Entries in Mechanics of Christianity (3)
The word “dogma” is Greek, and its original meaning in that language is “that which seems good”. Its evolution as a theological term begins in Acts 16:4….
The apostles’ hearers were called upon “to keep” what was being proclaimed to them — and the Greek word for “to keep” in this passage is psylassein, which means “to guard, watch over, protect, preserve”.
So they were not being told to “obey” these things as one obeys a commandment. Rather, they were being entrusted with a hard-won new wisdom, as a guard is entrusted with the care of a treasure (“that which seems good”). And they were being entrusted, too, with the task of converting that wisdom from theory into practice.
To entrust people with a new wisdom and a great task in this way is quite a compliment to the people so entrusted. It says that you see them as intelligent, capable and responsible, and that you see their judgment as worthy of trust and respect.
Thus the meaning of “dogma” in the mainstream Christian world has changed very significantly in the past nineteen centuries and a half: from meaning something empowering, something that “seems good” and that ordinary believers are wise and reliable enough to uphold in the best possible way, to meaning something inhibiting, something that is to be enforced on the untrustworthy by expulsion from the Church if need be.
The intriguing questions are, Why did this happen? — and, What good purpose was it supposed to serve? For we may be sure that the Church did not permit such a change without some reason that seemed good to it at the time.
The value of learning about doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith, and creeds, has to do with the ways in which thinking and talking about such things can help our communities endure in bad times, flourish in good ones, and pass on the best of what they have to new generations.
It also has to do with the ways in thinking and talking about such things can help us simply to understand ourselves.
Who are we, Friends? What are we doing? And what are we accomplishing, if anything? Bringing our doctrines, dogmas, etc., to full consciousness, helps us get a grip on some answers.
As time permits, I hope I will have an opportunity to talk with you, my readers, about catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith and creeds. But in this essay I think we need to begin at the beginning. I invite you to join me in looking at Friends from the perspective of the ways we have shaped our doctrines — and our doctrines, in turn, have shaped us.
This is an astonishing point of view, especially when one considers that Paul’s lists ranked miracle-working and healing alongside prophecy as among the “best gifts”. Ordinary people living according to Christ’s commandments, walking in Christ’s footsteps, taking up his Cross, and thereby receiving the power to work miracles, heal the sick and prophesy! Wow.
This whole idea of kharismata drives home the fact that, for Peter and Paul, Christianity was not just about “accepting Christ as your personal savior”. Far less was it only about the liberal social gospel of political and economic justice for the poor, or the Christian Right’s agenda of stopping abortion, homosexuals and socialists, or the Quaker worshiper’s hope of having a nice deep meeting for worship.
Christianity was also, and above all that, about walking the path, and thereby opening a door through which Christ himself could re-manifest in the world.