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Anti-dogmatism

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 7 April 2008


Anti-dogmatism is that movement in the Protestant churches that would dismiss the authority of dogmatic theology inherited from the past. In particular, it means the rejection of the ancient creeds of the Church and of the great systems of theology past and present. This movement arose in the Church of England in the late 17th century under the pressure applied by the new thinkers in philosophy and natural science (not distinguished then as they are now).

The figure that overshadows all in philosophy was that of John Locke who proceeded to develop a view of the nature of man as an individual being responsible for what he believed and dependent upon his own senses for all knowledge. Thus, for Locke, each man was his own orthodoxy. This was in line with the current optimistic faith in reason on the one hand and the reformation slogan of sola scriptura on the other. According to Chillingworth, the Bible and the Bible alone was the religion of Protestants, thus marginalising post biblical proclamations of the church in the form of creeds and dogmatic theology.

Nothing in theology was to be believed that did not find warrant in scripture or could not be understood in the light of reason. Of course, the fear of Rome stirred up by the Catholicising leanings of James II fuelled this movement, for was not Rome guilty of abandoning scripture for the doctors of the church? The glorious revolution of 1688 in which James was deposed and William and Mary invited to take the throne opened a new era of toleration in religious ideas which the anti-dogmatists found to their liking.

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The other ingredient to this combustible mix was the horror felt at the burning and torture of heretics. A new age was to begin in which the right of Protestants to free belief and discussion were affirmed. Here again, Locke took the lead with his essay “On Toleration” whereas his book The Reasonableness of Christianity affirmed that reason and scripture alone were sufficient.

The colour of enlightened thinking in England was entirely different from its counterpart on the continent in that it was a movement from within Protestantism with its major contributors being clergymen. In contrast to enlightenment thinking in France which was opposed to the ancient regime of church and state, English enlightened thinking produced an alliance between the new thinking and the church.

But this alliance came at a cost, which was that the old doctrines of the church, particularly that of the Trinity, were brought before the court of reason and found wanting. The new age was to be founded not on the obscure and insoluble arguments that occurred in the early church and in the medieval scholastics but in plain common sense according to the dictates of reason and scripture alone.

There was, of course, opposition to this movement which affirmed much of the post biblical thinking, especially that concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, and it can also be said that this opposition largely won the day. However, once the seed of anti-dogmatism was sown it was difficult to eradicate.

It is obvious from my experience in both the Uniting and Anglican churches that anti-dogmatism is alive and well. There are many clergy in both denominations who proudly turn their back on the formal study of theology, many congregations in which the creeds are never heard in the liturgy and whose study materials avoid the great theological themes. Dogmatism is understood as standing in the way of pastoral care and unacceptable to the ordinary believer.

The slogan of the reformation of sola scriptura may have meant something at the time it was coined when it was obvious that the church had largely lost contact with the gospel, but in retrospect, it robbed the church of essential theological developments. It was surely not the intention of the reformers that the decisions of the early church concerning the name of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit were to be discarded because there were some verses in the Bible that did not seem to fall into line.

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It seems incredible that some take up positions in the church while proclaiming that they are not theologians. Of course everyone is a theologian, we all have ideas about God, even the atheist has them. But it is incredible that the ordained, especially, can proclaim that theology is largely a waste of time. This means that their theology exists only in shorthand and not at depth.

What is left is the beauty of the liturgy in some denominations and a secular version of pastoral care. While the beauty of the liturgy is important, preaching suffers and the liturgy gradually loses its wellsprings. The explanation of the faith, so important in our cerebral age, is compromised. The result is a concentration on our experience of the faith instead of on the glory of God and so faith becomes seduced by pietism.

Having no basis in dogmatic theology, pastoral care can only be counselling that takes as its starting point secular theories of the human. The idea that the cure of souls found its place within the Christian story has been lost.

But the most important aspect of this is that we forget that the doctrines of the church were hammered out in response to heresy and that church and society would be very different if these arguments had not gone as they did. For example, if Arianism had won the day in the 4th century, Christianity would have been reduced to mere moralism, the art of leading the good life. While this has been achieved in our society it has been achieved despite the church’s proclamation of the event of cross and resurrection. In other words the sacerdotal power of the Christian story has been lost.

In the absence of doctrine, conversation about God will quickly become folk religion, a belief in an almighty being existing outside of our time and space but somehow able to influence events in our time and space. The theology of ancient Greece will be recurrent and will eventually be found just as wanting as it was the first time around. The God whose name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One who was and who is and who is to come will be replaced by the divine demiurge of Aristotle.

Thus anti-dogmatism represents a crucial loss of Christian culture that will, if its program is carried through, make the church indistinguishable from the culture that surrounds it. Rather than being aliens in a strange land, Christians will be like anyone else living a life of fleeting pleasure in the present and blind to the world to come.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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