Three Cheers For Dogmatism

Have you ever been accused of being dogmatic? If so, go your way rejoicing, and wear it as a badge of honour. Being dogmatic is a good thing. Of course with so many things nowadays, the term has taken on a pejorative sense of late: it now means being narrow-minded, inflexible in thought, and intolerant of other ideas.

It is only in our postmodern times, with the rejection of absolute truth, and the elevation of a faulty notion of tolerance, that the conception arose that dogmatism is somehow a bad thing. But a dogma is simply an established belief or doctrine. To be dogmatic is to affirm those dogmas.

It has long been a common term for Christian belief and doctrine. For example the English translation of Karl Barth’s 14-volume systematic theology is called Church Dogmatics. James Orr’s 1901 history of theology is called Progress of Dogma. And the Bible everywhere tells us of its importance, and until recently the term was used far and wide without shame.

If one looks at the New Testament, we find many passages affirming sound doctrine and good teaching, such as the following:

Acts 2:42 [The fellowship of the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Ep. 4:14,15 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

2 Thes 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

1 Tim. 4:11-16 Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

2 Tim. 4:3,4 – For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

Tit 1:9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Tit 2:1 You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.

Tit. 2:7 – In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity,

Heb 5:12-14 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

2 John 1:9-10 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.

These and other passages make it quite clear: dogmatism is a good thing. We all should be dogmatic. That is, all believers should firmly and resolutely hold to sound dogma, and not allow ourselves to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine.

Let me reiterate: dogma is a good thing, and to hold strongly to sound biblical dogma is also a good thing. Being dogmatic is a Christian virtue. But any sense of certainty of belief, conviction of ideas, and firmness in theological views is today held up with scorn and derision. It seems all so intolerant and narrow-minded. Consider what one Christian writer says about all this as he introduces his book:

“The first resistance to this book will be due to a dislike of dogmatism. The spirit of our age is very unfriendly towards dogmatic people. Folk whose opinions are clearly formulated and strongly held are not popular. A person of conviction, however intelligent, sincere and humble he may be, will be fortunate if he escapes the charge of being a bigot. Nowadays the really great mind is thought to be both broad and open – broad enough to absorb every fresh idea which is presented to it, and open enough to go on doing so ad infinitum.

“What are we to say to this? We must reply that historic Christianity is essentially dogmatic, because it purports to be a revealed faith. If the Christian religion were just a collection of the philosophical and ethical ideas of men (like Hinduism), dogmatism would be entirely out of place. But if God has spoken (as Christians claim), both in olden days through the prophets and in these last days through His Son (Heb. 1:1,2), why should it be thought ‘dogmatic’ to believe His Word ourselves and to urge other people to believe it too?  If there is a Word from God which may be read and received today, would it not rather be the height of folly and sin to disregard it?”

Let me point out to you this rather startling fact: this was actually penned some 42 years ago by John Stott – 42 years ago! How much more true is all this today? In 1970 Stott wrote his famous work, Christ the Controversialist (IVP), and it is still a goldmine of biblical truths. The above quote came from his introductory essay to the book, “A Defense of Theological Definition.” Let me quote parts of it further:

“Christian dogmatism has, or should have, a limited field. It is not tantamount to a claim of omniscience. Yet in those things which are clearly revealed in Scripture, Christians should not be doubtful or apologetic. The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning ‘We know’, ‘We are sure’, ‘We are confident’. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning ‘to know’ occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured….

“G. K. Chesterton once penned some wise words about what he called ‘the dislocation of humility’ . . . ‘What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table’….

“We are in a position now to say that a broad and open mind, so loudly applauded in our day, is by no means an unmixed blessing. To be sure, we must keep an open mind about matters on which Scripture seems to speak equivocally, and a receptive mind so that our understanding of God’s revelation continues to deepen.  We must also distinguish between a doctrine and our fallible interpretation or formulation of it.  But when the biblical teaching is plain, the cult of an open mind is a sign not of maturity, but immaturity.  Those who cannot make up their minds what to believe, and are ‘tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine’, Paul dubs ‘babies’. (Eph. 4:14) And the prevalence of people ‘who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of truth’ is a characteristic of the ‘times of stress’ in which we are living. (2 Tim. 3:1,7)”

“An interesting illustration of this is given by G. K. Chesterton in his Autobiography. He describes H. G. Wells as a man who ‘reacted too swiftly to everything’, was indeed ‘a permanent reactionary’ and never seemed able to reach firm or settled conclusions of his own. He goes on: ‘I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid’.”

Quite so GKC and John Stott. And things have now only gotten far much worse, with any insistence on truth dismissed out of hand as rank arrogance and intolerance. Those who strongly affirm biblical dogma are dismissed as bigoted troublemakers who are guilty of hate speech.

But as Chesterton said elsewhere: “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” And again, “It is easy to be a heretic. . . . It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

Today believers are falling all over the place, because they have bought the worldly notion that to affirm truth, to champion dogma, and to parade sound doctrine, are somehow marks of the arrogant and the intolerant. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is the dogmatic Christian who is needed most urgently in our culture of relativism and scepticism. Three cheers for dogma and dogmatism.

[1664 words]

6 Replies to “Three Cheers For Dogmatism”

  1. “But as Chesterton said elsewhere: “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” ”

    Right. Some people I’ve come across who criticise others for being dogmatic are rather dogmatic about it…

    John Symons

  2. Thank you for that first G.K. Chesterton quote, it helps me understand a lot of things.
    Because we are dealing with unseen things when we share and explain the gospel, it is even more important to have clearly defined “dogma”. If I talk about an apple that is in my hand, people can understand I am talking about an apple and not about a pear. Though even a mushy pear can be taken for an apple, if you go just by the shape and not by its other identifying features such as colour and taste. I think what is really important though that we be more witness and arbiter. The truth can always defend it – himself. I believe what unbelievers are often looking for, the ones that are looking for something that is, not the ones that are already so convinced of what they are doing and who won’t turn, no matter what happens. But the ones who are looking, whether they know it or not, but they are looking for something better than they have, for something worthy of leaving everything they have known or held dear behind. It is “dogma” for sure, in the sense of something unchanging, something that holds true no matter what, but they are also looking for the strength that is in the joy only believers can have, the calm assurance, the one that can smile through the fiercest argument, knowing that the truth will come out on top in the end. Hard to explain, but I remember what it took to convince me, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit of course. Sadly, as a Christian, I have often acted a far cry from that quality which initially attracted me to the people of God. Phil 2 Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near. 2 pet 3…but do it with gentleness and respect. That is hard in the face of the destructive foolishness all about us, but there goes the challenge. Eph 4:13, “speaking the truth in love”. Can’t think of anything that is harder to do. But with God’s help, nothing is impossible.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  3. Here is Chesterton again, as well as another favorite quote on dogma:

    Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

    -Heretics by Chesterton

    “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.”
    -John Henry Cardinal Newman

    Julian Coelho

  4. Harry Blamires’s Defence of Dogmatism (1965, 1967) is also very good (like all Blamires’s books; he was defending orthodoxy at the time it was least fashionable).
    John Thomas, UK

  5. I love being a dogmatic, narrow-minded, fundamentalist Born Again Christian!! 😀

    Mario Del Giudice

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