What is Orthodox Dogma?

The word dogma has rather a negative connotation attached to it in modern times. If someone is spoken of as being dogmatic this is not usually assumed to be something good and commendable. Rather it means that someone is too sure of themselves, even full of themselves, and wants to impose his opinion on everyone else. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dogmatic as… expressing personal opinions or beliefs as if they are certainly correct and cannot be doubted. Facebook and other forms of social media certainly encourage the sharing of personal opinions and beliefs as if they could not be challenged. Indeed, sanity, and our spiritual peace, demands that in such situations we learn not to counter the unassailable personal opinions of those we meet with what are, in the short space allowed to comment on social media, essentially our own personal opinions.

Some of the modern synonyms of the word dogmatic are opinionated, arrogant, overbearing and rigid. I’m not sure that any of these are very attractive qualities. But it seems to me that this reflects a change in modern times in relation to truth and fact. It is very common in our own times to have some opinion expressed, and then criticised by another, not as being untrue, but as not being ‘true for me’. At what point in modern history did truth become so relative that it depended entirely on my attitude and opinion rather than the veracity of what was said?

It is certainly most clearly associated with the development of the post-modernist movement, which rather gave up on the idea that through human progress all facts about the universe could be known. Post-modernism rejected the certainties of the Enlightenment, which had already dismissed the theological facts of Christian religion. The Enlightenment confessed secular creed of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress. Two World Wars made it seem to many in the West that such a confidence in human rationality and progress was misplaced, especially as that progress seemed to lead to the Cold War, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, and the globalised pollution of the planet.

Though the term post-Modernism is first found in the 1880’s, it was used in 1914 by J.M. Thompson, in a philosophical journal, to describe the need for modernism to go beyond a criticism of theology, and engage in the criticism of religion itself. But throughout much of the 20th century post-Modernism was especially concerned with Art and Architecture. It increasingly came to be identified with a view of the world in which nothing was certain, except that there was nothing to be certain about. Everything was to be explained in relation to social forces and traditions, and even language itself was considered to be unable to communicate anything of value. Just a few quotations illustrate some of this attitude, and there are a great many which could have been drawn upon.

Harold Pinter, the dramatist, said,

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

Jean Francis Lyotard, the philosopher, said,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.

And even Benito Mussolini said,

If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.

If nothing is true or false, then nothing can be good or evil, it can only be what I choose, and it can only be imposed to the extent that I am willing to expend my energy in imposing it on others. Ironically, this new relativism has developed into a strident dogmatism that will not allow any dissent. Those who actually believe something to be true, or transcendentally good, are the new heretics, and are burnt at the stake of educated opinion. 

In most recent times post-Modernism has been increasingly criticised as absurd. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, one of the New Atheists, and no friend of Christianity, has said,

Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.

It is interesting that it is impossible to apply post-Modernist rejection of truth, however we want to understand that, to science, or indeed to most of the practical operation of our society. We would not want to trust ourself to a surgeon who applied post-Modernist attitudes to his medical work. Or an airplane pilot who believed that what mattered most was flying in a way that was authentic to him, rather than in accordance with his training.

Does anyone mind very much on Facebook if someone is dogmatic about how to operate a piece of technology? There might be a disagreement about the instructions given, but it would be unlikely to find someone saying that there were no necessary instructions and the equipment should just be used how it seemed best. In fact, many men will operate technology in just such a manner, refusing to read the instructions until and unless it is impossible to get it to work. But this is not because it is doubted that there is purpose or intelligence in the design of whatever we are trying to get working. It is not because we doubt that instructions are necessary and useful. It is rather that we often assume that as men we have an innate ability to know how everything functions.

