The term is derived from the (Greek) verb “dokein” (= seeming, believing) and originally, its literal meaning was “that which seems good or proper to someone”; it also pertains to belief, ideology, principle, opinion, faith, and other related meanings. (Plato’s Soph.256C: «by making use of the many dogmas and words…»).
From its original meaning of a personal opinion, the term was transposed to the field of philosophical positions; in other words, it became a knowledge belonging to a (philosophical) School. (e.g. Plutarch, Ethica 14B: “the dogmas pertaining to souls” or the Stoic philosophers’ dogmas, etc.) The transposing over to this meaning is justified, by the fact that ancient thought demanded eclecticism in philosophy.
Later on, this term was transposed to public life (the state) and it signified decisions or decrees bearing state authority (Plato’s Laws, 644D: “the city dogma”, also in Luke, 2:1: “a decree (dogma, in the Greek text) was issued by Caesar Augustus to conduct a census of the population”. Thus, the term took on the meaning of something compulsory, something characterized by authority and prestige.
It afterwards took on a religious meaning, through the Old Testament and Judaism, with a legal-compulsory character. This is why it had a rather negative inference in Apostle Paul (Colossians, 2:14), where Christ is said to have “erased the manuscript of dogmas that were against you” and in (Ephesians, 2:15), where Christ abolished the enmity in His Body, by “abolishing the dogma of the Law of the Commandments”).
In Luke, however, they specifically adopted the initial, affirmative meaning that was to prevail from then onwards in Christian usage. Acts, 16:4: “……as they passed through the cities, they delivered unto them the decrees (‘dogmas’ in Greek text) that were validated by the apostles and the elders…”. We thus arrive at the dogmas of the Church, as being the authentic decisions pertaining to faith, that are delivered for compulsory acceptance, and are linked to the presence and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
A classical example is in Acts, 15:28: “…it seemed proper (refer above, to the origin of the word ‘dogma’) to the Holy Spirit and to us (=us the Apostles)”
The usage of the term with its contemporary, technical meaning is rare, in the Fathers of the Church. Whenever it appears, it has the following characteristics:
A) For the original, Apostolic Fathers, the term is most likely linked to practice rather than theory (ref. Ignatius, Megnesians 13:1, Barnabas, etc.)
B) It is equally used in instances pertaining to the Church and heretics (Vasilios the Great, To Esychasts: “…possible to destroy the heterodox dogmas…” ; also, in John The Chrysostom: the devil “has sown these deceitful dogmas of irreverence; in the Menaion of January “as for the dogmas of the infidel, they are justly drowned…”
C) Very important: the dogma is linked to worship, contradistinguishing it to kerygma (teaching, sermon). This is expressed in a monumental proposal by Vasilios the Great, in his work on the Holy Spirit: “…..for, dogmas are hushed, whereas sermons are publicized...”. This passage gave rise to younger patrologists to interpret Vasilios’ hushing as pertaining to the divinity of the Holy Spirit. But for our present topic of discussion, this phrase of Vasilios has the following significance: Dogmas are those things that the Church (as a worshipping community) confesses, and not those things that it promulgates to others, who are outside the Church. The deeper meaning of this viewpoint will preoccupy us again later on, but for the time being, we can just make a note that according to Vasilios the Great, the meaning of ‘dogma’ has the community of the Church as a prerequisite, along with a participation in its worship, otherwise it bears no authority.
This basic position of the Fathers - which we often forget – is also expressed by Gregory the Theologian, in the familiar phrase of his Address to Eunomians: “let us philosophize, within our own boundaries”. As testified by these words, the meaning inferred is: “within the holy territory” (and not in Egypt and Assyria), in other words, within the Church.
From this, we surmise that the authority of a dogma does not belong to the sphere of logic, nor to a blind obedience to -and resignation from- logic, but to a new logic, which is generated from the relations between the people of the ecclesiastic community. But we shall talk more about this later on.
Summary: ‘Dogma’ is that which an ecclesiastic community embraces as an (existentially) salvatory truth that applies to every man, and requires its members to accept it (through personal experience) as authoritative, because of the specialized relations that it ordains between members, as well as towards the world and God. The kerygma (sermon) on the other hand is whatever is addressed to all persons, publicly, in order that they may become members of the Church, and only then (as members of the Church) confess it as a dogma, having experienced it personally.
The truth does not become a dogma, unless it has been experienced and certified from within the Church. From this, it is obvious that the dogmas of the Church are not limited in number; new dogmas can be formulated in every era, because the Church is a living organism and the Holy Spirit is not associated to certain isolated periods of history. But, for a truth to become a dogma of the Church (and not a personal opinion), it must necessarily go through the community of the Church in its totality, and not only through a few people – be they theologians in the current (academic) sense, or saints. This point needs clarifications, because two important issues are posed:
1st: How the dogma is linked to the Holy Bible
2nd: The authority of a dogma in general and in respect to Dogmatics itself.