Those Dead Dogmas

Every Sunday and Solemnity, the Church professes the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which confesses the doctrines of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD). It contains the foundational truths of the Catholic faith – those concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, the work of salvation, and the Church.

Despite its revered ancestry, there are those within the Church, sadly even among the hierarchy, who now disparage Church dogmas. They allege that these doctrines are lifeless canons that detract from the living and life-giving Gospel, and that to fixate on dogmas and their defense manifests psychological and spiritual pathology. They believe that such people who do such things are a nuisance and opponents to Church renewal.

Now, such criticism could be true, if the Church’s doctrines were merely antiquated rubrics that have long since lost their utility and efficacy. We must ask, however: Which dogmas are dead letters or no longer life-giving? When these questions are properly addressed, we find that what the Church has dogmatically taught over the centuries is at the very heart of the Gospel. Church doctrines are not unwarranted “add-ons,” but are contained within Sacred Scripture and the living ecclesial tradition.

The Church’s doctrines are composed of words, as in the creeds, but they are not vacuous. Rather, they give ecclesial voice to the authentic mysteries revealed by God, through his words and deeds, and which the Catholic Church professes with inerrant faith. Moreover, these doctrinal truths articulate the divine realities to which the faithful are conjoined. In order to discern whether they are “dead” or “alive,” let’s examine a few dogmas found within the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

We believe in God, the almighty Father, who created heaven and earth and all within them. The truth of Creation is the primordial life-giving act. The Father, source of all life, created us in love so that we might live not only on earth, but also live with him eternally in Heaven. There’s nothing dead or lifeless about this doctrine. Rather, it proclaims that God is a living God, and we are alive because of him.

Moreover, we believe in one, Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father. As the Father’s Son, he is consubstantial (homoousion) with his Father. Here we perceive the beauty of the dogma of the Trinity and of the Incarnation. “Consubstantial” is a “big” word, one not found in Scripture. And yet that word informs us that the Son of God is not a creature, for he was not made, but that he is God as the Father himself is God. They possess the same divine substance or nature. The one God is the Father eternally begetting his beloved divine Son – God, by his very nature, is life-giving, for God is eternally the Father giving the fullness of his divine life to his Son.

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Likewise, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the giver of life. The Holy Spirit is also, then, divine as the Father and the Son are divine, for he proceeds from the Father and the Son, and so together with them is adored and glorified. Thus, the Father is not only the Father of divine life, He is also the Father of divine love, for he loves His begotten Son in the Holy Spirit and the begotten Son loves his Father in the same Holy Spirit – the Spirit of divine love.

One cannot imagine a doctrine, a truth, more life-giving and love-giving, for the persons of the Trinity comprise the fullness of life and love. Wonderfully, Christians are taken up into this awesome mystery, for they participate in the Trinity’s very divine life – they live in communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Though humankind sinned and lived under the curse of death, the Father’s Son came down from Heaven and, in Mary’s womb, became man by the power of the Holy Spirit. For our salvation, Jesus, the incarnate Son, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

As the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit upon the apostles, so that they, and all who believe, might be freed from sin and death and born anew in the Holy Spirit. The doctrines of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, and of Pentecost, far from declaring what is barren, express the life-giving actions of the entire life-giving Trinity – and they were enacted in the abundance of divine love on behalf of humankind.

These saving actions gave birth to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church –which is one in her apostolic faith. No other living institution on earth, through the whole of human history, draws all nations and peoples to itself, not for selfish gain, but for the world’s salvation. The doctrine of the Church is, again, a doctrine that bespeaks life – the life founded upon the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those who are baptized into this faith await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Those, then, who disparage Church doctrines are speaking the devil’s words. He knows, better than we, the truth of Church teaching and the life-giving power that the mysteries of faith contain. He knows that the Church’s doctrines are not antiquated or sterile, and so he trembles before them. He tempts us to despise them, so that we will become lifeless – dead in sin’s condemnation – the one dogma he fiendishly relishes.

Today, more than ever, we must – particularly bishops and priests – vigorously proclaim the mysteries of faith with clarity, courage, and love. They are the cure for the Church’s present lethargy and the lifeblood of her renewal and wellbeing. And they are the means of the world’s salvation.

One cannot love the Gospel of Jesus Christ if one does not love all the doctrines that He Himself embodies. To love, in faith, the Church’s doctrines is to love Jesus Himself!

 

*Image: The Trinity as depicted in The Coronation of the Virgin by Enguerrand Quarton,  1452-53 [Charterhouse of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France]

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, serves as a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is the second volume of Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.

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