What does Dennett highlight as the characteristics of post-Modernism in the humanities, where it is especially found? It is distrust, disrespect, and conversations without substance in which nothing can be confirmed. The one who does hold to a belief in transcendental truth must therefore be the object him and herself of such distrust and disrespect, and it is deemed impossible to enter into dialogue with such a one. This is the situation in which we find ourselves as men and women of Orthodox Faith in the 21st century. We are dogmatic at a time when to be dogmatic is a social failing, like turning up to a dinner in the wrong suit. But we are surely not alone, and as we have seen, even determined atheists insist that belief in nothing at all is an absurdity and is a philosophy without substance or content.

Post-Modernism considers that language is not the means of communication but is arbitrary and essentially an expression of other social constructs. When we say, mother and father, for instance, the post-Modernist will wish to show that these are not realities which are being described, but are only socially constructed conventions. Everything can be deconstructed to show that it refers not to a truth or reality but something contingent and manifestly human. The English language itself, it has been said, is a vehicle for an oppressive patriarchal social order rather than a means of neutral conversation between correspondents. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not. But in a world where what matters is what I think, then to be dogmatic about such an opinion is in itself without any authority.

Douglas Groothuis, a Protestant Christian philosopher says,

The Christian worldview, contra-postmodernism, understands language not as a self-referential, merely human and ultimately arbitrary system of signs that is reducible to contingent cultural factors, but it has the gift of a rational God entrusted to beings made in his own image and likeness.

And it is in such a view that we find we must resist and reject the relativism of post-Modernism and other contemporary movements. At the very least, if everything is a matter of opinion, then we must insist that our opinion matters also and deserves to be heard as much as anyone else. To demand that we be silent because we hold to particular views is itself to be dogmatic in the modern and negative sense. Post-modernism, as the quote from Mussolini shows, is not of necessity generous towards the opinions of others. To some extent our modern society is Facebook writ large, and some of those who have the loudest voices have been able to impose their own vision of what is right and good on society in general.

If to be dogmatic means to hold to a belief that some things are true, then in a practical sense, this also applies to those who simply wish to use the language of post-Modernism and relativism to impose their own views. But in our contemporary context, even as post-Modernism comes under increasing criticism, it is a simple fact that a majority of those around us in our Western society have imbibed at least the view that things are ‘true for me’, and that we should not tell people how to live their lives – although it seems that our modern societies want to do exactly that.

As we discuss the nature and content of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, it therefore seems necessary that we also reflect on how we are to present this Theology, this teaching of the Apostolic Church, in a way which invites investigation and consideration, rather than as an imposition which should be rejected out of hand. Nor is this an issue only for our relations with those outside the Church. On the contrary, most of those who come to the Orthodox Church seeking understanding of our Faith and Practice will have made a personal decision to do so, and will therefore be generally well disposed to our dogmatic approach. It is those within our Church, our youth, and those who have grown into adulthood without a proper understanding or commitment, who are most likely to find a dogmatic approach disturbing.

If the dogmatic content of our Orthodox Faith is true, then we should have some reasonable basis for coming to this conclusion. And it seems to me that even if we are presenting the dogmatic teachings of the Church we should not be doing so in a manner which justly requires some of the adjectives we have already noted. We should not be opinionated or arrogant. God forbid. On the contrary, as we understand the dogmatic content of our Faith more deeply, we should be able to explain the reason for our Faith in a simpler, humbler and more respectful manner.

It must be possible in the post-Modern and relativistic society in which we live to be able to say, ‘This is what I believe, and I believe it to be true. But I respect that you do not believe the same as I do’. This is the attitude of St Paul at the Areopagus as described in the Acts of the Apostles. He spoke to them respectfully. He noted one or two things that they could be commended for. ‘I see that you are very religious, you even have an altar to the unknown God. Let me tell you about the one you already worship’.

We can avoid some of these negative attributes, indeed our Christian Faith requires us to treat them as sin, and they have no place in theology. But we cannot avoid the fact that the substance of our Dogmatic Theology is intended to be understood as truth, and more than that, as transcendent truth for all men and women, at all times, and in all places. We will see that our Orthodox Dogma is influenced by various societal aspects in its expression, not least that certain languages are privileged in the development and explanation of Dogma. But we do not believe that this is only a truth for those who want to accept it, or only for Orthodox, or only for Egyptians or Greeks or Russians. We believe it is an expression of saving truth for all men and women in all times and places.

