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Stylianos Harkianakis, Archbishop of Australia

Dogma and Authority in the Church

Phronema 12/1997, pp. 8-23

The different notions of the term dogma

The term dogma (from the verb 'doko' meaning "I think"), is known to be of pre-Christian origin. It expressed a binding decision or clause which was ethico-philosophical or socio-political in character. Its validity depended directly upon the trustworthiness and competence of the authority which pronounced it, for which reason it was connected to it (e.g., a particular philosopher or lawgiver, a philosophical or religious community, a state government etc). With the introduction of the term into the vocabulary and life of the Christian Church, its meaning became richer, as we shall see, and this gradually developed significant differentiations'(1). These differentiations were sometimes so greatly influenced by others that the formation of a totally new term became justified, which in turn expressed something almost entirely different.

At least four clearly distinct shades of meaning and uses of the word dogma can be highlighted in Christianity. These were not of course parallel to each other, but for historical or psychological reasons they arose and developed over time. Today they are an unquestionable reality which can cause the unwary considerable confusion.

1. The first and most fundamental meaning of dogma is of course mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, in the description of the Apostolic Synod which was called to decree "the decisions (dogmata) that had been reached by the Apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4). The vital designation "reached" is highly indicative of the essence of dogma, as the point of crystallisation where two things meet: on the one hand the will of God who is revealed and, on the other hand, even if its importance is secondary, the conscience of the person being saved in the context of "obedience to the faith" (Rom. 1:5). We shall see below that this "Divine- human" feature of the essence of dogma is a conditio sine qua non for the Orthodox understanding of salvation which is expressed at length in the teaching of the Church concerning synergy.

Dogma signifies, then, a generally accepted teaching "decreed" by the leaders of the Christian community, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who, according to the Lord's promise, abides forever in the Church, leading her "unto all truth" (John 16: 13). This is evident in the constant conviction and direct reference made to the Divine factor by the presiding leaders, through the well known phrase "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". When posed in the plural, dogma means the individual and axiomatic truths of the Christian faith, the so-called "articles of faith" which, when connected as a single organic whole, comprise the complete conscience of the Church. Yet, in saying the "conscience of the Church", we must always keep in mind that this is the "memory of the Chuch"(2)-which is not a product of time, unlike "ecclesiastical conscience" which is nothing other than the reflection of the teaching of the Church in the conscience of the individual faithful person (3). The memory of the Church is a stable and constant spiritual dynamic which is unceasingly maintained by the divine Logos who "inseparably" and "without divislon" became human, and the Comforter who remains eternally within her.

It is clear that the memory and conscience of the Church includes and maintains everything that God was pleased to reveal to humankind for its salvation. Whatever bears no relation to eternal life and salvation cannot be accurately described as an article of faith. The truths revealed by God to humanity are generally referred to in three categories: (a) concerning the uncreated God (theology); (b) concerning the created world (cosmology); (c) concerning the relationship of the created and the uncreated (soteriology).

The sum total of these salvific truths is described in the New Testament as the faith which is "entrusted" (1 Tim. 6:20), thereby clearly showing that what is involved is not just chance, conventional or temporary knowledge, but rather a unique, firm and invincible treasure. This is maintained by God in the Church as a deposit out of extreme love for humankind, for the salvation of all who believe. The fact that this invaluable and irreplaceable treasure cannot be defined and described in the form of a complete "codification" is quite obvious, especially since the Apostle Paul himself states that in this life "we know in part and prophesy in part" (1 Cor. 13:9).

The divinely inspired summary of this treasure is found in the Nicene Creed, so that the faithful may discern between "old wives' tales" (l Tim.4:7), "philosophy and empty deceit" (Col. 2:8) and even between truths which are useful in this world, but which are of no significance in terms of our salvation. The articles contained in the Creed present the major dogmas of the Church which, when studied properly by the theologising Church in their organic relationship and correct cohesion, can be further divided into axiomatic and individual truths. They are fixed articles of faith,whether they are presuppositions or consequences of the central dogmas (4).

