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Dogmatics

André Gounelle

Translated by Jack McDonald

I was a professor of dogmatics for 28 years. People sometimes remarked that it was strange for a liberal Protestant reputed to be hostile to dogma to be asked to teach it. I always used to reply that we need to draw a distinction between dogmatics (the right use of dogma) and dogmatism (the wrong use).

In classical Greek, dogma means one’s opinions and ideas, and those taught by different philosophical schools. Christians also formulated these dogmata. This was legitimate and necessary, because they had to think through their faith, explain it and put it into words (“You shall love the Lord your God… with all your mind” says our Lord’s Summary of the Law). A stupid, pointless or voiceless spirituality would not honour or witness to the Gospel.

As it began to dominate society, the Church lent to some of its own pronouncements an absolute and unalterable value. Dogmas became supposed to express “the very content of revelation”; they were imposed on the faithful who were obliged to subscribe to them. As Auguste Sabatier (1839-1901) put it, “Dogma has become a teaching which the Church has turned into a law.” And so we slide into dogmatism, which is an idolatry of Church teaching, in the sense that we ascribe divine status to what human beings say about God.

Dogmatics, on the other hand, has the task of the critical examination of dogma. Dogmatics asks questions about the meaning of dogmas, assesses their strengths and weaknesses, searches for other possible formulations of the truth, which are better or more appropriate. Dogmatics undermines dogmatism by showing that dogmatism’s pretensions are false. Conversely, dogmatism makes the work of dogmatics impossible, because dogmatism turns dogmas from being reflective expressions of faith into being the object of content of faith itself.


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