Standards of Truth/Doctrine/Dogma

I’ve alluded to this several times in other posts, but I think I need to throw it out as a subject in its own right. An awful lot of “doctrines” that are considered by church authorities as standards for faith, even standards for who is orthodox or heterodox, stand on what I submit are fairly tenuous grounds. I’ve been thinking about this a good deal lately, in part because of Scot McKnight’s series on heresies on the Jesus Creed blog. It was further stimulated by a good discussion over on my friend Mason’s blog.

In his introduction, Scot quotes Ben Quash, one of the authors of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe: “A heretic is is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith.” To my shock, in four posts so far, Scot has appeared to reinforce this definition several times, and I have not yet seen him challenge it. This shocks me because, coming from the Anabaptist tradition himself (as I do), Scot has got to realize that this definition validates the condemnation of his own spiritual forbears as heretics–for they certainly denied a number of “truths” that were universally accepted by “the church” of their time.

While I have not (yet) read the book, so I am going primarily on the discussion on Jesus Creed and other locations, I am highly troubled by the degree to which Christians of a variety of stripes appear to be perfectly OK with elevating various church fathers or reformers to canonical status. I say this because of the level of deference I encounter, in debates on doctrine, to those fathers’ teachings, even when those teachings go beyond what is stated in canonical scriptural sources.

It should be familiar to anyone who has read much in my blog, that I believe this level of deference to extrabiblical authority is inappropriate. But just to make it blindingly clear, let me state the proposition directly:

If any proposition is not derivable from scriptural sources alone, it dare not rise to the level of dogma.

By this I actually challenge most of what is in the vast majority of creeds and statements of faith, including the ancient ones (cf this post). My issue is that an awful lot of cherished doctrines of long standing are, if viewed honestly, extrabiblical. Unless we are willing to grant apostolic, inspirational credentials to the church fathers (which the Roman Catholic church does for some, but Protestants claim not to), their writings, however carefully and prayerfully considered, do not rise to the same level of authority. This same filter must be applied to the Reformers.

From Ingatius and Iranaeus, through Augustine, to Calvin and Luther, and even to Wright and Piper and all the others today, we have the writings of Godly, dedicated men who deserve to have their reasoning and arguments considered in the light of scripture, but none of whom, severally or individually, deserve canonical deference.

I do not claim that everything these guys stood for was/is unbiblical–far from it. I say rather:

  1. If what they say is derivable from a careful, contextual reading of scripture, it deserves doctrinal consideration.
  2. If what they say may be supported (or at least is not contradicted) by scripture, but is not independently detectable there, it may or may not be true, but as a doctrinal test it must be considered optional. . .even if centuries of church tradition have adopted it!
  3. If what they say is not actually found in scripture (and here I actually place at least some christology, believe it or not), it’s nothing more than opinion and dare not be elevated beyond that.

These criteria make a lot of Evangelicals nervous, because when consistently applied they actually strike at some pretty closely-held positions. One of the things these standards produce is a much shorter list of things for which we can maintain certainty. But if we are to really “rightly divide the word,” one of the things we have to be about is dividing it from all those accretions it has gathered in our doctrines and creeds over the centuries. Frankly, I believe such a standard would return “systematic theology” to its rightful place–as a useful tool to contemplate the wonder and grandeur of God’s work, but in humble acknowledgment that it is, at best, a good and honest guess, and not sufficient to divide the orthodox from the heterodox.

Put more simply, none of us–not even the doctors of divinity, the reformers, the church fathers–know half as much as we think. Writing people out of our fellowships, or worse, consigning them to damnation, on the basis of these things is wrong. It was wrong when they did it at the second council of Constantinople, and it’s wrong when denominations, conventions, preachers, and the rest of us do it today.

13 thoughts on “Standards of Truth/Doctrine/Dogma”

  1. Mason

    Dan, while I do share your concern with the way human authorities are seen as the be all and end of of theological discourse at times (whether those authorities are the church fathers or the reformers or contemporary teachers), I think that the truly core doctrines are indeed the witness of Scripture, and we need to be very cautious about the direction this takes.

