A Holy Hesitancy

We should remove our shoes when standing on holy ground.

We must be more dogmatic (so that we may pontificate more appropriately).

Please don’t go away, as they say on TV when the commercials are about to begin. I do have a “commercial,” and I hope you will “buy” it. If you dislike the topic as I have stated it, we’re probably good friends.

You see, in the last few months, I’ve gone through some rethinking. It began as I was reading some of the early church fathers. I must confess that these had never interested me greatly. While studying at a seminary that prided itself as a defender of the faith, my fellow students and I dismissed quite summarily, for example, Origen of Alexandria, who was so free with his allegories that it seemed to us that “anything goes.” We of the Western church were just too advanced to give such capers the time of day—or so we thought.

But when I began to read what certain church fathers had written—particularly the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa)—I concluded that not only did these early saints deserve a hearing, but that we in the Western church ignore them at our loss.

Geographically these Cappadocians were part of the “land of the Bible.” Chronologically close to the New Testament (ad 329-390), they lived in a culture much like that of the New Testament, speaking and writing in Greek, the language of the New Testament. These are qualifications few if any of us can claim.

Basil’s way of reading and interpreting Scripture struck me as very different from the way we in the Western church read Scripture. Discussing the first chapter of Genesis, he says that Moses “deemed it sufficient to make known the one who created and ordered it, refusing to examine out of curiosity the question of its essence (ousia), as this would be vain and useless” (Contra Eunomius 1:13). His point of reference was the Creator, not the creation. No doubt he would have been quite annoyed by the way we in the West tend to “test” the Scriptures by the standard of metaphysical accuracy.


These Cappadocians seemed to agree on a particular formula: That which is clear in Scripture must be proclaimed from the pulpit, but dogma is more private. They used the word dogma quite differently than we do. Dogma comes from the Greek word dokein, which means “it seems” or “it appears.” For them, dogma was used in connection with statements that expressed what seems or appears to be.

For the church fathers, the commands of Scripture were clear: “Repent”; “believe”; “be baptized”; “deny yourself”; “take up your cross and follow me”; “eat and drink in remembrance of me.”

By contrast, the dogmas were not so clear—precisely how Christians were to understand repentance and faith was not self-evident. Exactly what believing involved was not absolutely clear, but preachers should proclaim what the book of Hebrews teaches about faith. Just what was meant by eating and drinking “in remembrance of me” was not easily settled either. Thus Christians should speak of dogma with reverent reticence. Questions are more appropriate than declarative statements. We should remove our shoes when standing on holy ground.

But the Cappadocians recognized another level of authority called theorie or interpretation, which must be offered with even greater care or deference. Our interpretation is the result of how we perceive dogma. Many dynamics go into the process of interpretation, including our own culture and worldview and the translation of the text we depend on. All these factors indicate that we do well to exercise a tentative, reverent reserve in our interpretation of Scripture with respect to faith.

The early church fathers recognized that some things needed to be talked over with others in order to gain a fuller understanding. The old story comes to mind of the five blind men and the elephant, which shows how misleading incomplete information can be to arriving at the truth.

More relevant is the record in Acts 15 of the first church “synod” and its decisions. The question the church was dealing with at the time was “Must the Gentiles who join the church be circumcised?” After considerable discussion with references to Scripture as well as to the way God had been at work among them, they came to a decision: “For it seemed (edoxen, a form of dokein) good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose no further burden than these essentials. . . .” Refraining from idolatry and fornication were judged to be essential. But such matters as circumcision and dietary laws were in the area of dokein—seemly, appropriate, and helpful for some but possibly not for others. Those of Jewish descent were not forbidden to be circumcised, nor were they required to be circumcised.

What effect has our turning away from the original meaning of dogma had on the history the church and on the church today? Before turning to that question, we need to look at another “straying” word: pontificate.


Pontificate comes from the Latin words pons and pont, which mean bridge, and facere, which means to make or build. Pontificate therefore literally means to build bridges. Used in that sense, the word would be fitting to describe Jesus Christ, the great bridge-builder between God and humanity. But in the history of the Western church, we have assigned the word a different meaning. And this too has not been without effect.

I can’t help but wonder how different the history of the church might have been if pontiffs had been “bridge builders” rather than dictators. Does it explain why the history of the Western church seems more violent than that of the Eastern church? What historian could deny that the actions of the Inquisition are the nadir of disgrace in church history?

