|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Christian Dogmatics|
Dogma and hyper-Dogmatism
The misapprehension regarding
By Michael Mavroforakis
Taken from a session of the Piraeus Church’s series of radio programs
on the topic of “Orthodoxy and Heresy”
(Homily No. 51)
(First aired on the: 12-2-1993).
1. The misinterpreting of the true meaning of “dogma” causes serious rifts in Christianity
We shall focus for the time being, on just how opportune and how serious a matter the place of the dogmas is in the Christian faith; that is to say, how much importance a Christian should place on the dogmas and what their value and their place is, with regard to their salvation. In other words, just how necessary are the fundamental teachings of the Faith, for the increment and perfecting of a person in Christ?
As we have already stressed, the word “dogma” is an extremely misunderstood and notionally distorted word. It is this precise notional distortion of the word “dogma” – accompanied by the personal perceptions and the personal passions of many – which, after having alienating them from the middle path of the truth, hurls them to the one extreme or the other.
Thus, we observe two groups of people, where the one believes that the dogmas alone can save Man, provided he is acquainted with them with precision and is mentally attached to them. At the extreme opposite of this group are many who not only do not believe that the dogmas may have a certain place in our salvation, but on the contrary, they reject them altogether and regard them as dangerous, harmful, and the main causes that divide Christians, fanaticize them and at times even bring them to fight amongst themselves.
As mentioned previously, these groups have each taken up one extreme, after having deviated from the middle path. Even though there are quite a few elements of truth in both groups, nevertheless neither of them is absolutely correct. Both of them have missed the target of comprehending the more profound and essential significance of the Christian dogmas and their role in salvation. One can find in practically every Christian confession some representative examples of people who belong to the one or the other category. Of course, Orthodoxy is unfortunately not exempt of this phenomenon, although the Church – through Her Holy Fathers and Teachers – has always been highlighting the correct, middle path; the correct and balanced perception of what dogmas are all about. But it is worth noting, that there are numerous heretical groups who officially accept and support the one or the other approach. There are, in other words, Christian confessions whose existence relies on scattered gnosiological differentiations from the others and who convince their followers that they will be saved, simply and only because they possess this theoretical knowledge, without paying much attention to the application of the practical commandments of the Christian Gospel. On the other hand, there are other groups in the realm of Christianity who owe their existence to the union of smaller groups, which have previously rejected and disregarded not only the insignificant, but even the basic dogmatic differences between them, given that they have regarded good works the exclusive means for salvation.
2. A dogma is not an idea or an intellectual theorizing, but rays of divine revelation in Mankind
We have pointed out elsewhere, that these extreme situations originated, not only from the mistaken interpretation of the word “dogma” but also from its misuse by many people, for satisfying their impassioned, personal objectives and especially their ego and their vanity. The word “dogma” has been used, both in the past, but also by the authors of the Holy Bible, to denote every God-revealed theoretical but also practical truth of the faith, which is simultaneously an obligatory prerequisite for Man’s perfecting “in Christ”. These dogmas have always been expressed, or, in other words, formulated – but above all experienced - by all the members of the Church who have reached the stage of deification and perfection through the Holy Spirit. And we stress that the dogmas are “experienced” and not “studied” or “researched” or “recited”, because they are the fruit of divine revelation and not of human discovery. The genuine Christian dogmas are not “discovered” by people; they are revealed by God to those living “in Christ”; in other words, to the genuine members of His Church. Thus, the Saints of the Church have a direct knowledge of the dogmas and not an indirect one: through a personal experience, and not through study and contemplations.
A genuine, therefore, knowledge of the dogmas is an empirical and direct one, and not an intellectual and indirect one. But because many have severed themselves (or were severed from) the Body of Christ (the Church) which is directed by the Paraclete Spirit, and as such are deprived of the direct and empirical knowledge of the dogmas, they feel the need to cover this spiritual barrenness, so they resort, not to Christ Himself and the Church, but to a story that records divine revelation (the Holy Bible), or even to secular History. The Holy Bible was written by holy persons and it contains their personal experiences and testimonies of divine revelation. Thus, it is a very handy guide and gnomon for the Truth; but the Holy Bible itself is not –per se- a divine revelation.
