Gospel, Grammar, and the Infallibility of Dogma

Dogmas are the constitutive doctrines that define the Christian faith. Such dogmas must be believed by Christians, because they articulate essential dimensions of God’s self-revelation in Christ and thus norm the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. I have found Lutheran ecumenist George Lindbeck of great assistance in understanding the role and function of dogma in the life of the Church. In his groundbreaking book The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck likens a religion to a language system, constituted by beliefs, stories, symbols, rituals, and moral and ascetical practices. A religion is a culture that forms our lives and experiences, our hopes and fears. “Like a culture or language,” he writes, “it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of subjectivities. It comprises a vocabulary of discur­sive and nondiscursive symbols together with a specific logic or gram­mar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed” (p. 33). Lindbeck notes that virtually every religion—and most certainly Christianity—is commit­ted to affirming specific propositions as ground and guarantee. These propositions instantiate the deep grammar of the religion and therefore must be judged infallible:

These are those central propositions which are essential to its identity and without which it would not be itself. They are sure, certain, and unques­tion­able, because to suppose that it is possible that they might ever be shown to be false is to envision the disappearance of this particular religion, of the faith by which one lives. The believer can, of course, envision this possibil­ity, either abstractly or by having real doubts, but insofar as he is within the circle of faith, the central credal affirmations are essential, unquestion­able, infallible … In short, and stated abstractly, infallibility may be regarded as the objective property of unquestionability derived from the logically indispensable role which an affirmation plays within a given religion. (“The Infallibility Debate,” in The Infallibility Debate, pp. 117-118)

Lindbeck proposes that within the Christian reli­gion doctrines function as grammatical rules, as communal norms that stipulate how we may speak and live the Gospel rightly. Many of these rules are of a purely practical nature: “gather on Sundays and celebrate the Holy Eucharist,” “pray to the Father through the Son in the Spirit,” “invoke the intercession of the Theotokos and the saints,” “venerate the icons,” “give to the poor” “forgive one another.” These practical directives should not be considered as arbitrary impositions. They express the will of the Lord for his Church: to faithfully live the gospel, order your corporate and personal life in these ways. Other rules concern beliefs of the Church and their proper verbal enactment: to speak the gospel rightly, say ___ and not ___. Over the three decades of my active parochial ministry, I found that parishioners and catechumens immediately resonate to the analogy of doctrine as grammatical instruction. We may have hated learning English grammar in middle school, but when we grow up we are usually grateful for the teacher who drummed it into our heads. A grammarian seeks to articulate the ways a language works. He identifies the rules that one must follow if one wishes to communicate well. One of my grammar books states: “A verb should agree with its subject, not with a noun placed between the verb and its subject.” We know that the rule is “true,” because when we violate it, our hearers immediately give us a quizzical look. When we fail to obey the gram­matical rules, we end up speaking nonsense. And so with the Christian faith: when we disobey the doctrinal rules, we end up distorting the faith we seek to proclaim and live.

The Christian faith is replete with second-order formulations of the divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles; but only some of these doctrines have acquired the status of dogma. The Church moves a doctrine to the status of dogma when she throws her total authority behind it, fully committing herself to the doctrine and binding her members to it. As fluent speakers of the language of faith, under the inspiration of the Spirit, the bishops of the Church declare to the faithful the grammatical rules of gospel proclamation; by the same Spirit these rules are recognized by the faithful as fundamental, permanent, and irreversible. Dogmas constitute the formative norms governing Christian proclama­tion and the Church’s interpretation of her Holy Scriptures. They ground the identity and life of the Christian community by their specifi­cation of the syntactical structure of faith. They are infallible and binding precisely in the sense explained above. If the Church were to depart from them, she would in fact cease to be Church and would become a different kind of religious community.

