Dogmatics?

“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 content of dogmatic theology is revelation itself, which it aims to understand in a living faith, and to set forth by the application of reason animated and illuminated by faith and love. …Dogmatic theology is no mere connecting link between revelation and something else, such as human nature or reason or philosophy. Human nature and its mental faculties are given their true center when in Christ; in him they attain their final truth, for such was the will of God, the Creator of nature, from eternity.”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theology and Sanctity” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 1, pp. 194-195

“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

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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” is often interchangeable with “theology,” especially in European usage, and it derives from the word, “dogma.”

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).

  • 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 the Holy 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 in response to 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 St. 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).

The Reformed tradition upholds 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). The universal catechism of the Roman Catholic Church was issued under the authority and auspices of Pope St. John Paul II: Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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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)

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984, Catholic)

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)

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