From what has already been said, a distinct differentiation between the notion of dogma becomes apparent. On the one hand, we have the self-evident truths which are seminal and given directly through Divine revelation, while on the other hand there are the inferred or derivative axiomatic positions. In spite of this, when we speak about the dogmas of the Church, we maintain the same indiscriminate perception of them, knowing that our orthodoxy and orthopraxy depend upon them, and that, together, they guarantee our spiritual salvation. For this reason, the Church which tends the flock teaches the general dogmas on a daily basis and edifies the people of God, not only with formal words of instruction and related sermons, but also through all homologous pastoral acts, which as a matter of course, infinitely surpass any oratorical capabilities.

That which may at first glance appear to be merely an abstract and theoretical truth under the term "dogma" is similarly embodied in a certain time and place among the people of God as a "shape" and "form" of expression in all aspects of life, whether as a "way of thinking", "logos and praxis", "custom and character" or as a "way of life" in general. It is clear then that, with such a spectrum of expressions in the Church, dogma is declared and confessed even through silence or through perseverance in martyrdom, whereupon it becomes the most eloquent witness to the faith. If dogma were not embodied each time, in the manner that the invisible God became incarnate, the treasure of faith would then appear to be a monophysitic phenomenon, a venerable relic in the archives of the Church, an empty shell, a sterile form and dead letter, rather than a useful and transforming breath of life. Yet such a stripping down would no doubt be a cheapening of that which one devoutly theologises and believes with St Paul, namely that the word of God remains forever "living and powerful, and sharper than a two edged sword" (Heb. 4. 12).

2. There is another more specialised meaning of the term "dogma" which refers not to all the truths of the faith which are constantly preached and testified to with all available means in the Church, but only to the most central truths which were triumphantly and officially formulated by the Synods of the Church in well-known "definitions', precisely because these were misunderstood or misconstrued by "other teachings". These dogmatic statements of the Church have, typically at least, greater authority as the direct and undisputed voice of the Synod which officially expresses the conscience of the Church. However, as the triumphant character of the formulations may impress us, we may at times unfortunately overlook - or not understand at all- another most important fact. Namely, that the formulations of the teachings of the Church made by the Synods may in some sense be "inferior" to the unofficial and daily teaching which, as has already been mentioned, is declared "in many and varied ways". For while the formulation of the Synod defines the "limits" -beyond which there is the implacable "anathema"- it is by its very nature polemical, antithetical and exclusive in terms of opposing views or explicit doubts. Conversely, daily pastoral teaching which is conducted unofficially and with "simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:46), so to speak, has apparently a more comprehensive and inclusive character. It is more philanthropic as it is directed towards all with loving care and attention, without excluding anybody, at least in the initial stages.

While the Synodical decrees contain selectively only that portion of the truth which must be promoted and imposed - by way of phrases which more or less have a logical coherence - in order to prevent deviation and encourage correction, everyday pastoral instruction is not confined or predetermined by such guidelines. Therefore, it is not pressured in terms of language or time, which enables it to come back to the same topic from a new angle and with more suitable terminology, thereby approaching more mystically, we could say, the truth of faith which is received in mystery and which is ineffable in essence (5). Unless this most significant, but often hidden, parameter of the reception of the Divine word of revelation is properly appreciated, there is always the very serious danger that theology might become an undertaking of rational thought alone, a philosophical rather than a nyptic quest (6). On the other hand, if we keep this important "difference" in mind, we will then be in a better position to successfully overcome temptations of "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gen.2:17), so that in this also the words of the greatest of theologians, the Apostle Paul. may be maintained in full honour and validity: "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

The Orthodox theologian must remember the first and primary function which the "Decrees" of the Ecumenical Synods or Councils must have and retain for all time. This is so that their protective character does not become misunderstood and degenerate into an irreverent absolutism of that which is relative, in which case it would be the worst form of idolatry. The "Decrees" signify a -setting of boundaries" or an intellectual "enclosure", so that the mind may not go beyond certain boundaries, but rather be guided on the true path where living waters are found. This directive arrow only possesses an inalienable sacredness and binding character for the faithful - whether individually or as a whole - if it does not become a restraint or an obstacle for a deeper insight into the sacred words of revelation which, day and night, constitute the first concern of the faithful, a search for divine mercy through a turning towards God, as is expressed most characteristically in the funeral service: "I am yours, save me, for I have searched out your righteous ways".