A dogma tells us how we may properly speak and embody the language of faith. The Orthodox Church looks to the dogmatic definitions of the Great Ecumenical Councils as promulgating the fundamental norms for Christian discourse. The Council of Nicaea confessed that Jesus Christ is homoousios (“of one substance”) with the Father. Formu­lated as grammatical prescription, the dogma may be stated, in the words of St Athanasius: “And so, since they are one, and the Godhead itself one, the same things are said of the Son, which are said of the Father, except His being said to be Father” (Contra Arianos 3.4). The First Council of Constantinople extended the Nicene rule to cover the Holy Spirit. The Council of Ephesus promulgated the directive that Blessed Virgin Mary is rightly acclaimed Theotokos. The Council of Chalcedon: when you speak of Jesus of Nazareth attribute to him both human and divine predicates—just be sure not to mix them up or confuse them. The Second Council of Constantinople added: Jesus of Nazareth is hypostatically identical to the eternal Son; hence we rightly declare that the Second Person of the Trinity suffered and died on the cross. The Third Council of Constantinople further refined the Christological grammar: do not collapse the human will of the incarnate Son into his divine will.

At this point readers may well be asking themselves, Aren’t you confusing grammatical rules and propositional truths? Here we may have hit the limit of the “doctrine as grammar” analogy. Linguistic rules do not instantiate truth claims, but dogmas certainly do. When the Nicene Fathers confessed Jesus Christ as homoousios with the Father, they certainly intended to say something true about an extramental entity. Robert W. Jenson is undoubt­edly correct when he observes that “theological propositions seem, however, never actually to appear as pure grammatical rules” (Systematic Theology, I:18). The regulative force of a given doctrine would seem to be inseparable from its material content, though the relation­ship may not be as obvious as we might think. When a doctrinal controversy erupts, is it because the intellectuals recognize at the discursive level a departure from the theolog­ical tradition, or because the faithful have experienced a deep, perhaps tacit and inarticulable, violation of the faith? We experience more than we know; we know more than we can say. We may not be able to recite the grammatical rules, yet we still recognize when the language is badly spoken or not spoken at all. The Nature of Doctrine generated significant debate, and resolving the issues is beyond my competence. But given the pastoral usefulness of the grammar analogy, let’s stick with it as far as we can.

In Orthodox understanding, a dogma is without error, which is to say, it does not mislead as instruction in the speaking of the Christian faith. Hence the Church is entitled to command the faithful to perform the dogma, and the faithful are entitled to trust that when they do they are speaking truly of God and directing others to the salvation of Christ. A dogma may be depended upon; it will not lead the Church astray in either her evangelis­tic mission or catechetical teaching. This does not mean that the dogma fully or even adequately states the mystery that the dogma seeks to protect. It does not mean that the Church was wise to define the dogma at the time that it did. It does not even mean that further dogmatic clarification may not be necessary. It only means that given the theological and philosophical, and perhaps conflicting, understandings of the council bishops, and given the political, cultural, and ecclesial necessities and pressures, the dogma was the least worst formulation that could be made at that time. It does not formally teach falsehood, even though its performance in ecclesial life may subsequently prove its homiletical or theological inadequacy.

A dogma qua dogma possesses a status of irreformability or irreversibility. Jenson elaborates:

Some but not all doctrines are dogmas. The distinction is perhaps most clearly marked by the notion of irreversibility. Every theological proposition states a historic choice: “To be speaking the gospel, let us henceforward say ‘F’ rather than that other possibility ‘G.'” A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel; thus no church thereafter exists to reverse the decision. Therefore, to believe that the entity which now calls itself the Christian church is the church of the apostles and to believe that the church’s past dogmatic decisions were adequate to their purposes—not necessarily in every way appropriate to them—comes to the same thing. If, for example, the decision of Nicea that Christ is “of one being with the Father” was false to the gospel, the gospel was thereby so perverted that there has been no church extant to undo the error. (I:17)

