October 22, 2020

How Much is that Dogma in the Window?

Commenter Jack Heron always brings well-thought-out ideas to the table here at the iMonastery. He has now stepped up with a very good look at the topic of dogma. Read carefully and comment accordingly, iMonks. JD

by Jack Heron

Having a dogma is a tricky thing. It’s irregularly conjugated, for a start:

My dogma irresistibly conveys the divine truth.

Your dogma is a well-meaning attempt to bring unity to the faith.

His dogma is a despotic weapon of the Thought Police.

As Christians, we are in the middle of a period of great religious change. New religious movements – Christian, non-Christian and debatably Christian – are springing up all over the place. At the same time the faith itself can seem under attack from secular, atheist and heterodox opinions. What, in this modern world, are we to do with our dogmata?

If we listen to some of the voices of Progressive Christianity, the answer is to throw them all out and enter a happy, peaceful world in which everyone follows their heart and nobody tells anyone else what to think or professes an absolute dogma. Alternatively, we might listen to more conservative voices that announce our beliefs will never need to be reconsidered and we should defiantly remain in the Good Old Days when men were real men (and women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri).

From the slightly mocking tone, you can probably guess I don’t approve of either viewpoint. Fortunately there aren’t too many people who hold to either extreme, although there are plenty who border on them. I am going to argue that robust examination of our beliefs is important, but that we must be examining them, not abandoning them willy-nilly.

Both unquestioning acceptance and dogma-free religion are wrong for the same reason: they destroy that which they set out to defend. The doctrinal universalist who holds that all beliefs are equally valid eventually ends having no beliefs at all. But the obedient and unquestioning audience of the magisterium ends up in the same place, for none of his beliefs are truly his.  Both are stung by a kind of unhealthy intellectual humility, the worry that perhaps they have nothing to say. This is distinct from healthy intellectual humility, which is the knowledge that one’s powers are limited. A modest theologian carefully constructs his arguments while acknowledging that he may be mistaken – this is good and productive humility, for it leads to discussion and debate. But an over-modest theologian constructs no arguments at all for fear that he can’t get anything right – and this is unproductive, leading eventually to no theologians at all. Both, ultimately, are trusting in a kind of magisterium while simultaneously undermining the very foundations that make magesteria useful. In the case of the doctrinal universalist the magisterium is called Humanity; in the case of the unquestioner it is probably a church of some sort. In both cases those august bodies to which they submit are made up of people just like them – and they have decided that such people can make no comment.

“But they are so much wiser than I!” Yes, but their wisdom is the cumulative effect of generations of men reasoning and arguing and disputing. Orthodoxy didn’t drop fully-formed from some pure Platonic sky. It was fought for, and wrangled over and thrashed out on debating floors. Some of the people who did so were intellectual giants before whom we are as dwarfs. But, though dwarfs, we can climb onto their shoulders and sometimes see further than they could. G.K. Chesterton referred often to the ‘romance of orthodoxy’. He was right, and a romance is an adventure to be grappled with. A complete lack of doctrine in the face of the Vague Deity Concept is a surrender, but its human analogue is the Omniscient Council of Vagueness who are so good at using reason that they prove the uselessness of reason.

Ask a hiker who goes wandering off the trail a lot: he’ll tell you there are two ways to get lost. One is never to get your map out; the other is never to question the map.

I should say a few words here about the Holy Spirit. The arguments above about the importance of questioning tradition and authority are often opposed by the assertion that since the Spirit works in the world, guiding us and inspiring us, tradition has been guided so as to be totally correct. Now, I believe in the Spirit’s presence as much as any of you. But this will not do. There are schisms aplenty in church traditions: has the Spirit issued a statement indicating the one He’s backing? There are categorical contradictions in the Bible: why were these not important enough for the Spirit to correct? It looks like the difference between a tradition inspired by the Spirit and one that has gone off the rails is not so easy to determine. It looks like the Spirit has better things to do than correct every single misapprehension in our minds. Further, let us consider the early Church when the broad outline of orthodoxy was thrashed out. How did the Spirit work then? It worked through people, inspiring them with arguments and analogies, guiding them to make suggestions and call debates. It didn’t just descend one night and resolve everything with a quick memo. The Spirit is acting today, sure: but in whom? I don’t recall that the third Person of the Trinity has signed an exclusive contract with one organisation.

Now, if we’re going to use our own reason, we face another set of objections. People will object that we can’t rely on reason and rationality here. We run the risk of producing that very same Vague Deity Concept we hope to avoid: infinitely reasonable and infinitely remote. But that presupposes that rationality leads to materialism and it isn’t so. I shall follow Chesterton in distinguishing two types of rationalism.

The first is true rationalism, the realm of inference and deduction.

  • All cats are animals.
  • Some cats are black.
  • Therefore some animals are black.

This is indisputable and it is an essential component of our faith. If God is not subject to this kind of logical reasoning then all bets are off. An irrational God might save us by damning us to Hell. It would strike at the foundation of every sentence ever uttered, every idea ever conceived if once we deny the essential nature of true rationalism. Lucien Gregory in The Man Who Was Thursday was rather surprised to find out that bishops didn’t go around crying ‘Down, presumptuous human reason!’ Let’s not make the same mistake he did.

The second is empirical rationalism, the realm of experience and science.

  • When I drop cups, they fall.
  • Therefore, if I drop this cup it will fall.

We may use this every day, but we can’t rely on it in matters of theology. It is predicated on experience and no one has any experience of being the Creator except Himself. It is this kind of rationalism that would lead to materialism and Deism and it is this kind that we disqualify from the debate.

We must have a faith that relies upon true rationalism, we cannot have one that relies upon empirical rationalism.

But doesn’t this fly in the face of that Biblical criticism we irritating doubters are so fond of? Actually, no. There is a distinction between using empiricism to pronounce on matters beyond its ken and using it to pronounce on historical facts that may have implications for matters beyond its ken. It is foolish to say ‘Mary could not have been a virgin, because virgins don’t give birth’. We have very little experimental data on the fertility of virgins subject to the Holy Spirit and Divine Will and so are not qualified to make that statement. But we are qualified to say ‘The attestation to Mary’s virginity in Luke is problematic for reasons A, B and C’. That is a matter of scholarship and hereto can empiricism come, but no further.

This is a time when religion is in the dock and being judged by all and sundry. The foundations are under attack, it’s true. There are those who say that we should get rid of the foundations the better to survive their being attacked. This seems counter-productive. And then there are those who say we must defend the foundations without checking to see if, perhaps, the attacks on them are in some way justified. This runs the risk of having the whole structure tumble down when an attack does indeed turn out to be so. I say that we should go about trying to find cracks. Then if we find one, we can fix it. If not, we can sleep a little easier.

Finally, I offer a disclaimer and warning. Orthodoxy is important, but it’s not everything. Even amongst those who hold to salvation through faith alone there are thankfully few who hold to salvation through exact dogmatic assent. I don’t believe that God is a kind of cosmic bureaucrat whose only means of judgement is to check you’ve ticked the correct doctrinal boxes on your Kingdom of Heaven Application Form (KH#1, to be completed in triplicate). Chesterton, who I will never tire of referencing, said that a heretic was a man mad on one idea. Let us not be that strangest of creatures, a heretic mad on orthodoxy.


  1. “As Christians, we are in the middle of a period of great religious change. New religious movements – Christian, non-Christian and debatably Christian – are springing up all over the place. At the same time the faith itself can seem under attack from secular, atheist and heterodox opinions.”

    It always has been, yet somehow the Faith has thrived – not abandoning its doctrine, but figuring out how to apply its dogmas to new issues as they arise. In the words of the mighty Chesterton:

    “The one truth of the modern world is this: there are no Fascists, no socialists, no liberals, no parliamentarians. There is the one supremely inspiring and irritating institution in the world; and there are its enemies. Its enemies are ready to be for violence or against violence, for or against liberty, representation, even peace. I had chosen well.”

    • Jack Heron says

      An early draft of this essay was basically made up of paragraph-length quotes from Chesterton. When is the Vatican going to get its act together and declare him a Doctor of the Church?

      • Glenn A Bolas says

        Now there’s a cause I could get behind!

      • Ask us again in a hundred years, Jack. Vatican time, we work on Vatican time 🙂

        As to the rest of this essay – oh, yes, indeed. I’m the type to have a big, snarly dog(ma) tied up in my front yard. Tithing mint and cumin, binding burdens on others which I do not relieve – ouch! That’s me!

        Tha’s why I need the balancing out of those to remind me that it’s not about ritual purity or perfect doctrine, it’s about grace and gratuity.

  2. Glenn A Bolas says

    A very good and level-headed article. Thanks, Jack.

  3. “If we listen to some of the voices of Progressive Christianity, the answer is to throw them all out and enter a happy, peaceful world in which everyone follows their heart and nobody tells anyone else what to think or professes an absolute dogma.”

    It’s okay–we don’t have any respect for you, either. But if you will excuse my own “mocking tone,” it sounds as though you conceive of dogmatism as existing along a kind of graduated spectrum from liberal to conservative, on which a church should position itself with an eye to market success. In fact there exist a number of rival religious ideologies, and in any case, not every religious group even uses dogma as an identity marker. (Very sensible of them, since dogma almost by definition consists of beliefs which would otherwise be considered dubious, like virgin births.)

    If the Holy Spirit can be present in many denominations, why not in many religions? Could not different religions each contain some of the truth (or would this interfere too much with outreach)? Hence the appeal of progressivism: it is at once kind and charitable to others with different views, and open to scholarly and scientific correction in a way that conservatism, or your “moderate” stance, can never be.

    • Jack Heron says

      Progressivism is an entirely valid viewpoint – I only claim that dogma-free universalism is incompatible with the kind of God we conceive of in Christianity. It is, of course, a reasonable suggestion to say that perhaps God speaks through all religions and that Jesus was one of many given a special place by the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t Christianity, which conceives of a unique figure as the linchpin of the apparatus of salvation. Universalism, even universalism drawing primary inspiration from Jesus, is absolutely fine with me. But it’s not Christianity.

      (Oh, and if progressives respect me as much as I respect them then I’m flattered that they like me so much. The best friend in the world is one you can have a cheerful and friendly blazing argument with.)

      • You are speaking of “Christianity” as if it were one thing, which it is obviously not. There do exist forms of Christianity which avoid imposing a certain set of (inevitably contentious) beliefs on everyone as a condition of belonging to the group, or projecting the same narrow-mindedness onto God.

        Joke about it all you like, but dogmatism is a form of hate. Every line of the Christian creeds was composed in order to damn someone. The less of it that religion can get by with, the better.

        • Dogmas are beliefs. People with similar beliefs gather together because their shared beliefs are important to them. There’s nothing wrong with declaring a set of beliefs necessary for belonging to a group, so long as you don’t go down the route of identifying ‘not belonging to the group’ as ‘being stupid or of lesser worth’.

          Dogmatism is only a form of hate if you think it’s the only important thing or that it’s set in stone. What I’m getting at is that we should not be afraid to hold on to dogmas, but that we should hold them with humility and reflection as well. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you can’t coexist happily with them and respect their beliefs; contrariwise, tolerance and acceptance of others’ beliefs doesn’t mean you have to give up your own.

        • Wouldn’t the way to slip this conundrum–or to try?–be to say that it is important to define at least some basic beliefs as true and affirmed by the community, but that those beliefs do not exhaustively define God, nor does an individual’s assent to them does not necessarily determine their relationship to God? (This does not necessarily mean that one would be a universalist, but rather than one does not try to guess too much about how God operates.) This certainly implies some negative things about heterodox opinions, but it does not dismiss out of hand the intent, the access to some insight, or the heart of a person holding views different than the community.

          I think the trouble with saying that simply any statement about God is as valid as every other presents us with two problems — one, that our belief about God is not purely theoretical, but has practical consequences; and by making the limited powers of one individual supreme, it severs that person from the benefit of a collective tradition. I am not sure the best way of accomplishing this, but I am tempted to assert that tension and dialog between orthodoxy and the individual, whether neither to squelched totally, might be the most productive.

          On related note, I am tempted to argue that a similar tension must be maintained when the Christian meets adherents of another religion. On one hand, there are those who see only error and darkness in the other religion or in the other person. On the other, there are those who speak as though we can consider all the teachings and teachers to be interchangeable, which strikes me as nearly as violent, because it proposes to reduce both Christianity and the other religious system into some kind lowest common denominator, which of course implies that their distinctives as lifeways and systems are in fact wrong or unimportant. For this reason, I’ve gone to listen to the Dali Lama gives teachings, but I am not tempted to imply that the Dali Lama and Christ as the same, or that I can intersperse quotes from both into the same paragraph without some kind of explanation of why and how I am relating the two.

          • Ugh, I cannot type.

            Some corrections:

            *nor does an individual’s assent to them does not necessarily determine their relationship to God = nor does an individual’s assent to them NECESSARILY DETERMINE their relationship to God

            *I am tempted to assert that tension and dialog between orthodoxy and the individual, whether neither to squelched totally, might be the most productive = I am tempted to assert that SUSTAINING tension and dialog between orthodoxy and the individual, IN WHICH neither to squelched totally, might be the most productive.

            *some kind lowest = some kind OF lowest

        • Was 1 Cor 15 about hate?

        • Dogmatism is a form of hate? So therefore only complete idealogical relativism is truly loving? That sounds pretty dogmatic to me. Every line of the creeds was composed to damn someone? How can you say that with such historical certainty? Are you giving a mock caricature of hard lefties?
          “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” It sounds like that does the opposite of damning. In face, isn’t rejection of that the damning of everyone?
          Christianity is not “one thing?” At point can I do whatever I like and call it Christianity? If we are so dogmatically against defining things for what they are, what is the point in labeling something “Christian” in the first place? Do words even have meaning anymore?

          • This is a false choice, as a moment’s reflection will reveal.

            That the Nicene Creed was aimed at Arians and other groups is generally accepted by historians.

            I would apply the term “Christian” to all those who wish to be so described.

    • Blake, when you locate different fragments of the truth in multiple, strongly contradictory religions, you’re abandoning the search for the Truth. Is the Truth theistic or atheistic(Buddhism)? Is holy war a command (Islam) or an absurdity in a pacifistic universe? How does the “progressive” hope to separate the wheat from the chaff? Instead, “tolerance”, i.e. no one gets to claim the Truth, becomes your one and only dogma.

      • Every religion has its idealistic side and its dark side, including Christianity. Atheism, monotheism, and polytheism represent different ways of looking at reality–who are we to say that they are not complementary? After all, God is said to be unfathomable and indescribable (though this has not prevented theists from describing him).

        I have no problem with the existence of rival opinions, or the possibility that someone else’s is right and mine is wrong. But dogma is more than just a truth claim–it is a requirement that others believe in that claim as a condition of group membership / salvation / etc. (Ironic that so few Protestants want to be reformed!)

        • Blake, I think that a certain amount of dogma is an inevitable side-effect of believing in a creator God, who literally exists completely independent of human consciousness and opinion, and above whom exists no higher point of reference or court of appeals.
          If such a God exists, then what He views as right IS right, and what He views as evil IS evil. If He is infinitely easy going and completely tolerant of all beliefs, viewpoints, and lifestyles, then we should be as well. But if He holds expectations and desired limitations regarding human behavior and belief, then it’s our task to try to discover what those are and conform ourselves to them.
          How you view dogma really hinges on what kind of God you believe in — though the truth of it hinges on what kind of God God is.
          As I see it, Christianity is a faith or belief system with a very specific God — one who is loving and forgiving, but also one who has specific expectations and desires regarding what we believe and how we behave.

          • I suggest that such a God as indistinguishable from Satan. (Except perhaps in terms of power.)

