Ask A Theologian – Dogma
Written By Boston Avenue
In the history of the church, much dogma was written during the time a council backed by an emperor could enforce it. An example would be the theology that the Trinity is One even though the Bible doesn’t specifically say that. It seems to me that dogmas should help us better understand how to connect with God and how to live as He wants us to live. When we obsess about dogmas and make them law, I wonder if God does an eye roll and asks, “What about the important things?” When is it appropriate to hold our dogmas and theologies at arm’s length, to question them instead of letting them become rigid law? When is it appropriate to say “I don’t understand it but this is our church tradition and we must uphold that tradition?”
I’m sure you know Jesus’ saying that “the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2) ; “or “you tithe herbs and spices but neglect justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23, paraphrased). I think you’re in good company with your stance about the important things.
Now, let’s see if I can nuance the answer.
In theological conversation, dogma refers to divinely-ordained, revealed truth, not to be changed, while doctrines are reasoned “faith seeking understanding” and, therefore, more open to change. To have any dogmas, a church must have a recognized authoritative person or group who can pronounce dogma as dogma. But few communions have anyone like a pope. For United Methodists, our highest legislative body, including theological stances, is the General Conference (which I’d bet no one would claim to be “infallible”). One could argue the Methodist Articles of Faith carries the role of dogma (these articles are extremely hard to change, by design of the denomination’s constitution). But in our Wesleyan-ways of theologizing, we often have trouble defining what is dogma. My continuing attraction to Wesley is that faith is experiential and experimental: we try a practice, try living by a teaching, and see what happens. If the experiment does not work, we make changes and try again. Hard to be dogmatic when one is also asking “how is that working?” I tend to judge every dogma and doctrine with the question regarding what it produces, what kind of churches and Christians it forms.
Wesley was one of the theologians who embraced the understanding that we should agree to essentials and live and let live in non-essentials. Of course, that disposition begs the question as to what the essentials are. My guess is that every denomination/communion and local church has its essentials, explicit and implicit. The more public agreement with essentials is required, the tighter the boundaries for entry into that community. One can see the tension between trying to be “a welcoming community” and a community with multiple essential dogmas or doctrines.
And, to address your last point about the wisdom of received tradition, here is a different point of view. I’ve heard members of an Orthodox tradition say that one does not always believe, one has doubts, one’s troubles overwhelm one’s faith. But a creed, for instance, belongs to the community and not to an individual. At times one says the creed in the context of worship, not believing, but as a member of the community is buoyed by the presence of a community of persons saying the creed together. Sometimes we lean on, we rely on, we are carried by the faith of the community.
Our Theologian in Residence
Gary Peluso-Verdend is the President Emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since 1993, he served at Phillips as a program director, the dean, development executive, president, and founding director of the Center for Religion in Public Life. For five years (2000-2005), he was the director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Gary retired from Phillips in February 2023.
Gary is a retired ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Northern Illinois Conference). He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1991. He attends Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa where he teaches adult church school classes frequently.
Gary serves on the board of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and on working groups for the Braver Angels Alliance in OK and Compassionate Tulsa.
He and his wife live with their daughter in Tulsa, in the fourth (and last) house-in-need-of-updating they have owned. Gary’s three grown children and their families live in the Chicago area.
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Advice from Boston Avenue’s Theologian In Residence