So what do we mean by Dogma and Dogmatic, if we do not mean what modern society might choose to understand it as meaning? It is of course a Greek term, and it has the sense of a teaching and a definite precept, not just a personal opinion. In the New Testament it is especially used to speak of a decree, or political command that cannot be ignored but must be acted on. There are five uses of this word.

In Luke 2:1 we read,

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

The word translated here in the NKJV as decree is the Greek word dogma. It clearly doesn’t mean an opinion, but a legal and political command which expressed the will of the Emperor and must be obeyed.

In Acts 16:4 it says,

And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.

In the same way we see that dogmata, the Greek word here, is also translated as decrees. These have reference to the decisions made at the Council of Jerusalem, where it was determined that Gentile convert Christians should be required only to abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things that had been strangled, and from sexual immorality. These are not just the opinion of the Apostolic Council, they are to be received as dogma, as decrees that are to be followed.

Then in Acts 17:7,

Jason has harboured them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.

This was the accusation laid against Jason by the Jews of the city of Thessalonica when he had welcomed Paul and Silas. The word used here is dogma, and is again being used of a particular political regulation, in this case, that it was forbidden, quite naturally that anyone else be proclaimed as King other than the Emperor.

And in Ephesians 2:15, St Paul writes,

Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.

It is the word ordinances which is used here as a translation of dogma. This has the sense of being the detailed instructions of the Jewish Law, which are to be received as something authoritative and not merely of personal opinion.

And finally, in Colossians 2:14, St Paul writes,

…having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

It is the word, requirements, which in the KJV is still translated as ordinances, which represents the Greek word dogma. As in the previous excerpt from Ephesians, dogma has here the sense of the formal requirements of the Jewish Law, which stands as a testimony to our sinfulness and disobedience.

Dogma represents in all of these passages something formal and official, something with authority and weight that is not open to negotiation. It was used in this sense in the wider Greek literature and then into the Patristic Age. In the earliest period it might be used to describe, as in some of these verses from the New Testament, the tenets of the Jewish or pagan religions, or the teachings of various philosophers. Clement of Alexandria uses it in this sense, as for example in the Stromata, Book II, Chapter I, where speaking about the dependence of the Greeks on the Jewish tradition, he says,

As Scripture has called the Greeks pilferers of the Barbarian philosophy, it will next have to be considered how this may be briefly demonstrated. For we shall not only show that they have imitated and copied the marvels recorded in our books; but we shall prove, besides, that they have plagiarized and falsified (our writings being, as we have shown, older) the chief dogmas they hold, both on faith and knowledge and science, and hope and love, and also on repentance and temperance and the fear of God, — a whole swarm, verily, of the virtues of truth.

He uses the word dogma here, and we can see that it has the sense of being the formal and substantial teachings held by the Greek philosophers. It is their teaching about faith and knowledge and the world, about hope and love and the other things he lists. These are the content of the dogma of the Greeks which they have stolen from the Jews, and these are not opinions, but expressions of truth.

And Justin Martyr in his First Apology, Chapter 7 says,

And this we acknowledge, that as among the Greeks those who teach such theories as please themselves are all called by the one name “Philosopher,” though their doctrines be diverse.

The word translated as doctrines is dogmatwn, another form of the Greek word dogma. Here again, the formal teachings of the various philosophers are called dogma. Their teachings are certainly theories, but not mere opinion in the sense that we find those in our own times who reject truth and certainty would say that our own faith is mere opinion. Indeed, the words, those who teach, is also a form of the Greek word dogma, and is dogmatisanths, which means a little more than teacher, and represents the idea of one who sets out a dogma, a dogmatist.

A few centuries later, and Eusebius, the Church Historian, in Book V, Chapter 23 of his Ecclesiastical History, while writing about the Quartodeciman controversy of the second century, says,

Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only.

