You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory