Definition, Sources, Content and Method of Dogmatics

a. Forms and character of Dogmatics

Dogmatics – as a particular ‘branch’ and ‘lesson’ of Theology – appeared in the West for the first time and was introduced in the Orthodox Theological Schools during later times. A major characteristic of this branch, as compared to other lessons of Theology, is its systematic character. While other branches of Theology are preoccupied with the dogmatic belief of the Church, Dogmatics approaches this faith by theme, and systematically expounds it.

The Church’s systematic preoccupation with the faith appears during the patristic period for the first time, especially with Origen (his work “On Principles”), and in a strictly organized way with Saint John the Damascene (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith). Ever since that time, this subject has continued to develop in the West during Medieval times (Thomas Aquinatus, SUMMA) and during the post-Reform period, with the blossoming of Confessional Theology, in which Orthodoxy (wrongly) participated (Mogila Confession, Cyril Lucareus, Dositheos etc). In later times (after Eugene Vulgaris), this phenomenon blossomed in the 19th century (Athanasios Parios “Epitome” 1806. Moschopoulos “Epitome of dogmatic and ethical theology”, 1851. Especially among the Russians, we note the Metropolitan Anthony, Makarios of Moscow – both widely acknowledged).

In the 20th century, Z. Rossis is in the lead in Greece, with Ch. Androutsos as the central person; I. Karmiris and P. Trembelas follow, basically correcting Androutsos but still maintaining the same method and division. This branch was successfully cultivated in the Theological School of Chalki, by the Metropolitan of Myra, Chrysostom Constantinides. A new boost to Dogmatics was given by John Romanides, with his persistence that the character of the dogma entails the experience of it, and also his search for the patristic roots of the dogmas, as opposed to Western Theology.

However, systematic preoccupation is not the only form of dogmatic theology. This species didn’t exist in the Bible or in the Fathers of the first century; instead, a circumstantial dogmatic theology prevailed, in the following forms:

 (Ι) Adorational and mostly Eucharist:

Christological hymns in the New Testament, which Paul discovered in the first communities (i.e., Philippians 2). These comprise theological-dogmatic elements for his entire line of thought. The same applies with the literary content of John’s Gospel (John’s Gospel is considered by many as a Eucharist-liturgical text; if not entirely, then at least in its basic core. As for the Gospel’s prologue, it most probably comprises liturgical material that John found to be used in worship). Peter’s literary work also: (Peter’s Epistle A is quite possibly a baptismal Liturgy), etc. The same applies to the Eucharist references of the first centuries, which comprise forms of prophetic-charismatic theology by the bishops that headed the Eucharist congregations (who –by the way- were initially free to improvise, as testified in Justin, the Teaching, etc.)

 (ΙΙ) Baptismal

The baptismal form, along with the catechist preparation that preceded it. This is also the chief source of Symbolic Theology (i.e., the Symbols of Faith). All Symbols were Baptismal and they remained thus during the first centuries. For example, the 1st Ecumenical Council (Synod) uses as the basis of its Creed the baptismal symbols of the local Churches.

 (ΙΙΙ) Anti-heretic

This form boosted the development and expansion of the initial baptismal symbols to a broader range of symbols, in order to confront the dangers of heresies (i.e. Gnosticism, Arianism, etc.). In this context, Patristic Theology (Irenaeus, Athanasios, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor etc.) attained special importance and evolved as opposition, and were not intended as a positive exhibition of faith.

 (ΙV) Synodic

and especially the Ecumenical Councils (Synods), which originated from a combination of anti-heretic theology (=the exclusion of heresies), and the baptismal-symbolic theology. Thus, the terms and the symbols of the Synods -as well as many of their Canons- likewise comprise fundamental forms of dogmatic theology.

