupostaseis and/or prosopa, Latin personae) in one substance/essence (Greek ousia, Latin essentia and/or substantia). This type of formulation is extremely common in the Christian tradition, and is derived primarily from the Chalcedonian Creed. However, I don't think we can say that it is obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture; that is, there is no reason to say that someone looking at Scripture by some particular method that did not include granting some authority to tradition would lead many people to come independently to this conclusion. What is in Scripture is this paradox: the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, there is only one God. Any number of formulations of the solution could be compatible with the Scripture, but one in particular is generally believed to be part of Christian dogma.

This, I take it, is much more difficult than the first problem. One possible solution is for Protestants to 'bite the bullet' as it were, and say that only the paradox itself (and the statement that there exists some solution) is really Christian dogma, and someone who denied that God existed as three persons in one substance (but believed in some other solution to the paradox, or that there was a solution but we didn't know it) would not in fact be heterodox. This is a difficult thing for a Christian to say, but I suppose it's not totally absurd. Another thing that could be done is to invoke the proviso that many Protestant statements include to the effect that believers must interpret the Scripture in community with the Church (that is, the 'invisible' Church, not any particular hierarchy or institution), and to say that the Church has always and everywhere proclaimed this and, while the Church has less authority than the Scripture, it is to some degree an authoritative interpreter of the Scripture and as such where it has reached a concensus it cannot be wrong. Then we will have to ask whether this is really a true concensus (what is or isn't the Church? Is the WHOLE Church really in consensus?). At this point perhaps the statement that Scripture is the only source of Church dogma is a matter of purely theoretical interest, because in actual practice we have to look at other sources. Furthermore, in this case the Protestant view would differ from the Orthodox only in that Protestants are not convinced that all seven (or any?) ecumenical councils really represent consensuses of the Church.

So, as I said, I have questions rather than answers. Do other Christian groups have different views than those I have listed, as to the proper sources of dogma? Are there solutions to the problems in the Protestant view that I have listed? (I bring up objections to the Protestant view rather than to the others, because it is the one that I have accepted in the past and would like to continue to accept.)

Posted by Kenny at April 26, 2006 10:00 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: https://blog.kennypearce.net/admin/mt-tb.cgi/203
"Three Persons, One Substance" - Paradox or Solution?
Excerpt: I seem to have opened quite the can of worms in my post on Church dogma the other day when I said: There seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formula...
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I suppose I'd like to comment that "Scripture alone is binding on a believer" is not identical to "Scripture alone is a source of Church dogma for every individual believer". All Church dogma should be able to be traced back to Scripture, but not necessarily by every single believer.
The typical Presbyterian response for why to support the "axiom" of the canon argues from apostolic authority, inspiration, and lastly catholicity, which are somewhat outside the system as you noted. Basically it's reasonable that God, who has given His Holy Spirit to His Church and desires for His Word to be known, to lead His Church into a correct view of His Word, especially since the same Holy Spirit that abides in the Church also inspired Scripture.
Regarding the trinity, I think there is enough evidence in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, that "God being one" is strong enough, at least implicitly, to get to one substance. Anyway, I would say that this is a case where an individual believer would say: "I cannot derive this uniquely from Scripture, but it is not contradictory to Scripture and based on its catholicity I am fairly certain it is uniquely derivable from Scripture (since Scripture is perfect and complete), although not by me. Therefore I will accept it and pray (and study) to have the wisdom to see how every other view is contradictory to Scripture."

Posted by: Lauren at April 27, 2006 2:12 PM

Lauren, I think that "Scripture alone is binding on a believer" is identical to "Scripture alone is a source of Christian dogma," at least as I have defined dogma, though this does not mean that some particular church using some other source means that it is not a Christian church or that it is wrong or anything, but simply that we can't be expecting EVERY Christian believer to accept it if it comes from outside Scripture.

The argument from "apostolic authority, inspiration, and catholicity" is promising in general, but I wonder if they perhaps establish other sources of dogma (perhaps the ecumenical councils?) in the process of establishing Scripture. Your later comments seem to me to suggest that in fact they do.

Posted by: Kenny at April 27, 2006 2:37 PM

Hey Kenny,

First let me say that we miss you back here in the States and can't wait to see you real soon--also that I really appreciate your intellectual honesty in this posting. To even question the trinity in previous centuries was a recipe for persecution, and even today carries with it a stigma, but as you point out, scripture alone, literally interpreted, only provides evidence for the existence of this paradox and not necessarily its answer.

