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
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