One could of course object that, in comparing the Synodical "Decrees" with the unofficial pastoral teaching, the former are the result of Synodical deliberations and decisions, and therefore have a collective character which guarantees the presence and guidance of the Paraclete (cf. Mat. 18:20). The latter, however, exercised normally by only one person - regardless of whether that person is a Bishop- does not offer the same guarantee of an infallible operation and correct teaching which is guided from above.

This objection at first sight appears indeed to be fair and strong. Yet, if we consider it more soberly and maturely, we shall see that here too great caution is required so that we do not make absolute what are essentiall relative positions, which at any rate are only valid under certain conditions. It must not be forgotten that, if it is true that one person - even a Bishop- can easily go astray while teaching the truths of the faith, it is not impossible or improbable for an entire Synod to be similarly led astray in the same task, since it did not wish to leave itself unreservedly to the enlightenmentof the Holy Spirit, unaffected by ulterior motives and human weaknesses which historically led even to the so-called "Robbers Synods". Furthermore, it is impossible to say in advance what the quality and outcome of a certain Synod will be, since this is always evaluated with hindsight and with the same criterion used for evaluating the teaching of each pastor (7). Therefore, in teachng the truths of the faith, the individual person is able to have the same assistance from above to believe correctly, if he or she in good conscience struggles to remain in undisturbed communion and spiritual accord with the body of the Church, and especially with the phronema of the Church Fathers (consensus patrum). In the final analysis, we must admit that, in this instance also, the motivating force is not the human factor, regardless of the number of people, but rather the assistance which comes from the Paraclete, which is in accordance with the purity and darity of one's phronema. That is why it is said and believed in the Church that "the Spirit blows where it chooses" (John 3:8).

Just as the "Law" in the entire Divine Economy was "our tutor to bring us unto Christ" (Gal.3:24), and is never destroyed, not even by the Lord Himself who stated that "I have not come to destroy but to fulfil" (Mat.5: 1 7), so it is that the "Decrees" of the Ecumenical Councils always remain in absolute honour and validity. This does not mean that they exhaust the truth, just us Law does not exhaust Grace, nor is it absolutely identified with it (8).

Unless we accept this relationship between regular and constant teaching on the one hand, and the irregular formation of dogma in the Church on the other, we shall certainly do an injustice and seriously distort both these expressions of the gifts and illumination of the Paraclete. The fundamental notion of communion in the Holy Spirit, which we nonetheless never cease to request in the Divine Liturgy, would also be corrupted. It is a liturgical exhortation which recapitulates every other petition: "Having asked for the unity of the faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God" (Litany of the Divine Liturgy).

In order to make the deep and organic relationship between these two ways of teaching and maintaining dogma in the Church even more lucid, we shall take a simple example from everyday life. Just as streetlights which are put in place by councils in order that the streets may be lit up and safe to walk in during the dark (streets which the councils themselves had already made for the benefit of local residents) cannot overshadow or degrade the value of those streets which were made before the streetlights, so it is that the dogmatic truths formulated in Synodical Decrees cannot and should not in any way overshadow the truths of the word of God which are sown in the daily teaching of the Church for the sanctification and salvation of the world.

3. We now come to the third meaning of the term dogma. Through regular and continuous study, teaching and experience of the word of God, it is obvious that, according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the needs of each moment in time, newer details or aspects of the unchanging and revealed Divine will are constantly placed before the faithful. They allow it to be recognisable, applicable and effective in every historical period of the Divine Economy.

For example, the Trinitarian dogma is first of all what the Church teaches about the Trinitarian God in Scripture, the Creed and the related Synodical Decrees. Yet this dogma is characterised by the entire corpus of theological works which, strictly speaking, is not completed or closed by the mentioned, and absolutely binding factors. On the contrary, it is nourished and continuously enriched by them, such that the study of the Trinitarian dogma will not finish until the end of time, as more dissertations are added to the existing bibliography. In the broader context of the perpetual theological task of the Church, there are included also the so-called "theologoumena", namely theological opinions. These present nothing which is at first glance reprehensible, yet they do not have the maturity or attestation that would allow them to be considered, without any risk or hesitation, as being the official position of the Church on any particular issue.