  4. I appreciate this article, maybe because I am such an utter moderate!

    Also, because I think about this sort of thing a lot. I do not fall easily into any one camp. Given that the camps are generally making war on one another, and also that one of the alternatives of not defining anything at all, this fact leaves me in an uncomfortable place. What do you do when you agree with Catholicism on a number of points, but you just can’t seem to agree with it all? What do you do when you love the very kind people in the mainline and their belief in doing good and just accepting people, but you personally feel troubled with when basic elements of the Nicene creed are treated as metaphorical truths? But when you go to conservative churches, you are troubled that some conversations cannot even be had without anxiety rising to record levels? What do you do when you are in most respects a theological conservative (or moderate, depending on who is drawing the battle lines) who nonetheless cannot endorse the conservative position on gender roles and homosexuality? (I could be like the happiest conservative Anglican ever, but the all just left the Episcopal church to escape from people like me!)

    One part of this is easy: I stop trying to be perfect, and I stop expecting everyone else to be. But it still is the sort of thing that leaves one so deeply aware of all the rifts and all the ways of understanding things. And in light of that knowledge, it can be so easy to feel lost — not only about how to add one’s voice to the debates, but also about what to tell one’s self at the end of the day, when all I want is to know God and to find some way to rest my racing mind. After all, I am not mad enough to believe that I can just think out a perfect theology and social witness, and I am also deeply resistant to just surrendering blindly to this or that authority and turning my mind off! Add to that the difficulty of understanding the meaning of various Bible passages. Oy vy!

    Just this past week, I was deep in a state of depression and anxiety on these points. Usually I am very good at emotional detachment — but like a lot of calm people, when the calm is broken I crash royally.

    Ha–too much information! It’s all your fault: you imonastery writers always hit a nerve prompt me to earnest key-pounding! But my point is: thank you, for the writing this article at this time. It’s refreshing and comforting when people are willing to try to peddle up between the extremes on all sides and talk a bit about where to go from here. And I really like your point about asserting truth as we can discern it, but with humility and awe.

    • It is funny how lately I have also been in a funk about faith too. The topics of late may have some influence here though I suspect that events in my secular part of life may also be contributing. For me I tend to accept most if not all of Catholicism’s tenets. because when thought out in combination with the nature of us humans it makes sense. But I also struggle with implementation of some of the social pieces. For example I am pro-life but I would not be found marching in front of Planned Parenthood (I would rather focus farther upstream – and for those young and confused I think its making a bad situation even worse). I have compassion for those who carry the pain of their abortions and support programs like Rachel’s Vineyard and Project Rachel that reaches out to these women (and men too). As I get older I struggle with those who are gay in relation to the church, ideally I know the position but as I know friends who have this lifestyle it is harder to be idealistic.

      I have been thinking more and more I need to get rid of some of the noise and focus again on my faith. Maybe a retreat, maybe not so much reading of this blog (its the only one I follow). It’s a wonderful place but sometimes I’d rather not see the reality of what all this fragmentation is ultimately creating (combined with all the affects of secularism as well of course).

  5. Heresy is Orthodoxy.
    Orthodoxy is Heresy.
    it that simple.

  6. Good piece, Jack. It’s disheartening to see the warring factions in Christianity, for sure. I’m glad that there is a moderate faction of Christianity, with a quietly profound faith, that dwells in the midst of it all.

    Quite a while back, I declined to participate in a mock abortion protest during a Sunday morning worship service at a church I was on staff at. I told our pastor that I believed there were more effective strategies for reaching populations that give and receive abortions, other than pickets, but my unwillingness to participate in the rally didn’t mean that I didn’t oppose abortion. The idea was that the mock protest would inspire the congregation to attend an abortion rally.

    What I didn’t divulge to any of the staff members at that old church was that one of our most prominent church workers had come to me the week before to discuss the plans for that coming Sunday. She was an extremely diligent children’s worker, with a beautiful family. She also chose to have an abortion when she was 17, and struggled with the decision for years afterwards. She was in much pain over whether to participate in the Sunday service, fearing that if she declined, she would need to tell the pastor why. I had not wanted to participate in the service, but her story gave me the courage to say “no” when the time came.

    I was immediately branded a liberal by the associate pastor at the church. It didn’t help that I had given him a copy of Brennan Manning’s “Ragamuffin Gospel” as a gift on the previous Christmas…He told me a few days later (he claimed to have read it that quickly) that “Manning has some good points, but he’s too liberal with his ideas about grace”. Since moving on to Anglicanism, I’ve been told that the talk around the conference table at the old church is that I’ve “abandoned Baptist faith, and he’s waving incense,wearing robes, and chanting all the time.” For the record, I do chant and wear an alb (not a robe…robes are for graduating high school), but I leave the incense waving to the Bishop. Funny, isn’t it, that a faith group that’s 500 years old would criticize me as ” not orthodox”, when my own faith practices are much closer to the ideas and activities of the earliest church?

    I gravitate more toward Anglicanism/Methodism because there is a healthy respect for tradition, a high regard for scripture, and room for reason. I find the “via media”, the middle way, there….orthodoxy, with acceptance and respect for thinking and questions.

    We’re all flawed aren’t we? Sometimes I wish that Jesus would return and separate the sheep from the goats, so I wouldn’t have to do it myself (said tongue in cheek). I think it’s telling that the safest place in an earthquake is at the epicenter; and in a hurricane, the eye of the storm. Isn’t that quite a lesson from God? I’ll stay on the middle road.

    Thanks for the post, Jeff.

    • …and Jack.