Let’s present an example from daily life, in order to better understand this:
Some people leave for a foreign land, entirely unknown to us, and each one of them writes a few pages describing what he saw and heard there. When we read their narrations, we each adapt them to our own experiences and we each form our own particular image of this unknown land. However, the image that we each form might be a far cry from reality. In fact, it differs so much from reality, as does our own personal experience from that of the eyewitnesses. You can therefore perceive how far off they are in their interpretation of the Holy Bible outside the Church, if you bear in mind that the eyewitness Saints had described images of the Kingdom of God, whereas we can envisage (and experience) only the images of this fallen world. And as the Apostle Paul writes of himself and the remaining Saints, “we did not receive the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that originates from God, so that we may acquaint ourselves with those things that were bestowed on us by God. We speak of these things, not with words that human wisdom taught us, but with words that the Holy Spirit taught us, interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people. The worldly person does not accept those things that originate from the Spirit of God; because for him, they are folly. He cannot comprehend them, because they need to be examined spiritually.” (1 Corinthians 2:12-14) It is not, therefore, possible outside the Church and with only the Holy Bible and dictionaries as aids, to acquire a precise knowledge of the dogmas of the Faith – i.e., the fruits of divine revelation.
It becomes clear from what we have said so far, but also from what we said last time, that the dogmas of our faith are NOT human ideas, thoughts, views, theories or philosophies; they are truths revealed by God, which are imperative for our salvation. And they are not just the theoretical truths, such as –for example- the Savior of the human race is the Son and Logos of God, Who became incarnate, was crucified for our sake and rose from the dead etc… Dogmas are also the practices involved; i.e., precisely how a Christian should live, so that the Grace of God does not abandon him and reversely, what he must do in practice, in order to receive Grace and salvation gratis – for example, be baptized, partake of the Body and the Blood of Christ, pray, etc.. Thus, we read in the Acts of the Apostles for example, that “dogmas” are the decisions of the Apostolic Synod, which, among other things, instructed the remaining Christians to abstain from “sacrificial meats and blood and strangled animals and fornication” (Acts 15:29). These purely practical aspects of Christians’ lives are characterized by Luke the Evangelist as dogmas of the Church, and in fact “approved by the Apostles and the elders” (Acts 16:4).
3. The synods as expressers of divine revelation – the dogma – against heresies
Many may rightly ask: «Since the Faith was delivered once only, to the Saints» (Judas 3), why do we observe the Church occasionally convening, several centuries after Christ, to formulate dogmas? The question finds an answer quite easily, if one carefully examines the tract in the Acts of the Apostles that concerns the first Apostolic Synod that we just mentioned. This Synod took place just a few years after the Day of the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit had descended upon the Church and had led Her to the full Truth. The problem that was confronted by that Synod was whether the Mosaic Law –and more specifically circumcision– had to be observed by Christians. In other words, if it was compulsory for one to be circumcised in order to be saved. As was to be expected, the Synod’s decision was negative, because the Mosaic Law was abolished (as far as its compulsory provisions were concerned), with the crucified death of the Lord. The Apostles, and all those who were steadfast in the faith and had received the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit were fully conscious of this. However, when certain Jewish-minded Christians had begun to preach the opposite, a problem was created in the Church, and in fact among those who were as yet unstable and new in the faith. That was the reason the Church had dogmatized explicitly on the issue, through a Synod. It was not because the dogma itself was discovered just then (that one must not observe the Mosaic Law to be saved); it was only after a problem had actually reared its head, that the Church synodically formulated the dogma officially. Up until that moment, that truth of the faith was experienced and was known by the Apostles and by all those who partook of it, as revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the first (Apostolic) Synod – just like all the other synods of the Church that were convened in the Holy Spirit – did not discover or invent new dogmas, but merely revealed and formulated officially those facts that were standing and already known to the Saints. Synods would therefore take place, only in cases where heretics threatened to alter those standing facts and lead astray the unsupported faithful and eventually dissemble the Church.