This dynamic feature of the "knowledge of God" for the theologian was alluded to by the Lord when he requested from the Father "eternal life" for His disciples, not as a momentary conquest that occurs once, but as a continuously increasing process of initiation and sanctification: "This is eternal life. that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). The Greek form of the verb know in this passage does not indicate an automatic and momentary knowledge, but rather something that is continuous and progressive until we all reach "the knowledge of Your unapproachable glory" (Prayer of the Compline service).

In summarising the three meanings of the term dogma mentioned so far, the four following points may be stated. Firstly, dogmas are all the truths which are taught by the Church in "various times and in different ways" (Heb. 1:1) and which are necessary for the salvation of all people. These may include truths which were not officially declared as dogma in Synods, either because of their great number or because there was not sufficient reason to do this. Secondly, dogmas are the truths of the faith which are extraordinarily formed, being dependent upon relevant "Decrees" of Ecumenical Councils and which are safeguarded continuously. Having clashed in any way whatsoever with fallen human logic, they met with objections and animosity either inside or outside the Church, and their formulation had to therefore oppose or reprove contrary beliefs in order to safeguard the integrity of the faith and the salvation of souls. Thirdly, dogmas are the areas of specialisation within the theological task of the Church which. as special sections of Orthodox Dogmatics, present the theological issues of each of them. A fourth and entirely different meaning and use of the term dogma is used in modern Greek, particularly in the framework of the ecumenical movement, as a substitute for the word "denomination".


1. For a more or less lexicographical study of the development of the term "dogma". see N. Xexakis, Forword to Orthodox Dogmatics, Athens 1993. p. 167 onwards.

2. Mainly through the ecclesiological studies in our century, the mystical parallelism betweenTheomitor (Mother of God) and Ecclesia (Church) has been extensively drawn, as both happen to be called Mother and Virgin (expressed by the Orthodox in worship as "Mitroparthenon cleos", namely, "glory of the Virgin Mother". As the Theotokos therefore paid attention to the teaching of the Lord in that "she kept these words in her heart" (Luke 2:19), so in the same manner the Church, having received from the Lord and the Apostles the treasure of the faith entrusted to it, the ultimate truth of God, keeps this in the depths of its conscience and memory which is defined and steadily cleansed by the Paraclete. Thus, according to the needs of the faithful, "new and old" are derived from this inexhaustible and undiminished treasure, for the edification of the body of the faithful and for the equipping of the saints (cf. Eph. 4:12).

3. Concerning this extremely significant distinction, see further the study of the author, The infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology, Athens, 1965. p.69 onwards.

4. ibid. p.78 onwards.

5. In Orthodox dogmatics textbooks. St. Basil's testimony always has a central position, according to which "we have the dogmas and preaching within the Church, the former through teachings in written form, while the latter is what we have received mystically from Apostolic Tradition. Both are of equal value for piety" (as pointed out in C. Androutsos, Dogmatics, 2nd ed. Athens 1956. pp. 6-8).The emphasis on the way in which the reception and confession of the truths of the faith by the faithful always occurs "in mystery" presents in fact the purest criterion by which we must approach the problem of the relationship between faith and knowledge in each period of history.

6. Precisely for this reason, we consider the title "Dogma and rational thought", in a section of C. Androutsos' dogmatic work dealing with the relationship between the individual theologian and dogma, as totally inadequate. For, it is not only through rational thought that the theologian approaches dogma in the Church, but rather his or her entire conscience, in mystical solidarity with the other members of the body of the Church. It would therefore have been more accurate for that section to have had the title "Dogma and the conscience of the faithful".

7. Cf. op.cit., The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology, p. 140 onwards.

8. Concerning the relationship between law and grace, see p. 51 onwards in the same work.

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