 (V) Empirical

This is a form of theology that originated in the ascetic (mainly) experience of the Fathers, which is of special significance to the Orthodox. Here, the maxims of the desert Fathers, the works of Saint John of the Ladder, Maximus the Confessor, Simeon the Young Theologian, the Esychasts and especially Gregory Palamas, all express dogmatic theology through ascetic experience.

Because of all these elements, Dogmatics is basically an experience, an empirical issue, and not a matter of intellectual perception or the presentation of logical proposals. It is not a matter of approving and confessing truths that are merely directed at one’s mind and logic, but are empirically experienced relations between man and God.

From this last point it can be surmised that the meaning of empirical experience should not be understood as reverential (=a psychological experience of the person), or as ethical (=a specific behavior of the person - certain actions of his); it should be understood existentially, in the broader sense of the term, which relates to ontology. In other words, Dogmatics involves issues that relate to the very being of a person (=to exist or not to exist), and such issues are –for example- the naught (“non-being”) (=creation), life and death as terminal points of existence, the created and the uncreated as an issue of freedom (of being), the person and love as the borderline distinctions between man and animal (=the moment during which man is either elevated as a man, or falls), in other words, the problem of evil and sin – and generally everything that touches on fundamental and ontologicalmatters, and not merely on matters of life improvement (i.e., the organizing of social life in a more productive way etc.. Certain theologians preoccupy themselves mainly with this, in the West).

A result of all these positions is that Dogmatics always pertains to vital issues, of salvific significance; the Church always dogmatizes in order to save, and not in order to enrich our knowledge of God, the world etc.. Each dogma of the Church and each synodical dogmatic decision always pertains to a specific problem of salvation; this means that our entire relationship with God and the world changes in a dangerous way if a certain dogma is not accepted, or, in the opposite case, it will be formulated in a salvific way for us and the world, if the dogma becomes accepted. Consequently, in Dogmatics we must always seek the salvific significance of the dogmas and not just present them dryly, like logical “formulas”. This is what we mean by existential comprehension of the dogma or empirical theology in its true sense.

Thus, Dogmatics has to always strive to interpret the dogmas, and not preserve them or present them as expressed in their original form. This subject is huge and extremely sensitive, and needs to be analyzed.


b. Dogmatics as Hermeneutics (Interpretation)

1. The problem of hermeneutics (interpretation) is of timely importance, not only for the dogmas, but for the Holy Bible itself. I would say that hermeneutics itself is essentially the problem. Just as the Bible is a dead letter when not interpreted, thus the dogmas become fossilized and museum items – archaeological objects – which we simply preserve and describe if we don’t proceed to interpret them. One could say that the dogmas are essentially the interpretation of the Bible.

2. The interpretation of the dogmas or the Bible involves two limbs:

a. The attempt to comprehend faithfully (not anachronistically – which is a difficult thing, as it needs good historians) the historical reality, in the framework of which the dogma (or the Scripture) was expressed. This involves the following questions:

Ι.   What kind of problems did the Church have to confront during that historical period? 

ΙΙ. What means did it resort to, to solve these problems ? In other words:

Α. What kind of written and verbal tradition did the Church have at its disposal? (Holy Bible, Tradition etc.)? (Every Synod would always take into account any previous tradition).

Β. What kind of vocabulary and meanings did the cultural environment of that era have at its disposal?  (for example, the 4th century uses the word “homoousios” –of the same essence- which the New Testament doesn’t have, while the 14th century includes other meanings etc.) 

C. What kind of experiences (worship, ascetic living etc.) did it have?  (for example, martyrdom in the New Testament, the icons in the 7th Ecumenical Council/synod, Esychasm, etc.)

All of the above must be taken into account, in order to form an idea of the historical environment. Without an accurate historical basis, every interpretation would be a risky one. The interpretation of the Bible is not possible, unless there is previously an accurate and subjective (as much as possible) research into the historical background, as with the dogmas. We need to see which problems led to the drafting of a dogma; what kind of literary and philosophical material the Fathers utilized, and from what experience (worship, ascetic etc.) the formulation of the dogma sprang. An able dogmatist must also be an able historian. 

b. The attempt to locate and to define contemporary problems that demand evaluation, for example:

Ι. Possible new heresies or new, agonizing questions of mankind, always of a fundamental character (nowadays the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.; also technology, ecology etc.)