However, throughout the ages and with Christ’s tolerance, the Body of Christ (the Church) underwent schisms and divisions so that the ‘tried and true’ ones would become apparent. In fact, the largest schism occurred when the Western section of the Church (which was under Frankish domination and influence at the time), having been led astray, abandoned the Body of the Church for political, initially, reasons. This was fulfilled around the end of the first millennium A.D.. Obviously, in every instance, the dogmas –and especially the theoretic ones, i.e. those that pertained to theological and not practical issues of Christian life– proved to be the most effective weapons in the hands of heresy leaders, both for the solicitation of followers, as well as for the creating of new movements and systems. The recipe was easy and simple: by philosophically and theoretically processing the dogmas of the faith they belonged to, they would isolate one or more items that they disagreed with; they would then support this disagreement of theirs by means of certain apparently logical arguments, then proceed to convince a number of others of the veracity of their placement, thus forming their own group. Thus, from being God-revealed, theoretical and practical truths of the Faith, the dogmas were turned into philosophical positions and views and subsequently, into pretexts for thousands of divisions within the space of the Church. In this sense, however, the dogmas also comprised the fuel that fed the horrendous fire of religious fanaticism that scorches the souls of Christians and does not allow them to be refreshed by the love and the peace of Christ. When dogmas break away from the Holy-Spiritual life that is experienced within the Church (whose characteristics are the love, the docility and the humility of Christ), then they are converted to mere intellectual ideas and cognitions that rarely express the Truth. And then, unfortunately, they are kneaded into the egotism, the vainglory and the other passions that lurk inside Man’s heart, and they incite him towards a hatred of every opposition; to malicious slander, perhaps even to murder. We know that numerous and bloody battles and slaughters were committed by (inappropriately called) “Christians”, in the name of a certain dogmatic difference.
As we have mentioned many times before, the dogmas are NOT the causes, but the pretexts for all divisions, battles and murders. The causes are far deeper, and they are not located in the brain, from where all philosophical and theological perceptions spring and are therefore wrongly labeled “Christian dogmas”. These causes are located inside the heart of Man, as the Lord Himself had pointed out: “…for it is from within the heart, that wicked contemplations, murders, adulteries, thieving, false witnessing, blasphemies come forth…” (Matthew 15:19). So, the heart is the instrument that we must first cleanse, in order that our intellect may thereafter become clean, to perceive the true Christian dogmas.
4. Fanatic dogmatism can cause an equally catastrophic a-dogmatism
The last time, we had outlined the historic course that the distortion of the term “dogma” had followed; in other words, how the dogmas – from God-revealed theoretical as well as practical truths of the Christian Faith – were almost entirely stripped of their practical aspect, to degenerate into mere philosophical views, on which all heresy leaders based themselves (and continue to), so that they can create their own groups and systems.
Obviously, therefore, these “dogmas” (with the misconstrued sense of the term of course) provoke resentment and denial in many people, precisely because they comprise the means of dividing and fanaticizing most of those who belong to the Christian world. There are many who react to the very sound of the word “dogma”, because they link it to a certain leader-inspirer, to whom are (almost blindly) obeisant a group of fanatic followers, who look upon the “others” as (at least) lacking in Christian truths and deserving of eternal damnation.
Thus, when most people notice this warped usage of the term “dogma” and its tragic outcome, but continue to remain ignorant of the proper and “middle path” of the Truth, they are led passionately to the other extreme, by maintaining that the dogmas in general - regardless of their origin – are harmful and catastrophic. They even go as far as sometimes declaring that the dogmas actually alienate Man from God, because they “inflate” his intellect, they become fanatic, and finally, they obstruct Man from focusing his endeavors to uphold Christ’s practical commandments. In fact, they often say that “what you believe” is of no value; only finally “what you do”. In this way, they are gradually led to the rejecting of every theological dogma, always with the reasoning that it divides people and does not unite them, and they thus proclaim the path of good deeds; in other words, the path of the good and benign person.
