The Necessity of Dogma

Character, creed, and conduct are closely related and interdependent. Character is what a man is, creed what he believes, conduct what he does. Creed is usually the outcome of character. Badness or goodness is the make-weight of intellectual opinion. The magnetic needle is disturbed by the iron in the vessel beneath it. Doctrinal preaching is sometimes disparaged. Ethical preaching is preferred. Doctrine is simply teaching, and people are always suffering and perishing for lack of knowledge. Ethics is simply the logical result in conduct of believing certain doctrines.

The relation between creed and conduct is that of cause and effect. Some suppose that if a man holds to certain doctrines, he will surely be saved no matter what kind of a life he lives. Others maintain that if a man’s conduct conforms to certain standards, he cannot be lost, no matter what he believes or disbelieves. Both of these views are false, in fact, and mischievous in tendency. It makes a great deal of difference what a man believes and what kind of a life he lives. He is bound to believe the truth and to live in accordance with it.

In the early church, doctrine was made the test of fellowship. “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 9-11).

Doctrine, however, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That end is holy living. The Scriptural method is to have pure doctrine first and then a life in full accord therewith as becometh godliness.

Dogma or Life?

The question is often raised whether Christianity is dogma or life. It may be answered by saying that it is both. The etymological meaning of dogma is “that which seems to me to be true, my own personal way of thinking." Many have opinions about everything. Few have convictions about anything.

One who has lived a reasonable length of time in this world, whose opinions have not ripened into convictions concerning the great questions that agitate the minds of men, has not used his brains to advantage. Every thoughtful man, however, appreciates the fact that with the lapse of time, the increase of light and the acquisition of knowledge, his views may change. On this account a creed should not be hermetically sealed at both ends. It should at least be kept open at one end for the reception of any new light that may break out of the inspired Word.

In theological usage, the word dogma is not applied to personal and private convictions. It is a doctrine set forth by some person or persons claiming authority. The Roman Catholic Church publishes certain dogmas which must be accepted by all the faithful as authoritative and final. Among Protestants, a dogma is a statement of doctrine found in the creeds of the churches. These statements are interpretations of or inferences from the words of Scripture, and they are not infallible. Such a statement is rather a testimony and a confession of faith.

We ought to believe far more than our fathers believed because we have more light than they. Faith is more concerned with an unexplained remainder than with an irreducible minimum. Our modification of the dogmas of our fathers is not subtraction but addition. We do not discover error in them but richer and more precious truth. Clear thinking must express itself in dogma. The faith that has confused and halting utterance are nebulous and fruitless. Truth must be apprehended, experienced and formulated. Its formulation will conduce to clearer apprehension and deeper experience.

The Apostles Preached Dogma

The cry that is often raised, “Away with dogma” and “Back to Jesus,” is misleading and deceptive. If we go back to the beginning of Christianity and examine the preaching of the apostles, we shall find that it consisted wholly of dogma. On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ and impending retribution. Paul began his ministry by confounding the Jews in dogmatic discussion. He kept it up for twenty-five years, and with our last view of him in Rome he is doing the same thing.

One cannot preach the gospel without preaching dogma because every phase and feature of the gospel has been formulated into doctrine. The earliest extant symbol of the Christian faith is found in 1 Timothy 3:16: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”

It has been well said that Christian morality is a fruit that grows only on the tree of Christian doctrine. It is impossible to cherish an opinion in the mind without having its influence upon the life. “Miscreant” comes from miscredo. Error in the creed produces incalculable harm in the life. Thought precedes action and rules the world. A man’s life is made or marred by his creed. No man can be better than his creed. The Spanish Inquisition was the logical product of the creed of the inquisitors.

The “sound doctrine” of Titus 2:1 is “healthful teaching.” Healthful teaching will produce healthful living. Sickly teaching will bear fruit in sickly living. In writing to Timothy, Paul predicts a time coming “when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Indications are not lacking that we have fallen upon these evil days. The shadow of apostasy is creeping over the land in an eclipse of truth. God told Isaiah what he would have to meet: “This is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the Law of the Lord: Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isa. 30:9-10).

God told Jeremiah that “a wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (Jer. 5:30-31). The history of Israel is repeated in that of the church. The church should demand that its ministers preach sound, Scriptural and spiritual doctrine. The ministers should preach that kind of doctrine whether the people demand it or not. Better to preach the truth in an empty church and feed a few hungry saints than to preach error to an applauding multitude.

What Is Orthodoxy?

Orthodoxy comes from two Greek words which mean “straight thinking.” A man has no more right to think crooked than to live crooked. He is bound to think that which is true as he is to do that which is right and to love that which is good. A heretic is a theological crook.

The word canon meant, originally, a straight rod or carpenter’s rule. Then it came to be applied to whatever was correct in morals and religion. The straight-edge and spirit level of the carpenter are indispensable to his work. He must test his work constantly by these perfect standards. The Bible is our straight edge and plumb line which judges every slant wall. It discovers and judges what is erroneous in our creeds and what is faulty in our lives. The thoughts of God are high and straight and true, as far above the thoughts of man as the heavens are above the earth.

The Savior’s reference in Luke 18:8 to finding the faith on earth at His second coming does not refer to personal faith in Him but belief in the whole body of revealed truth. Was He thinking of the ravages of Modernism in the 20th century (2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-3)? Error may exist through ignorance (Acts 19:1-6), and heresy may be due to a snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:25-26), and both may consist with real faith. Apostasy, however, is hopeless and can only meet with judgment (Jude 11-15; Rev. 3:14-16). False teaching is poison.

What a horrible thing it is to put poison into a well so that they who draw water and drink may die. Is it not far worse to adulterate the living water in the wells of salvation? In the former case the physical life is destroyed, in the latter the spiritual. The very possibility of such a thing helps us to appreciate the terrific anathema with which Paul introduces his Galatian epistle: If any man or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed!

— An address delivered by Dr. Frederic W. Farr at the monthly meeting of the Southern California Premillennial Association in 1924. Clearly, this message is just as timely today (if not more so) than when delivered almost 95 years ago!