12. THE CHURCH AND ITS DOGMAS
Since the Christian theologian is to teach only what Holy Scripture teaches and nothing else, the question has been raised whether creeds, dogmas, or confessions are rightfully given a place in the Christian Church. The question has been denied by both conservative and modernistic theologians. Modernistic theology favors a creedless, or undogmatic, Christianity. Its plea is that the real function of the Church is to spread the “social gospel” and not the supernatural Gospel of Christ, with which our present advanced age is no longer in sympathy. Modernistic theology is therefore absolutely present-worldly, not otherworldly. It proposes a theology for this life, not one for the life to come ( eine Diesseitigslceits-, nicht eine Jenseitstheologie). This theology, so it is claimed, is one of good works, to be done now, and not one of comforting words with respect to a possible future existence. Because modernistic theology is so constituted, it regards creeds, dogmas, and confessions not only as unnecessary, but also as injurious. Creeds are said to impede the free progress and development of the Church and its activity. Thus modernistic theology must needs be opposed to dogmas. Modern theologians of a more conservative type oppose creeds for a somewhat different reason. Their claim is that dogmas and confessions prevent the necessary “progress in theology” (Lehrfortbildung), which must take place if the Church is to remain a living organism. In fact, this type of theologian holds that the doctrines of the Church are ever-living and expanding factors, forever subject to change as newer, fuller, and deeper revelations are given to men. Therefore the Church must not be fettered by the chains of definite creeds, since these prevent the progress, or development, of doctrine. As we see, in the final analysis the difference between the two types of theologians is not so very great. It is a difference in degree, not in kind. Both reject Holy Scripture as the sole rule and norm of faith and in its place enthrone reason or science.
From the objections just now considered it is obvious that the animosity of modern liberalistic and rationalistic theology is primarily directed not against the creeds, or dogmas, themselves, but against Holy Scripture. These rationalists object to creeds because they object to divinely revealed truths. Their creedless theology is tantamount to a theology without the Holy Bible. They wish to follow their own words, not the Word of God.
This hatred against Holy Scripture is, however, found also in churches that favor creeds. Roman Catholic theology, for example, is built up entirely on definite creeds. Because the Church of Rome accepts the ancient confessions of the unadulterated Christian Church, we still consider it as being within the pale of Christendom. But it has hedged in these ancient creeds by later creeds whose tenor is antichristian and which actually make void what the ancient Christian confessions declare. Moreover, these specifically papistical creeds are in direct opposition to Holy Scripture, for they reject Scripture as the only rule of faith and flatly contradict its central doctrines. They affirm that the Pope as the head of the Church is the infallible norm of faith, that a sinner is justified by works, that the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in Christ, is anathema, that the merits and intercessions of the saints avail for salvation, and so forth. Such creeds quite obviously do not deserve a place in the Christian Church; for they are not Christian, but antichristian. But also in the Calvinistic churches we find creeds that stand in opposition to the pure Word of God. The specifically Calvinistic creeds deny the universality of God’s grace and of Christ’s redemption, the efficacy of the means of grace, the true presence of our Lord’s body in the Holy Supper, the communion of natures in the person of Christ, and the resulting communication of attributes, etc. Such creeds must not be tolerated in the Christian Church because they are unscriptural and rationalistic.
The Christian Church, which has for its source of faith only the infallible Word of God (Eph. 2, 20), must under no condition acknowledge as right and legitimate any dogma, or doctrine, which is not a clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Or we may say: The dogma of the Christian Church is the doctrine of the Holy Bible. Whatever the written Word of God declares and teaches is eo ipso a church dogma, no matter whether it is especially formulated or not. The question is not: Is this or that doctrine clearly stated in the Confessions? but: Is this or that doctrine set forth in God’s Word? If it is set forth in Holy Writ, it is for this reason a church dogma, even though not a word is said about it in the Confessions of the Church. The reason for this is not difficult to perceive.
The Christian Church is not the lord of God’s doctrine, but only its servant. Its paramount purpose is not to create new doctrines, but to preach the doctrines which its divine Lord has revealed. Matt. 28, 20: “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Luther’s dictum applies here with full force: “The Church of God has no authority to establish any article of faith, just as it never has established any nor ever will establish any.” So also Quenstedt rightly says (1, 36): “Divine revelation is the first and last source of sacred theology, beyond which theological discussion among Christians dare not proceed.” (Doctr. Theol., p. 28.) This does not mean that the Church should not have any articles of faith or any confessions, but it does mean that all its articles of faith must be in deed and truth “declarations” of the faith that has been delivered to it by God in His holy Word.
