In Part I, I discussed how rules and regulations are often a false faith, one based on outward observances rather than inward faith. This time, we continue, discussing the use and abuse of creeds, doctrines, and dogmas.
This list of items, though related to rules and regulations, is of a different quality, for they don’t speak to outward actions, but to inward beliefs.
The assumption that religious experience and history can be reduced to some central, objective list of doctrinal truths leads to some practical and theological conflicts and objections.
1. Can or should objective spiritual standards or truths be established at all?
Christians affirm that, because Christian faith claims to be objectively true, we must maintain that such truths are to some extent knowable and definable. A reasonable output of that contention is that, through study, we ought to be able to identify and communicate at least the essential and foundational spiritual truths that we hold dear. That’s what creeds, doctrines, and dogma are for.
2. Since creeds and doctrines assume an objective standard, we must then ask, “What are the SOURCE(S) of such standards?”
Do they come from scripture, experience, tradition, reason, or some combination of these? And if so, which, if any, take preeminence an authority?
The best theological construct I have found that explains the conservative protestant view is that put together by the Methodists, known as The Wesleyan Quadrangle. What is basically states is that:
- Scripture is the highest authority when it comes to determining what is theologically correct, though it is not the sole authority. Our understanding of what scripture says and means MUST be coupled with church tradition, experience, and reason (the three “lesser” authorities).
- We must not elevate any of the three lesser authorities above scripture, lest we venture into theological, if not practical error.
- We must not shut out these lesser authorities when determining truth, lest we venture into theological, if not practical error.
For a complete discussion of the various diads (Scripture/Experience, Scripture/Tradition, Scripture/Reason) that can be formed with scripture as superior authority, see my four part series on The Wesleyan Quadrangle.
But to summarize this view, scripture is the highest authority for determining what is objectively Christian, and our understanding of scripture is informed by but not trumped by tradition, experience, and reason.
3. To what EXTENT do we define objective spiritual truths and demand abeyance to them at the price of exclusion from our group?
The favored approach is to limit what we consider essential or central, and declare certain foundational ideas to be foundational and exclusionary from Christianity for those who disagree. However, the longer we make such a list of essentials, the more exclusionary, perhaps unnecessarily exclusionary, we become. Hence the following wonderful aphorism (often erronenously attributed to St. Augustine, and actually penned by the Lutheran (i.e. Protestant reformer) Rupertus Meldinius):
In the ESSENTIALS, unity
In the NON-ESSENTIALS, liberty
In ALL THINGS, charity.
4. How are creeds and doctrines abused?
Many people have a negative impression of creeds and doctrines because they have been abused by unloving people and ministers who use them in forcefully excluding others while setting them selves up as the main arbiters of truth.
We abuse doctrines when we:
- make the list of essential doctrines long, elevating many of our non-essential pet doctrines to essential, which ends up unnecessarily excluding others
- establish doctrines outside of the spiritual teachings of the scriptures
- react uncharitably and unkindly to people who disagree with our doctrines
But such abuses mask the real value in creeds and doctrines.
5. What are the positive contributions of creeds and doctrines?
First, doctrine should and often does emphasize what the founders of the faith emphasized. Somewhat by definition, the creator or creators of a movement or idea have the right to define what is is, and what it isn’t. Good scholarship of the scriptures can and has produced meaningful creeds that reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.
Second, doctrine assures that we are being systematic and logical in our approach to faith, not merely subjective and inconsistent. If Christianity means anything and everything, it pretty much means nothing in particular.
Third, doctrine can keep us from re-inventing the wheel. Many foundational doctrines have been refined and discussed across centuries, and we should benefit from the deep and wide considerations of those who came before us if we want to do more than waste our time in discussions that have already come to logical outcomes.
6. Can a dogma every be a good thing?
Dogma goes where doctrine and creeds only allude. Dogma asserts that certain central truths are true based solely upon revelation, supported and defended by logic. And in Christendom, dogmatics are a virtue, not a vice.
Materialist secularists and anti-authoritarian thinkers hate dogma because it is just begging for abuse. “If you can’t empirically prove your claims, yet claim that they are authoritative, anyone can claim anything as true!” they might object. However, this narrow view of dogma is similar to the the atheist’s caricature of faith – it assumes a faith without reason, when in truth, dogma, and in essence, healthy faith, is faith supported by reason.
But just because empirical evidence and logic are not taken as the supreme authority in such matters does not mean that all dogmas are equal, nor does it mean that reason and evidence do not help eliminate pretenders.
For example, Christians contend that The Book of Mormon does not stand up to historical and archaeological scrutiny, and as such, should probably NOT be considered spiritually authoritative. In the same fashion, Christians point to the overwhelming support that these disciplines lend to the Bible. Similar Christian arguments have been made in debunking the authority of the Koran.
There are other logical tools one can use to eliminate dogmatic pretenders, though you might not use such to eliminate all. But the point is, dogma is necessary, even in science, since foundational assumptions exist at the base of all inquiries into truth. But bad dogma can be identified and dismissed with logic and empirical evidence, as long as we realize that these tools can never tell the entire story of reality, and have limits in what they can affirm, even if they can disprove some dogmatic claims.
What we can say about creeds, doctrines, and dogmas, is that they are useful, even necessary to the spiritual life, even if they can be (and certainly have been) abused. But in and of themselves, they are not evil, but actually, they are essential to logical and consistent faith.
Next: legalism, perfectionism, and exclusion.