Early last month Peter Enns published an article titled “Experience Teaches Us to be Radically Undogmatic.” My immediate thought when I read the title: “How very dogmatic of Dr Enns.”
I then proceeded to read the article, which, as it turns out, consists of a lengthy quotation from the great German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. I have never read Gadamer, but I have read reflections on hermeneutics that have been dependent on him. I certainly find myself sympathetic with the citation and its affirmation of existential openness. It reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s critique of tradition and the falsification of experience in his poem “East Coker”:
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The Gadamer citation also reminded me of an excellent, and neglected, book by Lesslie Newbigin: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Incorporating the philosophical insights of Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as the deep wisdom he acquired from years of missionary work in India, Newbigin teaches us that the gospel itself confronts as a fact that demands to be self-evidently believed:
Now it is beyond question, however we may evaluate the fact, that Christianity began with the proclamation of something authoritatively given. Paul presents himself not as the teacher of a new theology but as the messenger commissioned by the authority of the Lord himself to announce a new fact—namely that in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus God has acted decisively to reveal and effect his purpose of redemption for the whole world. Obviously the New Testament contains many differing interpretations of this fact, but it is always one fact which is being interpreted, what my old teacher Carnegie Simpson used to call “the fact of Christ.” And, whatever their differences, New Testament writers are at one in regarding this fact as of decisive importance for all people everywhere. (p. 5)
It is impossible for me to assent to the suggestion that Christians should be radically undogmatic in their faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel invites us to appropriate itself so deeply that it becomes the foundational dogma through which all of reality may be apprehended truly. As Newbiggin elsewhere writes: “It has never at any time been possible to fit the resurrection of Jesus into any worldview except the worldview of which it is the basis” (Honest Religion for Secular Man, p. 53).
Newbiggin would have had little sympathy for the biblicist-inerrantist position against which Enns is battling, but I think he would want to remind Dr Enns and all practitioners of the historical-critical method that the Enlightenment critique of certainty is itself open to critique and doubt. All forms of intellectual inquiry are grounded on philosophical preconceptions that are simply assumed and taken for granted. We cannot doubt everything. That would be to saw off the limb upon which we are sitting. “There is need,” Newbiggin comments, “for what Polanyi calls the critique of doubt. When we undertake to doubt any statement, we do so on the basis of beliefs which—in the act of doubting—we do not doubt. I can only doubt the truth of a statement on the ground of other things—usually a great many other things—which I believe to be true. It is impossible to doubt both the statement, and the beliefs on the basis of which the statement is doubted” (Gospel, p. 19). Newbiggin then goes on to say what needs to be bluntly asserted: “The contemporary opinion—very widely held—that doubt is somehow more honest than faith, is an entirely irrational prejudice. It is a form of dogmatism which is entirely destructive” (p. 20).
We are all practicing dogmatists. But there is dogma and there is dogma.
I understand why evangelicals like Enns are talking about creative role of doubt in our spiritual and theological lives (see, e.g., his article “The Benefit of Doubt“); but I find his anti-dogmatism philosophically naïve. We may, and sometimes must, question the adequacy of our theological constructions; but if we wish to be authentically Christian, we can only do so as dogmatic Christians. And it doesn’t matter whether we now live in a modern, post-modern, or whatever world.
When I left the Episcopal Church ten years ago and entered into the Roman Catholic Church, I partly did so because I believed that the Catholic understanding of magisterium and ecclesial infallibility offered a viable escape from the corrosive skepticism of the Enlightenment ideology that had taken possession of the Protestant Churches. John Henry Newman’s critique of “private judgment” had become for me compellingly persuasive. His solution was ecclesial infallibility, with focus on the bishop of Rome. But it did not take me very long to acknowledge that ecclesial infallibility can also be invoked to support beliefs and practices that in the end I could only judge to be, at best, misguided or, at worst, wrong and destructive. Even on Rome’s side of the Tiber I found myself exercising that very same private judgment that Newman excoriated. When I realized that I could not believe as Newman believed and could not wholeheartedly commend to my non-Catholic brethren the Roman Church, I concluded I had chosen wrongly. Some have suggested that I converted to Catholicism for unsound reasons or that I had not adequately assessed the cost. Perhaps. But this can only be discerned in hindsight, after experience has tested one’s faith and revealed those motivations that are hidden to ourselves when we make such decisions—and there are always hidden motivations! Our Lord reminds us how easy it is to see the mote in our brothers’ eyes, while not noticing the plank in our own (Matt 7:3-5).
And so I severed communion with the Roman Church and entered into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I did not do so in a triumphalist way. I have been too painfully humbled. I entertain no romantic illusions about Orthodox ecclesial life or the state of Eastern dogmatic theology. I do not seek a nice tidy escape from modernity—no such tidy escape exists—nor do I have any truck with the demagogic anti-Westernism that I see in the writings of internet Orthodox apologists and many 20th century Orthodox theologians and Athonite ascetics. Anti-Westernism is so very Western. An Orthodox theology that is content to simply quote the Fathers, thus avoiding the necessary wrestling with the difficult questions posed by modernity, is hardly worthy of the term “theology”—it is mere ghetto ideology. Thus Sergius Bulgakov:
The limitation of dogmas to a particular period would mitigate against the very existence of dogmas, since it would apply human limitations to divine fullness. Dogma is not only static in its given character, but is dynamic in its role, or its development. And this dynamic character is expressed in dogmas’ unfolding in history, and also in our understanding and explication of them in dogmatic theology. While they are given in the lived experience of the Church they are realized and crystallized in dogmatic thought and dogmatic creation, outside of which there is no dogmatic theology. Outside this context they are transformed into a dry and dead inventory. The creative task of dogmatic theology today is often replaced by the quasi-apologetic task of confessionalism—the defense and explication of Orthodox dogmas in distinction or opposition to the non-Orthodox. In spite of this, theology must address itself to the positive and active unfolding of Church teaching; it must be included in Church life; in other words, it must become mystical, liturgical, and vitally historical. This teaching must not be afraid of new dogmatic problems, but rather address them with full attention and with the full strength of creative daring. (“Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” in Tradition Alive, p. 76)
I guess I have wandered a bit from my initial reflections on Enns, Newbiggin, and modernity. I do not have solutions to the confusions in which we now live as modern people. It’s easier for me to see the errors that I think we need to avoid than to advance a philosophy that resolves all of our hermeneutical and theological conundrums. In the end all I can do is put my trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who so categorically and dogmatically declared: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).