The Dogmatic Spirt- B.B. Warfield


What is called the dogmatic spirit is not popular among men. It is characterized by an authoritative method of presenting truth; by an unwillingness to modify truth to fit it to current conceptions; by an insistence on what seem to many minor points; and above all by (what lies at the root of most of its other peculiarities) a habit of thinking in a system, and a consequent habit of estimating the relative importance of the separate items of truth by their logical relation to the body of truth, rather than by their apparent independent value. Such a habit of mind seems to be the only appropriate attitude toward a body of truth given by revelation, and committed to men only to embrace, cherish, preserve, and propagate. It seems to be, moreover, the attitude toward the body of revealed truth commended to those who were to be its “ministers” and not its masters, by the Lord and his apostles, when they placed it as a rich treasure in the keeping of stewards of the mysteries of God. But it is irritating to men. They would discuss rather than receive truth. And, if they must receive it, they would fain modify it here and there to fit preconceived opinions or permit cherished practices. Especially in a busy age in which Pilate’s careless question, “what is truth?” represents the prevailing attitude of men’s minds, the dogmatic habit is apt to fare somewhat badly.

An illustration of what is meant by the dogmatic spirit may be found in a passage in the biography of that great servant of Christ, Caesar Malan, who is forgotten already in the land which he served so nobly in the gospel of Christ, but to whom, under God, along with his compeers, Merle D’Aubigne and Louis Gaussen, Switzerland owes her awakening to the light of truth in this century. It is, perhaps, none the worse as an illustration that it presents the dogmatic habit in an extreme form, and, in the opinion of the biographer at least, in perverted action. The biographer is pointing out what he believed to be Malan’s greater fitness for the missionary than for the pastoral office. He thinks his habit of mind, firing him with zeal for the whole truth, eminently fitted him for the one function and somewhat unsuited him for the other. “Called to be a witness, a confessor, an apostle,” he says, “we may say of him what the chief of the apostles scrupled not to say of himself, that ‘he was not sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel.’ … Looking at everything from the most serious point of view, tracing each offense not to its secondary or accidental source, but to those abstract principles which his spirit so rapidly divined, and the issues of which be so vividly apprehended ‘ it was too probable that with him every act of heedlessness would be a crime, every unenlightened sentiment a heresy,” [the spirit by] which the dogmatic habit is exposed. It may be misled into harsh judgments of individuals by its own clear view of the consistency of truth, and its own vivid realization of the significance and issue of special errors and shortcomings. But its essential virtue is also here presented before us. Its clear insight into truth as a body and in its parts; its rapid perception of and firm grasp upon determining principles; its vivid apprehension of the logical and ultimately the inevitable practical effects of this and that apparently unimportant modification of truth; its consequent zeal to preserve the truth from corruption and its devotion to its propagation: these are the elements of the true dogmatic spirit. It is, accordingly, as Malan’s biographer forcibly points out, the true missionary spirit–the spirit of the Apostle Paul.

We may observe its working in Paul, in the Epistle to the Galatians. Here burns the purest zeal for that gospel which he had been sent to preach. Doubtless the preaching of the Judaizers appeared to the Galatians as but a slight modification of that of Paul–a modification which did not affect the essence of the gospel, and which presented many advantages. The Judaizers also preached Christ. They preached Christ as the promised Messiah of Israel, only through the acceptance of whom could entrance be had into the messianic salvation. To them, too, therefore, the promised redemption was unattainable save through the promised Messiah. But though they preached that only in his name could salvation be had, they denied that it could be had in his name alone. Something else was requisite. Men must accept the Messiah; but men must also be circumcised–men must keep the law-men must enter into life by the gate of Judaism. It was this teaching-not the proclamation of an entirely anti-Christian system-which Paul brands as a different kind of gospel or rather no gospel at all, but only a troubling of Zion by those who would pervert the gospel of Christ.

Was Paul narrow-minded and over-severe in this? Evidently there were many Galatians who thought so. Why harshly pronounce those “accursed” who taught fundamentally the same doctrine of the Messiah; and only differed in this, certainly very minor, point of whether the keeping of the law was not necessary too? How can the violence of asserting that if circumcision be received Christ will profit nothing, be possibly excused? Is not this the very embodiment of narrow-minded fanaticism yielding to the odium theologicum? There are apparently many today who would sympathize with the Galatians in so arguing. Paul, however, thought in a system; traced apparently small differences back to their principles; perceived clearly the issues to which they tended; and condemned according to fact and not according to appearance. He is the type of the dogmatic spirit. And we who would be followers of Paul, even as he was of Christ, may learn some very valuable lessons from him.

Primarily, we may learn this lesson: that it is not a matter of small importance whether we preserve the purity of the gospel. The chief dangers to Christianity do not come from the anti-Christian systems. Mohammedanism has never made inroads upon Christendom save by the sword. Nobody fears that Christianity will be swallowed up by Buddhism. It is corrupt forms of Christianity itself which menace from time to time the life of Christianity. Why make much of minor points of difference among those who serve the one Christ? Because a pure gospel is worth preserving; and is not only worth preserving, but is logically (and logic will always work itself ultimately out into history) the only saving gospel. Those who overlay the gospel with man-made additions, no less than those who subtract from it God-given elements, are not preaching “the gospel” in another form, but are offering a different kind of gospel, which is essentially no gospel at all. They are troublers of Israel, who are perverting the gospel of Christ.

Then, we may learn this lesson: that it is not a matter of small importance for the servant of Christ to begin to seek to please men in the gospel which he offers them. Doing so, he ceases to be Christ’s servant, performing his will; and becomes the slave of men, veering hither and thither according to their beck and call. So doing, he is no longer the teacher of the truth to men, but the learner of falsehood from men. It doubtless seemed to the Judaizers very proper to adapt the mode in which they presented Christ to man, to the views of the community on which they had to depend for their first hearing in every fresh city. Paul says that in so doing they won not the blessing of God but his curse. After all, what is required of stewards is that they be found faithful.

And then we may learn this supreme lesson above all: that it is of the very gravest importance to keep clearly before our and others’ minds and hearts the great fact that in Christ alone is there salvation. In Christ alone; and that in both senses of the word “alone.” Not only can there be no salvation except in him; but in him is all that can be needed for salvation. Jesus only! Paul determined to know nothing in Corinth but Jesus Christ and him as crucified. The only saving gospel is to find in him all. There needs no supplement to hi’s work. His work admits of no supplement. To depend on aught else-aught else, however small it may seem-along with him is as truly to lose him as to depend on aught else instead of him. The solemn words of Paul, “Behold I, Paul, say unto you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing,” have their multiform application in these modern times. And it behooves us so to live and so to preach, today, that we can say now, as he said then, that our only trust and our only glory is in the cross of Jesus Christ; and that we find in him and his work alone the beginning and the middle and the end of salvation. He is not only the author but also the finisher of our faith.

A Christless cross no refuge is for me;
A Crossless Christ my Savior may not be;
But, O Christ crucified! I rest in thee.

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