ΙΙ. The vocabulary and the categorizing of that time (we saw how the Fathers were also contemporaries of their time, yet without remaining fixed to the letter of the New Testament – see reference on ‘homoousios’)

ΙΙΙ. The adorational and ascetic lifestyle of the Church (which cannot essentially differ from the old one, but is possible for it to have varying forms and emphasis, for example martyrdom, mental prayer in the specific Hesychastic form, the influence of monkhood on the ‘secular’ services of the Church – Hours, etc. – and the gradual disengagement from it - albeit incomplete and inconsistent, as observed for example in our days. All these are indications of a shift in emphasis in the adorational and ascetic experience, which cannot but affect the interpretation of a dogma.

In order to provide a good interpretation, the dogmatician must not only be a good historian, but a good philosopher as well (with philosophical thought and a knowledge of contemporary philosophy), and he must also have a poemantic disposition (love towards mankind, leaning over their problems etc.). He is also obliged to be familiar with the liturgical experience and the life of the Church and itsCanonic structure, because these elements also express the dogmatic faith of the Church. (Of course all of the above cannot be concentrated in one person in a unique way - in other words, a unique researcher of all the above – but he must, if he desires to be a good dogmatician, be keptinformed of the latest positions of the specialists in those individual areas).


c. The Dogmatics method

As you can see, Dogmatics has a broad spectrum of research and presupposes a manifold knowledge as well as sensitivity and creative thought. It is for this reason, that the Dogmatics method must include:

A. A very general plan or structure, which would be the Symbol of Faith (Creed) as it had always prevailed in Baptismal and Eucharist worship. The reason this structure is recommended, is that it was basically upheld during the Patristic era, and also, because it is linked to the very structure of relations that God – through Christ and in the Holy Spirit – had provided for our salvation.  You must observe here that, when the subdivision by theoretical material of topics such as Triadology, Christology, Salvation, Sacraments, eschatological, etc. is not directly linked to the structure of the Symbol of Faith  (Creed), it becomes dangerous. This was developed in the West and was copied by the Orthodox, with the Russians and Androutsos at the lead.

Β. This plan has to be very general, so that it may accommodate the various components. For example, in the sector on the Holy Trinity, reference can be made to the Church and vice versa. Or, on the Sacraments, to End Times etc.. In this way, Scholastic Dogmatics that came from the West is avoided. However, analogies must always be maintained, as we shall see in the respective chapters.  

C. Verification and a faithful presentation of the significance of dogmas in their era are imperative, i.e.: What kind of problems did they have in mind, and what means (literary-philosophical) did they use, to confront those problems? In other words, Orthodox Dogmatics must always contain an element of history; if it lacks a solid dogmatic history, then it cannot become part of Orthodox Dogmatics.

D. Attempts should be made to interpret each dogma, with the following as guides:

Ι.  By linking it to the adorational and ascetic experience of the Church (e.g., Christ, as the Son of God: how He is worshipped and how He is experienced within the Church?).

ΙΙ.  By linking it to mankind’s most fundamental existential problems during each era, such as: the quest for freedom, love, the transcendence of death etc. (example: the significance of faith in a Trinitarian God in each of these cases).

ΙΙΙ. By linking it to mankind’s current problems. This is mainly the field of Ethical Poemantics, but it should be prepared –at least with cues- by dogmatic theologians. (for instance, current day social problems, issues that are raised by technology, ecology, etc.)

ΙV. By linking it to the broader problems of Knowledge nowadays, as posed by Natural Sciences etc.

Professor Metropolitan of Pergamus and  Chairman of the Athens Academy I. Zizioulas