“THE TROUBLE with you,” a certain minister told me, “is that you think dogmatically.” Perhaps I should have replied: “And you—your trouble is that you can’t or won’t think dogmatically!”
Many people regard the dogmatic mind with misgiving. This apprehension may stem from the fact that across the years the term “dogmatic” has become weighted with connotations totally unrelated to theology. The dogmatic person, in the popular mind, is not merely opinionated and obstinate, always thinking himself in the right, but is likely to be overbearing and arrogant as well, with more than a dash of egotism and a remarkable deficiency of kindness. Even where the concept is not encumbered with all sorts of adventitious meanings as in theology, a certain malodorousness seems to have attached itself to dogmatical thinking and speaking.
Actually the dogmatician or systematician is just now in a state of partial eclipse. Apart from the ecumenical issues, theological interest has centered for some time on the historical origins of Bible and Church, on textual and literary criticism, on recently discovered or devised problems of hermeneutics. As a result, even dogmaticians who theoretically uphold the divine inspiration and the inviolability of the sacred Scriptures often hesitate to make direct, positive doctrinal affirmations lest they hear the shattering remark that these affirmations are invalidated by the theological advance in other areas of study. This explains also the dubious attitude of many toward the ancient creeds. That theologians may feel at home with the Scriptures but decidedly not so with the creeds, even where these are drawn from the Scriptures sentence by sentence, may seem strange. The explanation for this is simple. Men often extol the Scriptures and even call them the Word of God but then proceed to demythologize, spiritualize, symbolize, “interpret” them to their hearts’ content. The confessional statements of the creeds do not lend themselves so easily to this treatment and are therefore often reduced to a kind of inoperative, though decorative, window-dressing. The Church of South India, for example, accepts or acknowledges the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. When the church was organized, however, assurance was given that each individual was free to interpret the creedal clauses to his own satisfaction. On this basis a leader in the CSI could declare at Melbourne a few years ago that of course each church-body regarded certain teachings as fundamental; the difficulty, however, lay in formulating these fundamentals, and it was even doubtful whether this should be attempted.
We sometimes hear it said that dogmatics must be secondary to exegesis. Certainly exegesis is basic, for what is not true exegetically cannot be true dogmatically. But genuine theology cannot be compartmentalized. The dogmatician must be a good exegete who knows and uses the Scriptures aright. And the true exegete, whose business it is to set forth the intended sense of Holy Writ, cannot and will not avoid making direct doctrinal or dogmatical affirmations.
In the early years of the Faith and Order movement, when many mission workers convened to discuss these matters, the older men in particular were shocked to realize that most of those present would not commit themselves to the Apostles’ Creed, especially to those clauses referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. After much circuitous talk someone suggested this approach: Men are by nature or predilection either poets or mathematicians. While the former are greatly concerned about truth and beauty, they do not, like the latter do, insist upon precise terminology, careful distinctions, dogmatical correctness. It makes little difference in the end, so let each follow his own bent! Significantly enough, most of those present at the meeting were content to take their stand with the poets.
This pretty little analogy is quite useless and even harmful, of course. The important question is not whether poetic feeling and mathematical ability can coexist in the same person. Considerations of time and place and circumstance, of need and of proper function make a difference. The man quietly at rest in some placid, sheltered bay can safely let the poet in him take control as he watches “the long light shake across the lake” or engages in original versification. Why should the captain on the bridge of a great liner not be open to the beauty of ever-changing sea and sky? Why should he not burst forth in Byronic verse or quote from Tennyson as daylight fades? The steamship company, the ship’s crew and passengers, however, rightly expect and demand of him a proper knowledge of navigation, or applied mathematics. He must be able to read marine charts and handle nautical instruments expertly. He must be aware of dangerous shoals and treacherous currents. Even in fog and darkness he must be able to make a safe landfall instead of piling his vessel against some rocky shore.
If the theologian, meaning now the preacher in particular, can infuse his message with poetic beauty—after all, much of the Bible is sublime poetry—and send his hearers away with their aesthetic feelings enriched and satisfied, well and good. But if that be all, alas for both preacher and hearers! The distressed soul that asks: Why am I here? Who is God? What must I do to be saved? What is Christian faith? and so on, gains no help from soporific talk about truth and beauty, sweetness and light. If Christian faith, principles, and conduct are to withstand the exigencies of life in a world overrun with other “goods” and goals, more is needed than simply evoking pleasurable emotions and an atmosphere of wonder. We need complete, definite, and accurate presentation of spiritual, biblical truths. These truths (to lapse into dogmatical language) must be stated thetically and, in the interest of comprehension, often antithetically as well.
Despite the multiplicity of tasks thrust upon him today, the Christian minister is primarily a teacher of spiritual truth. He must be “apt to teach” and able “by sound doctrine both to exhort, and to convince the gainsayers.” “By taking heed unto the doctrine” he is able to save himself and his hearers. Every theologian knows how often the words didaskalia and didache occur in the Pastoral Epistles. Whether or not the Greek word dogma is a cognate of the Latin docere, his very office constrains the minister both to think and to speak dogmatically. The teaching-learning process requires clear-cut concepts and sound, definite judgments expressed in appropriate language. Vagueness in teaching makes for vagueness in hearing and learning.
Thinking and speaking dogmatically should not be stigmatized as intellectualism. Such a charge, though, however false, must often be anticipated and accepted with grace and with awareness of man’s frequent unwillingness to “endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3). The unalterable and elementary fact remains that cognition takes place primarily through the intellect, and must therefore be of the right kind. When teaching and preaching become simply an exercise in religious information; when undue emphasis is given to formal correctness of doctrine; when basic Christian faith is equated with orthodoxy—then we may speak of intellectualism. This danger exists. But one does not for that reason completely discard the whole matter of dogmatic thinking. The true dogmatician guards against intellectualism by remembering that genuine faith in Christ is not merely a given amount of cognition; it is, rather, knowledge or a fiducia cordis that grasps Christ and his salvation. Engendered by the Holy Spirit, genuine faith means the new birth of a new creature in Christ—a metamorphosis, as St. Paul says in Romans 12:2.
To think and speak dogmatically may, of course, encourage an endless multiplication of dogmas and doctrines unless one confines thinking and speaking within the limits set by the Divine Word. The true dogmatician will insist that only what is clearly laid down in Scripture as a rule of faith or life is rightly dogma or doctrine. Moreover, as long as “dogmatism” has warrant in the Word, the dogmatician is in no sense encroaching upon God’s prerogative. Perfect and complete apprehension of truth is not ours this side of eternity. God nevertheless invites and expects his followers to practice proper dogmatical thinking for the edification of souls and for the glory of his holy name.—Dr. HENRY HAMANN, Former President, Concordia Seminary, Adelaide, Australia.
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