Over the years, Christians have disagreed about doctrine, politics, church government and certain moral questions. Yet having a Christian view of the world has always been our unifying factor.
Noted theologian and church historian Roger E. Olson says that part of our job as Christian theologians is to distinguish between the essentials of the Christian faith and the non-essentials. He summarizes the mosaic of Christian beliefs into three different categories: dogmas, doctrines and opinion.
While some Christians believe that the word ‘dogma’ carries a negative connotation, Roger helps us understand its importance as it relates to our faith walk.
“Language changes and the word dogma has come to be associated with being very dogmatic. Of course that’s where the word dogmatic comes from. But actually in its original meaning, dogma simply meant an essential of the faith; something that is really important to believe.”
“When I list these categories on the whiteboard for my students, the first thing I put under dogma is the incarnation; that God became human for us in Jesus Christ. To me, that’s an essential of the Christian faith. Anyone who understands that and says, ‘No I don’t believe that,’ I cannot consider them a Christian.”
“Now, I’m not condemning them to hell because God alone decides people’s salvation. I’m just saying I don’t consider your belief Christian if you deny the incarnation.”
Doctrines are the principals and teachings of our faith. Different denominations will teach different doctrinal beliefs based on their interpretation of the scripture. While important in theological circles, differences in doctrine don’t impact a persons standing with Christ. Roger shares a personal example of a non-essential disagreement to the Christian faith as it relates to doctrine.
“I’m a Baptist, so I happen to believe that only believers should be baptized, but that doesn’t mean that I think people who baptize infants aren’t Christians at all.”
We all have opinions, but we need to guard ourselves against ideas that could possibly infect or corrupt our core Christian belief system.
“Opinion is, for many of us, things about the end times and especially the details; the rapture and when it will occur, who all will be involved, and who the anti-Christ will be. These are matters of opinion for the most part, though of course some churches make them matters of doctrine.”
It’s important for us to know what our essential beliefs are as Christians so that we can continue to grow in our faith and further God’s kingdom.
Roger E. Olson (PhD, Rice University) is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. He is the author of many books, including Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith and The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story.