    • Jack Heron says

      Thanks, Lee. I suspect that much is lost because an adversarial approach to interdenominational matters means that we can dismiss others’ views without considering them – for example by branding them as ‘liberal’, which is apparently sufficient to demonstrate their wrongness.

      To be geologically pedantic, an epicentre is not the safest place in an earthquake. Usually it’s the least safe, but it depends on the dip of the fault plane and the depth of the hypocentre. But you are, I believe, correct about hurricanes.

      • I stand corrected on the matter of earthquakes. The next time I see my former pastors, I believe that I will use the term “geologically pedantic”, just to reinforce their idea that I am out of my mind. ;o)

    • Boy, I really have to get the Ragamuffin Gospel on my reading list… I ought to have read it by now, because I have known about the book for years now.

      “I gravitate more toward Anglicanism/Methodism because there is a healthy respect for tradition, a high regard for scripture, and room for reason. I find the “via media”, the middle way, there….orthodoxy, with acceptance and respect for thinking and questions.”

      Me too, at least that is where my paths have tread most recently. Have you read Rowan Williams? I’ve only read a couple of things by him so far, but he pulls from such a wide variety of thought when he writes. I’m becoming a fan.

      BTW, if you ever want to post more about your experience in Anglicanism, I would love to read it…

      • Josh in FW says

        Danielle, click on Lee’s name in the above post and it will take you to Lee’s blog.

      • Danielle, It’s a tremendous work…Somehow, I managed to read “Ragamuffin Gospel”, Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship”, and Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution”, and Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude”, all back to back, several years ago. I’ve never looked at my faith in the same way. That period in life cost me a lot, but made me a better man, with a deeper brand of spirituality…Absolutely ruined my life…but then, that’s a story for another day.

        “Ragamuffin Gospel” is good starting point for Manning. I also highly recommend “The Signature of Jesus”, and “The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus”.

        Josh, thanks for the plug. I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a bit at my own blog…look for something new to pop up within the next week!

        • Josh in FW says

          “made me a better man, with a deeper brand of spirituality…Absolutely ruined my life…”

          This sound like a double dog dare.

    • David Cornwell says

      …”healthy respect for tradition, a high regard for scripture, and room for reason. I find the “via media”, the middle way, there….orthodoxy, with acceptance and respect for thinking and questions.”

      Wise statement.

    • Lee-

      Hugs from Washington, D.C. I can’t tell you the different times I’ve seen the situation you described. Maybe its me but I deteced this hint of “us” vs. “them” in the piece. I am so weary of fights over “who is a true Christian” or “who has the most Biblcial beliefs”

      • It is draining, isn’t it? I think the Orthodox Church has it right…worry about yourself and your own salvation before you start defining others….

    • Lee:
      The problem with hoping Jesus will return to separate the sheep from the goats is that depending on how my day goes I feel like either one or the other!
      I better hope he comes on a sheep day…

      • Ain’t that the truth! I generally check the top of my head before night time prayers to see if I’ve got horns or wool growing up there, before I pray the “If I die before I wake…” with my little girl, you know?

  7. Wow, Jack, that’s fine writing and thinking. As one very fond, OK, obsessed, with how extremes drive folks to unhealthy places, this piece is getting printed and distributed. Thank you for showing us both sides of pasture that we unknowingly wander out of.

    Great way to start my Friday, let the weekend beging.

  8. GK Chesterton also said: there are two kinds of people in this world: those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it. (paraphrase)

  9. David Cornwell says

    “Orthodoxy is important, but it’s not everything.”

    This is important statement. When we decide who is a partaker of God’s grace based on his/her orthodoxy then we are preempting that grace and trying to take hold of power that is not ours. Many people have known Christ without knowing or giving a whit about orthodoxy. As far as I know this may include those who have never heard the name of Christ (this is probably far far away from most of the orthodoxy I know about). And I know educated Christians who have little time to consider matters of orthodoxy. To them it is boring and not necessary (sometimes I have a tendency to think they are correct).

    And now to hang myself: I know some gay Christians! I know some others agree with this, but only after carefully drawing boundaries such as “no sex,” no partner,” “celibate,” and probably “no lust,” or as one denomination puts it “not practicing.” Accept these boundaries, and you might become the Pope. Cross one of them, and you will burn in hell. All I know is that they seem closer to Christ many times than some of my straight laced friends. I only mention the gay thing because this has become the red line of doctrine in so many cases today. Cross this line, and out you go.

    The creeds that define our faith were hammered out in the midst of controversy, misunderstandings, and debate. Yet around these we find a place of agreement.

    Thanks Jack for making me think on a dreary Friday in Indiana. It’s almost as good as my coffee.

    • amen…

      anyone & everyone holds to some belief system. for Christians, it is a deep matter of personal faith. my dogma has grown from pup to full-grown, but only after many ‘accidents’, disobedient wanderings, destructive chewings/shreddings, etc…

      the purpose for having a set of beliefs isn’t for the benefit of others though. and we don’t need to be the champions of any subset of those beliefs as a way of measuring or categorizing those of differing opinion…

      i have enough of a challenge living up to the set of beliefs i have. and these i don’t need to be vocally promoting as if the mere sound of my voice carries with it the power to persuade others of the rightness of the message…

      i believe in an orthodox Christian faith not to be right, or true, or saved. i believe because my mind/heart/soul/body has been ‘taken hold of’ by a God that is recognizable, but never completely apprehended…

      i cannot not believe. that would be intellectual dishonesty. but then i don’t feel inferior or superior with my unique perspectives or those life changing events that i do believe where divine intervention with divine revelation included…

      i think anyone that speaks too loudly about a particular dogma will indeed be ‘labeled’ or accused or pigeon-holed or dismissed or like Jesus was; He was told He was crazy, a Samaritan & demon possessed!

      i only hope that i can mirror more the character of the One i claim allegiance to. all other measurements not a true way of determining just how dogmatic i am…

      • David Cornwell says

        “anyone that speaks too loudly about a particular dogma will indeed be ‘labeled’ or accused or pigeon-holed or dismissed or like Jesus was…”

        He didn’t fit very well into the dogma of the day.