The words translated here as ecclesiastical decree are in Greek, ekklesiastikon dogma. It is an official Church statement on some issue, and just like the decree of Caesar Augustus, as the outcome of a process of dialogue and discussion, it has authority as representing the mind of the Church as a whole.

Also in the writings of Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine, Book III, Chapter 23, when speaking about the Council of Nicaea, he writes to the Church in Egypt,

He confirmed and sanctioned the decrees of the council, and called on them to strive earnestly for concord, and not to distract and rend the Church, but to keep before them the thought of God’s judgment.

Again, the word decrees, represents the Greek dogmata, and especially in this context refers to the formal and official teaching of the Church which has been established with authority at the Council. This is the sense in which we will be using the term Dogmatic throughout this course. It will represent a view of theology from the perspective of the authoritative theological teaching of the Church.

One last useful reference to this term is found in the Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians, in Chapter 13, where he says,

Be diligent, therefore, to be confirmed in the doctrine of the Lord and of his Apostles.

The word used here is doctrine, while other translators have used the word ordinances, and it represents the Greek word dogma again. It is not personal opinion. It is not an oppressive insistence on being right in an overbearing manner. It is simply the expression of the definite and authoritative teachings of the Church, as they have been established by Christ himself and the Apostles. Perhaps someone will not consider them true at all. Perhaps some others will not consider them the only possible expression of Christianity. But it seems entirely reasonable that we should insist, and be able to defend, the position that these teachings which we will consider, are those which history itself manifests as the teachings of the Orthodox Church from the Apostolic times.

In this sense we will be considering the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Church, of the Church of the Apostles and Fathers. And it is in this sense, it seems to me, that we are best able to counter the absolute relativism of our own times. We are not asking others to privilege our opinions over the own, and we are not suggesting that our opinions are more valuable than theirs. But we are stating, what is entirely a reasonable proposition, that if we are going to consider Christianity in any depth and with any seriousness, then it is necessary to return ad fontes, to the sources of Christianity in the Gospels, the Scriptures and the writings of the early Christians. We may believe whatever we choose, but if we wish to truly engage with Christianity then it must be an engagement with the dogma, the settled teaching, of the Christian Church from the beginning. Any religious movement which is detached from the historical reality of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and the early Fathers is not properly Christian at all.

Unfortunately, since the Protestant Revolution, and especially since the even more recent explosion of denominationalism, it is difficult for ordinary people to see what Christianity truly is, and beyond saying that we are expressing and teaching Christianity, we have to add some additional explanation so that we say that we are teaching original, or early, or the first Christianity. Even to say that we are teaching Orthodox Christianity merely places us in a denominational context, where our teaching becomes an opinion and can be ignored or dismissed.

But to say that we are seeking to teach and live the original Christian life sets our teaching outside of denominationalism and opinion. Our dogma is not recently produced by ourselves, but is manifested in the life of the Church of the first centuries. We are not insisting that others become like us, but that we all of us who consider ourselves Christian, return to the sources of the Christian dogma, and find unity in the Apostolic and Patristic teaching. We are not able to say that what is found there is true, that is a judgement for each soul to make, though of course we believe it is true. But we are able to insist that it truly represents Christianity, and that all other systems of teaching, whether they respect the person of Jesus Christ or not, are not truly Christian in the same way.

This then, is the basis of our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. It is the study and the preaching of a body of doctrines which were established in the earliest centuries as the true and authoritative teaching of the Christian Church. It is true and authoritative because history itself shows us that these were the teachings received and accepted in all places and confessed, despite controversy and even as the result of controversy, as the true expression of the Christian message.