But Protestants don’t come off too well either, as the following story indicates. In 1956, I visited the castle at Marburg, Germany. Our guide told us that Luther and Calvin had come together there to find agreement on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; he said they sharply disagreed and therefore did not partake of the meal together. If this is true, they permitted dogma to trump Christ’s clear direction “This do in remembrance of me.”

Today church historians are not convinced that Luther and Calvin ever really had a meeting. And whether they did or not is not important. What is important is whether Lutherans and Calvinists can celebrate the Supper together today.

Does this not explain many of the schisms that have occurred in the church? While the church cannot tolerate denials of what is clear in Scripture (1 John 2:22-24) and it must remove blatantly immoral persons from its fellowship (1 Cor. 5:13), there is much in the Christian faith and in the teaching of Scripture that is not cut-and-dried. On the one hand, our relationship with God is simple; we must receive him and his love like little children. On the other hand, the Christian faith and walk are not simplistic; understanding the teachings of Scripture is not without challenge.

We Christians are one-of-a-kind divinely made human beings. Each of us is an individual with a unique personality and a specific history. But God also said it was not good for humans to be alone (Gen. 2:18); within the body of Christ all the members must come together to form an organic whole (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

Does this mean that we should expect only clear and simplistic utterances to be made from the pulpit? Hardly. But it does mean that a sermon must indicate what is debatable and what cannot be questioned.

I recently witnessed a good example of how to properly “divide the word of truth.” Our pastor was preaching a series on the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. That morning it was the scene of the unsuccessful fishermen and Jesus’ preparation of breakfast for them. The pastor said some essential things about our Lord’s power (controlling fish) and his concern for our needs (baking fish). But what about the intriguing detail of the number of fish—153—that the disciples caught? What was the meaning of that?

The pastor indicated that there were different interpretations. Some took it simply to mean that the disciples were counting, and when they got to 153 there were no more fish. Others perhaps more mathematically inclined recognized 153 as a perfect number. But there was one more interpretation (theorie) that the pastor found interesting: According to Greek biologists of that time, there were just 153 species of fish. In that case, it could mean that these Christ-appointed “fishermen” were to reach and gather every “species” of humanity. A delightfully tantalizing theory!

Yet often we must admit that we see through a “glass darkly.” We do not have the final answer. Individually we are like one blind person convinced that the elephant is a rope arguing with another who says the elephant is a pillar or another who says the elephant is a wall.

Perhaps being more dogmatic (in the original sense of being more reverently reserved) can help us to be more appropriate pontificators—that is, bridge builders.

Consider once more Acts 15, which records the proceedings of the church’s first synod. The decision is made that circumcision is no longer mandatory. Paul must have been elated. Yet in the very next chapter he meets Timothy, a half Jew, and Paul circumcises him. Why? “Because of the Jews” (Acts 16:3). Apparently bridge-building was more important than the new-found liberty. Paul was not secretive about this matter. The new liberty was not allowed to function as a stumbling block to the Jews or to the Gentiles, for Paul also sought to “[lead] the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done” (Rom. 15:18). Winning others to Christ—bridge-building—was paramount for Paul.

This suggests that Christians are called to exercise a holy hesitancy in many matters of the Christian faith and walk. Paul struggled with this in the matter of eating meat (ceremonially clean or unclean). If eating meat might cause his brother or sister to stumble, he would rather refrain.

Christian doctrine includes such matters as the sovereignty of God versus the responsibility of humans, how God feels or thinks about unbelievers, and his relationship to them. On these matters and more, we are called to defer to divinity. Instead of strapping on our combat boots, is it not more appropriate for us to take off our shoes and stand in awe? If Moses stood in awe at the burning bush that was not consumed, how much more should we stand in awe at the mighty acts of God? As Paul reminds Timothy, “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great” (1 Tim. 3:16).

The church must be prophetic, but it must be prophetic with self-denying love instead of with arrogant declarations. This will enable denominations to extend sincere greetings of love and goodwill to one another—allowing the church to serve humanity and reflecting its oneness in Christ.

