Dogma Drives the Christian Life


Published on August 5, 2021

First Things

For most Americans, Christianity is moving rapidly to the margins of life. As I contemplate the future shape of American Christianity, it seems to me that there is both bad news and good news. The bad news, in light of Christianity’s marginalization, is that we have no idea what “after Christendom” might actually look like. Indeed, it is possible that it will look like nothing in particular, given the state of constant flux in which we now seem to live. The rise of the therapeutic self has created a world driven by subjective emotions. Technology has given us the cult of the “expert” and the notion that we can solve all problems if only we exert our wills with sufficient power. Meanwhile, the disappearance of the distinction between public and private continues to disrupt Western society, and its long-term effects are largely unpredictable. 

Then there is what Hartmut Rosa has identified as “social acceleration”—the way societal developments, particularly in technology, happen at such a rate that we are unable to adapt to one wave of changes before another one arrives. The Reformation, for instance, was in part a technological revolution whereby society reconfigured itself thanks to the printing press; that reconfiguration involved 150 years of bloody conflict before western Europe achieved some level of political and social stability again. When we compare the printing press revolution to the arrival of information technology in our age—the Internet, social media, 5G, Big Tech, etc., all of which have created a far greater informational explosion than Gutenberg’s moving type faces ever did—it is hard to look at the future without some degree of trepidation. The vertigo that many of us feel as we assess the cultural landscape is entirely understandable. What will our brave new world look like? Who could possibly predict the shape of society after the next few years, let alone the next few decades?  

One thing, though, is certain: The days when Christians could be both respected by their society and faithful to their beliefs are drawing rapidly to a close. The terms of membership in civic society and in the church are becoming increasingly antithetical. It will not matter how much you talk about racial justice, for example, if you do not toe the line on sexual and gender justice. And public repetition of the trendy liturgies of Christian self-loathing on any number of social issues will not save you. Progressive ideology has one thing in common with the law of God: As James 2:10 says of the latter, he who fails in one part is guilty of failing in all parts. Selective wokeness will not gain you immunity from the social justice wrath to come.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, and that fact is not contingent upon the shape of the earthly city. And so the Christian task remains the same. We are to be a people characterized by hospitality, by love, and by hope. TikTok, Instagram, Pride Month, and the alternative models of late modernity offered by Russia and China do not change those fundamental tasks.

And yet there is a danger here. Hospitality, love, and hope are good things, but there is always a possibility, in our age of sentimentality and aesthetic moral codes, that these things may become contentless—or at least, that what we mean by these things may cease to be distinctively Christian. Is there a more debased and meaningless word in modern society than “love”? And “hope” has become a synonym for a naïve Pollyannaish belief that bad things do not really happen to good people.

This brings me to the most important point in this moment: Christianity is a dogmatic religion. On that much the greatest theologians across the Christian spectrum agree, from Martin Luther to John Henry Newman. There is a famous saying of Dorothy L. Sayers with which I begin my class on the Doctrine of God at Grove City College each year: “The dogma is the drama.” That statement captures the nature of the Christian message, and points to a further fact: the dogmatic drives the Christian life. Indeed, the dogmatic is precisely what makes the Christian life distinctively Christian.

The tendency today is to subordinate the dogmatic to the pre-dogmatic: to set up putative power relations and concepts such as oppressor and victim as the framework for interpreting dogmatic statements. Dogma thereby loses its priority and becomes a tool for manipulation. We should eschew such approaches. Read 2 Corinthians, the most personal of Paul’s letters, and then read 1 Corinthians, taking note of how Paul’s experience of ministry is shaped by his understanding of the cross of Christ. His is a dogmatic testimony, whereby his suffering (and victimhood) does not provide the framework for understanding the dogmatic content of the faith. Quite the reverse: For Paul, the faith is the framework for understanding his experience.

Dogma is foundational and provides the lens by which everything else is to be understood. And it gives content to things such as hospitality, love, and hope. We are hospitable because God is hospitable (Deut. 10:17-19). We understand love as constituted by sacrificial action because that is what God has revealed his love to be (John 3:16). And we hope because Christ is raised and therefore our suffering—and even death itself—is transformed (2 Cor. 4:16-18; 2 Tim. 1:8-11). Christian hospitality, love, and hope all rest on truth claims, not sentiments.

If this is the case, if the dogma is the drama and if the dogmatic drives the dramatic, then what should American Christianity after Christendom look like? It should involve the practices that communicate Christianity’s dogmatic content: preaching the whole counsel of God, for faith comes by hearing the word; catechizing people in the faith; and worshipping in a manner true to that faith, connecting God’s truths to our experience. In short, American Christianity after Christendom looks like people, individually and as congregations, taking the truths of the gospel seriously and living them out faithfully in their local contexts.

This essay is adapted from an address at the 2021 Napa Institute Conference.

Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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