The reading that I look most forward to every week is a book with a name that’s almost too boring to type: Systematic Theology. We read it for a course that at first blush sounds equally stodgy: Dogmatics. In fact, the term “dogmatic” is used these days almost exclusively to mean something like “stubbornly rigid,” or “unreasonable,” or “completely impervious to compromise.” As in, most sports teams do have a poor season every now and then but, unlike the Blue Jays, they aren’t dogmatic about it.
So it’s something of a rescue operation, a reaching blindly under the couch past the centipede nest in order to get the dust-covered mento that your son just dropped. And like most rescue operations involving theological nomenclature, the reaching goes way back into the Greek. In the case of “dogma,” the word comes up in Acts 16:4 – “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.” The word “decisions” there is the Greek word dogmata, and it refers to Acts 15:20 – “Write to [the Gentiles] to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” So what we study in Dogmatics are, basically, decisions, and specifically in the area of doctrine. If there had been Dogmatics courses during the days of the early church, for example, they would have studied those decisions regarding the Gentiles, in order to understand them and build upon them.
In the time since that early Jerusalem council, however, the church has passed decisions on countless things. Some of the very famous ones were reached at the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the biblical teachings on the Trinity and the personhood of Christ were properly defined. Further councils and synods led to our Three Forms of Unity, and the confessional statements of many other churches. So we study doctrines like the Trinity, or infant baptism, or original sin, or justification by faith alone. We learn where those doctrines come from in Scripture and how they are put together, so that we can in turn teach them to others.
In Dogmatics we get to meditate on who God is, who we are, what it means to be who we are, and how it was that God saved us from ourselves. We get to study the finest details of the greatest, deepest, most fulfilling Book ever written; and we get to learn how to teach them to others. Our minds were created to commune with God, to contemplate Him, and when we do we exercise that mind to the fullest. And as Dr. Van Vliet reminds us, the end goal of Dogmatics is not for academics but for the people in the pew. It is important for all believers to know the God upon whom they call, and to understand the salvation He’s given them. These are the highest and most noble truths of our existence.
So, back to Systematic Theology for a moment. This semester we’re only working our way through the 190-page introduction; so when I say that Dogmatics is for everyone, it’s meant in a somewhat limited sense. It also means that we won’t get much into Dogmatics proper this semester, but that we’ll be spending our time discussing things like the history of Dogmatics, or its methodology, and even its definition. But I’m really enjoying studying even these things, minute and detailed as they are.
As I’m spending more time at seminary I’m finalizing my favourite courses list, and Dogmatics is on it. If you want to know a course that is not on it, Textual Criticism from last year. Important, sure, but not my thing.