A perception and predisposition such as this, initially seems good and proper and praiseworthy; especially to those who have felt the pain and the sorrow that comes from the results of fanaticism that originates from the barren and venomous hyper-dogmatism that we mentioned previously. Nevertheless, a perception such as this, (i.e. of a denial of every dogma and its replacement by the theory of good deeds), is equally catastrophic and harmful and perhaps even more dangerous than the aforementioned one, for reasons that we shall explain right away. Because, if the former (placement) is a distortion of the words of the Gospel, where anyone can interpret it the way he wants, the latter (placement) is, essentially, the denial of God’s Logos – of the Gospel of Salvation – and its substitution with a humanist-type purpose of life; in other words, with a system whose center is not God (Who offers salvation to the sinner, gratis), but Man, who strives to perfect and fulfil himself on his own. You can see now, that although externally and superficially, the rejecting of dogmas as an ideology (that supposedly divides people) may seem appealing and good, deep down at its core is hidden the serpent of apostasy and the erroneous choice of Man to strive for perfection on his own – to become god on his own. The thorough denial and rejection of dogmas - in other words “a-dogmatism”, which essentially has humanism as its façade - is probably more dangerous than its other, sickly antipodes: hyper-dogmatism.
5. A-dogmatism leads to relativizing, levelling and spiritual desolation
We live in an extremely difficult yet extremely noteworthy era, from the point of view of how rapidly historical events develop. Knowledge has multiplied; communications connect people instantly, in whichever part of the world they may be; information is exchanged “en masse” and rapidly, at every corner of the earth, and it is only natural that Man’s History has entered into a new phase.
It is now difficult for us, even to simply observe scientific, technological, or political and religious developments that are taking place in our time. Let us just pause for a moment on the latter – i.e., on the political-religious developments – and draw from them some information that pertains to the topic we are examining.
In our day, one observes an –assuredly disproportionate– “outbreak’ of new religious groups and organizations with the Christian faith at their center, but also of eastern religions and esoteric and occult trends. Some of these groups are characterized by a fanaticism that is attributed to the intense and religious adherence to their dogmas. However, a vast number of these religious groups – regardless whether Christian or not – all project the perfecting of Man as their epicenter, either to oppose, or perhaps even as a reaction towards, the other groups. And the thing we should notice here is that they do not present themselves as opposing the others; in fact, they acknowledge the other groups as being “other paths” that likewise lead towards the same goal as them. In other words, they are telling us that it is of no significance, if you are a good Evangelical or a good Roman Catholic, or even a good Buddhist or Hindu; the important thing is for you to be a good person. What you essentially believe in, is of no importance, since all religions say the same things more or less, and their objective is Man’s perfection. They are therefore arguing that all religions are simply different paths that have the same destination.
The results of this perception, this ideology, this religious, after all, teaching of “a-dogmatism” are of course unifying and concentrative. That is, we observe a tendency to no longer divide or split religions into smaller ones, but exactly the opposite. Many small religious groups are seen to approach one another and to finally merge - in essence, but quite possibly formally also, just as we can observe the same thing slowly happening in the political sphere – at a state level. In other words, following the nationalist (that is, the divisive) outbreaks that were defused with wars, one now observes a tendency towards unification (in essence a levelling) of peoples in large, uniform complexes with a uniform economic, administrative, but also cultural system. One such example, in which our own country is incorporated and daily experiences the deterioration of its traditional civilization and its assimilation, is the European Union. But the two movements of a worldwide character have names. The levelling, cultural unification is called “New World Order” and the corresponding religious unification is called “New Age”. The combination of the two trends may promise a peaceful world, but this peace in no way resembles Christ’s peace; rather, it resembles the peace that one sees in a sleeping or a deceased person. And naturally, the world that will eventually be embracing the Antichrist will be –thus– somehow unified and doped – or spiritually dead.
The Apostle John narrates: «…And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and the mouth of the beast and the mouth of the false prophet three unclean spirits resembling frogs; for they were the spirits of demons that performed signs which proceeded from them, to the kings of the universe, in order to congregate them all for the war of that terrible day of God the Almighty…” (Revelation, 16:13-14). All those kingdoms will be grouping together before the End, and they will all join forces against the Saints, being incited by the Devil, the demons and their terrestrial instruments.