        • no He didn’t. i suppose my sentence a bit jumbled with contrary thoughts tripping over themselves in the writing…

          yes. He was able to take religious concepts (the Law) & clarify just what God really intended by beginning with: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…but I tell you…”

          i also think that our beliefs are not meant to be pearls cast before swine if we are being interrogated by others that want to judge us for the jit+tottle we personally accept. i have no need to go into any lengthy discussion of my personal faith with those that simply wish to argue, debate, critique, belittle, challenge, denominationalize, etc. so i need to be careful about speaking out about my beliefs willy-nilly & then be open to knee-jerk reactions to the messenger as well as the content of the message…

          just thinking/writing out loud here. i still have not had my 2nd cup of coffee this morning… 😉

  10. Why when I read this why did I get an “us” vs “them” feeling that permeated the piece? Am I over interpreteting? Was that just an addicental error? Or does the author still wrestle with a legacy of ashes that evangelicalism has left in its wake? When he wrote about great religious change, period under attack, etc.. the red flags I have on my noodle shot up. Must Christians speak in those terms? Why this view thorugh tunnel vision? Maybe its me but as I read the opening, through the piece itself until the second to last paragragh where the author talked about the foundations being under attack, I just cringed. Why must Christians whether they be fundagelcial or not live in this siege mentality?

    Can’t you just love? Is it really that complicated? Can you leave behind the feeling that “we are under assault?”


    • Jack Heron says

      Us versus Them, I’ll admit to. Although it’s not so much a Us versus Them as people, more a My Ideas versus Their Ideas. Which I think is reasonable for an opinion piece (that’s kind of the point), though it might be out of place elsewhere.

      To answer your question, I’m not in the wake of evangelicalism because I was never an evangelical – actually, I never knowingly met an evangelical until a few years ago. But I would distinguish ‘siege mentality’ from ‘under attack’. A ‘siege mentality’ is a view wherein everyone who isn’t in your little camp is out to get you, whereas ‘under attack’ is more meant to describe the various questions about the nature and point of the faith that come upon us from different directions. Many of those attacks are in fact justified – hence my assertion that we should respond to feeling attacked by examining ourselves rather than in lashing outwards in a wall of denial.

  11. “Let us not be that strangest of creatures, a heretic mad on orthodoxy.”

    You have blown my mind with that thought, Mr. Heron. I’m probably going to spend the next several days chewing on that one.

  12. Putting dogma above everything else leads to some pretty silly things, oh, say like one church sending another church a cease and desist order over the use of a name

    • personally, i would think that the making of naming of a church Mars Hill the one to die upon quite silly really…

      Lord, have mercy… 🙁

    • Oddly enough, the Episcopal church does the same thing for churches who leave over disagreement on sexuality issues: You may buy your building from us if you agree to not affiliate with any Anglican group for 5 years.

    • Glenn A Bolas says

      The Mars Hill debacle doesn’t strike me as really having much to do with dogma. It seems to be more about corporate branding than anything belief-related.

  13. Anzaholyman says

    The cats are out of the ( bag ) good luck herding them back into any bag at all.

  14. “Orthodoxy didn’t drop fully-formed from some pure Platonic sky.”
    Wow. Bumpersticker of the day. You just cured me of my insatiable desire to determine the most relentlessly consistent form of pure doctrine. I can now be content with a church who has got it wrong on many points, even if I never figure out which ones they are.

    But, um, categorical contradictions in scripture? What is a “categorical contradiction?” Could you give me an example of one? This question coming from one who holds to Biblical inspiration but not inerrancy and is not inviting a debate on either.

    • Jack Heron says

      Yeah, a categorical contradition is one that is inescapable from within the text. For instance, Acts has Jesus ascending from Mount Olivet, while Luke places the Acension in Bethany. It’s a tiny little thing, of course, but it demonstrates that there are at least some errors in scripture – only one of them can be right. And if there are some, we can’t assume inerrancy.

      • Jack Heron says

        It has just come to my attention that there is debate on the location of Biblical Bethany and some of the sites that have been claimed for it would be consistent with Olivet. Better example: what Judas did with his thirty pieces of silver and how he died (Matthew vs Acts).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Didn’t the attempt to reconcile all categorical contradictions no matter what give us Darbyite Dispensationalism and those weird Dake’s Annotated Bible margin notes?

      • I could be wrong but isn’t Bethany situated on the eastern slop of the Mount of Olives?

        • Slope that is…..it’s been a long week at work…

        • Jack Heron says

          See above – I remembered that possibility shortly after posting (damn absence of edit button…). But the point still stands, categorical contradictions exist in the Bible. Judas’ death, order of creation in Genesis, the hour at which Jesus was crucified etc etc. Mostly minor issues, scarcely faith-shaking. Just my way of pointing out that the Holy Spirit doesn’t go around making everything clear-cut for us.