Web Questions

  1. How does the Cappadocians’ use of the word “dogma” differ from ours? What difference would that make for the way we interpret the Bible and the level of agreement we require from one another in our interpretation?
  2. Do you agree that “Christians should speak of dogma with reverent reticence”? Why or why not? Give some examples.
  3. We believe that the Bible is infallible. We also believe that our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible. While interpretation is, God willing, Spirit-led, it is still a work done by fallible human beings. Does the Cappadocians’ thinking about theoria help us to moderate our debates on issues such as creation/science and homosexuality?
  4. What, according to Vos, does Acts 15 teach us about how to approach disagreements in the church? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
  5. Vos writes, “I can’t help but wonder how different the history of the church might have been if pontiffs had been ‘bridge builders’ rather than dictators.” Speculate along with Vos—what difference might that have made? Would that have put Christ’s church in a better or worse position in this world?
  6. Does the preaching in your congregation adequately alert you to interpretations and applications that embody essential Christian truth and those that are more debatable and personal? Give some examples.
  7. How can the church remain prophetic while still being “dogmatic” in the good sense and also being better “pontificators” (bridge-builders)? What effect would that have in our denomination and in the church universal?

About the Author

Rev. Clarence Vos is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and a professor emeritus of religion and Old Testament at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (19)


An interesting video by Juby interviewing three scientists/speakers/writers who have researched on the implications of evolutionary thought on social morality.   It's called the Dark Side of Darwinianism.   The dogma's of evolution, natural selection toward's survival of the fittest, onwards and upwards eugenics, are discussed in this video.  http://www.youtube.com/user/wazooloo

Thoughtful article by Vos. Don't see the relevancy of the citation by Zylstra.

Lubbert, I admit it takes a bit of work to see the connection to evolutionary dogma.  Vos's rather long article contained this statement:  "Discussing the first chapter of Genesis, he says that Moses “deemed it sufficient to make known the one who created and ordered it, refusing to examine out of curiosity the question of its essence (ousia), as this would be vain and useless” (Contra Eunomius 1:13). His point of reference was the Creator, not the creation. No doubt he would have been quite annoyed by the way we in the West tend to “test” the Scriptures by the standard of metaphysical accuracy."  

My point is simply that evolutionary proponents have their own dogmas which they should also examine, or hold with less certainty.   Accepting those dogma's have a dark side which is a natural outcome of accepting this theory.  How God created the universe, the world, and us, reveals the character of God.  Inducing uncertainty in our knowledge of what scripture tells us, creates uncertainty in our knowledge of God's character as well, it seems to me.   I don't totally disagree with Vos's or Basil's statement, but I feel it doesn't tell the whole story. 

Fair enough, but the article has nothing to do with evolutionary theory or possible outcomes like eugenics. Nor is the article about dogmas.

Lubbert, I disagree...  I think Vos slipped it in (the statement I referenced) almost surreptitiously as a hint, that some people are too dogmatic about Genesis 1, for example.  Certainly the main theme of his article is on the meaning and use of dogma of various types.  I admit he didn't bring up eugenics;  but so what?  Dogmas, theories, pontifications, are all part of our belief system.  These beliefs come from or lead to values, and "by their fruits shall you know them."   Dogmas lead to consequences. 

The old comparison to a blind man evaluating the parts of the elephant (from Hindu and Buddhist lore) has value, but can be overused to suggest that we do not have the ability to see or understand the larger picture, and thus ought to prefer uncertainty.  But that is an oversimplification.  Paul was not uncertain about eating meat from idols.  He was quite certain that it was not wrong and that it did not make the eater an idol worshiper, or a God-denier.   But he was also quite certain that it would offend some people, and likely cause some people to stumble.  Again he was quite certain also that he would refrain from eating this meat if it caused spiritual hardship and struggle for new christians.  We need to distinguish complexity from uncertainty, I think.  We need to try to see the whole elephant, and not merely assume that we can only see one appendage. 

If "ideas have legs" (Al Wolters), and Vos didn't bring up eugenics - should we take the position of "so what?"

If the article is more about "knowing" and "opinion" than fixed dogmas, perhaps the article is suggesting that orthodox early church fathers have a more open stance to what God is trying to say in scripture than many in North America are prepared to accept.

Perhaps some of the early church fathers had a more open stance.  This is interesting, but does not speak to the relevance of being open about any particular issue.  They may have been right or they may have been wrong to be so open.   When this example is used in seeming defence of being more open to various interpretations of Genesis 1, then the specific instance becomes more significant than the generalization about an open attitude. 

But isn't that exactly the point. The sword cuts both ways vis-a-vis "No doubt he (Basil of Caesarea) would have been quite annoyed by the way we in the West tend to “test” the Scriptures by the standard of metaphysical accuracy." 

One needs to consider the possibility that Basil might consider your position on Genesis more heterodox than orthodox, just he might consider the evolutionist position incongruent with what scripture teaches.

Good point.   I wouldn't be testing scripture by standard of metaphysical accuracy, however.   It stands regardless of whether I can explain it or not.   But when there is an opportunity to explain it, then opportunity presents....   not to test, but to explain. 

