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Dogma before Life

These words by Horatius Bonar, though written around one hundred and fifty years ago, have never been more true than they are today. While those who would call themselves “the church” today are always looking for something fresh and innovative, they continually fall back on the same errors that have been common in ages past. The good news, then, is that we need no fresh answers. The saints who have gone before us and, indeed, Scripture itself, have said all that needs to be said.


Christianity, say many among us, is a life, not a dogma; and they reckon this the enunciation of a great and unappreciated truth. It is, however, a mere truism, or it is an unmeaning antithesis, or it is an absolute falsehood. It sounds oracular and great; it is only pompous.

Christianity is both life and dogma; quite as much one as the other.

But it is a dogma before it is life; it cannot be the latter till it has been the former. It is out of the dogma that the life emerges; not the dogma out of the life; and the importance that is attached in Scripture to knowledge—right knowledge—should make us cautious in disparaging doctrine, as if it were harmless when wrong, and impotent or uninfluential when right. The mystics of different ages have tried hard to depreciate doctrine, to praise what they call “the spirit” at the expense of “the letter’; And it is somewhat remarkable that infidelity has generally taken their side . . .

. . . doctrine in general, at least if precise and defined, is inconsistent with liberty of thought and expansion of intellect. “Life” is a pliable thing; it is unfenced and common; it may mean anything a man likes to call it or to fancy it; there is no imperiling of human liberty in calling Christianity a life; the men of “progress” and “freshness” are safe in making their standard; for Christianity = life may mean just Christianity = 0; at least it is an equation capable of being manipulated as to bring out any result which the theological algebraist may desire.

And then there is the advantage of having a popular and high-sounding watchword. “Christianity a life, not a dogma” sounds noble. . . . it is an axiom rather than a proposition. It takes largely; it convinces hundreds without further inquiry or argument . . . it would enable us to believe anyone to be pious—Moslem, Hindoo, Romanist, Pantheist, or Sceptic—who could produce a worthy and earnest life.

. . . Religion without creed, religion without truth, religion without the Bible, religion without Christianity, religion without Christ—is set down now, not simply among things possible, but amongst things desirable. . . . “Unconditioned” religion is to be accepted as not inconsistent with philosophy or liberty, but conditioned or defined religion is to be regarded as imbecility.

—Horatius Bonar, Christ Is All, ed. Darrin R. Brooker & Michael Haykin (Reformation Heritage Books, 2007), 145–146.

July 22, 2008

Posted 2020·03·26 by David Kjos
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