Dogged about Dogma
By Audrey Stallsmith
I've been reading The Underground Church by liberal pastor Robin Meyers, who obviously has a problem with dogma. His contention is that we can't be sure of anything, because faith isn't faith unless it requires a leap.
I agree that faith requires a leap. When mentioned by Jesus, however, "faith" didn't refer to dogma, but simply to trust in God. And, as is evidenced by Christ's frustration with his disciples, we find it hard enough to trust a supernatural Being we can see--let alone One that we can't! That is the leap required of us.
Paul, on the other hand, often called what the early Christians preached "the faith." It would include such miraculous aspects as the virgin birth and Christ's resurrection.
Once we have taken the leap to believing in the supernatural, however, those two should be easy. We shouldn't have any difficulty with the idea that the God who created human life can also bypass some of its necessities or restore it. Like Alice in Wonderland, we should have no problem believing "six impossible things before breakfast."
But, if such doctrines expose us to so much ridicule from unbelievers, are they really necessary? The simple answer is "yes." If we are sent into the world to preach the "good news," we can't be changing the story every fifteen minutes to make it more acceptable to our hearers. And that is what would happen if we were all allowed to come up with our own versions. Paul had to refute some that were already springing up in his day. We are all too quick, after all, to accept our own wishful thinking as a message from God. But, if we want to worship the real God, he can't be one that we've created in our own image.
Not to mention that going your own way may well expose you to being picked off by the first cult that comes along. When my sister dropped off a few new hens on our farm a few weeks back, we assumed they would follow our other chickens to roost safely in the barn. There, the presence of larger animals such as pigs and cows generally repels the foxes, coons, and minks that like to prey on barnyard fowl.
But the new hens preferred to go their own way, and our inconsistent attempts to dissuade them from roosting where they pleased didn't help much. We ended up with two on the front porch, one on the back porch, one in the open garage, and two in the lilac tree. Then one night a predator snatched one of the hens from the front porch.
After that, we got more serious about teaching the dogma that the barn is the safest roosting place for chickens. But we actually had to herd or carry the hens there every night for several nights, until they finally accepted the idea that we knew best.
Or perhaps they just yielded to our greater power, while still grumbling among themselves about their loss of freedom. But "freedom" is not the adjective that comes to mind when you view those in the stranglehold of any predatory cult. The Church and its dogma provide protection as well as structure.
I suspect the virgin birth and the resurrection are the doctrines most objected to because they prove that Christ was not just another human being. He was not conceived in the same way that all other human beings are, and he did not stay dead the way most other human beings--up until that point--had. (With the exception of the few who were restored to life by Christ himself or the prophets.)
So, yes, those two doctrines are essential to the faith because they prove Christ's divinity. And you cannot excise the supernatural from Christianity without cutting out the heart of it. There have been plenty of well-meaning and wise human leaders, after all, many of whom even became martyrs. But, as they were all sinners themselves, none of them could save us. As Paul pointed out, "if he [Christ] is still dead, "then all our preaching is useless and your trust in God is empty, worthless, hopeless. . ." (I Corinthians 15:14 LB)
So John advised that we test every message by asking "Does it really agree that Jesus Christ, God's Son, actually became man with a human body? If so, then the message is from God. If not, the message is not from God. . ." (I John 4:2b-3a LB) Most of the heresies veer either in the direction of Gnosticism--people who don't like the idea of God taking on a human body at all--or Humanism--those who would prefer that Jesus was only a man. Insisting on both Christ's divinity and his humanity keeps the Church in the proper balance.
"Doctrines," as C. S. Lewis points out, "are not God: they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. . .a vague religion--all about feeling God in nature and so on. . .is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way. . ."
After all, none of us have any problem accepting the dogma of Rand-McNally. Or the dogma that two plus two equals four. Or the dogma that, if I stick my hand in the fire, I should expect some pain.
"In truth," Chesterton holds, "there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't know it." And "the point of having an open mind," he points out, " like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid." "The human brain," he adds somewhat testily in Heretics, "is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut."
Granted the word "dogma" sounds dull and boring. And--well--staid. Stuck in place. But, to prevent the utter collapse of both faith and morality, we need some foundations that are stuck in place.
During World War II, Dorothy Sayers became seriously concerned about the direction Great Britain was headed. "Theologically," she wrote in an address called "Creed or Chaos," "this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope."
