I have often heard Christians doubting the necessity of dogmatics. I have even heard some Christians call seminaries “cemeteries” – lifeless, in other words. “We must be practical,” such Christians often say.
The questions behind such doubt and cynicism are: Is dogmatics really necessary and relevant for the Christian life? Isn’t dogmatics necessarily dull and lifeless? Let us face these questions by way of three analogies from travelling: travelling by ship, travelling by train, and travelling by plane.
Dogmatics is the branch of theology that seeks to study and interpret the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. It has to do with the learning and interpreting of the set of beliefs traditionally held and believed by Christians down the centuries.
The study of God, the Trinity, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Salvation, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming, Creation and New Creation, the Bible, Mission and Evangelism, and so on, form the basis of Christian dogmatics.
Travelling by Ship
Christianity is essentially an encounter with God. The encounter is real and exciting. Thus, turning from this personal encounter with and experience of God to dogmatics about God is like turning from the more real to the less real; like turning from the real world to a map; like turning from a real surging sea to a blue patch on a map. The first is tremendously exciting, while the second is merely informative, even boring. This is the predominant idea of many people about dogmatics.
Such people are partly right and partly wrong. But more wrong than right. Now, as long as a person is content to merely sit on the beach and “experience” the sea, s/he doesn’t need any map. But if s/he wants to go anywhere by sea (and there are a lot of places one can go!), the map becomes absolutely necessary. In fact, it would be dangerous to venture out into the sea without a map.
Dogmatics is like the map. As long as a Christian is content to just “feel” God, s/he doesn’t need dogmatics. But if s/he wants to get anywhere in the journey of Christian life, s/he needs dogmatics.
To venture out in the Christian life without any regard for dogmatics is like venturing out into the sea without a map.
Moreover, the “feel” of the sea when one is on a ship traveling by sea is immeasurably greater than the experience simply derived from sitting on the beach. In the same way, the experience and “feel” of God in the Christian journey, if it is continually informed by the map of Christian dogmatics, is immeasurably greater, compared to that without dogmatics.
Of course, someone could say that his/her view of the sea from the beach is accurate as far as s/he is concerned. But, you see, it is also terribly limited. On the other hand, the map has been made of the accounts of thousands of people who have had equally real and accurate views of the sea from different beaches, and who themselves have travelled across the sea. The map is thus less limited, more accurate, more real, and certainly more helpful.
In the same way, an individual Christian’s understanding of God, His word, His world, and His works merely from his/her own personal experience can also be terribly limited. For his/her to get a better and fuller understanding, s/he must refer to other Christians who have had equally real experiences and encounters with God and have drawn up maps from their study and reflection. In other words, s/he must refer to dogmatics.
Travelling by Train
There are certain Christians who claim that they do not need theological knowledge or doctrinal boundaries as long as they have “spiritual power”. This would be like saying that a train does not require a track as long as it has the steam.
But you see, for a train to move properly, it needs both steam and track. A very powerful, steam-filled train moving without a track can be terribly dangerous. Dogmatics is like the rail track.
“Practical Christianity” with great spiritual power, if it is not bounded by proper doctrinal parameters, can go horribly wrong.
There are certain other Christians who say that since theology today is full of non-biblical and liberal thinking, one must stop studying dogmatics and doing theology altogether. Now, that is like saying that since the rail tracks are full of filth and dirt, one must travel without tracks or stop travelling altogether.
The complaint is understandable. But the solution is not. Isn’t cleaning up the tracks a more reasonable response? In the same way, Christians must engage all the more in studying dogmatic and doing theology, and contribute in clearing up non-biblical, theological filth.
It is, no doubt, true that the Christian life, which is full of doctrinal and theological knowledge, but without any spiritual power, can be dull, vapid, and useless. It is like a train on a perfectly laid track without any steam. It won’t get anywhere.
Jesus himself said that we are in error when we don’t know the Word of God [dogmatics] and the power of God [spiritual power] (Mk. 12.24), and that God’s worshippers must worship Him in truth [dogmatics] and in spirit [spiritual power] (Jn. 4.24). The Christian life is not either dogmatics or practice, but both dogmatics and practice.
Travelling by Plane
Have you ever been on a plane and wondered why they give some of the instructions they do? Like fastening seat belts and putting oxygen masks on? Has anyone survived a plane crash because s/he had his/her seatbelts and oxygen masks on? Planes do crash, and seatbelts and oxygen masks don’t help much! But does that mean that we should ignore our seatbelts and oxygen masks altogether?
Or more, just because planes crash, should pilots stop following their flying manuals and stop training altogether? Certainly not! On the contrary, plane crashes are precisely the reason pilots should train more rigorously and follow flying instructions more carefully. In the same way, we should not stop studying dogmatics just because there have been some terrible doctrinal errors in history. Indeed, we should study dogmatics all the more rigorously and seriously.
There is yet another reason. Consider this: a plane takes off from Dimapur airport heading for Delhi. As the plane leaves the runway, the pilot is off course by a few degrees, but, without correcting the slight error, continues consistently in that direction. The slight deviation from course may seem harmless at first, but hours later, the plane might be flying over enemy territory, in danger of being shot down by enemy soldiers! This sort of thing can also happen in Christianity without proper and timely corrective dogmatics.