The Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, begins his four volume, Reformed Dogmatics, by exploring the nature and source of dogma. In its simplest definition, Bavinck describes dogma as, “something that is established and not subject to doubt.” (RD 1.29)* In a world full of fake news, it can seem impossible to find something “not subject to doubt.” In fact, we are trained to be skeptical of almost everything we hear in our daily lives. So how can Bavinck say that the Church’s dogma is trustworthy?
The Nature of Dogma:
Firstly, Bavinck argues that the nature of dogma is divine. Dogma does not come from mere human speculation, but rather it is given to the church by the triune God. Bavinck says, “[…] dogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him.” (RD 1.38) Dogma is a divine gift to humanity brought about through God’s Holy Scriptures. Bavinck continues,
To say that dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God serves to cut off all autonomous speculation; it is to say that God cannot be known by us apart from his revelation and that the knowledge of him we aim at in dogmatics can only be a transcript of the knowledge God has revealed concerning himself in his Word. (RD 1.42)
The Source of Dogma:
Secondly, if the nature of dogma is divine, then its source has to be divine as well. Only the divine can produce that which is divine. Therefore, Bavinck connects dogma’s source to the God of the Scriptures. He says,
“Dogmas, articles of faith, are only those truths ‘which are properly set forth in Scripture as things to be believed.’ It is only those ‘propositions which must be believed on account of a mandate from God.’ Among Reformed theologians, therefore, the following propositions returns again and again: ‘the principle into which all theological dogmas are distilled is: God has said it.'” (RD 1.30)
Although it may sound simple, Bavinck’s observation is actually quite profound. “God has said it,” shows us that the Church’s dogmatic formulations, such as the Apostle’s Creed, is not mere human speculation, but rather it is God working through His people to announce His message. A message which reveals who God is. Bavinck comments,
“It is most definitely not the authority of the church that makes a dogma into dogma in a material sense, elevates it beyond all doubt, and enables it to function with authority. The dogmas of the church have, and may have, this status only if and to the degree they are the dogmas of God.” (RD 1.31)
When you profess your faith this Sunday, as you read the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed with your local church (If your church reads the creeds!), be reminded that those creeds are not just clever pithy sayings, but rather they contain the dogma of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They are “not subject to doubt” because they contain a summary of what God has given to His people in His Holy Scriptures. In the midst of conspiracies and fake news, find rest and peace in the reality that God is building his Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against His truth.
* RD refers to Reformed Dogmatics.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.