Dogma–The Dirty Word


Dogma is a dirty word to be classed with all the dirty words in the language.  Even more unacceptable is the word, dogmatism, having nothing but a negative meaning in its common use.  Dogma is a wraith compared with the unique infleshness  (Incarnation) of Jesus Christ.  Dogma is disembodied abstraction; but, Christ has all the uniqueness of a real person.

Let’s start over. Dogma is not a dirty word.  We cannot have Christ without dogma that informs us of who He is.  It is not a word that must mean intolerance and excessive abstraction.  It is a word that paints the picture of who Christ was, is, and will be.  Of course, we are incapable of saying everything about Christ; but, we can preach and teach that which is essential. Dogma provides the materials that paint the picture of Christ.  Without reflection on the events surrounding the coming of the Son of God into the world and a true confession of His nature, we would succumb not only to inaccurate, but also false and harmful images, like that of the Manichaeans with whom Saint Augustine contended in his work Against Faustus. Manichaean beliefs about God, Christ, and the world are very different from Catholic (orthodox) beliefs as expressed in the Nicene Creed.  One must adhere to the right beliefs to possess an accurate picture of Christ and His true nature.  To paint another picture makes Christ unrecognizable on the basis of the descriptions of Christ we find in the Bible.

Dogma refers to the reflection that is required to know the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the authoritative ground for a faithful rendering of Christ.  Later theological elaboration by the Church Fathers and others was meant to defend and preserve the true work of art that is Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Doctrine, meaning teaching, another word regarded as dirty in many circles, is descriptive of the efforts of Christians to present a trustworthy picture of Christ as reflected in the canonical Scriptures.  It is He whom we must help people to know.  An heretical (false belief) image would be a terrible misleading of those who would follow Him.  We must not be false guides.

We must not separate the person of Jesus Christ from dogma–those things that are taught and confessed about His person.  Dogma only serves an ill purpose when it leads to unnecessary and overly complex abstraction or bigotry causing, in the first case, bewilderment, and in the second, hatred.  Dogma refers to something essential and central to the life of the Church.  Martin Luther had a great ability to explain the faith through its dogma to people who were not trained theologians.  His sermons are a good example of his skill.

The Lutheran Confessions expressed the dogma of the Church at a time of great theological controversy.  They were necessary to clarify, define, and promote orthodox belief.  These things cannot be done without explications of the dogma of the Church.  Yes, there exist some differences of belief within the church; but, we cannot attempt to explain and resolve them without referring to dogma.

In our witness we cannot talk about the person of Jesus Christ and other matters of our Christian confession without speaking of the dogma of the Church.  We are called to present a true picture of Christ to others as we witness to and defend the Christian faith.  Only the confession of the Church grounded in the Scriptures can achieve this purpose.


Michael G. Tavella

March 22, 2024



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