Dogma means a propositional truth that is taught authoritatively through the magisterium of the church as revealed by God and as binding on all believers. In the Greek and Roman worlds dogma was an opinion which people believed in or which they professed in public. In Greek it means an ordinance or edict. In New Testament times, dogma alluded to a particular decision by the community as a whole (Acts 16:14) or to a distinction between a Christian and non-Christian belief. In the early church, it meant a conciliar decree that had binding force. In the medieval church it meant a tenet. The Council of Trent distinguished between a dogmatic decree pertaining to faith and a reform decree pertaining to morals and practice.
A dogma represents the minimum assent to a matter defined by faith. For a Christian, there are certain beliefs that are so critical to his or her standing that renouncing them would mean that the person is no longer a Christian. Among these are the divinity of Christ, salvation through faith, virgin birth, Resurrection, and eternal life. The Nicene Creed encapsulates all of these mandatory beliefs. Anathemas are invoked on all those who preach a different Gospel. Thus John (2 John 9:11) speaks of the “doctrine of Christ.” In the early centuries, these dogmas were defined by the ecumenical councils. But since the seventh council no council has been held with universal authority.
The establishment of dogmas became necessary with the rise of heresies. To combat heresies the church had to define orthodoxy and only on the basis of such beliefs could there be a communion of faith. Dogmas were the basis of the deposit of faith that the apostles and church fathers had entrusted the church to preserve and keep pure. This led to the practice of confessions of faith (ekthesis) that was part of the liturgy. The church was particularly wary of the constant winds of doctrine that buffeted the believers. It was the function of the church through dogmas to ensure that the faith was exactly the faith that had been delivered to it by Jesus Christ and that nothing had been added and nothing taken away.
The concept of dogma remains central to Roman Catholic thinking. Vatican I distinguished between two classes of dogma: those issued by popes and councils and those flowing from the church's magisterium which rests with all bishops in communion with Rome. Vatican II reaffirmed that the whole body of Catholic bishops, when gathered at an ecumenical council, can teach faith infallibly. However, it taught that dogma must conform to scripture and tradition and must be formulated in the name of Jesus Christ. Dogmatic statements are phrased in authoritative terms and in a propositional form that appeal to the intellect. Conversely, the denial of a dogma could be condemned by the church as heresy and anathematized.
Liberal Protestantism, on the other hand, always viewed dogma with suspicion as authoritarian and legalistic. Other Protestants are willing to accept dogma in the broader sense of a definitive statement of Christian truth that finds general acceptance among the community. For Karl Barth dogmas are doctrinal propositions acknowledged and confessed by the church as being contained in the word of God. Other Protestant theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Edmund Schlink, and George Lindbeck have emphasized the confessional and doxological aspects of dogma but have noted their cultural moorings. A dogma is easily challenged by altering the context and perspective. Divine mysteries overpower the human intellect, and language itself is an imprecise medium in which meaning can be stated only cy pres. Concepts that seemed valid in one age may look outdated in another and what was clear once may seem confusing and obscure later. Especially modern technological civilization presents issues and developments for which classical dogma seems unable to formulate a solution or response because they have no Biblical parallel. Sometimes vagueness in a dogma is a blessing when life itself is too messy for clarity.
But then Christian belief in itself does not grow out of date. It is eternal by nature and it is only the formulation and the vocabulary that are subject to change. Dogmas are not the primary objects of Christian faith, they are only aides-mémoire. They do not state a truth as much as they recapitulate what is already believed in. They have no meaning except in the context of total revelation. They fall far short of divine reality and they are no substitute for the vision of God which is the ultimate goal of Christian experience.
Today dogma is understood as a minimalist way of establishing truth. Its original purpose was to eliminate error and to set parameters of belief. While it provides metes and bounds for the faithful it in no way encompasses the totality of truth, because ultimately truth is a mystery. But it remains part of the Magisterium of the church. Indeed dogmatics has led to the development of a branch of theology called magisterial theology.
There is also a distinction between doctrine and dogma. Dogma refers to a declarative statement of a revealed truth while doctrine refers to how these truths may be understood and applied. Thus doctrines may be disputed while dogmas may not be and the church admits of pluralism in matters of doctrine.
SEE ALSO: Doctrines and Dogmas; Heresies; Magisterium; Orthodoxy
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From the Latin dogma, and this from the Greek dogma, i.e. “opinion,” associated with the verb dokein : “to seem” or “seem good.” It has...