She was, as we can see from the state of Christianity in England today, dead right. And, as she emphasized at the time, the fact "that you cannot have Christian principles without Christ is becoming increasingly clear, because their validity as principles depends on Christ's authority; and as we have seen, the Totalitarian States, having ceased to believe in Christ's authority, are logically quite justified in repudiating Christian principles."
If Sayers were still alive, she could see the same "chaos established in the name of religious toleration" in America today. Although our nation is still more "religious" than Europe, our religion is rapidly degenerating into lukewarm pabulum.
Pabulum is soft, bland, and easily digestible food--the sort of thing my baby niece Savannah eats. But Savannah has the excuse of few teeth and little experience. Once she discovers that there is more substantial and flavorful fare out there, she will start demanding it.
But we, as a culture, seem to be regressing to infancy. The Apostle Paul wrote that "there is going to come a time when people won't listen to the truth, but will go around looking for teachers who will tell them just what they want to hear. They won't listen to what the Bible says but will blithely follow their own misguided ideas." (II Timothy 4:3-4 LB)
He also complained of the Corinthian Christians that "I have had to feed you with milk and not with solid food, because you couldn't digest anything stronger. And even now you still have to be fed on milk. For you are still only baby Christians, controlled by your own desires, not God's." (I Corinthians 3:2-3a LB) That is, no doubt, the modern problem as well. We want a God--and a doctrine--that we can control, not One who controls us.
I was sorry to hear of Charles Colson's recent death, and not only because he was the speaker at my college commencement! He was also one of the Christian leaders most faithful at reminding us how important dogma is.
As he pointed out in 2009 in his article, "Doctrine Bears Repeating," "Last June, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey found rampant doctrinal ignorance among American Christians. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals believed people who follow religions other than their own can enjoy eternal life. . .Astonishingly, about half believed that everyone, atheists included, was going to end up in heaven. Heaven for the godless? That's the old heresy of universalism. . .Some embrace another old heresy, that doctrines must be extracted from inward experience—that is, personal feelings. That's a version of Gnosticism."
What these heretics are saying, in effect, is that Christ did not know what he was talking about when he said, "Heaven can be entered only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide enough for all the multitudes who choose its easy way. But the Gateway to Life is small, and the road is narrow, and only a few ever find it." (Matthew 7:13-14 LB)
They are also saying that His sufferings were unnecessary. If everybody is going to be saved anyway, what--after all--was the point of the incarnation and crucifixion?
The importance of right doctrine cannot be overstated, as Sayers saw all too clearly in her day. She wrote urgently that "It is quite useless to say that it doesn't matter particularly who or what Christ was or by what authority He did those things, and that even if He was only a man, He was a very nice man and we ought to live by His principles: for that is merely Humanism, and if the 'average man' in Germany chooses to think that Hitler is a nicer sort of man with still more attractive principles, the Christian Humanist has no answer to make."
Besides, as Lewis has pointed out, if Christ wasn't really the Son of God then He wasn't "a very nice man." Rather, an egotistical lunatic. You literally cannot have it both ways. If you are going to take Christ's teachings seriously, then you must believe that He is the Son of God, because He gave that as the basis for His authority. If He was wrong about that, how can we trust anything else He said?
And it's not as if He was in any way equivocal about His Sonship! "Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father. Only the Father knows the Son and the Father is known only by the Son and by those to whom the Son reveals him." (Matthew 11:27 LB) "And the Father leaves all judgement of sin to his Son, so that everyone will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. But if you refuse to honor God's Son, whom he sent to you, then you are certainly not honoring the Father." (John 5:22-23 LB)
If England--the nation that produced the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, and Sayers--could slide so far from her Christian principles, there is no guarantee that America won't be next. It would be nice to believe that Americans prefer a mushy religion because we are such humane creatures that we want everyone to be saved.
But I suspect it is actually because we want to "slide by" ourselves, with a religion that provides comfort but requires little from us in return. We had better start recalling, however, that most advances we have made in the treatment of our fellowmen were based on Christian principles--and will deteriorate if those principles do.
As Chesterton warns, when a person "drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."
A mushy religion does not, after all, support people at their testing point. I doubt anybody yet has resisted temptation because "uh, well, you know, that would kind of go against the moral dictates of society." The moral dictates of society are, after all, notoriously fluid.
Those of us who know what we believe about Christ can plant our feet on solid rock instead and say, "My Lord wouldn't want me to do that. And, since He's holding my eternal future in His hands, I'd better listen to Him." That clarifies things wonderfully!