In Praise of Dogmatism

We live in an age in which taking a strong stand for anything is frowned upon. About the only thing many people today are willing to strongly affirm is the claim that we should not strongly affirm anything. To have strong opinions and to make strong affirmations renders one open to the charge of being judgmental, intolerant and dogmatic.

Because of the work that I am involved in, I happen to have plenty of critics, and I am well aware of such charges, being at the receiving end of many. Fortunately I also have the occasional well-wisher. One recently sent me an email thanking me for what I was doing, although he added a brief remark about me being a bit dogmatic at times. Well, I suppose I have been accused of worse things by my friends and supporters.

But there are both positive and negative elements of this word, along with its root term, dogma. Positively, to be dogmatic is simply to strongly affirm something. But it is more often used in a pejorative fashion nowadays, indicating arrogance and clinging to a position which is not well thought out or lacking in substance.

Now if I am guilty of the latter, then I need to lift my game. But I would like to think that I try to be careful, being dogmatic (and properly informed) about what should be held to dogmatically, while clinging loosely to other beliefs. More on that in a moment.

Consider the term dogma. It can mean something held to authoritatively, with or without adequate grounds. Theologically and ecclesiastically, it refers to accepted biblical doctrines and teachings. Thus while many compilations of Christian doctrine are referred to as systematic theologies, sometimes they are called dogmatic theologies, as in William Shedd’s three-volume Dogmatic Theology, or Karl Barth’s 14-volume Church Dogmatics.

If to be dogmatic means to stand up for the dogmas of the Christian faith, then I guess I am guilty as charged. Of course this is hopefully an informed and a grounded dogmatism. But the importance of standing up for the faith is throughout Scripture encouraged.

Consider a few admonitions from Paul. He tells us, for example, to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3). We are to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). He tells Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16). We should not be blown about by “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).

Standing strong on the core Christian truths is something we are all called to do, and it is no shame to be regarded as being dogmatic in this regard. But of course just which core truths need to be championed can be a moot point. However most Christians who accept historic Christian teachings as expressed in the early Christian creeds would not have too much difficulty in listing the basics: the Bible as God’s word; God as a personal and triune being; Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man; salvation by grace through faith; and so on.

Lesser doctrines are just that: lesser doctrines, which need not be held to quite so dogmatically. Methods of baptism, understandings of eschatology, types of church government, and worship styles are all important issues, but not something to go to the wall over, or to cling to at all costs.

Augustine long ago put it this way: “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity”. As mentioned, sometimes determining what is an essential doctrine and what is not can be a matter of debate. But the point is, we need to proclaim loudly and fearlessly some basic Christian truths in an age which believes in no basic truths, indeed, even in the idea of truth itself.

Someone who thought long and hard about the importance of Christian doctrine was Dorothy Sayers, the crime fiction writer and Anglican layperson. Her important essay, “Creed or Chaos” written in the 1940s is still worth quoting today. She said this about the importance of dogma:

“But if Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven’s name is it relevant? … If Christian ministers really believe it is only an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored, and bewildered.”

And she knew that faith must be founded on content, not feeling. The object of our faith is what really matters:

“The thing I am here to say to you is this: that it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.”

Amen! If the disinterest in, and the decline of, doctrine was a problem back then, how much more so today? In the right sense of the word, we certainly do need a lot more dogmatic Christians, not less.

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11 Replies to “In Praise of Dogmatism”

  1. I am probably as guilty as the next Christian, in going to church each Sunday and listening uncritically to stuff being preached from so-called, evangelical pulpits that, frankly, is distorting, watering down or blatantly contradicting God’s word. We must not be critical in a negative sense but it is our responsibility, like the Bereans, to look into the word for ourselves. The other Sunday evening God’s Grace was being preached as the one truth we must follow above all others. Then, during the night, after a restless sleep, I awoke and was reminded of Psalm 119 – the most beautiful and most neglected of psalms. It is God’s Word we follow above all else.
    David Skinner, UK

  2. It is time we as a Church turn back to the word of God and apply it to our lives. It is only then that we can by the grace of God and with the empowering from the Holy Spirit, fulfill God’s command (stated in Matthew 24:14) to preach the word of the Lord to all the nations. I would say that at the moment we are as a Church are not preaching the word to our own nation as we should, let alone another. At a time when we should be teachers we are still needing to be taught.

    Dogma is one thing, but it is important that we practice what we preach. Christianity isn’t all about intellectualizing everything. It is very practical. Sometimes I feel people can spend too much time arguing about theological issues. You can have the right doctrine, but if you don’t make an effort to put it into practice the knowledge condemns you rather than blesses.

