Now this is a very important systematic question: Are there dogmata in present-day Protestantism, or are there not? Those of you who go into the ministry have to undergo a kind of church examination, which is not an examination for knowledge but for faith. The churches want to know whether you agree with their fundamental dogmatic tenets. And they often do it in a very narrow way, without much understanding of the development of theology in the last 400 years, since the period of old Orthodoxy.
On the other hand if you have an inner revolt – and I know that most Union Seminary students have such an inner revolt against this faith- examination – don’t forget that you go into a definite group, which is distinguished from other groups. It is first of all a Christian and not a pagan group; it is a Protestant and not a Catholic group; and within Protestantism it may be an Episcopalian, or a Baptist–or between these extremes! Now this means there is a justified interest in the Church that those who represent it at least show some acceptance of their foundations. Every baseball group demands of you that you accept the rules and the moral standards of a baseball team, and why should the Church leave it completely to the arbitrary feelings of the individual? That cannot be done. Usually the problem today is of somebody who is too heretic, too radical, too much on the side of Bultmann in the demythologization of the New Testament, or Tillich in using the term “IT Being” for God – or other bad people! This is the problem today. And on this basis many churches are suspicious.
But now think for a moment that this was not the problem, but that the young ministers all suddenly became enthusiasts for the veneration and perhaps even adoration of the Holy Virgin, and wanted to introduce this into the Baptist and Methodist churches! Now here you see immediately that there is a real and serious problem in it. And of course, if we come to the political dogmas – which are more dogmatic than any church whatsoever is – then you find that the problem becomes even more acute for the present situation. So it is one of the tasks of systematic theology to help the churches to solve this problem in a way which is not narrow-minded and not dependent on the 16th and 17th century theologians which are identified with the pure word of God – although they are dependent on their time as we are dependent on our time – but on the other hand there is some fundamental point which is accepted if somebody accepts the Church. Now I will give you here – because this is so important – something which anticipates my systematic theology, which you can read in the first volume already published: I believe that it is not the matter of accepting a series of dogmas, which the Church must demand of their ministers; how can they honestly say that they don’t doubt about any of these dogmas? They would be not very good Christians if they did not, because our intellectual life is as ambiguous as our moral life. And who would call himself morally perfect, and how then can someone call himself intellectually perfect? The element of doubt is an element in faith itself. And what the church should do is to accept somebody who says to them that this faith for which this church stands is a matter of my ultimate concern, which I want to serve with all my strength. But if you are asked to say what you believe about this or that doctrine, then you are driven into a kind of dishonesty even if in this moment you can say “I believe,” e. g., concerning the Virgin Birth – or whatever that may mean. If you say you will agree, then you are dishonest; you may subject yourselves to this whole set of doctrines as long as you are ministers, and you can say you cannot promise because you cannot cease to think, and if you think you must doubt. And that is the problem. I think the only solution on Protestant soil is to say that this set of doctrines represents your own ultimate concern, and that you desire to serve in this group which has made this the basis of its ultimate concern, but that you can never promise not to doubt anyone of these special doctrines.
Now this was a deviation from history into not only systematic but even practical theology. This shows you that what we do in terms of historical description is not so far away from the practical problems of your own life as ministers. This means that without dogmatic expression, without doctrinal formulations, no human life can live at all, neither a non-ecclesiastical group nor an ecclesiastical one. The problem is not to abolish the dogma but to interpret the dogma in such a way that it is not the horror and the suppressive power which necessarily produces dishonesty, or flight from it, but that it is a wonderful profound expression of the actual life of the Church. And in this sense I will direct the entire lectures, namely to show how in even the abstract doctrinal formulations, with difficult Greek concepts, etc., it is not a matter of discussing concepts as such, but it is a matter of discussing those things of which the Church believed that they are their most adequate expression for life, devotion, and life and death struggle: outside, against the pagan and Jewish worlds; and inside, against all the disintegrating tendencies which belong to every group.