Dogmas, Doctrines, & Details: A charitable approach to Systematic Theology (Prolegomena)
A web of intertwining beliefs
Theology is the formal study of God (or gods in theologies of other religions), and/or a collected understanding bout God and his ways.
Christian Theology, founded on Scripture, deals with the study of the one True God who created this world and his current and historical redeeming actions. Just like the study of any other historical event this inevitably leads us to ask “what actually happened?” or what is the Truth (Veritology). Since “Truth by definition is exclusive,” so too there must exist one True theology of who God is and what his ways are. However, that True theology (due to God's ways and understanding being far above man's ways and understanding (Isaiah 55:9)) is beyond the reach of man in his fallen state. While it is impossible for any one person or tradition to claim they hold the True theology without doubt, all theologies should ultimately be measured by their proximity to the Truth of who God is and what his purpose for this world is as outlined by scripture.
Despite the lack of absolute certainty in the one True theology, it is still necessary to study and teach theology to not only church leaders and scholars, but also common believers and even skeptics. Christ himself, in the Great Commission, commanded his disciples to teach others to observe all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20), for how can anyone truly believe unless they know what it is they believe? In the practical sense, orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy, where right behavior is the fruit of right belief. In addition, theology serves as the essential anchor to ensure Christians never stray from the crucial facts of Christ and enable the church to weather storms of all natures (Ephesians 4:1-16).
In approaching theology, the issue of authority becomes a critical question. Eighteenth century theologian John Wesley provided a means of prioritizing theological sources though the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. With Scripture as the ultimate foundation, Christians are encouraged to view questions in the light of Church Tradition or the historical interpretation and understanding of the Bible, the Experience of life and hearing from the Holy Spirit, and through our minds using Reason and common sense.
Regardless of similar understandings and approaches, Christian Theology has also had a dark impact by its very nature (or perhaps more accurately its abuse at the hands of human nature) through the countless splits and divisions the church has endured over theological differences. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church now seems but a forgotten dream of an unforgettable era. In order for today’s church to begin reversing the fragmentation and stand united under orthodox Christian views, a charitable approach to theology is required. While all views and beliefs about God and His Kingdom are important, it can be argued that certain views “carry more weight” than others. In following the famous quote attributed to Rupertus Meldenius, “In essentials unity, in doubtful things (non-essentials) liberty, in all things charity,” a theological methodology or framework can be constructed to best capture the boundaries closest to the one True theology.
The most important views are dogmas, or beliefs so essential to orthodox Christianity that they vehemently refuse compromise. Robertson McQuilken outlines five core beliefs as his “five smooth stones” used to slay spiritual giants: 1) Christ's plan of redemption and purpose of the church as carried out through the Great Commission (Missiology), 2) the inerrant word of God given to guide us in all aspects of our life (Bibliology), 3) the lordship of the God-man Jesus Christ (Christology), 4) the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation and daily living (Pneumatology), 5) the church and its role in the lives of believers and carrying out the Great Commission (Ecclesiology). There must be unity in the “essentials” or dogmas of Christian theology, or else a disagreeing individual or group cannot be considered to be within the limits of the Christian faith.
Beyond dogmas are doctrines, views that directly impact church life, but are not implicit in their effect on salvation. Differences in doctrine will ultimately lead to varied approaches to worship, church governance, and various church functions. The results from these doctrinal differences may create discomfort or even impede others during church meetings. The opposing views on the cessation of spiritual gifts can be seen in those congregations that often worship by speaking in tongues and prophecy while others strictly forbid them. Likewise, the friction between Calvinism and Arminianism regarding their respective views of God's sovereignty may affect pastoral counseling and evangelistic outreach. Since these doctrinal areas are “unessential” to salvation, doubt often exists and liberty should be extended to our brothers and sisters in Christ who may disagree with us.
Lastly, there are details, which capture views impacting the church in nominal or indirect ways. This final category is for beliefs that Christians can disagree on and still serve and worship comfortably and effectively together within the same congregation. While an oversimplification (since each belief is like a thread within an intricate web of intertwining theology), controversial topics such as the beginning (creationism) and end times (eschatology) should never divide a group of believers. Francis Collins and his Christian writings should not be discounted since he believes in theistic evolution, just as we cannot discount the faiths of our Jacksonian American ancestors who often held to a Postmillenial end time view. In all things, especially those scripture is silent on, we should have charity with one another as disagreements arise.
Every doctrine effects another
As we strive to arrive closer and closer to the one True Theology, we must accept that differences will arise. Yet, despite these doctrinal differences, no one group can condemn another as outside the Christian faith if they hold to the essentials or dogmas of the faith. It is in these essentials that unity is found and most importantly in the believer's purpose of the Great Commission. Then on the other side of heaven, when the work is done and the Great Commission completed, we can all learn the Truth from the author of this world Himself.