Dogma, Doubt, Modernity, and Ghetto Theology

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).

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15 Responses to Dogma, Doubt, Modernity, and Ghetto Theology

  1. Juan C. Torres says:

    “if we wish to be authentically Christian, we can only do so as dogmatic Christians”

    >>>I think we’d do well to call someone who follows the way of Christ a “disciple” regardless of their theological beliefs. And we could call someone who holds to the largely undisputed dogmas of the church (Trinity, Christology) a “Christian” regardless of whether they obey Jesus or not. Ideally, then, the goal would be for us to be both. Adhering to dogmas does not translate into discipleship to Jesus.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Juan, you are surely correct that confessing orthodox beliefs about Jesus does not automatically translate into faithful discipleship.

      On the other hand, I think it is also true that dogma and orthodoxy profoundly informs and shapes our discipleship.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tgbelt says:

    Louth relies heavily on Gadamer in his Discerning the Mystery:


  3. Kevin Davis says:

    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.

    This has been, easily, the biggest barrier in my study of Eastern Orthodox dogmatics. No, Barth and Thielicke and Pannenberg didn’t get everything right in their negotiations with modernity, but at least they tried and worked incredibly hard (and faithfully) in the process. So, we can learn from their successes and shortcomings.

    Moreover, the EO churches, whether in Eastern Europe or in the West, belong to thoroughly modern cultures. Greece and Russia are fully modern in their cultural assumptions and intellectual categories, which is why they are very secular societies, amidst superficialities that indicate otherwise. Modernity is not an entirely bad thing, nor an entirely good thing, but it requires responsible engagement to make the necessary distinctions. The Cappadocians are vital resources, but they neither knew nor anticipated the challenges facing the church today. They should be models, not substitutes.


    • jansci says:

      “Anti-Westernism is so very Western”. No truer words have been uttered about Orthodoxy at least as I have experience it here in America.


  4. Kim Fabricius says:

    Thanks. Good to hear fides quaerens intellectum quietly out loud.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I woke up early this morning, re-read this article, and ended up tinkering with it at a couple of points. I hope it’s a tad clearer.


  6. brian says:

    Hi Father,

    What an interesting and rather far-ranging reflection.

    I have a few thoughts I’d like to share. This is tangential, perhaps, but I just finished reading the 2nd edition of Tom Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God. So well done and what struck me particularly was Dr. Talbott’s recurrence to the need for a deeper imaginative approach to the Gospel. No doubt, the tradition can become sclerotic, but I think that is always a dead tradition; the kind Mervyn Peake illustrates in his Gormenghast books.

    Anyway, a living tradition is always something different. Frankly, Gadamer has usually struck me as a helpful voice. I personally tend towards a version of Christian Platonism, and Gadamer’s approach is a blend of ancients and moderns that is alive to dialogic and the dynamism of truth as an event. (He gets this partly from Heidegger.) As I understand him, his hermeneutics is meant to ward off both subjective relativism and the modern Western tendency to reduce truth to the limits of method.

    For certain, radical skepticism is a complete dead end. The post-modern critique of the foundationalism that is coincident with the modern project is in my view completely vindicated, though Hamann and Kierkegaard anticipated them and were largely ignored because of their Christianity. An excellent work on this is Paul Tyson’s Faith’s Knowledge.

    I haven’t read a lot of Enns, but my sense has largely been that he’s still too much in a reactive mode against Evangelical narrowness. Speaking of, I, too, am bothered by Orthodox provincialism, but there is so much richness in the Eastern tradition, I soldier on even when some of my favorites, like Yannaras, consistently straw man the West.

    I identify most with the eclectic Christians who attempt to synthesize the best from all the traditions. Why this is my favorite theoblog, btw.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      HI, Brian. Thanks for the comment. As you have probably guessed, I am not in any way suggesting that Gadamer’s hermeneutics can be reduced to total skepticism. I was just using his quoted citation (and especially the title of the blog article) as a springboard by which to talk a little about Newbiggin. But to make my position clearer, I have deleted the word “Gadamerite” in the article.

      And I think you may be right about Enns being stuck in a largely reactionary mode–I suppose because evangelicalism is stuck in the inerrancy war.

      But I do believe there is a tendency among Bible critics to employ critical doubt as a weapon against the dogmas of the Christian faith, as if historical reason, and historical reason alone, can ground the claims of the gospel. And I think I am seeing this in Enns. Am I wrong?


      • brian says:


        I haven’t read enough of Enns to give a proper opinion. From what I have read, I suspect those tendencies. I also think he is actually too dismissive of Evangelicals. There are some quite intelligent Evangelical scholars like John Walton who indicate that that “tradition” is not quite so hide-bound and unimaginative as Enns’ polemic would have one believe. Mainly, I don’t care for snide humor (though I like wit as one can find it in Jane Austen or Evelyn Waugh, for example.) Enns’ attacks on Evangelicals sometimes appear to me triumphalist and condescending.

        I admit, I probably fairly often feel that way about some forms of Christianity, but I wouldn’t express myself in print that way.


  7. herz1512 says:

    Being somewhat familiar with Enns, I do think his work is at times reactionary but I think that’s somewhat necessary given the environment that he works in. His most recent book has a different tone to it though. It looks just as much as what the bible is and what TO do with it as what it isn’t and what not to do.

