I’ve said this before: I am concerned less with what individuals believe than with how they acquired their beliefs and why they maintain them. And in the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian community nothing illustrates this better than belief that scripture is the Word of God.
The terms “dogma” and “dogmatism” have a serious image problem, though it wasn’t always that way, at least in a religious context. Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Thus Christians came to be expected to accept the Nicene Creed without question. It was just the way things were. Nowadays using the term “dogmatic” in reference to someone or his or her ideas is clearly viewed as a negative. But I think the term describes well the position of those who believe steadfastly in scripture as the inspired word of God.
Why do I say that? Let’s break dogmatism down into its constituent parts. It is (a) a belief in a principle (b) laid down by an authority (c) that is considered incontrovertibly true. Let’s analyze each of these components in turn.
(a) A belief. It would almost seem to be redundant that evangelical Christians accept the Bible as the word of God. However, I have learned that many evangelicals have placed a nuance on that belief. When confronted with scripture that is clearly contrary to their beliefs, some Christians have waffled and stated that the offending passage needs to be “put into context” or that one needs to read the whole Bible to understand the meaning (e.g., God committing genocide against the tribes with which the Israelites were at war), or that the passage needs to be treated metaphorically (e.g., the Jonah and Job allegories), or that a particular translation has distorted the true meaning.
For those evangelicals who pride themselves in not believing that the entire Bible should be considered the word of God, I would ask a more specific question: As to those portions with which you agree, do you believe they are divinely inspired? I thought so.
(b) Laid down by an authority. The key here is the basis for one’s belief. Here my questions are: How did you arrive at that belief and why do you continue to hold it? Did you come to believe in scripture as the word of God after consideration of competing points of view, including study of the sacred writings of other religions or of secular belief systems. Did you consider the research of biblical scholars who don’t have any particular stake in determining whether scripture is divinely inspired or not? Or did you come to your belief because your parents or teachers or religious leaders—all of whom were acting sincerely—told you the Bible was God’s word b before you had developed the ability to think critically for yourself? I recall as a kindergartener learning the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We must have sung that song a hundred times. Implied in this song, of course, is the idea that if the Bible says it, it must be true.
And now, why do you continue to believe in scripture as God’s word? Is it because you have explored objectively the evidence and concluded that it continues to confirm your beliefs? Is it because you have never really questioned that fundamental belief? Or is it because your friends all believe in the truth of the Bible, and it is simply easier to go along?
(c) Incontrovertibly true. This is simple: What would change your mind about the Bible as God’s word? If someone challenges your belief in the Bible, how do you treat the matter? Do you find yourself looking for arguments to defend your current beliefs, or are you open to what the other person is saying and asking yourself what evidence would cause you to change your mind?
Try this exercise. Think of a matter which you have changed your beliefs about in the last 10 years. Perhaps it was whether Obama was born in the United States or whether homosexuality is a choice or whether women should be able to be ordained as ministers or whether there are manmade causes of global warming or whether eating meat is unhealthful. (If you haven’t changed your beliefs about anything in the last 10 years, you should be concerned, frankly.) Then ask yourself what led to the change. Was it because of information that you acquired or because you accepted the word of those you trust? Are your beliefs about whether the Bible is divinely inspired capable of such a transformation?
© 2015 John M. Phillips