The following is a essay written last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.
Dogma and doctrine are words heard often in a Christian context. Accusations of “dogmatism” are thrown at theological opponents, and various “doctrines” are expounded upon. Yet, discerning a real difference between the two terms can be a difficult task. The terms are not interchangeable, but enumerate important separate concepts that are crucial for the task of theology. This paper will explore the difference between the two terms, how they are related, and their importance in Christian theology.
Dogma is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.” Within a Christian setting, this is partially right. Dogma is not in fact doctrine, but could be defined as “a body of doctrines.” Most importantly, dogma is made up of assertions “formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.” For Christianity, the proclaiming body is not a church, but the Church, universal. Thus, dogma can be understood those truths that have broad agreement among Christian communities throughout time. Clearly, there are broad disagreements amongst the various communities that make up Christianity; nevertheless, there are a set of agreed-upon truths – the primacy of Christ, the importance of baptism, to name two – that can be called Christian dogma. Dogma can be understood as “timeless truths,” so to speak. Within the Christian context, dogma is specifically salvific knowledge. These are things that comment upon or increase human knowledge about the nature of God.
Doctrine, on the other hand, is defined in Merriam-Webster as “something that is taught,” or “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.” More specifically, doctrine are the specific appropriations of dogma that mark the boundaries of difference amongst Christian communities. Doctrines are the specific positions churches take on different issues of practice, tradition, and theology.
The differences that arise over disagreements about doctrine create and shape various Christian traditions. As a result, these traditions serve to make visible the shape of doctrines. These traditions arise as Christians respond to specific historical circumstances that shape their experience of God. Thus doctrine, rather than being knowledge about God, is rather the response of humanity to that knowledge. Doctrine arises as a result of response to dogma.
Oftentimes, doctrine gets mistaken for dogma. This is problematic because disagreements on these doctrinal issues that harden into dogmatic statements become the hard edges that serve to fracture communities. Understanding and preserving the difference between the two is important for maintaining the shape of the Christian tradition. Whereas dogma is constituted of pieces that are not up for debate, but which are understood to be timeless and unchanging, doctrine is in fact changeable and up for debate.
In The Faith of the Christian Church, Tyron Inbody describes a helpful difference between the two concepts in his glossary of terms. Doctrine, he writes, is “an agreed-upon teaching of the church which has been declared to be an official teaching in some kind of assembly.” (Inbody, 341) Dogma, on the other hand, he defines as “an official teaching of the catholic church set forth in creedal for through a church council.” (Inbody, 341) In other words, statements of dogma can be found in church creeds, such as the Apostles Creed, held to be authoritative and unchanging. Doctrine, on the other hand, is other statements about Christian worship, practice, and life that are agreed-upon and important, but which can be reinterpreted, disagreed about and even dismissed, by those in other traditions.
Despite the differences between the two, there is important interplay between doctrine and dogma. Both concepts are essential pieces of Christian theology, serving as counterbalances of competing instincts. On one hand, the existence of dogma gives shape to Christianity, establishing the borders of acceptable discourse within faith, and establishing it a religion of universal truths, unchanging and unchangeable. On the other hand, doctrine allows Christianity to retain flexibility, to be a faith that can be responsive to the needs of specific people in specific places and times. The presence of doctrine that can be debated and changed means that the border of the faith, while real and important, is also permeable, allowing in a variety of voices and ideas.
Doctrine and dogma are two sides of a single coin. Both are crucial components of Christian theology. However, it is imperative that Christianity works to educate believers on the differences between the two, and why those differences matter.