“As a theological discipline, dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.”
– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.1, p. 1
“The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of ‘dogmatics’ takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only within this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church.”
– Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Dogmatics, vol. 1), p. 3
“To do theology is to actualize Christian truth, or, better, to set it forth in its actuality and to understand it afresh thereby. To that extent theology is by nature, and not merely in its pedagogical implications, historical. It has nothing whatever to do with timeless truth. Hence there can be no timeless or supratemporal theology (theologia perennis).”
– Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, vol. 1, p. 23
What is Dogmatics?
The term, “dogmatics,” is not to be confused with the common pejorative of “being dogmatic,” indicating someone who is closed-minded and uncritical. Dogmatics simply means “theology,” especially in European usage, and it derives from the word, “dogma,” indicating the beliefs of Christians. According to Herman Bavinck:
The word dogma denotes that which is definite, that which has been decided, and is therefore fixed. …The use of the word dogma teaches us, in the first place, that a wide range of commands, decisions, truths, propositions and rules for living can be denoted by it. Nonetheless, the element that they all have in common is that dogma consistently stands for something that is established and not subject to doubt. [Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 28-29]
The dogma upon which dogmatics is founded is the unique, once-for-all revelation of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, through whom and for whom all things were made (Colossians 1:15-20). The term dogmatics is often used interchangeably with systematic theology or doctrine.
- As a “systematic theology,” this knowledge of God is given an orderly presentation, with the aid of categorical headings or loci (meaning “places”). Thus, systematic theology will discern the doctrine of God (Trinity), the knowledge of God (epistemology), the doctrine of man (anthropology), the doctrine of Christ (Christology), the atonement through Christ (soteriology), the church of Christ (ecclesiology), and the last things (eschatology). No particular topic can be isolated from the others. Especially, the existence of God as a Trinity — and the triune form of divine revelation — should form the interpretive grid in which to comprehend and express all other doctrines. All of these loci are conceptual “places” where the teaching of the Church can be delineated for the elucidation of each part.
- As Christian “doctrine,” this becomes the instruction of the Church for her members. The knowledge of God is the chief end of dogmatic theology, but this knowledge is received in the context of an encounter with the living God. Therefore, this knowledge should issue forth in spiritual fruit, namely the love and obedience that is enacted in God’s triune self-movement toward us.
As the Church has progressed, her teachings have required certain demarcations in order to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. Thus, the Church has been responsible for proper distinctions in the person of Christ: his humanity and deity, his relation to the Father, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Church has been responsible for rightly proclaiming the work of Christ: his fulfillment of Israel’s covenant and reconciling the faithful, both Jew and Gentile.
Western Dogmatic Theology
In the West, the Church has been divided between Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants for the last five centuries. The Catholic dogmatic tradition has its principal exponent in St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century), especially with his Summa Theologica. The Council of Trent and the subsequent Roman Catechism (16th century) are both heavily influenced by Thomas, giving much (but not all) of his formulations a normative place in Catholic dogmatics. The Protestant dogmatic tradition can largely be divided between Lutherans and Calvinists (=Reformed). Luther’s exegetical work and occasional treatises enlivened the Reformation and provided its greatest inspiration. During this period, the finest systematic articulation of the Protestant faith was John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (final edition, 1559).
In the Reformed tradition, we subscribe to a number of different confessions and catechisms, including the Scots Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Westminster Standards (1646-1647), and the Barmen Declaration (1934).
Dogmatics After Calvin: Recommendations
Reformed Dogmatics, Heinrich Heppe, editor (16th-17th century Reformed orthodoxy)
The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Heinrich Schmid, editor (16th-17th century Lutheran orthodoxy)
Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583, Reformed)
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin (1623-1687, Reformed)
Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758, Reformed)
Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler (1796-1838, Catholic)
An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman (1801-1890, Catholic)
A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner (1809-1884, Lutheran)
The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921, Congregationalist)
Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921, Reformed)
The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928, Baptist)
Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth (1886-1968, Reformed)
Dogmatics, Emil Brunner (1889-1966, Reformed)
Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber (1902-1966, Reformed)
Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996, Reformed)
The Glory of the Lord, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988, Catholic)
The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986, Lutheran)
The Christian Doctrine of God, T. F. Torrance (1913-2007, Reformed)
Systematic Theology Today
John Webster, University of St. Andrews (formerly Aberdeen, 2003-2013; Oxford, 1996-2003)
Kevin Vanhoozer, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California
Oliver Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary
Other notable systematic theologians today include Kevin Hector (University of Chicago), Paul Nimmo (University of Aberdeen), Joseph Mangina (University of Toronto), Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary), Alan Torrance and Stephen Holmes (University of St. Andrews), Sarah Coakley (University of Cambridge), Francesca Murphy (Notre Dame), Gilles Emery (Université de Fribourg), and Matthew Levering (University of Dayton).
The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics
I did a series of posts on the issue of authority and the biblical canon: click here.