In the classical Greek, dogma refers to either something decreed by law, or in philosophical use, a fundamental tenet or axiom. In the Old Testament the word is used for royal decrees (Dan 2:13) while in the New Testament it has the sense of 'edict' or 'decree'; e.g. the edict of Caesar Augustus (Lk 2:1), or the authoritative decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).
A dogma is a truth revealed by God and proposed as such by the Teaching of the Church for the belief of all Christians. Its denial constitutes a heresy. The definition contains two elements: a) The truth is one, which is part of the deposit of revelation. A dogma is therefore a statement of what is to be believed by Christians simply on the authority of God who reveals. b) The official proposal by the teaching of the Church that this truth constitutes an element of this revelation, and therefore must be accepted in faith.
One of the primary functions of dogma is to help the believer in the understanding of the Christian creed. Besides, all faith expressions are necessarily done in the language of a period, and have a cultural basis. Hence formulations are all-relative and not perfect. A dogma does not merely state an objective truth in itself but always has some relevance for human experience and human being's self-awareness. This is because dogmas are to serve, to enlighten human being's existence and are not merely abstract speculation.
A dogma does not aim merely at particular individuals, but at the whole Church as the communion of the faithful. It has therefore a function, which is both social and ecclesial.
Dogma and the Fathers of the Church
a) Cyril of Jerusalem
speaks of 'ten dogmas' and those are almost the articles of the creed.
b) Ignatius of Antioch:
according to him the preservation and transmission of dogmas of the Lord and of the apostles are bound to the office established in the Church.
c) Epistle to Diognetes:
dogmas are not human wisdom but God's revelation.
d) Vincent of Lerins:
dogma is a divine doctrine which is revealed once and for all, and which was given as part of the deposit of faith to the entire church, or the body of office-holders in the church, to be guarded and preserved. Understanding of the dogma must grow; the dogma itself however, remains unchangeable.
e) Thomas Aquinas:
one revealed truth must be divided into (articuli fidei) articles of faith, for the sake of better understanding. Such an articulus contains three elements: the character of truth, salvific significance, and reference to the community - this last because it is put forward by the Church.
f) First Vat council:
It takes the concept from Vincent of Lerins. 'With divine and Catholic faith, therefore, all should be believed which is contained in God's written or transmitted word and which is presented by the Church in solemn decree or through common general proclamation to be believed as God's revelation'.
term dogma has various meanings attached to it. In early Protestantism, when no teaching office in the Church was acknowledged, the self-sufficient scripture became the foundation and norm of faith as far as content was concerned.
h) Karl Barth:
Dogma is the agreement of the preaching of the Church at a particular time with the revelation testified to in Scripture - that is, the preaching of the Church in so far as it agrees with the Bible as the word of God.
i) Emil Brunner:
He identifies dogma with the Church's profession of faith and designates it as the norm of correct faith and correct doctrine. But in his view doctrine has no obligatory force: it is only a finger that points towards Christ.
j) Rudolf Bultmann:
Every dogma is a metaphysical statement and for that reason must be rejected. He included the Christological dogmas of the ancient Church, seeing them as 'impossible' form of expression for our modern way of thinking.
k) Paul Tillich:
Dogma is understood by him as the Church's historical profession of faith, but he does not attribute to it an obligatory character. The expressions 'dogma' and dogmatics are to be avoided because historically they are laden with the idea of 'constraint of conscience', they should be replaced by the term 'systematic theology'.
Has Dogma any future?
Today many people consider dogmatic faith as unfree and unworthy of man. Such a reaction is probably due to the fact that the process of receiving and adoption which is an essential part of dogma was considerably disrupted in modern times, so that what the Church said no longer seemed to be relevant, or at times, out-dated. There is also a feeling that we should return to the original simplicity and freedom of the Gospel. Does this mean that we put an end to dogma? We have to move towards a new pastoral minded approach and build a theology, which is concerned with human being, his/her freedom and his/her dignity. He/she must not, therefore, be burdened with a faith that is based by/on unintelligible formulas. Faith is not only concerned with the authority of God, but also with the humanity, to men and women.