This might really throw a knot in things: What if we're not supposed to have one explanation for one bible story? Maybe part of the problem with our "modernist" approach to scriptures is that we tend to think that there is one single "right" interpretation of a passage, and all the others are wrong. What if the "openness" we're talking about here is an openness to allowing God to speak to us in a passage. What if we didn't try to "nail" down every jot and tittle of meaning in every passage and instead celebrated some of the mystery and wonder of it all.

It may sound like I'm advocating a ridiculous amount of relativity, but in Romans 13 and 14, Paul tells us not to pass judgment on "disputable matters" like diet, and religious observances. When are we going to accept the fact that (for example), infant vs. believers-only baptism is a "disputable matter" and we should stop drawing lines in the sand, accept that we'll not know the "truth" of the matter in this lifetime, and live in the wonder and mystery of it all?

When will we accept that, none of us having been there to witness it, none of us can say FOR SURE what mechanisms God used in creation, and that they probably don't matter? What matters is that God did it, for a purpose. We can certainly try to explain it all. We should certainly explore all the questions we can think of. We must assuredly hold each other to account regarding the implications of the the theology we hold. But why can't we acknowledge that in some things (maybe many things), we can, at best, come up with a working model...a model which may be revised when something better comes along?

We should have done that with Galileo's understanding of the universe, but didn't. Why can't we learn from our errors?

Daniel, I think it is important to distinguish between lessons we can learn from a passage, and between the veritable truth of a passage.  For example, the parable of the prodigal son makes no sense if it is not taken literally... that the son actually did ask for and get his inheritance, squandered it, became desparate, and returned.  If we would suggest that the younger son was actually the older son, or that he only received some spending money, or that he did not return, but his father actually went to drag him back...  you see, any interpretation or application (and there could be several), relies on the sense of the parable, that it means what it says.  

The same is true for the story of creation.  We may get many varying applications from the story of creation, but these applications depend on the sense of the story of creation.  If the story is false or nonsense, then the applications lose their value and credibility.   The biggie is that if death existed before Adam, or that if evil in the human race existed prior to the fall of Adam, then the application of redemption loses out.  Why would Jesus die for completely natural activities and conditions?  

I would agree, John, that it's very important to distinguish between lessons we can learn from a passage and the veritable truth of the passage. I also agree wtih your assessment of the parable of the prodigal son (though taking a "parable" as literal truth is problematic in the sense that the parable is not a "literally true story"-- it's not a documentary, but a fictional story meant to bring across truth), but putting that aside your point is taken.

What I find problematic is your equation about the truth of the creation story.

What I hear you saying is:

  1. The creation story in Genesis 1 & 2 must be an accurate description of the mechanics of God's creative work.
  2. That if we say that it is not necessarily an accurate description of the mechanics of God's creative work, then the creation story loses all meaning.
I would disagree with that. If I cook some scrambled eggs, and I crack the eggs on the side of a pan, or crack them on the corner of the counter, what difference is there to the end result? None. If God chooses to create using one method vs. another, what difference does it make? None. If God chooses to relate the creation story to people in a way that makes sense to them (i.e., describing the world as flat, describing rain as coming through floodgates he opens in the dome of the heavens, etc.), and those things turn out to be not literally true, then does the story of creation lose it's validity any more than the story of the prodigal son loses it's validity because the son and the father didn't actually exist? No. The "facts" about the mechanics of how God created the world simply have no bearing on the truth of the creation story in Gen. 1 & 2. Thinking they do is far to narrow an interpretation of the scriptures, IMHO.
Thanks for the dialog, John. It's always invigorating. ;-)

Daniel, I think we have to distinguish between a parable being literal, and being false as a comparison to the story of creation.  Thus the parable of the prodigal son may not have literally happened;  it does not name a particular family, nor give a date, nor a town.  It was not intended to be a news report.  However, the story must be taken as it is given.  We cannot say that the oldest son was a daughter, nor that the youngest son merely pretended to have squandered wealth, nor that the father sent servants to drag the younger son back.  The story must be taken as literally as it is given in order for any application or interpretation to have any meaning. 