    Granted, I think a great many important doctrines are not ‘core’ per-say, and while I think they are central for proper reading of the Scriptures disagreement on them should not be seen as putting someone outside the pale.
    Take even justification, or the details of atonement theories, both very core to Protestant Evangelicalism. While I think these are doctrines that are vitally important for the church, they are not beyond refutation, and divergent opinions on these issues should not bring changes of heterodoxy.

    On the other hand the elements that determine the Drama of Scripture, such as what the the script is (the Scriptures), or who the divine actors are (so Christology and Trinity) are parts of the faith that are clearly attested in Scripture, and if one disagrees with them they are now telling a different story from the Christian narrative.

    So if we want to say your view of baptism or eschatology or evolution or the role of the saints should not prevent us seeing each other as Christian brothers and sisters, thats fine by me, though they are issues that need to be discussed and studied.
    On the other hand if we discard the things that define the Drama, then whether we are right or wrong in our challenge one thing we are not is orthodox.

  2. Dan Martin

    While I think these are doctrines that are vitally important for the church, they are not beyond refutation, and divergent opinions on these issues should not bring changes of heterodoxy.

    I’m not absolutely certain, Mason, but I think we are saying the same thing here. Where I go (I suspect) a little farther than you may be comfortable with, is that I think when we refine, tighten, or clarify a Biblical teaching because people who’re studying the Bible haven’t “gotten it right” in our judgment, we are thereby “going beyond what is written” and maybe even “adding to the words.”

    I’ll develop this further later, but I think the doctrine of the Trinity is a great example. This doctrine was developed to answer some very clear errors–including the Gnostic denial that a holy God could have been at all material, and the extreme end of the Arian insistence that Jesus must have been really just a holy man (at least that’s how he’s sometimes represented; I haven’t studied Arius yet). So trinitarian doctrine was answering some very real errors–clearly unbiblical claims being made within the church.

    However, in my belief classic trinitarianism doesn’t satisfactorily answer a great many clear statements of Jesus where he unquestionably referred to the Father as other and superior to himself. Nor does it fully answer the stunningly beautiful christological poem of Phil. 2:5-11, where Jesus, though in the form of God, made himself nothing.

    Without getting into Docetism or any of the other many “isms” that have been beat around, I think we need to recognize that Trinitarianism as usually preached fails to hold within it the beauty and paradox of some of these statements. The failure is not that the trinitarian arguments were not addressing true heresy–they were. The issue is that in answering error with truth, the church fathers may have built a higher fence with a clearer boundary than scripture itself has done. And now we invest the “winners” of that battle (a rather unholy battle at times if you look at the methods of some of the actors), with canonical authority equivalent to the apostles, and even Jesus himself.

    This gets back to what I’ve said before, that I believe systematic theology attempts to resolve all paradoxes and questions, and fails to recognize that the authors of scripture, and even Jesus himself, were content leaving some things only partially known. We ought to do the same.

  3. Ben Bajarin

    Yes Dan great post and thoughts, this is a very worthwhile discussion and debate to have. I’ll share my perspective which will be rooted in much of the listening and reading of Bishop Tom.

    I completely agree that all too often the church and followers of Jesus have made way to big of a deal on things that are not essential. But I feel the root of this is an improper eschatological view of the future.

    If one needs to justify oneself and their believes with a framework that says ” I am in and you are out because what matters most is where I go when I die” then you have the present situation we find ourselves in today. Now within that framework it is easy to see why so many people get their panties in a bunch when it comes to so called core doctrines.

    What I find entertaining is that the most basic truth and one that I find the most important truth is never or rarely stated if not barely even mentioned in most statements of faith and current doctrines. This statement I hold is the root of the single truth Paul and others were trying to get others to understand.

