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.”