What is Dogma?

Icon of the Mother of God of St Theodore

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Ninth Prayer

Shine in our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for Your blessed Commandments, so that putting down the desires of our bodies, we may pursue a spiritual way of life, both thinking and doing only those things that are well-pleasing to You. For You are our sanctification, and to You we give glory: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.


by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos (source: Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church)
According to the spoken teaching of Father John Romanides

When we refer here to dogmas, we do not use the word in a philosophical, academic, sociological or religious sense, but from an ecclesiastical and theological point of view. Dogmas are to be found in all humanistic and social organizations. What is significant, however, is how the Church speaks about dogmas through the Holy Fathers.

Definition of Dogma

Dogmas are the pronouncements of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, when they confronted heretical teachings that were altering the revealed truth. First there was a heretical doctrine about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Triune God in general, or concerning the theology of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Divine Economy, which is the incarnation of the Son and Word (Logos) of God. Then the Holy Fathers would meet in Local and Ecumenical Councils and formulate definitions of the Orthodox faith.

The central Person discussed by the Holy Fathers was Christ, in Whom the Divine and human nature were united without change, confusion, separation or division. The Holy Father did not have abstract philosophical discussions about the Holy Trinity.

"They always discussed this particular Person Who appeared to the Prophets and revealed the Father within Himself in the Holy Spirit. So they did not discuss the dogma of the Holy Trinity in an abstract way, but discussed this specific Person in the Old Testament Who was revealed to the Prophets and afterwards in flesh to the Apostles."

The demarcation of the revelation is called dogma. Essentially, however, dogma shows Christ revealed in glory. It is an expression of the divine manifestations (theophanies) in both the Old and New Testaments. Dogma is not a simple external confession of faith, but a formulation of revelatory truth. And the holy Fathers had a special reason for undertaking this, because heretics had doubts about the revelation. There is, therefore, a difference between dogma and interpretation.

It follows that dogmas are used as medicines for the spiritually sick, so that they may be cured.

"Dogma and theology are medicines. When we become well, we stop taking medicines. We take medicines when we are ill. Man is ill because he is not a in a position to see God. He is not ready, because he does not have love. The fact that he does not have love means that he is ill."

In the same way as a patient takes medicines in order to be cured and become well, so someone who is spiritually sick uses medicines so as to be cured and attain to glorification. When he reaches glorification, of course, the dogma-medicines are inadequate. They are not abolished by the Church, because they will be needed by others who are sick, but they are insufficient and unnecessary for someone who arrives at glorification and sees the glory of God.

"Dogmas are not a permanent state. They are medicines, and the purpose of medicines is to be done away with, once the patient has been cured. When we are cured we no longer need medicines. So dogmas exist as long as we do not see Christ in glory. Once we see Christ in glory, dogma is abolished. What are the dogmas about? They concern Christology and the Holy Trinity. What need is there for words and concepts about the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity when we see Christ as Holy Trinity and Incarnation?"

Of course, the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils are indispensable even for the glorified, because through these dogmas revealed truth is defined.

Dogma and Mystery

It is essential to make a distinction between dogma and mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is experienced, to the extent that this is possible, by the glorified human being and is different from the dogma, which is the rational formulation concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the revelation. This distinction is fundamental to Orthodox theology.

"God is always a mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity must be separated from the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The dogma is not the same as the mystery."

This means that the dogma can be understand rationally, but not the mystery. There is confusion on this issue with some contemporary theologians and a serious problem arises. For instance, when we speak about the Holy Trinity, we are referring to the dogma, the terminology concerning the Holy Trinity, as formulated by the Holy Fathers of the Church (essence, hypostases, hypostatic property, and so on) and not to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We cannot speak about "the mystery of the Holy Trinity", which is inconceivable to human reason, but we can speak about "the dogma concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity".

"One needs clearly to distinguish the dogma from the mystery. Understanding the mystery (rationally), which is impossible, is completely different from understanding the dogma, which is possible. It is possible for someone to understand the dogma."

The same can be said of the distinction between Holy Scripture and God. Holy Scripture consists of the words and concepts expressing the experience of the mystery of God, and these words and concepts are not identical to God. God is not identified with the words and concepts. Identifying God with them leads to idolatry.

"For this reason you must have a firm grasp of this distinction between the mystery and the dogma. They are not the same thing, because theology, dogma and noetic prayer will be abolished: they are temporary in character. It is idolatry for us to identify God with words and concepts about Him..."

"To say that we understand dogmas is foolishness. No one understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity, because the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not intended to be understood. Anyone who gives the impression that he understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity is a fraud. This is the worst deception."

Dogma is an expression of experience and a guide to experience

Dogma was not formulated by philosophers, moralists or conservatives in order to restrain people, but by Holy Fathers, who had experience of the Uncreated Glory of God. It was drawn up in order to deal with heretics and to guide the faithful to glorification. Dogma, therefore, is closely linked with the experience of glorification of the God-seeing Saints.

The foundation of dogma is the experience of the Saints. By accepting the dogmas and being in contact with glorified saints and their writings, we inherit their experience and not simply their words and the decisions that they laid down.

"The interpretative method of the Fathers is not drawn only from books that they read. It also comes from their experience. When they speak about dogmas, they not only interpret texts but also speak from their experience, like an astronomer who, when he teaches, not only speaks from books about astronomy, but also looks through the telescope and corroborates with the telescope what is written in the books. In fact the telescope is more important than the books. Similarly in patristic theology, the nous of those who are illuminated is even more important than books. When the nous is in the state of illumination it is like the astronomer who looks through the telescope. This is the experience of dogma. We have not only inherited the dogma. There is also the experience of dogma."

"Since the aim of theology is purification and illumination of the nous, and dogma is the expression of this experience of glorification, dogma is infallible in the Orthodox Church, because it is the expression of the experience of glorification of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers of the church."

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George