    That statement is Christ Jesus is Lord and King. Caesar is not and Jesus is therefore re-orient your entire life around this fact and the rest will fall into place.

    When a statement of faith as most do emphasize and support a gnostic salvation instead of a Sovereign and saving rule and reign salvation of Jesus in order to use his subjects to put the whole cosmos to rights then we have a statement of faith that is in search of a lesser theology.

    My ideal statement of faith for any church would be “Jesus Christ is Lord and King” agree with that and then lets get to ordering our life around this person and go to work for God’s new creation as inaugurated by Jesus evidenced in the resurrection.

  4. Mike M

    Ben: that Jesus is Lord and King is a great place to start but JW’s and Mormons believe that. Yet they are not considered “Christian” churches since they are not trinitarian. My point has always been this: if you believe Jesus is the Messiah, the way, the truth, and the life, and you wrap your life around his, are you a “Christian?” I say yes, but trinitarians say no. Not only that, because a non-trinitarian is by definition a heretic, he or she has no right defining what a Christian truly is (per orthodoxy).
    Dan: on Scot McKnight’s side, he does believe the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries are valid (or so I read him) so he will not challenge the conclusions of the book. To expect him to is not really fair.

  5. Jc_Freak:


    I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to comment, but I wanted to make sure I could take the time to really read your post and consider it, since it seemed to me that you had a lot of heart in it.

    As much as I hate to admit it, dogmatism has a practical side to it. I think it is clear to a lot of us that Scripture isn’t nearly as clear on certain subjects as we would like, and what many claim is “derivable from Scripture” others do not. Though I appreciate the commitment to Scripture that you are maintaining, and ultimately I agree with you, I think it is a standard that is too easy to see someone else fail, when they believe they are holding up to it.

    The purpose of dogmatism is stability and unity. Often, an overemphasis on dogmatism causes division if the list becomes to long and indelible. But, if the list is kept small and redactable, then it becomes a common ground of fellowship and generates unity. If stances are not made, then every person who feels that they know a thing or two can rise up and attempt to wrestle away control. As Scripture says, the people can be swept away with every wind of doctrine.

    I think one of the biggest mistakes that we make is how unwilling we are to change. There are some doctrinal stances that need to be made at a particular time and place that the people at that time give a “spiritual meaning” that then prevents it from going away when that time has passed (I believe this constitutes 90% of Roman Catholic doctrine, but that’s just me). If we are willing to adjust these dogmas, then I think a lot of the concern becomes moot, and the practicality of taking a stand becomes greater.

  6. Dan Martin

    JC, you are definitely on to something here, and I appreciate your comments very much. I heartily agree that the list of dogmas must be kept “small and redactible,” neither of which describes most creeds or modern statements of faith, and certainly neither of which describes the current state of systematic theology!

    I recognize, too, that the very people who decided the canon, also laid out the rule of faith. What I think may be important to consider is that, even though this is true, they seem to have seen it important not to confuse the two. By this I mean that, even though they may have made dogmatic statements with which you or I or others may agree or disagree, they themselves saw fit to represent scripture as other than–and, I believe, of higher authority than–their own writings and decisions. In their best (and most godly) representations, they saw the words of Jesus, and the apostles, and the ancient prophets, as an authority to which they could and should appeal. They, too, therefore, held it up as a different and superior standard to their credal summations, and so ought we.

    I’m going to have to develop this more as a concept on its own, but I think that the issue of christology really is a good focal point of this discussion. It is clear from scripture itself that Jesus represented himself, at various times, both as truly human and truly divine. It’s not so clear exactly what that meant in temporal or biological terms. The creeds and councils attempted–for very valid reasons–to counteract false tendencies among some in the faith to deny either Jesus’ humanity or his divinity. In this they were wholly right and did something that was necessary and useful.