    I am really feeling my own need at this time to turn to the word and to change the way I live my life.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  3. Thanks Matthew

    Yes agreed. But I do not think it is a case of either/or, but both/and. We need both sound doctrine and sound living. It is hard to live right if we do not believe right. Orthopraxis and orthodoxy belong together. Paul clearly brought the two together when he said “watch your life and your doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Bill,
    Thank you for this timely reminder about dogma, dogmatism, and definition.
    Two comments:
    1. The people who cry the loudest about the evils of “being dogmatic” are time and again the ones who are the most dogmatic about their own intellectual outlook. I have seen this again and again over the years: they can’t stand intolerance (i.e. their brand of such)! We see this in our contemporary post-modernists: they cry down the “bigotry” of Christians, but insist that their own left-wing programme is right, and if they have political power proceed to have their PC ethics translated into legislation, using intimidatory language and waving the proverbial clenched fist in our face, “You shall be tolerant!”

    2. Systematic theology involves the use of strict reasoning, albeit within limits (i.e. where we come to doctrines which go beyond reason, e.g. the Trinity, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, etc.) However, here is the rub in today’s world: the abuse of basic logic and resort to blatant logical fallacies by large sections of the populace, from the least to the greatest, appals me. How many “play the man” in responding to a legitimate point, either by outright abuse, or more subtly by innuendo or circumstantial pleading, in an effort to shut down the speaker making his point? How many resort to an irrelevant counter-charge with the same intent (the tu quoque fallacy)? How many engage in circular reasoning by assuming the point at issue or using an interpretation as evidence (there is much of this in evolutionary reasoning)? And so we could go on.

    Once upon a time there was a subject taught in the upper forms of high school called “Clear Thinking”, but alas, it has long since disappeared from our high school curriculum. As a result, people are dupes for the wildest propaganda, conspiracy theories, and in Christian circles, false teaching.
    Hence the “being dogmatic” charge is itself usually nothing more than merely an ad hominem ploy to silence the speaker and refuse him even the courtesy of a hearing.

    I know in regard to false teaching in the churches there is more, particularly that people don’t know their Bibles or the rudiments of systematic theology, but inability to think clearly is one of them, such that anyone who does think clearly is cried down as “being judgmental” and “bigoted”.
    Clear thinking has a hard time of it in these post-modern days!

    Murray Adamthwaite

  5. I think we have reached a point where congregations aren’t only “ignorant, bored and bewildered”; they are also indifferent. This is a sweeping statement, but the church’s lack of teaching of fundamental Christian doctrine is reflected in the average believer’s indifference to that doctrine. People often have the attitude of “Oh well, Jesus died for me. That’s all I need to know.” Well, it is obviously vital. It is not, however, all one needs to know!
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  6. Point 1 by Murray A is well taken, particuilarly at the political level.And Bill you targeted correctly when you said ‘the object of our faith is what really matters’.

    Not theology, not dogma, not sermons and not the Bible are the objects of our faith. An interactive spiritual relationship with Holy Spirit of Christ Jesus to fulfill His intercession that we be one as He and the Father Yahweh are one. John 17:21.

    Ray Robinson, Wollongong

  7. Thanks Ray

    Yes, Jesus and the triune God is the sole object of our faith and devotion. But of course without the Bible and sound theology, we would not know this. So while we are not to worship Scripture, we must give it and theology the important place which they deserve. Out faith in Jesus in not contentless, but formed and channelled by what Scripture and good dogma direct us to.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. To comment on the commentators…
    Matthew M’s first comment was adequately met by the quote from Dorothy Sayers.

    I agree with Ray and Simon that one of the difficulties we all face in our churches is the separation of doctrine and practice. Somehow our ministers/preachers have been taught or have had modelled a lecturing style which is most comfortable with theoretical theology.

    As an accountant I trained at tertiary level, and absorbed that intellectual style as well.

    So as a lay preacher with another daytime job I find it hard to spend enough time in
    a) preparation per se and
    b) preparation to follow through from theory to practice – what do I expect my hearers to do differently if they now agree with my sermon?

    John Angelico

  9. Bill,

    I agree wholeheartedly. I must confess, though, that I am torn these days. Part of me wants to continue the good work of an apologist, arguing logically and coherently. The other part of me strongly wants to lay my hands on the closest scantling I can find and start whacking away.

    Must be a sign of the times.

    Joel Griffith

  10. Dear Joel Griffith, may I suggest that the rising crime rate amongst teenagers and juniors can no longer be attributed to harsh disciplinary measures, because this generation has never experienced them! What is cruel and harsh is to allow children to develop such ungovernable and fearless, characters that the only way of dealing with them is to lock them up in prison. Now that is both cruel and cynical. We have become paralysed and emasculated through the human rights brigade and we need to restore our Christian, moral courage to follow the Maker’s instructions:

    Proverbs 13:24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.

    Proverbs 23:13-24 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.

    Hebrews 12ff Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

    Nothing could be more logical, coherent and, dare I say, an eloquent testimony to love, than deserved and timely corporal punishment. Exegesis with application.

    God Bless
    David Skinner, UK

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