Though I don't think you were trying to suggest it, perhaps Christian dogma (as I define as the sort of thing C.S. Lewis was trying to lay out in layman's terms in his book, Mere Christianity) ought to accept the mere existence of this paradox as the orthodoxy. That is not to say that we shouldn't venture a guess, seek Divine Wisdom, or rely on previous inspiration, but I think the orthodoxy is a sort of "minimum bar" to being a Christian, which I think rests on getting it's orthodoxy from the bible--insofar as the bible derives its authority as Lauren said, from "apostolic authority, inspiration, and catholicity"

As to the sola scriptura question, I do think that there is a fundamental difference worth noting between "scripture alone is binding on a believer," and "scripture alone is a source of Christian dogma," but the difference lies in the authority of enforcement. In the latter statement, the church has ecclesiastical authority to enforce your coherence to church doctrine or to expell you (1 Cor 5). In the former, personal covenants with God, revelations of His will for your life etc. are binding on the individual believer, and the believer will be held accoutable, but not by an ecclesiastical authority.

Love you bro. We miss you. Enjoy your last bit of Greece. We can't wait to have you back! Bet you can't wait to get rid of that beard!

Posted by: Phil at April 27, 2006 4:35 PM

Phil, nice to hear from you! I do think that your solution is a possibly acceptable one (though I still suspect that this particular formulation of the Trinity IS a matter of dogma), if we can answer the question of why we believe in the Bible. That is a qustion I'm still working on (I have two arguments in this direction, one from history and one from 'religious experience' but both have problems - I may post on them some time later).

I'm not sure about your distinction between direct divine authority and ecclesiastical authority (which is, of course, a form of indirect/delegated divine authority) in 'Christian dogma' versus 'that which is binding on a believer,' but let me give it some more thought.

Posted by: Kenny at April 27, 2006 5:04 PM

"Scripture alone is binding on a believer" is in some generalized sense identical to "Scripture alone is a source of Christian dogma", however, an individual believer may take articles classified as 'dogma' from other sources while he/she attempts to derive it from Scripture, although perhaps that person may be hesitant to classify them as 'dogma' since he/she cannot yet derive them. I'd certainly agree that we can't expect EVERY Christian believer to accept it if it comes form outside Scripture- but I'm saying there are things in Scripture that are too hard for me personally to derive, but it's possible for me to have rational justification in believing them, and in believing that they are contained in Scripture, before I am actually able to derive them from Scripture. These are not 'binding' (hence I personally would not classify them as dogma, although they may actually be), because if someone showed me that I was mistaken and Scripture definitively didn't contain them, then I would reject them.
In general this would not establish the ecumincal councils because apostolic authority is highly limited- in the context I've read about it, to just testifying to what Jesus did/did not teach and do. At worst, it would establish the parts of the ecumincal council directly related to that which also have catholicity- which really isn't anything I can think of.

Posted by: Lauren at April 27, 2006 5:13 PM

Kenny. You have asked a very poignant question or set of questions. I'm half asleep, but I'm going to try to comment on what you have typed as best I can.

I have meditated upon this issue a lot and discussed it with Catholic, Evangelical, Calvinist, and Orthodox alike.

Instead of going into a drawn out explanation of my view, I will instead touch one point or premise you stated in which you use the example of the "Trinity" as a dogma that is not easily recognizable doctrine gleemed from scripture. If I can put it in laymans terms essentially the Trinity is not clearly taught in scripture and thus it is brought out by creed not by examination.

I think this is a fair statement, but I don't think it is necessarily true. First, we can't really test this. We can't go back in time to see if this doctrine could be understood by scripture alone or approach an isolated group and ask them to exegete the Bible and ask where they stand on the attributes of God. Since scripture is essentially written "tradition" we don't really know what weight written tradition and oral tradition had in the incorporation of the Nicene Creed.