          • Well, see, that’s exactly it. All these “alleged contradictions” that I have seen have never been proven absolutely mutually exclusive. It takes due diligence to show a contradiction, and everyone I’ve ever seen claiming the Bible has them is content to rest on the surface level. It’s a 2000 year old book: It isn’t reasonable to think it can be understood in a simple, surface level reading. Order of creation in Genesis is extremely easily to harmonize, it’s not remotely contradictory. So is the death of Judas and the use of his silver. As intelligent as your writing is, I’m surprised you can’t see those ones easily. I’m not pushing inerrancy, just consistency. But I agree, even if they were inconsistencies, they are minor and not necessarily faith shaking.

          • Jack Heron says

            Well, now is not the time to get to deep into biblical discussion, but I’m pretty convinced that either Judas spent the silver (Acts) or he threw it back at the priests who then bought a field with it (Matthew), not both. Regardless, my point was that if there are errors of any kind in scripture then we have to accept that we can’t rely the Spirit to sort it all out for us – which is something I think we can agree on, even if I’m being foolish enough to forget the two places called Bethany.

  15. This a very good article. I just finished Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible, and he makes points that are along the same line. When we treat the Bible as a book full of empirical facts that can be dissected, put back together, and basically used however we want them, we can end up being committed more to our particular theological systems than Christ Himself.

  16. I believe that, according to historic Christian orthodoxy (and yes, such a thing does exist!), there are certain beliefs which are a requirement of salvation. I mean, just logically speaking, must we not simply first agree that salvation is necessary at all? Original sin in a nutshell. Secondly, must we at least believe that salvation is possible? I can’t imagine somebody dogmatically asserting that salvation is impossible and labeling himself “Christian.” It’s theoretically possible, but only if the law of non-contradiction is first eradicated.

    • Well, maybe…

      Although, there are people who I believe who will be part of the Kingdom who don’t necessarily even have the mental capacity to think in such ways. For example, I know several people with autistic children, and I believe trying to explain concepts like original sin and the need for salvation would be very difficult in those cases.

      When Karl Barth was asked the question when he was saved, he reportedly said, “2,000 years ago”. Salvation is something we obtain through mental assent or even necessarily through faith – it’s something we partake in. To be a Christian is to be in Christ, and to be in His Kingdom – the place where He is king.

      A lot of it gets down to moving away from the concept of salvation as a deal we make with God, or transactionalism as Michael Spencer put it. Salvation isn’t about our private interactions with God; it’s about God’s grand movement throughout history.

    • David Cornwell says

      “there are certain beliefs which are a requirement of salvation.”

      Don’t want to sound too augmentative here, but it seems to me that we can partake of the salvation of Christ without understanding a single thing about it. All we have to know is that the offer of grace is there in Christ and that He saves us. Therefore it’s open to everyone, not just those who can understand the doctrine. I know a man who believed absolutely nothing. He didn’t believe in God. Suddenly, in his room one day, when he was about 17, Christ became very real to him and his life changed totally and forever. Yet he couldn’t explain anything about it. For a few years he drifted around several churches and denominations, each with their own understanding of the truth. Some of this was very confusing to him. Yet, he knew one thing for certain: He once was lost and now was saved, and his life was how different and he knew that it was Christ who saved him. So, the understanding he had was very limited for a long time to just this one simple thing. He’s a mature man now and studying theology (poor thing). I hope his study doesn’t mess him up.

      So in his case the belief came after his encounter with Christ, not before.

    • Well put, both of you. And this is just where I wrestle with it: Intellectual comprehension must not become a form of works-righteousness, and I have met numerous of the mentally handicapped whom were able to convince me that they truly love Jesus. To a certain extent, as a Lutheran, I believe infants are saved at their baptism, when they are capable of understanding nothing. But when one is capable of understanding, is it possible to be saved and believe the exact opposite? Would a believer in Christ truly hold that Christ cannot possible save him? That would be, by definition, unbelief.

    • Jack Heron says

      That’s an intriguing suggestion, Miguel. What if someone were a good person but believed themselves to be evil for some deep-seated psychological reason? Would not they believe in the possibility of salvation but also believe (incorrectly) that it was closed to them?

      • Hmmm… Well, if they were a “good person,” I suppose they would have no need of salvation, or that they would be saved already despite their understanding of it. But perhaps an indispensable part of being a good person is an intrinsic trust or reliance upon the goodness of God to overcome our shortcomings? A person with no need for God, or, who cannot admit to seeing his own shortcomings, is not good, but arrogant.
        Using biblical language here, there are none good, and all are sinners in need of a Savior.
        Oh, and I think that ultimately, a person who believes himself to be evil will ultimately do one of two things: resolve to search for the remedy, or resort to acting upon his supposed nature. I’m not sure there could possibly be such a person who believes himself evil and goes about doing good.

        • Jack Heron says

          I was thinking along the lines of ‘never being good enough’ – they did good but never felt they had done enough to counterbalance the sins they believed they had accumulated. So they believed themselves forsaken and damned but continued to be good.

          This area is something I’ve been wondering about recently – our psychology is complex and given that separating our faith and psychology is difficult (what parts of my belief is inspiration from God and what parts are deduction in accordance with what my mind finds convinving?), how is salvation by faith affected?