    I also had a question on your thoughts about dogma. I’m 34 years old. I’ll admit that there is a postmodern side to me and (I believe) to many in my age range, though we often don’t recognize it. A side that is very skeptical of authority and dogma (of all types) because it is and has been so often used as a power grab. That’s not a light switch that can be easily turned off. There is so much information and so many competing ideas (not least within Christianity) that dogma becomes noise. Do you see that as relevant in your discussion of dogma and its role? Is there anything different needed for a younger generation?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, herz1512, for your comment and question. It is easy today to get sucked into some form of religious (and moral) relativism. This is the worldview into which we are born and it has penetrated into the life of many (I’m tempted to say “all”) of the Christian Churches, with the consequence that the individual believer becomes the final arbiter of doctrine. We all believe that we are perfectly competent to act as ecclesial magisterium. Who needs bishops? Who needs dogma?

      So how do we effectively address the question of dogma, particularly in today’s world. Religious and moral relativism is the worldview into which we are born, and it has penetrated into the life of many (I’m tempted to say “all”) of the Christian Churches, with the consequence that the individual believer becomes the final arbiter of doctrine. We all believe that we are perfectly competent to act as ecclesial magisterium. Who needs bishops? Who needs dogma?

      So how do we effectively address the question of dogma, when “there is so much information and so many competing ideas (not least within Christianity) that dogma becomes noise”? Really good question. One might begin with an analysis of the modern worldview that shapes our consciousness in untold ways. We are all relativists, not because we have carefully thought about the question but because we have breathed it in. Before thought and decision we were born into the world of the Matrix. Will we take the red pill or the blue pill?

      Fr Stephen Freeman loves to talk about this over at his blog Glory to God for All Things. He has been strongly influenced by the various writings of Stanley Hauerwas. And please do give Newbiggin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society a read. The wonderful thing about Newbiggin is that he spent years as a missionary in India. When he returned to England he discovered a world that he no longer knew. He had become an outsider, and as outsider he can more easily identify the myths and preconceptions that shape the Western mind. Also see his little book Foolishness to the Greeks.

      Another way to open the question of dogma is to discuss the Protestant thesis of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura goes hand in hand with American anti-dogmatism. Just give me a Bible and I will determine what God has said and is saying. Personally I believe that the Bible alone approach is incoherent and quite impossible. I shared the reasons for this conviction last year in a series of articles, beginning with “Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity.” Ultimately, I conclude, the Holy Scriptures were never intended to be read outside of the Church and her Eucharist.

      It is at this point, I think, that we can begin to think constructively about dogma. What do you think?


      • Mike H says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response and for the recommendations. I don’t really have answers. Like you said, it’s easier to see errors than solutions. Yeah, I think there would need to be a critique of our own individual and societal preconceptions and how they tangibly manifest themselves. I very much appreciate leaders and teachers who are also students of culture – who seek to understand the world as it is, not as they wish it was.

        When I read Enns statement at the beginning of your post, I probably took it a bit differently than you. I didn’t see it so much as an outright rejection of “dogma” (just based on my understanding of his work and typical audience) but more of a proper sifting between what actually qualifies as “dogma” and what doesn’t. Which gets to Sola Scriptura. Having come from a sola scriptura conservative protestant/evangelicalish tradition myself, the lines get blurry. Because sola scriptura (inerrancy/biblicism) must be defended at all costs, basically everything becomes a “gospel issue” and as equally important as everything else because of the “slippery slope”. So there is this (perhaps mistaken?) sense that dogma is this incredibly complex set of take it or leave it doctrine that a person could never hope to understand, but that a person had better confess to believe or else there is (quite literally) hell to pay. It’s just that we don’t know which set of dogma is “right”. I think Enns is saying “Lets get away from this type of faith where any little thing can completely destroy it.”

        Which gets to post modernism (which I’m kind of sympathetic to). I don’t see it as an evil thing that needs to be destroyed. It just IS, and it has it’s good and it’s bad just like modernism. It’s just “after-modernism”. It’s what comes next. And from my vantage point, it’s a somewhat natural result of seeing failures (of all types) by all types of authorities and institutions, and the world becoming smaller thru technology. To me, relativism (to the degree that it exists in practice) is a side effect or symptom more than a core attribute. I’ve never met anyone who has actually admitted that they’re a moral relativist, and certainly there is nobody who actually lives that way. It’s more about mistrust of authority and information overload and many admit that. One doesn’t know who to trust because of all the deceit and power grabs, so you’re left trying to figure it out for yourself. And that’s true with a magisterium (itself made up of individuals) as much as any one of 42,000 denominations. Again, keep my evangelicalish background in mind. We might want black & white dogma, but even moreso (I think) we say “show me”. Don’t just tell me, show me.

        So perhaps those are the questions that I’m left with. Do we understand our culture? Do we understand younger generations, or do we just get mad at them? What’s the role of dogma? Who decides what is dogma and what isn’t, and why should we trust them? And how does it all relate to “authority” for a younger generation that has a deep seeded mistrust of authority and unquestioning obedience?


  8. Jonathan says:

    Whenever I find my 30-something self having postmodern problems with dogma, I remember Dorothy Sayers’ excellent formulation that “the dogma is the drama!” It is the mystery, too, she says. For all of us modern Westerners (or postmoderns, whatever we are now), dogma becomes a problem when we expect it to behave like arithmetic, which is usually what we do. I take it to be more like prayer. At any rate, dogma is formulated in language. I tend to see the work of Wittgenstein, Barfield, Steiner, Derrida and others who in the last century revolutionized our understanding and relationship to language, as deepening rather than undermining the power of our most urgent utterances, including the dogmatic. But I think it takes faith — the foundational dogmatism Fr. Kimel is writing about here — to be able to embrace modern thought constructively, sometimes against the grain of the thinkers themselves, and usually contrary to the aims of their academic expositors. I think once we remember that dogma is made with living language, it becomes harder to treat it in the abstract.


    • Mike H says:

      Dogma as arithmetic as dogma vs living language. I’m really interested in what you mean by that. Could you elaborate?


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