The necessity of dogmatics

Editors’ note: 

The article has previously been published in a different form on the Danish Christian website Tilliv.dk

Should ordinary, regular Christians engage with dogmatics—those seemingly archaic doctrines behind their beliefs? In my Danish context I have often encountered those who argue that dogmatics is a field reserved only for theologically educated individuals. “Regular Christians” (whatever that means) should instead focus their time and energy on relevant and current topics (climate, refugees, etc.). And certainly these topics are important as well. Why concern ourselves with questions that we may not perceive as relevant to our personal lives?

Or to put it differently: Doesn’t the Christian faith involve much more than just knowledge?

Doctrine alone isn’t enough

Firstly, this is not an irrelevant question to ask. In fact, it touches on a nerve within Christianity that we shouldn’t dismiss too quickly. When the New Testament speaks of “knowing the truth” or when Paul in Colossians 1:9–10 talks about being “filled with the knowledge of his will,” we cannot simply reduce it to a theoretical question of knowledge or understanding in a Western sense. When the biblical authors talk about knowledge, it is often better understood as an expression of a relationship that involves much more than mere information.

The Christian faith always entails a personal commitment (or put more biblically: conversion) that makes a difference in lived life. Without this personal dimension, there is no biblical notion of faith.

We all have a doctrinal faith

Secondly, the question of “why doctrine?” is a peculiar question that reveals that one might need to revisit one’s own journey of faith. Because, in fact, all of us already believe in some doctrines, whether we acknowledge it or not! When we say that we believe in a good God or express a specific notion of who he is, it is essentially an expression of a doctrine: “I believe that God is good … God would never do that …” etc. These are descriptions of God.

Such sentences are an expression of a particular conviction about who we believe in. Indirectly, each of us carries with us some form of doctrinal faith. I am therefore convinced that becoming aware of dogmatics is a good thing for all believers. This awareness allows us to examine our beliefs, noticing harmful, false, or unhealthy aspects hidden in our understanding of who God is or who we are before him, allowing us to adjust or correct our understanding, bringing our beliefs back into alignment with God’s word.

Indirectly, each of us carries with us some form of doctrinal faith. I am therefore convinced that becoming aware of dogmatics is a good thing for all believers.

This doesn’t change the fact that the Christian faith is not a theoretical system, a matter of simply ticking all the right boxes on a piece of paper. No, the Christian faith is a living relationship with a living and existing God! And in certain periods of history, this has probably been an important reminder to the church. However, I’m afraid today it’s like adding water to a mill that’s already functioning well, to use a typical Danish expression. Culturally, we are in the age of subjectivity where emotions, personal experiences, and an emphasis on authenticity are paramount. As a result, Christianity and faith are often reduced to the experience of the world of faith.

The dimensions of faith

To give a somewhat provocative example: musical worship during Sunday service is experienced by many (at least among those I speak with) as the primary place where their faith seems to thrive. This is perhaps because their faith is felt and experienced in a particular way through this practice. In itself this is not a problem.

The issue arises when this particular practice—corporate worship—becomes the entirety of one’s Christian life. Faith can feel distant on a Monday morning when the euphoria of Sunday worship for many has diminished to spiritual hangovers.

In what sense do we then believe when God cannot be felt or experienced? What is faith, anyway?

Faced with such questions, there is a crucial reminder we encounter in both the Bible and the history of the church: Faith in a Christian sense has both a subjective and an objective dimension. We can talk about personal faith (the faith that believes/I believe) and then we can talk about the actual doctrine of faith (the faith that is believed/what I believe in). Those born in the 80s and 90s grew up in a time where the cognitive aspect of Christianity—knowing and having knowledge about Christian doctrine—had been de-prioritized in many churches. As a result, many intuitively perceive it negatively or problematically.

The Danish theologian, Leif Andersen notes:

… unfortunately, Christian dogma has a bad reputation. You can hardly mention anything more life-hostile than ‘dogmatics” and “doctrinal teachings.” Perhaps because one only discovers the greatness and beauty of Christian doctrine when it becomes one’s last defense against despair … (Leif Andersen, Kroppen og Ånden I (Fredericia: Kolon, 2015), p. 70)

Herein lies an incredibly important reminder: Faith is indeed more than knowledge, but it is also knowledge. Faith, in a Christian sense, believes in something—or rather, someone. When doctrine is based on the words of the Bible, it is not just a human system, but a description of who God is and how he is. And it is this objective foundation that can prove to be a liberating reality.

Faith is indeed more than knowledge, but it is also knowledge. Faith, in a Christian sense, believes in something—or rather, someone.

In a time when Danish and Scandinavian culture teaches us that experiences should turn us inwards, and faith is fundamentally perceived as a spirituality that rests within itself, Christian faith is focused outwards.

Focused on Jesus. Jesus, the very Word of God (John 1:1).

Subjective faith lives and thrives on objective doctrine.

Dogmatics: Highly relevant 

Believers often remind one other that God cares for them, particularly in times of difficulty. Now, the question is: How do you know that? How can we confidently say that a holy, transcendent God cares for small, ordinary people in the midst of their lives? Is it because we can see it and always clearly feel his care? Certainly not, as our personal experiences quite often cause us to feel quite the opposite.

There are many people in the world for whom existence is terribly tough, and it may feel like God is simply absent and distant. So then, how do we know that God cares for us? Essentially because of this: his Word and his promise. When Peter writes about “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), it is a significant doctrinal statement. It is an expression of doctrine that personal faith thrives on. The Bible doesn’t negate the experience of faith, the lived life, but it gives faith a direction. It constantly points us towards an objective reality; the reality that dogmatics describe.

Doctrine is not “ours”

The idea that one can—or should—be corrected in doctrine is quite a surprise for many Christians. Isn’t doctrine just my personal conviction, or the church’s (or some churches’) interpretation of what we perceive as central?

No, not only that. While there is personal conviction and interpretive elements in presenting dogmatics, the goal of all Christian doctrine throughout church history has fundamentally been to convey God’s self-revelation. Doctrine is not “our doctrine” in that sense; rather, doctrine is God’s presentation of what he wants us to know about him. And therefore, biblically informed dogmatics can and should correct our thoughts about God, aligning them with God’s thoughts. To know God is not just an experience in the heart; it is also a concrete cognitive knowledge and understanding that involves the mind.

We do not “own” doctrine but are obligated to represent it based on God’s word, as far as we see it.

Most Read