Protestantism has historically denied the infallibility of dogmatic decisions. As the Anglican Articles of Religion state, ecumenical councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” (XXI). At least theoretically, the Church might revisit the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon and ask, in the name of sola scriptura, whether they are correct interpretations of the Bible. But the Orthodox Catholic Church has wanted to say something stronger about her dogmas. Not only does she believe that they are true expressions of the faith, but she also recognizes in them a quality of finality. We may liken the Nicene homoousion, for example, to the putting together of a jigsaw puzzle. After centuries of reflection and vigorous debate, the pattern of Trinitarian faith finally became clear. The Church found a way to break free of the inherited subordina­tionist metaphysics, while at the same time maintaining her monotheistic and Trinitarian commitments. All the pieces came together as a coherent whole. From this point on, the full divinity of the incar­nate Son could never again be called into question. The Orthodox Church knows, as she has always known, that Jesus Christ is “of one being” with the Father. She has apprehended the completed jigsaw puzzle, and this apprehension lies deep in her dogmatic consciousness. If the Orthodox Church is wrong about the consubstan­tiality of the Father and the Son, then no Church of the Apostles presently exists to correct the blunder. So with all the ecumenical dogmas. Orthodox Christians trust that by his Holy Spirit the risen Christ has protected the Council Fathers from defining a doctrine that would irretrievably lead the people of God into nongrammatical speech or erroneous thought. In this specific sense, a dogma may be said to be infallible and therefore trust­worthy. Once defined and received by the Church, dogmas are recognized as belonging to the deposit of revelation (cf. “Dogma and Doctrine in the Orthodox Church“; Stylianos Harkanakis, “Dogma and Authority in the Church“).

However, this does not mean that a dogma may not be refined, improved, or reformulated; indeed, such reformulation may prove necessary in order to faithfully assert the gospel under different cultural and philosophical conditions. Theological reflection does not end with dogmatic definition. The history of dogma witnesses to this ongoing process of clarifica­tion, refinement, and revision. The anath­emas of Ephesus needed to be supplemented by Chalcedon, which in turn needed to be clarified by II Constantinople. Doctrine develops, even though some Orthodox theologians are loath to admit it (see “Doctrine Grows“). “The Church’s teaching lives forward,” writes Richard John Neuhaus, “and no definition, including that of coun­cils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.”

(Go to “The Infallibilities of Christ Pantocrator”)

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30 Responses to Gospel, Grammar, and the Infallibility of Dogma

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I am an Anglican. We disagree with the position of the eastern Orthodox church on some things, but would never on that account insist that eastern Orthodox Christians were not Christian. From the above, and the list of “dogmas”, is it the case that this courtesy is not returned, and I would be regarded as not just in error by the eastern Orthodox church (which is fair enough) but as not a Christian at all?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ian, please elaborate on why you have drawn this conclusion from this article.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        “A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel”
        I am all on board with the notion that there are essential definitional constituents to what constitutes a Christian – it would be difficult to assert oneself a Christian if you did not believe in God, or the divinity if Christ, say. What the article does, though, is seek to elevate the particular dogmas and practices of the eastern Orthodox church (the veneration of icons is given as an example) to this definitional status, excluding from the “community of the gospel” those who consider themselves Christian and seek honestly to follow the teachings of Christ and the apostles but who do not (albeit for the sake of argument wrongly) share these particular dogmas.
        This may not have been the intention, but it is certainly the effect. I appreciate the desire to define what is or is not an orthodox Christian, and that the distinction is important, but it is done in a way that seems to exclude a Christian in error on any of the eastern Orthodox’s church’s dogmas from being correctly regarded as a Christian at all.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thanks, Iain, for the clarification.

          The quotation you cite was in fact written by a Lutheran. I have simply appropriated it to Orthodoxy. A Roman Catholic might well invoke it also. Jenson’s statement makes more sense within either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, I think, given that both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches understand themselves as being the Church in a way that Protestant churches do not and cannot. Some Anglicans, as you know, have sought to thread the needle by the advancement of branch theory ecclesiology, but given that the theory effectively disenfranchises other Protestant communities, the majority of Anglicans have either ignored or rejected it.

          Neither the Orthodoxy nor the Catholicism think of themselves as denominations. Both understand themselves as Church. Both practice closed communion. Needless to say, Christians who live outside the respective canonical boundaries will understandably feel miffed, excluded. I felt that way, too, when I was an Episcopalian. But of course it was unfair of me to blame the Orthodox and Catholics because they did not adhere to a Protestant ecclesiology.