Finally, it seems curious to me that if one is to argue for the existence of the Trinity to say a JW or Oneness Pentcostal believer one is not going to expound on Creed, but one is going to use scripture. Especially since their translation is such an awful greek translation. Moreover, I want to offer as evidence that scripture alone can facilitate one to come to a conclusion of the trinity the example of the World Wide Church of God. This church, very much like the JW church, rejected the Trinity and the Nicene creeds. However, it was by examination of scripture that many of the teachings (including the Trinity) became more orthodox and eventually rejected all the false teachings. http://www.answers.com/topic/worldwide-church-of-god?method=22
Although I can sympathize with what your saying, I don't think one could truthfully say that the doctrine of the Trinity could not have come about without a Creed. Moreover, there are other truths not in the Creed, but are still difficult to discern. For example the Omniscience of God. Catholics, East Orthodox, Protestant would all agree with its teaching as orthodox, but its understanding was not easily understood and it has been scripture that has helped to answer some questions, but not all.

I hope I made sense. God Bless.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at April 28, 2006 7:47 AM

Vangelicmonk, I don't mean to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be derived from Scripture. Rather, I mean to assert that the particular formulation of the Trinity (three persons, one substance) which we now take for granted is not the only solution to the paradox which is presented by Scripture - and that's what the doctrine is, a solution to a paradox in Scripture. It is not anything asserted by the Scripture, but is drawn out in this way, and it's possible to draw something else out instead without actually contradicting any particular passage of Scripture.

Posted by: Kenny at April 28, 2006 12:30 PM

If Scripture is perfect and complete, how could you derive an untruth from it- as you seem to think any other formulation of God is- without actually contradicting anything in Scripture? It may be difficult to see where the contradiction is, but wouldn't it still have to be there?

Posted by: Lauren at April 28, 2006 3:34 PM

The particular formulation of the Trinity we are talking about is not derived from Scripture (as far as I can see - more on that qualification later); rather, it is a theory used to reconcile various seemingly contradictory statements within Scripture. If Scripture is perfect and complete as to God's self-revelation to mankind, then either (a) God has not revealed the three-persons-one-substance formulation, or (b) three-persons-one-substance is in fact uniquely deriveable from Scripture in some matter the is not clear to me (or, indeed, to most readers). The latter seems more likely to be the case, as far as I'm concerned. Nevertheless, let's accept option (a) for a second, just for the sake of argument. If three-persons-one-substance is true but not part of God's self-revelation (which means that we don't actually know that it's true, we've just somehow accidentally stumbled upon it and came to believe it, because we can't possibly know anything about God's internal nature that he does not reveal - but ignore that for the moment), then it is most likely the case that God has not revealed any particular solution to the paradox, or any detailed information about how it can be the case that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God and yet there is only one God. If this is the case then someone could, perhaps, come up with a speculation other than the three-persons-one-substance speculation (that is all it would be if this were to be the case) which would also be compatible with Scripture. From the perspective of a sort of methodological sola scriptura - that is, accepting only that which I myself can derive from Scripture, or that for which I have seen a compelling derivation - this appears to me to be the state of things. However, if I were to accept that either the Council of Chalcedon or simply the united voice of the Church through the ages was authoritative as an interpreter of Scripture, and yet Scripture was complete, and all of the relevant statements derived from it in some way, then I would be able to take option (b). This seems like the most reasonable course to me at present, for a number of reasons (probably favoring the "united voice of the Church through the ages" direction over the Council of Chalcedon direction, even though this introduces much greater uncertainty).

Posted by: Kenny at April 28, 2006 3:59 PM


Thanks for the clarification. I have to run to work so I'm going to try to get this down quickly.

I would posit that the doctrine of the Trinity of three persons and one substance is not a solution for the paradox, but just a restating of what the paradox is from scripture. I don't think Orthodoxy has gone too far from that. Just a restatement that we mostly accept as mystery.

I think the danger comes to when we do try to explain that mystery. Like modalism where we say that the Father becomes Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. Or JW answer which is Jesus is not God but something else and the H.S. is just a power. In this particular dogma, when the mystery is tried to be solved, it creates problems.

However, there can be explanations of mystery that can fall within orthodoxy like Calvinist and Arminian views of Soteriology. We know we are saved by Grace through faith, but who choses who? Some, like me, do not come down on the issue and leave it as a mystery, but others do not and try to explain it. However, one can go in the extreme on that as well and go outside the bounds of orthodoxy (hyper Calv and Openess theology).

How do set the bounds of orthdoxy? We set it by having a set of essentials and when an essential is denied or violated by either another essential or distinctive, then that doctrine is unorthodox.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at April 28, 2006 5:54 PM

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