Thus Christians universally accept the ancient confessions of the Christian Church because these profess and defend nothing but Scripture doctrine. This is true even though the technical theological terms which they employ to express the doctrine of God’s Word, such as “Trinity,” “consubstantial,” etc., are not found in Holy Scripture. So also the specifically Lutheran Confessions, which were added at the time of the Reformation and after Luther’s death to defend the doctrine of the Word of God against Romanism, sectarianism, and enthusiasm, profess only Scripture doctrine.
We say this not in a spirit of carnal pride, but in the holy conviction of that loyalty to Christ and His Word which He demands of His disciples. Dogmas (creeds, confessions) have a rightful place in the Christian Church provided they teach the doctrines of God and not doctrines of men. If, however, they set forth doctrines in opposition to God’s Word, they must be renounced and rejected; for the Christian Church must teach the Word of its divine Lord, nothing else.
What has just been said of dogmas and creeds in general applies with equal force to the theological treatises of individual teachers of the Church. No theologian should be listened to in the Church, and no dogmatic treatise should be regarded as worthy of consideration, unless they profess and defend the truth which is in Christ Jesus. The dogmatician who draws his teachings from any other source than Holy Scripture perpetrates an inexcusable fraud upon the Church and deserves excommunication from the Church as a false prophet, Rom. 16, 17; 2 John 10. 11; 1 Tim. 4, 16. God’s earnest and persistent demand is: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God,” 1 Pet. 4, 11. This applies to all ministers and teachers who have been called to instruct the Christian people in general. Christian ministers, teachers, and missionaries must proclaim to their hearers God’s Word, not their own, so that in the whole Christian Church, in its schools and colleges, in its churches and homes, not one doctrine is taught that is not in agreement with Holy Scripture.
If the dogmas and creeds of the Church are truly and absolutely Scriptural, they are of great value also for preserving the inner connection of the various theological disciplines and securing their truly theological character. Commonly we speak of theology as dogmatic, historic, exegetic, and practical. This division is both practical and useful. It assists the theological student in distinguishing one subject from the other and so prevents confusion as he takes up the study of sacred theology. Nevertheless, in the final analysis the purpose of the various theological disciplines is the same; each is to teach God’s Word together with its specific applications. The dogmatic theologian inculcates with special emphasis the several doctrines of Holy Scripture; the exegetic theologian sets forth the same doctrines while he expounds to his hearers the meaning of the words of the sacred text ; the historic theologian exhibits the same doctrines as they react upon men in history; and the practical theologian applies the same doctrines to the special needs of the Christian congregation.
While, therefore, the four theological disciplines may be distinguished from one another by their particular scope, they all center in the one paramount purpose of proclaiming, expounding, and defending the Word of God; and this one purpose, the teaching of God’s Word, preserves their inner connection, unifying the whole course of theology. At the same time this one purpose of inculcating God’s Word preserves also the truly theological character of each discipline. It is this factor that makes historic theology, or exegetic theology, or practical theology, theology in the true sense of the term. If historic theology goes beyond the Word of God, it is no longer theological; and the same is true of dogmatic, exegetic, and practical theology. In short, these branches are theology only in as far as they teach and expound the Word of God set forth in Holy Scripture. As soon as theologians present their own views, they are teaching philosophy or speculation, not theology; for this is as much the Word of God as it is the word about God.
In view of the general apostasy among theologians today the truth just stated certainly requires constant emphasis. The crisis that troubles the Christian Church to day calls for renewed loyalty to the Word of God. If the Church is to be healed from its manifold ills, it must apply the age-old precious remedy which God has ordained for the salvation of men, the unadulterated Word of God. Christ’s command is: “Preach the Gospel,” Mark 16, 15. That divine injunction binds all Christians, and in particular all Christian teachers, to the Word of God for all time. “Quod non est biblicum, non est theologicum.” This is an axiom which the Christian Church must ever respect and heed; if it fails to do this, it is an apostate Church and dishonors our Lord, who built His Church on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, He Himself being the chief Corner-stone.