          • …they did good but never enough to counter-balance their sins…
            Are you Catholic? I don’t know how much you know about Protestantism, but generally we teach that nobody is ever good enough to counter-balance their sins. I believe that in Catholic theology the Saints were the ones who had excess good, which is stored in the treasure of merits, but I’m not to well read in that area. In Protestant theology, the righteousness of Christ is freely credited to our account through faith, and completely wipes us clean of all sins, past, present, and future. That’s what we’re referring to when you hear us talking about “Justification.”

          • Jack Heron says

            I’m an Anglican actually, though I tend to affirm the Catholic side of that heritage rather than the Protestant side. I didn’t mean to say that I myself believe that it’s a balance between sins and merits (I credit God with more subtlety) but that someone else might. And I wonder what that might mean for someone who had faith but didn’t believe that it was enough – because not believing that it’s enough might be considered a lack of faith.

          • Glenn A Bolas says

            “generally we teach that nobody is ever good enough to counter-balance their sins”

            Same in Catholicism. In Catholic theology, the merits of the saints are their willing co-operation with the grace of God and conformity to His will. Not something they do independently then offer to God as credit to their account (to use that analogy).

  17. As Prof. Keith Drury once said (paraphrasing): “some beliefs are written in pencil (open to changing and erasing), some in ink (more certain about), and some in blood (willing to die for)”. We should be careful about what we put in each category.

    In regards to “orthodoxy”, Thomas Oden once has said:
    “Orthodoxy is a living community, not merely a set of ideas. It embraces and expresses the accumulating historical wisdom of a community called by God’s revealed Word that has lived through time and changing cultures. Orthodoxy as a worshiping community attests events of divine self-disclosure through which the meaning of human history is bestowed and clarified. The burning question then becomes: How does God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ illuminate, regenerate, and transform our behavior in the midst of sin and death?”

  18. “‘A modest theologian carefully constructs his arguments while acknowledging that he may be mistaken – this is good and productive humility, for it leads to discussion and debate.”

    I Vote Yes!

    • I like the sentiment, but practically speaking, at what point must we declare certainly? Can we really say, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth,” and turn around and admit: Maybe he possibly didn’t. This is what I think, but I could most certainly be wrong? I don’t think that is humility. I think humility is holding to ideas you are absolutely convinced of for the good of the unconvinced. If you really think it is true, then compassion for fellow man requires you do your best to convince them of this truth, to the point of laying down your life (taking theirs has never really been that convincing). The apostles died for their beliefs. Their last prayer wasn’t, “I hope I’m right about this…”

      • “A man convinced against his will
        Is of the same opinion, still”

        If anyone can credit this for me, I’d appreciate it, It is NOT my original work.

  19. An agnostic former coworker of mine had his own strong opinions on may issues, but he would always add this open-minded disclaimer:
    I reserve the right to be smarter in the future than I am today.

  20. Great comments!

    I’m reminded of Luther calling the Book of James, “an epistle of straw”.

    But he did not remove it from the canon adding, “maybe there is something there that I have missed, I am willing to go back again and again and keep looking.” (or something to that effect)


    • Steve, Luther tried to remove James, Hebrews and the Revelation from the NT canon. He wanted to take out some of the other epistles as well.

      Definition of Dogma: dogmas are infallible statements of truth given by the Church to guide the faithful in the Christian life

      • Thanks, Anne.

        Like I said, I don’t believe that Luther removed those books from the bible that he put together in the German language (so ordinary people could read the Scriptures for themselves).

        He may not have thought much of those books, but he left them in the bible.

        He thought those books were very weak on the gospel and the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.

        • He actually took several books out of the Bible. He also wrote on several occasions that he was the ultimate authority. I don’t know why he, Calvin and Zwingli were unsuccessful at getting rid of James, Revelation, Hebrews and some other things.

  21. Here’s a good piece by Theopedia on Luther and his bible:



  22. I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about this. Revivalism is still worse than universalism, because it replaced doctrine with emotions, which made man the standard of truth (i.e. god) while allowing them the delusion that they were still were Christian.

    But I don’t have the same animosity toward universalism. But for me, universalism is giants like the late F. Forrester Church.

  23. OK, since no one else ran with this (and for a bit of humor)….

    Seen on a bumper sticker……..


  24. Very interesting observations. I would comment however that there is a vast difference between discussing issues of doctrine between believers and those who are not. This is true not only for Christianity but for any world view. Within Christianity there are certain Dogmas that are necessary for the Christian position to exist and to remove or challenge those is to place yourself in a position where you are no longer within the Christian position and thus logically no longer use the wieght of other other historical positions to hold yours.

    The basic difference is this: Within Christianity the discussion of Dogma is primarily whether belief in the Dogma is required to be a Christian. Outside of Christianity the discussion is primarily whether a Dogma is true and has validity.

    As to orthodoxy, there are certain dogmas that are necessary for Christianity to have meaning. E.G. There is only one God. These core Dogmas are well-defined. Further they are well reasoned from both a rational view as in the writings of Augustine and an empirical view as in the writings of Aquinas. The issue has primarily been within the Church not whether these doctrines are true but whether they are necessary to believe to be a Christian.

    Please note that well reasoned does not mean these logics are infallible, also the individuals mentioned built their logics on those proceeding and early Christian Writings are facinating.

  25. Dogma is absolutely essential as an anchor of sound faith. It certainly keeps me in line as I am often prone to swimming in the deep end. It is always good to question though as it must be strong enough to withstand the winds of the centuries or it is not life producing.