6. The contradictions in a-dogmatism
But this is not the proper place to expound on this matter. We simply wish to stress two things: (a) that unification is not necessarily a good thing on its own, but that it depends on the objective it aspires to, and (b) that a lawless and catastrophic convergence will unite everyone against God and the Saints. Let us not, therefore, strive towards this kind of unity and confluence. A-dogmatism is a truly disturbing phenomenon of our time. And of course we are not implying that all those who have embraced it are also aware what the end of that path is, and that they are purposely pursuing it. Quite simply, most of them are totally ignorant of the truth and have reacted against erroneous hyper-dogmatism by altogether rejecting the dogmas of the Faith, one after another, indiscriminately, as though they are useless, human inventions. But are they right? Are things actually like that? Doesn’t the Christian teaching include theoretical dogmas, only practical instructions and admonitions? How can one who believes that God is only the Father be accepted – as a Christian – equally along with the one who believes that God is three equal Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? In other words, how can both sides be in the Truth of Christ, when the one believes that Christ is God and the other believes that Christ is only one of the creations, i.e., that He is just another creature? Or, even worse, when the one believes that the Holy Spirit is God, and the other believes that the Holy Spirit is just a faceless and will-less thing, like a stone? Could it ever be possible, for both sides to be right? Obviously not!
If we go even further, we could ask: “How can it be of no importance, when the one believes that Baptism removes sins and that the Divine Eucharist is a communion of the Body and the Blood of Christ, whereas the other side believes that both these sacraments are merely external symbolisms and public displays and proclamations?” The one side sees them as a means for one’s salvation, whereas for the other side, they are merely an optional (and quite possibly even obsolete) means of expressing their personal beliefs, which could easily be substituted by a sworn statement. And if these so significant dogmatic differences are unimportant, then why should it be important if the Savior is called “Jesus Christ” or “Buddha” or any other name? Where can a dividing line be drawn?
Indeed, nowhere. This is the point that a-dogmatism inevitably leads to: the thoughtless and instinctive reaction that results in a levelling of the dogmas. But Christianity is not like that. Of course there are theoretical dogmas in our faith, which, however, have direct repercussions on our practical stance. For example, the fact that God is three Persons, i.e., a communion of three Persons, shows us that Man, who is the image of God, must likewise be a communion of persons. Between the Persons of God there exists the natural and indissoluble bond of love and unity; the same should be observed in mankind. If God were one Person on His own, then love would consequently not be one of His natural attributes, while simultaneously, the model for Man would be changed, to a self-centered one.
7. Christ: Man’s hope, and his redeemer from the storm of a-dogmatism
But for the time being, we shall not go into more examples. Instead, let us read the opinions of the sacred authors of the Holy Bible, as to whether dogmatic teaching is indeed significant.
The Apostle Paul said: “Therefore, by leaving behind the initial words (writings)regarding Christ, let us move towards perfection, without depositing dead acts as a foundation of repentance and faith in God, but the teachings of baptisms and of the placing of hands, of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment….” (Hebrews 6:1-2). These theoretical topics or dogmas are therefore the foundations of Christianity. The center of the Christian sermon is neither good works, nor humanism or ecology; these are merely the fruits. The center of the Christian Gospel is Christ. “The Jews seek miracles, while the Hellenes seek wisdom. We, however, proclaim Christ, crucified….” and again: “we proclaim a secret wisdom of God, which was hidden and which God had destined before all Time, for our glorification” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 and 2:7).
We should not disregard or reject the Christian dogmas, thus altering Christ’s Gospel and serving instead the designs of the Devil and his dark powers - even if unintentionally; instead, we should approach the steadfast and balanced teaching of our Church, so that through the Grace of Christ, we may reach the stage of “the perfected man” (Ephesians 4:13) and “ready for every good labour” (2 Timothy 2:21). And let us not forget that “through the works of the law alone, no flesh shall be vindicated” (Romans 3:20); instead, “whomsoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How, therefore, shall they invoke the One in Whom they did not believe? And how can they believe in Him, if they have not heard of Him? … therefore, faith comes through hearing a sermon, and the sermon is the word of God…” (Romans 10: 13-14 and 17)
Let us therefore not vacate the sermon of salvation and the work of Christ and His Apostles by preaching humanism, nor amputate the Faith that is supported on two legs - theory and practice – by at times cutting off the one and at other times the other.
Radio transcript: Th. Anastasiou
Translation: A. N.
Article published in English on: 28-5-2007.
Last update: 22-8-2008.