Why is dogma important in my life?
Why do we Orthodox insist on teachings that divide us more than unite us? What difference do dogmas make in our everyday lives? Do the dogmas of faith make any difference in the way we live?
The short answer is, Yes! Dogmas “cannot be considered as abstract theological concepts, but as truths that critically concern man and his life.”1 That’s why we speak so much about dogma: because truth is our life and our way. Truth illumines our path, not only in an intellectual way, but also in an existential one.
What is a dogma?
Dogmas are the formulation of divinely revealed truths that we are not at liberty to either change or disregard. We Orthodox insist on dogmas because they are not opinions, “human precepts and doctrines” (Col. 2:22), which may change over time or change according to cultural and social changes. Dogmas concern themselves with the divine mysteries of God, which are revealed to the Saints, who already live the divine life and are in a position to give it expression. We simply follow their teachings faithfully, without swerving from them, neither to the right nor to the left (cf. Deut. 5:32). This means that we Orthodox walk on a tight rope, with the danger of falling off constantly present.
What is the relation of dogma to our lives?
In the second place, dogmas relate directly to our lives. To put it simply, one who does not have correct faith and correct dogma will not have correct ethos, because these two, the truth (dogma) and how we live it (ethos), are interconnected.
The dogma helps us to live the right life, and thus be saved. Here is an example:
The Apostle Paul teaches that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christians take the same care about their body as they would with the Church. As one beautifies the temple of God and decorates it with holy icons, censes it and conducts holy services in it, so with our body: we have a reverence for it, we honor it, we keep it holy, with our prayer, with the guarding of our senses, we purify it with our virtues, and we ready it, so that the Holy Spirit may come and dwell in it. The teaching of the Church and of the Fathers is that we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16) and images of God (cf. Gen. 1:27). This is how we view ourselves and one another. Of course if all we see in us is an animal existence, without soul, without spirit, without any purpose and goal in life, then we will treat it accordingly, and we will behave as animals.
In matters of faith there cannot be any compromises. To follow or not to follow the teachings of Christ is not an option:
“Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (2 John 1:9-11).
And again St. John writes,
“Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (1 John 4:6).
Which is that “doctrine of Christ” which is so important that whoever does not abide by it “does not have God”? Any doctrine. “This is love,” he said a few verses earlier, “that we follow His commandments” (2 John 1:6). Following all of Christ’s teachings and evangelical truths is the rule for all Christians. This is why St. Jude urges us: “Contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 1:3).
The Apostle to the Nations tells us something hard to swallow in our synchretistic and ecumenistic age, i.e. that if we abide by any teachings which are not the teachings of Christ, we are following doctrines of demons:
“The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1).
Which doctrines are doctrines of demons? Every false teaching is. This is why St. Paul advises Timothy, “Have nothing to do” with false teachings (1 Tim. 4:7). Therefore, let us not persist in error, for
“Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, he is conceited, understanding nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4).
Let us then humbly abide by the teachings of the Lord, which are safeguarded by the Church, “the pillar and the foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and thus be saved.
Dogmas are not optional; they “are necessary for salvation, because they express Christ in His saving work.”2 Dogmas are more than just important in our lives: they are our life! “Because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). That is why we place such a great emphasis on dogma. Having said that, we should distinguish between believing in dogmatic truths and being “dogmatic”; between expressing our faith in doctrinal teachings and being “doctrinal.”
For us, truth is Christ (John 14:6), that is, truth is incarnate in Him—something Pilate was not willing to accept (see John 18:38). Truth (Christ) is shared with those who are united with Him (the Saints, who are the true members of the Church). Truth is not expressed in abstract statements, cut off from the life of the Lord and His Church. Dogmatism, as an unbending ideology, moved by fanatical adherence to illogical and unacceptable positions, is irreconcilable with the Christian truth, which is adhered to voluntarily and is motivated by love.3
Dogmatism blinds, whereas the dogmas (truths) of our faith open the eyes of a spiritually blind person (cf. Ps. 19:8). Dogmatism fanaticizes one to become a “martyr” by killing others; love for the truth of our faith moves one to sacrifice himself or herself for others.
- Prof. Mantzaridis, Orthodox Spiritual Life, p. 43.
- Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass, 1994. p. 65.
- Some of the thoughts expressed in this paragraph are drawn from Matsoukas’ Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology I, pp. 19-21.