          Over the 6+ years I have tried to maintain on this blog an position of ecumenical respect. That’s part of the reason I have avoided ecclesiological issues. But periodically such a topic becomes the subject of my writing. If I write on dogma, I cannot write on it as if I were an Anglican (though interestingly the view of dogma I have advanced in this article is basically what I taught as an Episcopalian, minus the “Orthodox”). My parishioners recognized that I was more “catholic” than Anglican and just ignored my teaching. By the mid-80s the Episcopal Church was on its way to embracing a dogmatic inclusivism, which rendered my view on Church and authoritative doctrine antiquated, if not “heretical.”

          It is also the case, however, that both Orthodoxy and Catholicism have been involved in the ecumenical movement. That too must be taken into account. Orthodoxy has not developed theological justification for this involvement in the depth that the Catholic Church has. Some Orthodox are very committed to ecumenism; others reject it. For a middle road position, see the Russian Orthodox document “Basic Principles of Attitude to the Non-Orthodox.”

          Iain, you’ve been a faithful reader of this blog for the past several years. I’m sorry that this article has offended you. My counsel: think about the piece, identify agreements and disagreements. No reason why we cannot discuss these questions with respect and charity.


          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            Thanks for the clarification. I had a look at the link and came away with this quote: “…communities which have fallen away from orthodoxy have never been viewed as fully deprived of the grace of God.”
            As an Anglican, particularly a Church of England Anglican, we do tend to be dogmatically ecumenical in a way that many other traditions are not. However, a thing is either true or it is not, and the Orthodox church I think has to an extent a better attitude than my own in asserting that what is true is true, whether those who do not agree like it or not: it is in how one regards those in error, other than in insisting that the error is an error, that I think caution is required. I don’t mind being regarded as a Christian with my head on backwards, and told so, so long as there is at least an agreement that I am a Christian trying my incompetent (and perhaps hopelessly grammatically incorrect) best to seek the same Christ.


    • Grant says:

      Sorry if I seem to be butting in, but perhaps Iain it would be best to understand this as more of Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic (Roman, Byzantine, Chaldean etc), or the ancient Church of the East (or Assyrian Church, sometimes but I think erroneously and insulting called the Nestorian church) saying instead that this is where the Church definitely is. This is where it is in it’s fullness, as a positive affirmation rather than saying negatively that that or those people are where the Church is not. Their are affirming that this is the Aposlotic faith is fully revealed, enacted and participated in, where the ‘community of the gospel’ to use the Lutherian quote, and the reality of the Gospel, and the revelation of Christ is seen and known clearly here, not that it isn’t known elsewhere. As some Orthodox I have heard say, it says where the Church is, not where it isn’t, nor where it’s limits are and so on.

      To use the grammatical metaphor, it would be saying this where the grammar and language is heard, spoken and used fully and correctly, with consequently clear and unconfused communication and formation, with the culture it is a part of being clearly illuminated and understood by all. It would be say in English, understanding and communicating in English correctly and fully, and in England specifically would lead to a fully understanding of English and the English culture it grows from, however there are throughout England many forms of slang and colloquial ways you will find English spoken. Sometimes can veer significantly from grammatically correct English (and of course if you go to an international level this becomes even more pronounced), and even sometimes be almost unintelligible if you are not used to it (definitely at least in some localities within England 😉 ). However it’s still clearly English, and participates in English language and culture etc. So as I read both the quote and how Father Kimel developed this post, it would be saying on this metaphor this is where the grammar and language of the Gospel is heard fully, clearly and correctly, with clear understanding, not that it isn’t being ‘spoken’ elsewhere. Again more of positively saying this is where the Church is, not negatively this is where it isn’t, and this is where the Gospel is revealed fully and clearly, not that it isn’t being revealed elsewhere. And certainly I didn’t take it to be saying that non-Orthodox, or even non-members of the ancient Churches are not Christians. And while no doubt the polemical spirit of the past still lurks in parts of all these communions (as they do in many Protestant confessions as well) so you will hear some voices with bigotry denouncing all outside their communion as not really Christian at all I don’t believe that is true to either the spirit or the view held by any of these confessions.

