Last night, my youngest son, Allister, and I were reading Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. It was a simple joy to point at objects on the page and hear him name juice, jets, and pigs. He couldn’t identify every object. And he did call a pear a pineapple, but he’s steadily growing his four-year-old vocabulary. Another book I’ve been reading is Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. I don’t think Allister is quite ready for this one. But Bavinck has also reminded me of the importance of identifying terms—even the foundational term that makes up half the title of this work: Dogmatics. Why dogmatics? Why dogma? Why not, say, theology?
Bavinck goes to great lengths to define dogma and dogmatics. Dogma “consistently stands for something established and not subject to doubt” (29). Dogmas “are only those truths set forth in Scripture as things to be believed” (30). “God has said it” (30). “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” (38). Dogma gets all its material from revelation (44). “A dogma is a faith-proposition that claims to be true and demands universal recognition” (46). “Dogmatics is a normative science that prescribes what we must believe” (46). Dogmatics is “a scientific exposition of religious truth, a detailed expression and interpretation of the Word of God” (55). Dogmatics “is a fallible human attempt…to think and say after God what he in many and various ways spoke of old by the prophets and in these last days has spoken by the Son” (55). Simply put: “Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God” (58).
You might instead refer to the task of dogmatics as “systematic theology,” “doctrine of the faith,” “Christian doctrine, or even ”loci communes” (common places). But I find value in what John Frame has written on this subject of terminology. He recognizes the value of both terms: dogmatics and systematic theology. Each with its own nuance has an important perspective to offer. Dogmatics tends to connote a dialogue between theologian and church tradition. Systematic theology tends to connote a dialogue between theologian and Scripture. Positively, the nuance of dogmatics encourages humility by “warning against individualism and pride, against the notion that we can build up theology from the ground floor…” (311). Negatively, viewing dogmatics as a dialogue with tradition has the inherent danger of irrelevance through fixation on issues of less importance today. Dogmatics also runs the risk of promoting an uncritical attitude towards church tradition that might need to be criticized. Another potential danger is “confusing historical description with authoritative teaching” (312) among several others Frame lists. He labels these only as potential dangers, not as ones that necessarily come to fruition.
In these reflections from putting Bavinck and Frame’s choice of terminology in conversation, I understand Bavinck was writing at his own point in history with the terminology of that point in history (in a different language no less). Frame is doing the same, temporally speaking. And simply because there are risks to using the term dogmatics doesn’t mean the dogmatician has succumbed to those dangers. You can undoubtedly find risks in a high percentage of terminology. I think we benefit the most by remembering along with Frame that the most important theology—the best theology—is that which applies Scripture to current situations (314). And Bavinck would agree. That was exactly what Bavinck was doing in his own time. In his own words: Dogmatics “shows people how the word of God has to be proclaimed in order to arouse the listeners to a true faith and educate them to an interior knowledge of faith that responds to the truth” (39). This is the task of dogmatics. This is the task of systematic theology. Call it what you want, the same is true for either. The dogmatics that dogmaticians wrote in the past and the theology that systematicians wrote in the past are valuable for Christian growth so much as they provide us with contemporary application.
Much of that contemporary application never changes. Of course, the truth of Scripture never changes. But there are always new trends, ideas, and questions that require the application of Scripture. And there is tremendous value in studying historical theology to see how this has been done in the past. We can benefit from reading old theology (or dogmatics). We should read old theology. But we will continue to require new theology to apply timeless Scripture to our current situations.