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.