      I think this article Father Kimel once posted a link to can also help, it’s from a Roman Catholic perspective so Orthodox Eastern or Oriental and Church of the East might take issue with some part or other, but I think overall it gives a good understanding.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Art says:

    “If the Orthodox Church is wrong about the consubstan­tiality of the Father and the Son, then no Church of the Apostles presently exists to correct the blunder.”

    This leapt off the page. It’s conspiracy of the age in which we live.

    There are many in the neo-Protestant world who believe this to be true and that they, through the Bible only (some going so far as to say King James only), know true doctrine.

    There are others who acknowledge the Trinity but look down on, even shun, ‘doctrine’ and ‘dogma’ (and ‘religion’) as if it they are bad words and seek to return to the “purity” of the faith as found in the Acts of the Apostles. They too go the Bible only route (yet, ironically, establish traditions of their own; this is why so many non-denominational churches have a similar vibe and pattern).


    • Art,

      I’m not really disagreeing with you as much as sharing some thoughts your comment and this post brings to mind. As a Protestant I do disagree many Christians whom I know and love that there is any returning to the kind of church that existed in the apostolic church. If one studies some church history it would be clear that even at the earliest stages of the church there were glaring problems (heck, even in the canon – the Corinthians were a rowdy bunch). But, I do understand the sentiment, there is so much of what passes for Christianity that doesn’t seem very Christian, so the impulse is that if we can only go back then we’d discover a purer form of the faith. In my experience in these circles, I would simply say that the Christianity they practiced is markedly different than the Christianity of the 1st and 2nd centuries. To be fair, I don’t think any branch in Christianity looks as it did in the early church, and this might not be entirely a bad thing, but clocks always run forward and religions develop in the currents of time.

      I do wonder, as a Protestant, if after 500 years of Sola Scriptura, either as it was confessed in the Magesterial Reformation or as it is commonly understood today has solved the problems we hoped it would. We have a distinct form of Christianity, but I can’t say it is more or less pure than Orthodoxy or Catholicism, and we certainly are no nearer to recapturing the dream of the early church. For all our many faults, Protestantism at its best remains lively and vibrant and carries a good deal of the load of evangelization (even if our converts move on to older forms of the faith in time) throughout the world. At our worst we are a damn mess of infighting, dangerously novel doctrine, and saccharine religion that is little more than therapeutic.

      I often wonder why I remain Protestant, since I think that much of what we hold as distinctive in our doctrine, for example justification by faith, can (and has been) framed in ways that are more broadly ecumenical. What I keep coming back to is the issue of authority and its abuses down through the centuries. Dogma is vital, and we ought to confess it truly, however I believe that Christ constitutes his church, and our dogmas and doctrines can only attempt to describe this faithfully. It is our vital connection to a Person that we are a church at all, and to me questions of dogma and institutions (necessary though they be) are secondary to him. If the church’s institutional power structures had a better track record of using authority in a way that comported with the character of Christ and if our dogmas were used like a shepherd’s staff and not a blunt-force weapon, I would be more willing to grant them the pride of place that they are claimed to have. Alas, we are all too human, and it is my suspicion of power and my conflicted love for my own tradition that keeps me Protestant – but I don’t hold any illusions that we will ever ‘go back’ to a purer day. If there are purer days for the church they lie in dealing justly with our present problems and moving faithfully into the future.


      • Art says:

        Beautifully written and well expressed. The ‘conflicted love’ sums it well. To your point that Protestantism, warts and all, does much good I completely agree. This verse from Philippians, though perhaps lacking context, gives me hope as long as, to your point, our eyes remain on Christ (‘who do you say that I am’ is a question we must continually pursue).

        “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15-18, NASB)

        And to your second point:
        “At our worst we are a damn mess of infighting, dangerously novel doctrine, and saccharine religion that is little more than therapeutic.”

