The Necessity of Doctrinal Standards

Louis Berkhof
Introduction to Systematic Theology
pp. 23-27

The necessity of dogmas may be argued in various ways. Even the followers of Schleiermacher and Ritschl defend it in spite of their subjectivism, and notwithstanding their mysticism and moralism. Several reasons at once suggest themselves, why Christianity cannot dispense with dogmas [i.e. formally stated doctrinal standards].

1. Scripture represents the truth as essential to Christianity.

The assertion often heard in our day, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life, may have a rather pious sound, and for that very reason seems to appeal to some, but is after all a dangerous falsehood. It has been pointed out repeatedly, and has in recent years again been emphasized by Dr. Machen in his Christianity and Liberalism, that Christianity is a way of life founded on a message. The gospel is the self-revelation of God in Christ, which comes to us in the form of truth. That truth is revealed, not only in the Person and work of Christ, but also in the interpretation of these found in the Bible. And it is only by a proper understanding and a believing acceptance of the message of the gospel, that men are brought to the necessary self-surrender to Christ in faith, and are made partakers of the new life in the Spirit. The reception of that life is not dependent on some purely mystical infusion of grace, nor on the proper ethical conduct of man, but is conditioned by knowledge. “And this is life eternal,” says Jesus, “that they should know thee, the only true God, and Him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.” Paul says that God would have “all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” He represents it as one of the grand ideals of the ministry, that all believers may “attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” And Peter says that the divine power “hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us by his own glory and virtue.” Participation in the life of Christianity is everywhere in the New Testament made conditional on faith in Christ as He has revealed Himself, and this naturally includes knowledge of the redemptive facts recorded in Scripture. Christians must have a proper understanding of the significance of these facts; and if they are to unite in faith, must also arrive at some unitary conviction and expression of the truth. Jesus concludes His prayer for His immediate disciples with the words: “Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth,” and then continues: “Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one.” The acceptance of the Word of God and spiritual unity go hand in hand. The same remarkable conjunction is found in the word of Paul: “Till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”4 The Bible certainly does not create the impression that the Church can safely disregard the truth, as it is revealed in the Word of God. Jesus stressed the truth, Matt. 28:20; John 14:26; 16:1–15; 17:3, 17; and the apostles were very much in earnest about it, Rom. 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:2; Gal. 1:8; 3:1 ff.; Phil. 1:15–18: 2 Thess. 1:10; 2:10, 12, 13; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:4: 2 Pet. 1:3, 4, 19–21; 1 John 2:20–22; 5:20. They who minimize the significance of the truth, and therefore ignore and neglect it, will finally come to the discovery that they have very little Christianity left.

2. The unity of the Church demands doctrinal agreement.

The Bible teaches the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, and at the same time speaks of it as “the pillar and ground of the truth.” In Ephesians 4 Paul stresses the unity of the Church of God, and clearly indicates as the ideal that its members all attain to the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God. This receives further emphasis in the 15th verse: “That we be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” He exhorts the Philippians that they shall “stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel.” In this passage the word “faith” has in all probability the same meaning as in Jude 3, where the writer exhorts his readers “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints.” If it does not entirely have the same meaning, it certainly approaches it. The apostle admonishes the Corinthians, that they “all speak the same thing,” and that there be no divisions among them. They should be of one accord and of one mind. He considers this so important that he hurls his anathema at those who preach a gospel different from that which he had preached, and even insists on the exclusion of heretical persons. It is a stern judgment, which he pronounces in 1 Tim. 6:3–5; “If any man teacheth a different doctrine, and consenteth not to sound words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is puffed up, knowing nothing, but doting about questionings and disputes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, wranglings of men corrupted in mind and bereft of the truth, supposing that godliness is a way of gain.” Unity in the knowledge of the truth is evidently regarded as of the greatest importance to the well-being of the Church. If it includes men of all kinds of conviction, it will harbor in its bosom the seeds of discord, strife, and division. And that certainly will not minister to the edification of the saints and to the welfare of the Church, nor be conducive to its efficiency in the work of the Lord. And in striving for the unity of the Church it will hardly do to rest satisfied with the least common denominator in the confession of the truth, nor to say, Let us forget about doctrine, and get together by working together.

3. The duty of the Church requires unity in doctrine.

Naturally, the Church as such can only be one in doctrine, if it has a common confession. This means that the Church must formulate and thus give expression to its understanding of the truth. Unity in doctrine therefore involves the confession of a common dogma. [1] It will not do to admit that the Church may need doctrines, and at the same time to deny that she needs dogmas. The Church cannot perform her function in the world, unless she becomes conscious of, and gives clear expression to, the contents of her faith. The Church of Jesus Christ was appointed to be a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth, and can only be true to her calling, if she has a definite conception of the truth. Ministers are exhorted to hold fast the pattern of sound words, and believers in general, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, but how can they accomplish their important task, if there is no agreement as to the “sound words” and as to what the Church believes. The Church must deal with errorists, correcting, rebuking, and possibly excluding them from the fold, but cannot do this intelligently and effectively, unless she has a clear apprehension of the truth and therefore a definite standard of judgment. History clearly teaches that, before a Church can really pass judgment on heresies, she must have some official standard or test. And it goes without saying that she can never bear a united and powerful testimony to the truth, unless she herself presents a united front.

4. The position of the Church in the world calls for a united testimony.

Every Church owes it to other Churches and to the world round about her, to make a public declaration of her teachings. If it is but natural that we desire to know something about the character and convictions of the people to whom we would entrust our material interests, it will certainly be considered highly desirable, and in fact quite essential, that we know exactly where a Church stands, in which we would seek spiritual guidance for ourselves and for our children. Moreover, one Church will have to know where another stands, in order to be able to determine in how far it can correspond, cooperate, and possibly affiliate with such a Church. The Church of Jesus Christ should never seek refuge in camouflage, should not try to hide her identity. And this is exactly what she does in the measure in which she fails to give a clear and unequivocal expression of her faith.

5. Experience teaches that dogmas are indispensable.

Every Church has its dogmas. Even the Churches that are constantly decrying dogmas have them in effect. When they say that they want a Christianity without dogma, they are by that very statement declaring a dogma. They all have certain definite convictions in religious matters, and also ascribe to them a certain authority, though they do not always formulate them officially and acknowledge them candidly. History clearly proves that even the present day opposition, is not really an opposition to dogmas as such, but simply opposition to a certain kind of dogmas, or to certain specific dogmas, which do not find favor in the eyes of modern theologians. A Church without dogmas would be a silent Church, and this is a contradiction in terms. A silent witness would be no witness at all, and would never convince anyone.


[1] Berkhof earlier distinguishes between doctrine and dogma: “The theological literature of the past sometimes employs the word [dogma] in a rather loose sense, as practically equivalent with ‘doctrine’. But when it speaks of dogmas with precision, it refers to those statements or formulations of doctrines which are regarded as established truths by the body of Christians which formulated them, and which are therefore clothed with authority.” In other words, dogma is not just any doctrine, it is confessional or creedal doctrine.

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