Monday, November 17, 2008

Doctrine and Dogma

I used to teach a section of an Adult Inquirers’ Class on “Creeds and Doctrine.” In that section, I made a distinction between two terms that are often used synonymously: doctrine and dogma. And I found Richard P. McBrien a helpful resource for making that distinction:

Critical reflection on faith is what is known as theology. According to the classic definition of St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), theology is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). But theology is not the only outcome of faith. In the face of perceived threats to the purity and integrity of the faith or to the unity of the faith-community, the pastoral leadership of the Church on occasion chooses among competing theologies to formulate normative rules that might guide the Church’s preaching, catechesis, and formal teaching. These normative rules are called doctrines (literally, “teachings”). Doctrines that are promulgated with the highest degree of solemnity, that is, as definitive rules of faith, are called dogmas (literally, “what is right”). All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas [Catholicism, New Edition (HarperCollins, 1994), p. 20; emphasis in text].

Doctrines and dogmas set the boundaries that provide the “rules of the game” for what it means to be a Christian. The Church can no more do without doctrines and dogmas than football or baseball can do without sidelines and rules for playing. This is not merely a matter of maintaining order. At a more basic level, this has to do with establishing and sustaining the values and convictions that comprise the Church’s religious identity as Christian (as opposed to some other possible identity). And it also has to do with articulating (however imperfectly) what the Church believes is true.

Derek the Ænglican offers further thoughts on the distinction between doctrine and dogma that I find quite helpful. (The context of his discussion includes reflections on Mariology and responses to the comments of others from an earlier posting, which I am not citing here.) He starts out with observations that, to my mind, uphold a generously orthodox understanding of the Christian faith:

Doctrine is what may be held; dogma is what must be held. To put it another way, it’s possible to have a doctrinally minimalist Christianity and to still have it recognizable as orthodox Christianity. For example, it’s possible to lop off many of the doctrines and practices relating to the saints and the sacraments and still be “Christian” as described by the Scriptures and the Creeds.

I think it’s a lot more fulfilling and a lot more fun to have these, but I’ll recognize Reformed and Baptist folk as fellow members of the mystical Body even if they don’t sing the right antiphons on the Benedictus for the feast of St Ethelreda. But “dogma” means that it must be held in order for it to be a valid Christianity. A “dogma” is the kind of thing that if you went, in the Spirit, to an orthodox mother and father who died before its establishment and asked, “Hey, do you believe X”, they’d respond, “Well, of course—but that’s so obvious we’ve never had to say it…”

And to further clarify, Derek writes:

When a doctrine is defined as dogma, Christians are obligated to believe it. It is not optional. … Those who deny the divinity of Christ are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith. Those denying the resurrection of the dead are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith as well.

Derek then addresses the relationship between holding the correct doctrines and dogmas and what it means to hold the Christian faith:

For me, faith is not a body of beliefs to be held. Holding the Christian faith does not consist of checking the correct boxes on a list of dogmas. … Being a Christian is about consciously living out the relationship that Christ facilitated (through incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and his continued presence with us) and proclaimed (in both his words and works) concerning God. It’s embodying the life hid with Christ in God. Holding right beliefs is important because we make choices about how we live based on what we believe. An intellectualist view may say that ticking the right dogma box is what matters. I’d heartily disagree—that’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t hold doctrines because they assure us of our salvation, we hold them because they ground fundamentals about the relationship that we’re living within. To hold incorrect views is to mistake the nature of the relationship and thus to err when we try to live that relationship out. This, in my view, is what’s problematic about deny Christ’s divinity or the resurrection of the dead. They’re not wrong because they’re lacking the check mark, but because the relationship will be skewed in ways that it should not be.

I particularly appreciate the emphasis here on the practical effects of holding incorrect views. That’s not because I have little concern for truth beyond practical effects (nor am I saying that Derek lacks such a concern, either). Rather, it’s because a pragmatic approach that focuses on consequences or effects of beliefs shifts the focus away from the intentions or motives of the persons holding the view(s). And that’s a helpful way of avoiding one of the nastier sides of the history of Christian thought: attacking the person of other Christians rather than (or in addition to) the views they hold. The Baptismal Covenant vows to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “respect the dignity of every human being” are just as relevant in our debates over doctrine and dogma as they are in any other arena [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305].


MikeF said...

Ha! Another bass-playing Anglican cat person who scored RC on that silly quiz...

Pleased to meet you, Father!

Bryan Owen said...

Pleased to meet you,too, Mike! And good to know I'm not alone in the "bass-playing Anglican cat person who scored RC on that silly quiz" category.

I've just come from surfing The Mercy Site and The Mercy Blog. Looks like you've got some good stuff going there!

Brad Davs said...

Thanks for the insight. It reminds me a little of what Carson & Moo say in their Intro to the NT, but I really like you bringing out the practical implications of what you believe.
Nice post.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Brad.