        It is this, more than anything, that concerns me most. I think far worse than the ‘prosperity gospel’ so rampant (and televised) is the ‘self-help gospel’ that makes up so much of the Church circles in which I run where the latest YouTube self-help seminar doesn’t look or sound too terribly different from a Sunday church service, especially considering these self-help folks often drop a ‘Jesus’ in there every now and again.

        Yet, other more ‘institutional’ Christian denominations aren’t helping themselves either by going too far left or right on the political structure in an effort to be relevant or when they are unwilling to surrender their power to the individuals who truly constitute the Church.

        A dangerous, yet exciting and hopeful, time to be a follower of Christ.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. villanovanus says:

    Theological reflection does not end with dogmatic definition. The history of dogma witnesses to this ongoing process of clarifica­tion, refinement, and revision.

    Talking about “clarifica­tion, refinement, and revision”, compare the following:

    [Nicea 325] “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father”

    [Constantinople 381] “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages [pro pantôn ton aionôn]”

    The Conciliar Fathers needed to add that before all ages clause at Constantinople, so as to sanction, with a collective sleigh of hand, an “official” understanding of the godhead that had changed over the 4th century, to a large extent thanks to the philosophically unwarranted differientiation between ousia and hypostasis. Most of all, though, it was introduced thanks to a “political compromise” between the neo-Nicenes and the semi-Arians.

    It may come as a surprise to many that the “before all ages” clause first appeared where one would hardly expect to see it, in Arius’ Letter to the Emperor Constantine, in 327 ( NPNF2-02, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book IIChapter XXVII @ ccel.org ], a “creed” compiled by Arius and his deacon and supporter Euzoïus, along the lines of the Nicene Creed of 325, which easily procured for them the return from exile and the return in the favor of Emperor Constantine. Which should prove how ineffective (and unfortunately open to later “adjustments”) was the Nicene Creed for the purpose for which it was officially defined: the definitive quashing of the Arian heresy.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Villanovanus, at this point I need to ask you to sit on the sidelines and just watch the discussions. This article is intended for Christians who stand within the ecumenical tradition. Thanks for respecting my request.


  4. David Fincher says:

    Thought provoking, as is the norm here. I have a problem that knots me up. Perhaps you can help?
    The Patriarch of Constantinople inquired of pope Honorius on the two wills question on behalf of the armperor and entire Church. Honorius gave his answer affirming Monothelitism. At that point, wasn’t there universal agreement of all 5 Patriarchs that freed the Emperor to proclaim that the issue was settled in favor of one will?
    It would be the second subsequent pope that would rise up in opposition against this seemingly settled dogma, demanding it’s overthrow and proclaiming pope Honorius a heretic that misled the Church.
    If I have the facts incorrect, please correct me.
    I will very gladly be shaken from my disturbing current understanding.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      David, not exactly sure what the problem is as you see it, but precisely because the array of questions related to Christ’s will wasn’t settled (contrary to hierarchs’ proclamations to the contrary), the pressing need for an ecumenical council was in order. Five hierarchs Christ’s church catholic does not make.


  5. Tom says:

    Fr Al,

    First things first. You have violated the infallible grammar of hypertext linking! At the very end of your piece you say “…writes Richard John Neuhaus…” and you’ve hyperlinked his name without making it blue and underlining it. See Ecumenical Council of World-wide Web! Be restored to the right path my son!

    On your basic line of thought, I find it difficult to disagree. If the Church screwed it up fundamentally in the creeds, then we’re simply screwed, and there’s no way to get back to the source of the Nile and track it from its source to its faithful instantiation today in 2019. Jenson’s logic seems fairly irrefutable.

