Understanding the Doctrine of Eastern Theology
The first place to begin any discussion of doctrine must take us back to the beginning. In order to grasp the meaning of doctrine we have to revert to the use of a systematic language which helps us to enter more deeply into the realm of Faith and ultimately mystery. I say, enter more deeply, because we will never fully grasp the essence of the mysteries of our Faith as revealed by Jesus Christ, without the use of language. Therefore, we are automatically left at a finite disadvantage, since our ability to rationally ascent to matters theological requires the use of a vehicle, namely language, that originates with us finite human beings, who, whether it appeases our senses or not, cannot fully penetrate the divine mysteries. But, the vehicle of our ability to reason, to intellectualize and then to embody such unspoken words (language) enables us to discuss, as far as is intellectually possible, matters theological.
Doctrine, more particularly dogma, finds its origin in the use of a Greek work "dokeo." The meaning of this Greek verb "dokeo" translates as a truth, a decree, a matter of fact or law; it can also mean order. If we go back to the Pre-Socratic (before Socrates) philosophers of ancient Greece, such men as Parmenides, Protagoras, Pythagoras, Xenophen, etc., we find that the word "dokeo" was frequently used as they searched for the truth.
In Sacred Scripture what meaning does dogma assume in biblical teaching:
(1) Royal decrees
Daniel 2: 13 Nebuchadnezzar's Dream
"The decree was issued, and the wise men were about to be executed; and they looked for Daniel and his companions, to execute them," (NRSV).
Luke 2: 1 The Birth of Jesus
"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered," (NRSV).
(2) Urgent Truths
Other examples of the use of "dokeo" or urgent truths to be followed by the disciples of Jesus:
Acts 16:4 Regarding the Council of Jerusalem's decisions
"As they went out from town to town, they delivered to them for observance [my emphasis] the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem," (NRSV).
This second understanding of "dokeo", as an urgent truth, continued throughout the history of the Church. It is here that we can point to the second source of divine revelation, that is, sacred tradition. This urgency of teaching a particular truth to the believers and disciples of Jesus Christ can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers down to the present day.
So, dogma, is an urgent truth to be followed and adhered to, by the followers of Jesus Christ and His Church, as something that has been passed on, not only as revealed in biblical texts, but what has been taught orally down through the ages. Sacred Tradition is just that, the teaching of Jesus Christ revealed to the Apostles and transmitted down through the ages, even unto us today.
Sacred Tradition preceded the compilation of the Sacred texts by three hundred years. To dismiss this other source of divine revelation is to place oneself outside the proper understanding of the Church and her role in transmitting truth that has been divinely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Church compiled biblia, the Book, the Bible, as we know it today. The Bible did not compile the Church nor the divine revelation passed on orally. To accept anything less is to accept partial truth. What is Sacred Scripture without the Church? What is the Church without Sacred Scripture. These two sources of divine revelation, from which dogma is articulated linguistically, is what I call a theological symbiotic relationship.
Dogma or "dokeo" becomes in the Christian understanding, a theoretical truth of Faith from the two sources of divine revelation: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. We see this emerge at the Council of Jerusalem, circa 49 AD, and throughout the ensuing centuries in the various Ecumenical Councils of the Church. (Note: The word "ecumenical" as used here refers to the gathering of all orthodox (correct teaching) bishops throughout the universal Church who gathered to clarify or help define matters theological). The 'dogmatic' teaching coming out of a Council is not the creation of matters of Faith as already divinely revealed, but rather a clarification in defense of the orthodox Faith contrary to heterodox or heretical claims.
In summary, the principal characteristics of understanding dogma follow:
(1) The authority they maintain in virtue of divine revelation: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
(2) The validity given them by the Magisterium, that is, the teaching authority of the Church, as in the case of the Ecumenical Councils.
Dogma, as divinely revealed through Sacred Tradition (not traditions of men) and Sacred Scripture, is not solely a human accomplishment, but through the vehicles of human beings and language, the Holy Spirit worked to intervene in the historical scene and theoretical aspects of articulating and remaining faithful to orthodox (correct) teaching. It is the intervention of the Holy Spirit via the Magisterium of the Church that we assert that dogma is a theological matter divine, eternal and immutable in that it reveals a mystery of Faith. At the same time we cannot limit our theoretical pursuit of understanding and linguistically articulating new ways of communicating divinely revealed truths, so as to not inhibit an attempt to better or more deeply comprehend such matters theological.
Dogma is not merely an exercise in theoretical reasoning of the intellect and linguistic abilities. Dogma is proclaimed throughout the eastern Liturgies in its various prayers that declare in hymns, such as the toparia and kontakion hymns as well as the eucharistic prayer, the anaphora, highlighting divinely revealed truths.
Dogma, as expressed in our prayer, is an exercise not only of intellectual theory, but practice. The theoretical understanding or explanations attempting to articulate in our finite way, matters theological, serves to also increase our spiritual lives as we grow from theoria (theory) to theosis (a certain union with God).