Since writing the first installment of this article, several people have asked me to define how things fit into each category: dogma, doctrine, and tradition. (See the definitions in the sidebar.) I am gratified that so many were willing to interact with this concept – it is essential to our ability to help others understand the tremendous task of doing good theology.
Dogma separates believer from unbeliever.
Doctrine separates us by emphasizing denominational distinctives and beliefs.
tradition separates us by emphasizing culture and preference.
Rather than answer all the questions, I’ll ask further clarifying questions and suggest relevant issues for each area of theology. One pastor said that he could not think of a single area of the doctrinal statement of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) that is not dogma. That kind of thinking illustrates the purpose of the first article. We must acknowledge that some of these categories will differ depending on personal theological commitments, but the exercise will be the same.
The first area of consideration is what I called dogma. This is asking the question: what does a person have to believe in order to be saved?
Begin by asking, “What does my six- or seven-year old child need to know to be saved?” They need to know about Jesus: that he was God, born of Mary who was a virgin, that he lived a perfect life, obeyed God at all times, and died on the cross for our sins. He was buried and rose again on the third day and is coming again physically to take us to live with him forever. I think a six- or seven-year-old can understand these concepts. Can they explain the Virgin Birth? No! But then again, I am not sure I can, other than to say it was a miracle by the Holy Spirit. Do they need to understand the Trinity? No! They just need to know that Jesus was God! These are parts of the Gospel –but the Gospel is not a set of theological propositions but rather a person. We need to introduce our children to Jesus Christ, tell them the truths about Him, and let the Holy Spirit and the Trinity work on opening their eyes and giving them understanding of the truth.
The second category is much bigger – doctrine. In fairness, this category will contain doctrines that bump almost to the level of dogma but don’t cross the line that defines what a person needs to know and understand about the Gospel in order to be saved. In this category belong all logical constructs used to define our theology and determine our affiliations and even denominational distinctives. Here the FGBC Statement of Faith is a wonderful document to populate the category of doctrine, but with caution. We have often moved elements of tradition to the level of doctrine. This becomes somewhat of a problem for those who are now questioning not only what we stand for as Grace Brethren but also if we need to distinguish ourselves at all.
In the Statement of Faith, the statement on the Bible is doctrine. A child must believe that the Bible is true for salvation (so that is dogma) but not the full statement on the inspiration of the Bible (which is doctrine). Again, our statement on the One True God is doctrine, but the needed element of dogma is that Jesus Christ is God. The next statements on the Holy Spirit and Man are doctrine, as is much of the information in the section on Salvation. The information on the Church and the Christian Life is doctrine, but some of the elements in the Christian life as stated belong to tradition when we try to put them into practice in our present cultures.
The Ordinances are doctrine, but again, there are elements of application which become tradition when put into practice. For example, the doctrine of baptism of believers is clear, but if we have a specific commitment to a particular mode and allow for exceptions, we, by definition, make our mode a preference and not a doctrine–thus making it an issue of tradition. We are willing to acknowledge that it is an issue of obedience, but there are exceptions. Communion is also an issue of both doctrine and tradition and the church needs to discuss the issues of form and meaning.
The statement on Satan is doctrine, as is the article on the Second Coming. The particular view we hold, pre-tribulation-pre-millennialism, is an issue of doctrine not tradition. We form a logical construct for which we do not make exceptions for form and therefore we need to be careful not to relegate this to a secondary doctrine. Our section on the Future Life is also doctrine.
Issues of tradition that sometimes get confused with dogma and doctrine involve form for the ordinances. For example, we believe in anointing the sick, but there is no biblically prescribed oil that must be used…we surmise it is olive oil because of where it comes from but whether it is extra virgin, virgin, or non-virgin olive oil is not prescribed. If we make this an issue for fellowship or even membership, we err by mistaking the intended meaning of the ordinance. Some other issues of tradition which we sometimes raise to the level of doctrine include days and times of services, Sunday morning services, Sunday School, evening services, attire for services, music, musical instru- ments, etc.
Issues of doctrine that are raised to the level of dogma include Covenant vs. Dispensationalism, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, women pastors, etc. There are elements of some of these systems that directly affect one’s view of dogma and what is necessary to be saved, but the systems themselves are issues of doctrine. The point is that it involves some difficult and hard work. Before this present generation, we simply elevated everything to dogma and basically said, “you are not saved if you don’t believe like me.” That is simply not true. Our job is to analyze our statements and determine which are non-negotiable and which have exceptions, then humbly admit that the non-negotiable statements are doctrine and the exceptions are tradition no matter how strongly we state otherwise.
I recognize that i have opened a larger can of worms because I have set further parameters around the discussion of weighing theology, but it is important for us to consider these things in order to defend what is worth dying for (dogma), and lovingly accept that there is room for believers to disagree in both the area of doctrine and tradition.