We will look at the history of the various doctrines of the Church in due course as we consider each one in turn. But even from the earliest period there was a clear sense that the Church held one set of teachings, one dogmatic substance that was shared in all places and by all those who were following the authentic Christian tradition. St Irenaeus of Lyons, in his work Against the Heresies in Book 1, Chapter 10, writes,

The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

These words can be dated to between 180-189 AD. St Irenaeus, who was born in Smyrna and was discipled by St Polycarp, had come to Lyons in Gaul, now modern France, in about 177 AD, when Pothinus was the bishop there, and had himself become bishop just a year or two afterwards when Pothinus and many other Christians in Lyons were martyred. So he had a practical experience of the universality of the teaching of the Church, since he had at least lived in Asia Minor and Gaul, and had visited Rome. He had found it to be as he states. There is one Christian doctrine which is taught and believed across the whole world. There is not a Christianity of Egypt, and another of Asia Minor, and another of Greece, and another of Rome and so on. But rather there is an essential unity of faith and belief and dogma. St Irenaeus was born in about 130 AD. His spiritual father, St Polycarp, was probably born about 70 AD, very early in the history of the Church. St Polycarp had known and been taught by the Apostle John, and would have known others of the early and Apostolic Church leadership. St Philip and his daughters lived in Hierapolis, for instance, only 140 miles away from Smyrna on the main road to Antioch, as were the New Testament cities of Colossae and Laodicea. Ephesus, where the Apostle St John had lived and taught, was only 50 miles away from Smyrna.

When St Irenaeus himself arrived in Gaul, and then visited Rome in 177 AD, it was only between 10 and 15 years after the martyrdom of St Justin Martyr. The Shepherd of Hermas had been composed just 25 to 30 years before, by a brother of Bishop Pius of Rome. He was born into a Christian Church community that was still filled with those who had known the Apostles themselves, and was then contemporary himself with the disciples of those who had known the Apostles. His description of the Christian faith as he understood it and taught it is therefore one which has its roots still in the Apostolic Age. He remembers clearly what he had been taught by St Polycarp and considered it as the very teaching of the Apostle John. Therefore, the unity of faith and doctrine which he describes is already found in the earliest and Apostolic preaching. It is an expression of the Christian faith from the very beginning.

We can see this clearly in the same section of Against the Heresies, where St Irenaeus tells us more about this universal faith and teaching which he found everywhere. In the first place he says,

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received this faith from the apostles and their disciples.

We can say then, that the dogma, the settled Christian Faith, as St Irenaeus understood it and taught it, and found it universally accepted around the Christian world, is derived from the Apostles themselves and their immediate disciples, and is not of any more recent invention and innovation. He surely had plenty of opportunity to discover that what he taught was of more recent origin and was not accepted in Rome or Gaul, or elsewhere. But he found the contrary.

Then we find him describing this Apostolic Faith, that which was taught by the Apostles and their disciples. We can usefully read the full expression of St Irenaeus’ dogma, which he describes in this same passage. He says that the Church universally and from the time of the Apostles, has believed,

…in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning of their Christian course, and others from the date of their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

In this wonderfully rich expression of faith, we can see that even by 180 AD, a formal statement of faith expressing the teaching of the universal Church could contain almost every element of the later Creeds, and was understood not to be something new at all, but a theologically rich faith which had existed since the beginning with essentially the same theological or dogmatic substance. St Irenaeus describes for us that the Church of his own age confessed one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the incarnation by the virgin birth, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his bodily ascension, his second coming and the last judgement.

Even in our own times there are those who insist that such a detailed explanation of the Christian Faith only developed centuries after the time of Jesus. They wish to describe Jesus as no more than a simple Jewish teacher, whose memory was used by later Christians to develop the idea of a divine Christ very much later, even after the time of Emperor Constantine. But on the contrary, we find in this description of the universal Christian faith of the second century an expression of both the Holy Trinity, and the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ, with the insistence that this is not a novelty at all, but the Apostolic Faith itself.

What are we studying then, when we consider Orthodox Dogmatic Theology? It is this body of teaching which is already well described by the second half of the second century, and which was even then considered to be of Apostolic origin, and was seen to be universally accepted by all Christian communities from Egypt to Spain, and from North Africa to Britain.

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