    I’d just add two thoughts. First, I do hear now and then from people something like this: “Yes, of course, we can’t tamper with the creeds. They define the grammatical outline of what’s to be said/confessed and what can’t be said, but whose to say what the confession MEANS?” and so while agreeing that the linguistic form of, say, Nicaea or Chalcedon, is binding, they go on to fill the form with revised meaning, and sometimes meanings quite (to me) incompatible with what the Church has traditionally taken those words to mean. My point: Without identifying the meaning/content of dogma, supposing some ‘form of expression’ to be infallible ends up being a fairly useless infallibility. I know Process theologians who agree (with Chalcedon), “Sure, Jesus is fully God and fully man,” but only because they construe ‘divine’ in terms that make it possible to ‘say’ but not ‘mean’ what the Fathers said/meant. I think you touched on this – but I wish more of a point would be made of it.

    Secondly, while I agree (and I do, so far as I can tell) with all the dogmatic confessions of the Ecumenical Creeds, I’m not sure that means relating oneself to these truths ‘savingly’ has to happen within the traditional ecclesial forms (say, Catholicism or Orthodoxy). My sense is the truth of these dogmas transcends the limits of the traditions that first expressed them. “I have sheep that you know not of” comes to mind as a kind of analogy. I wonder whether Luther, in walking away (if that’s what he did) from Papacy and its perceived errors, believed himself to be stepping outside the reach, or belief in the infallibility, of the dogmas/creeds. See what I mean? So, to say the dogmatic affirmations of the Ecumenical Creeds are infallible doesn’t itself prescribe where and how faith may experience the realities to which the dogmas point.

    Just a thought.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I actually had a link in earlier drafts to the Neuhaus piece. Not sure how it dropped out, but thanks pointing it out to me. The link should now work.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I will jump in, Tom, I just can’t help myself. Paragraph 4 creates the problem of paragraph 3. Dogmas did not come about nor were meant to be understood as standalone nuggets of truth. I don’t know what faith in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ may mean apart from the interpretation that the fathers provided when they created that particular dogma. And historical evidence is clear what they meant by having a ‘savingly’ relation to that truth: to be a practicing communicant in it, in body, mind, and spirit.
      Luther would have been a fool to think that breaking with Rome was breaking with the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.’ I don’t think he believed that, and evidence is his new ecclesiology and that of those who followed him.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding your first thought, Tom, and the challenge of revising meaning. As you know, I saw this up close during my 30 years in the Episcopal Church. It was this kind of revisionism that prompted the Baltimore Declaration. What did I and my five other co-authors learn? In the absence of irreformable dogma (which of course still must be interpreted), a Protestant community is incapable of resisting the corrosive winds of modernity.

      Regarding your second thought: the Creeds, like the Scriptures, do not stand alone, as if one could just pick them up and figure out their meaning. Their proper interpretive context is the Holy Eucharist and the sacramental gifting of the God-Man. I suggest we must think of Creed and Eucharist as mutually interpreting (or something like that). When we wrench the Creeds (and the Scriptures) from the grammatical structure of the Divine Liturgy (or Mass), we will inevitably start looking for new interpretive contexts for them.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Excellent piece, Father. This clears up a good bit of muddled ideas that I had and opens up more questions. Are dogmas alone the object of Faith for Orthodox believers? That is, are there truths of faith that must be believed by the faithful which have not been dogmatically promulgated? For the sake of example: the sacrament of confession was not defined as a sacrament instituted by Christ in the first seven ecumenical councils (as far as I know). Must all Orthodox hold that the Sacrament of Confession remits sins?

    Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Why would the Orthodox not believe that confession remits sins? It is Christ to whom one confesses, and it is Christ who remits. One can draw here on the faith which has been dogmatically expressed, traditioned, and practiced in and by the community Christ himself establishes.