 I agree that the creation story may leave out some details.  But if it is not taken as presented, in that it actually happened, that God rested from the original creation (and thus gave us a legitimate command to sabbath rest), that God created it "good", and that man was created from "earth", not from animals, and that sin and death was caused by man's disobedience bringing a curse.... if these things did not actually happen, then the real-life application of salvation by grace by "one man"cannot be made.  Creation then would  not require renewal and redemption since it is merely continuing on as it always has done.  Then sin would be God's fault, not ours.  The real application and effect of creation on our lives cannot be the result of a fairy tale.  It cannot even be the result of a well-told parable which is proven to be impossible or contrary to truth.  A parable is an illustration which depends on the possibility of it being true and possible.  The creation story also depends on being true and possible, in order for us to trust in God, and to understand Him.  If the creation story is not essentially true, then even the parables don't make sense.   Instead of being happy about the return of the prodigal son, we would simply deride his foolishness and lack of competitiveness, and we would agree with the older son's attempt to diminish his younger brother since that is how God created the world to be. 



"It is not true because it is in scripture;  it is in scripture because it is true."   When you think about this, you will find this an enlightening way to think about how we discuss scriptural stories and events. 

AMEN to the author. Well played Clarence!! I'd been writing what may become a book one day (except that it's probably been written many times before) about how our theology has to change. Not only to "not go beyond what is written," but also to stop choosing which verses to believe. I love discussions on creation, eschatology (end times), etc. but let's not drive in stakes where the Bible is unclear. I love how the early church fathers seemed the love mystery, while we distain it. To many Christians today, mystery and unknowing is a sign of weakness. How sad.

(To play devil's advocate here) I would alter your comment on creation slightly to say if HUMAN death existed before Adam the application of redemption loses out. God seems to be speaking to humans directly when he tells Adam "in the day you eat, you will die". Conceivably Adam understood what death was, possibly because it was part of the order of the world, just not the order of humanity.

Regardless of that little tickle above, John's making an excellent point here. There are 2 separate discoveries made in each portion of text:

1) What is the text claiming about reality (what was the truth it is speaking to us, to its original hearers, to 1st century Jews, etc.). What factual truth claims is it making?

2) What is the text teaching about reality in general (what truths can God show us through the text via Holy Spirit inspiration, word pictures, etc.). What is it teaching us?

These are not always the same. As John pointed out, parables are a great example of this. People disagree all the time on whether the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a truth claim about the afterlife or merely a teaching on the relationship between this life and the next.

I recently preached on how Acts 27 is an excellent allegory of what NOT to do in regards to discerning God's will for your life. Terrible hermeneutics but amazing life application.

All manner of arguments arise between people confusing the two because God teaches us through obscure verses all the time, but its not the same as a truth claim. One fun example which I heard of was an arab man becoming a Christian after reading his obscure name in an Old Testament geneology. That was the final nail in his coffin, helping him believe he was in God's family tree. Some would argue it's poor hermeneutics to make that connection, but God never worried too much about those things, which is why he so often feels free using stories to speak truth and muddy the waters. (Look at how weak the hermeneutics and logic are for the NT writers proof-texting, etc).

I smile whenever I think of Al, so thanks for mentioning his name. I would say that the early church fathers were better at knowing what they didn't know. They were content to marvel at each puzzle piece of truth without trying to fit them all together. We tried to build one solid picture out of a bunch of broken puzzle pieces, a cup of legos, some screws and a handful of linkin logs!

(Although this is not the intent of his book) If ideas have legs according to Al, perhaps we'd best not do as much thinking as we'd like to ensure we don't walk off a cliff in the dark. When you're lost in the middle of a forest, the best thing in the world is to stay still. I'd like to see a little more of that in regards to Christian truth claims today regarding unessential things. 

From reading Dr. Vos's article, one would not guess that the era of the Church Fathers was a time of ferocious doctrinal debate and precise theological definition. For instance, Irenaeus defended biblical faith from Gnostic heresy. Athanasius contended fiercely for the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy. Augustine battled the works righteousness of Pelagius. The Fathers did not say that biblical commands were clearer than doctrines. Rather, they insisted on sound doctrine.

Dr. Vos is right that some Christians are too quick to fight over matters on which they should be more tentative and tolerant. Even so, other Christians are too vague and squishy about truths that ought to be declared clearly and firmly. The Church Fathers had clearer heads and stronger backbones than many contemporary theologians.

I agree with David here; however, one of the things Vos might be alluding to is the frequency with which the early church fathers talk about and exalt the mystery of Christianity. They may still be fighting on the main points in their day, but we today do not exalt mystery...at all. We try to grab it out of the heavens, take it apart and pretend we know how it works (and often break it in the process). I imagine one day we'll all be quite ashamed of the pride we had while here on earth presuming this and that about God's sovereign ways.