    Unfortunately, they then went beyond what Jesus or the apostles had said, and tried to clarify exactly what Jesus must have meant in these self-representations. In this, they may have erred–and at the very least, when they pronounced damnation on anybody who didn’t accept exactly their formulation, I maintain they did err. Their error was not addressing the false teachings of others–that needed to be done. But they were wrong to refine and codify one possible theory of christology at a level of precision Christ himself did not see fit to grant us.

    We, in turn, are wrong to assign to their genuine attempt at truth an authority equal to the teachings of the Master himself. We are likewise wrong when we exclude from fellowship, people who take a position that is equally scriptural but happens not to resonate with extrabiblical interpretation. That’s what I see happening, and it grieves me.

    I hope this is getting a little clearer; I seem to have a difficult time conveying the point. But perhaps, I now realize, my point only makes sense in the light of the nuanced perspective on Biblical inspiration that I also hold, and have written about extensively here. . .???

  7. Dan Martin

    I should have added too, JC, that I wholly endorse your notion that even dogmas need to be re-evaluated in the light of changing circumstance. In this, I hear you putting them in their proper place, as important clarifications of a body’s understanding of the Word of Truth, without ever becoming sacrosanct and inviolable and timeless themselves. This is a definition of dogma I could live with–but I think you’ll agree it’s not the way most Christians handle the concept. . .

  8. Jc_Freak:

    No, I think you are explaining yourself quite well. This is one of those issues where the balance seems almost impossible to maintain, and yet maintain it we must. Often, when someone like you comes in and focuses on one side as a corrective, others immediately react to make sure the other side is stated, which you clearly do not reject.

    I think that the redactability of creeds was more than we often give it credit for. For instance, the original Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed, was itself a redaction of the Nicene Creed. Things become indelible when the editing structures (such as ecumenical councils) collapse and become impossible.

  9. Dan Martin

    Things become indelible when the editing structures (such as ecumenical councils) collapse and become impossible.

    Absolutely true. Of course, things also become indelible when we anathematize anybody who doesn’t subscribe to them, which the second Constantinople council did with gusto. . .and which many in the present era emulate quite effectively.

  10. Jc_Freak:

    I can understand a dislike of anathematization. Afterall, this is a redemptive faith, and “anathema” doesn’t really ring “redemption”. But I think there is at least something to excommunication, even if the language itself is too harsh. Do you agree?

  11. Dan Martin

    But I think there is at least something to excommunication, even if the language itself is too harsh. Do you agree?

    I have to agree whether I like it or not, because both Jesus (e.g. Matt. 18:17) and Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:11) made it clear that there were times to draw the line. Interestingly both of these instances (and this is two verses, not a complete study) had more to do with orthopraxy than orthodoxy to use the nuance you just explained so well on your own blog.

    Paul even uses anathema, I also must admit (1 Cor. 16:22, Gal. 1:8) and these two sound more like questions of orthodoxy.

    So I guess I would have to say that the concept is biblical, but must be used with extreme caution and about only the most foundational of things. And here I have to acknowledge that the Constantinople crowd probably honestly believed that they were doing just that. I still maintain they erred, because in my assessment they went WAY beyond what was written and then applied the nuclear option (anathema) to anybody who didn’t go as far as they did.

  12. Jc_Freak:

    Well, I can’t really argue with that. I do agree that many of the ecumencial councils went too far in anathematization, though I agree with their doctrinal decision except for icons. I do also agree with you that one should be slow in that action, and we usually do it too quickly. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we do disagree one what is the most foundational things.

    Ah well. We can’t agree on everything, and I guess that’s the point 😉

  13. RJ

    Wow, some great posts here. I’m sorry I missed it yesterday. Had a pressing emergency to take care of. I think it comes down to many congregations today have a “take it or leave it” attitude. You have to believe everything we say or you are not a “real” Chirstian. I think this attitude is what is primarily caused the current day church (aside from many mega church which is a separate discussion) to be shrinking instead of growing in the last 20 years. Yes, there are basic lists that we need to cling to but that list is way too big for most denominations and congregations.

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