Rehabbing Dogma  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Alister McGrath in The Science of God (Eerdmans 2004) devotes some space to salvaging the notion of theological dogma, which has gottten a justifiably bad rap in the West over the last four centuries or so.  Rather than a tool for inquisitorial repression, dogma is better seen as a way of setting generous definitions for the boundaries and content of Christianity.  It is a truism, but one needing constant reiteration, that communities with no boundaries and no content save the idiosyncratic  opinions of its members have little survival value.

The quotation is found on pp 188-190.


...I believe that Christianity cannot avoid theoretical reflection and formulation, however tentative.  Yet this is by no means universally accepted, and would be vigorously contended by some.  There continues to be resistance to the notion of a 'dogmatic' Christianity, reflecting unease about the very nature of 'dogma', as well as the idea of shutting down what ought to be an ongoing discussion...

There are a number of particularly important factors which create this sense of unease and distrust about doctrinally shaped approaches to Christianity.  Among these may be noted the lingering concerns about the relation between dogma and conflict, as in the European Wars of Religion and the fading impact of the 'History of Dogma' movement, which argued that theoretical developments within Christianity were something of an historical aberration, resulting from a malignant Greek influence on the development of Christianity as it expanded from Palestine into new geographical  territories.

I respond with three points in arguing for the inevitability of doctrine:

1.  The demand for an 'undogmatic' Christianity often seems to amount to little more than imposing a global embargo on critical reflection in matters of faith.  It represents a retreat from precisely the kind of intellectual engagement which makes Christian theology such a genuinely exciting and challenging discipline.  Instead of encouraging Christians to think about their faith, it represents a demand that they suspend use of their intellectual faculties in any matters to do with God, Christ, or human destiny.  Precisely because human beings think, they will wish to develop theories concerning the nature of God and Jesus Christ--whatever form those theories may take.

2.  Some use the term 'undogmatic Christianity' in a highly invidious manner, meaning something like "an understanding of Jesus Christ which is opposed to the official teachings of the Christian faith'.  Yet the ideas which are held to displace these are generally as dogmatic as their predecessors.  It is a new set of dogmas that is being proposed, not the elimination of dogma as such.  Theoretical statements, whether implicit or explicit, lie behind all reflection on the nature of God or Christ.  To pretend that they do not is to close one's eyes to the pervasive influence of theories in religion, which must be honestly addressed and acknowledged at every point.

3.  To demand an 'undogmatic' Christianity often involves confusion over the tone and substance of Christian doctrine.  'Dogmatic' can rightly be understood as meaning 'enclosed within a framework of theoretical or doctrinal beliefs', and in this sense, I must insist, reflects some integral themes of the Christian faith.  Yet the term can also bear the meaning of 'uncritical', 'unreflective', or 'authoritarian'--referring, in other words, to the tone of voice in which Christian theological affirmations are made, rather than to their substance.  I have no in terest in supporting shrill, strident, imperious and overbearing assertions of Christian doctrine, which demand silent unthinking compliance on the part of their audiences, and lead to conflict and tension.  Yet I remain convinced that such statements are necessary and legitimate, while insisting that they can and should be stated more graciously and humbly.

This entry was posted on Saturday, November 5, 2011 at Saturday, November 05, 2011 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Post a Comment