      • If the sacrament of confession (this was just one example) was not explicitly defined/promulgated at an ecumenical council then it would not be dogma per se. Nonetheless, the rejection of said doctrine would still, it seems to me, be contrary to the Orthodox Church. If this is the case, should we not conclude that certain doctrines (in this case a doctrine about a sacrament) must be accepted even if not dogmatically promulgated? Perhaps such doctrines fall under Bulgakov’s “dogmatic facts of the life of the Church,” somewhere between dogma and theological opinion. Your thoughts?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I agree, Nick. I think of the sacramental events of the Church (the Mysteries) as belonging to the primary level of the language of faith. They are givens about which the Church theologizes—and dogmatizes, if necessary—in second-order reflection. The Latin Church was forced to dogmatic definition about the Sacrament of Penance because of the Reformation disputes, but the Eastern Church has largely been spared such disputes.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Here’s how I see it Nick. The richness of life is not confined to dogma to be utilized in a reductionist fashion to find the barest of necessary faith. Dogma is an expression of an experienced faith and as such dogma points to something greater than itself, beyond itself to a life lived in God in all its fullness and dimensions – sacramental, liturgical, theological, pastoral, etc. Dogma is not the ‘all in all’ but I see it more as a set of doctrinal goal posts if you will – to stay within the bounds of the life lived in God and and lived together. A good way to understand this life lived together in God is the notion of Sacred Tradition. And now we are very far off from any reductionist schemes 🙂

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          • Thank you for the helpful distinctions, gentlemen. As a Roman Catholic (once evangelical Protestant) finding myself turning ad Orientem in my theological reflections and, especially, ascetical practices, I’m trying to understand the nature of dogma, faith, and tradition in Orthodoxy. Newman and Thomas have been my bread and butter for the last decade so I’m sure my questions will continue to be loaded with western assumptions. Please continue to suffer my inquiries.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Nick, you’re going to find a significant amount of diversity on questions of dogma, infallibility, and authority among Orthodox theologians. No council recognized by the Orthodox has ever addressed them, so it’s not as if there is a definite and binding Orthodox position. We certainly acknowledge that dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Council as irreformable, but beyond that the sea divides.


          • To be honest, despite the persuasive power of Newman, I find the same diversity in the Catholic Church.


  7. Pingback: Gospel, Grammar, and the Infallibility of Dogma — Eclectic Orthodoxy | Meeting the Living God Where Patristics Intersects With The Modern World

  8. Fr. Isaac Skidmore says:

    I think this is very well put. I find it helpful to think of traditions as having cores and edges. The core represents the tradition’s conservative function. A healthy core both guards the deposit that is already there, and yet remains appropriately open towards new information that emerges from its edges. The new information is interpreted according to the principles embodied and enshrined in the core, but also nourishes the core by keeping it connected to the world in which those principles must be applied, and over time becomes integrated into the deposit that makes up the core itself. It becomes part of the tradition’s living memory—its working DNA. In this model, traditions can be evaluated as to whether their cores are overly rigid or overly permeable. There are plenty of examples of both, and a single tradition can suffer from one excess or the other at various times.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Excellent essay. I have a love/hate relationship with the analogy to grammar. It’s a pretty good metaphor, but the problem is that grammar changes according to usage. It is evolutionary in nature. Thus the grammar analogy worked well when I was Protestant, but has some fundamental problems now that I’m Orthodox. The problem is, I don’t know a good alternative to the grammar analogy.


  9. John H says:

    Following up on Father Isaac’s comment, protecting and respecting human life is surely a core principle/dogma in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. As a native New Yorker, I am therefore appalled by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s celebration of the enactment and signing of the Reproductive Health Act on January 22, 2019, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This monstrous law facilitates the procurement and performance of late third trimester abortions by providing that an abortion may be performed at any time to protect the life and health of the mother. Of course, the law does not define any guidelines to be used to determine whether the mother’s health is truly at risk. The matter is totally delegated to the judgment of the mother’s medical provider. Thus, under this law, a late third trimester abortion could be performed on a perfectly healthy infant just because her doctor has determined that her major depressive disorder will be exacerbated by the birth of another child! This goes far beyond the standard set by Roe v. Wade; it practically legalizes infanticide.

    Many New York Catholics have called upon Cardinal Dolan to excommunicate Governor Cuomo, who at least describes himself as a practicing Catholic. But really formal excommunication seems to be beside the point, since the Governor’s position most cerailnly contradicts a core principle of the Catholic faith, which is the protection of human persons at all stages of life.


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