"The dogmatological disciplines are the proper sanctuary of theology. . . ." With these words Dr. Abraham Kuyper opened his discussion of the dogmatological group in the third volume of his famous Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid.[2] Although I am convinced that this expression is not correct, one can understand that in his day and age Kuyper stressed the significance of dogmatology. The nineteenth century had downgraded and downtrodden dogmatics, which in previous centuries had been theology as such or at least its main branch. Kuyper regarded this dethronement of dogmatics as the fateful consequence of a revolution which had deprived theology of its theological character and had transformed it into ecclesiology, the doctrine about the church. Schleiermacher, the most influential theologian of the nineteenth century, had brought dogmatics under the discipline of church history. In his view, the task of dogmatics should be nothing else than to present a systematic exposition of the dogma of the Christian church at any given moment of its historical development.

One may overlook Kuyper's overstatement also because of the fact that dogmatology indeed has an important place in theology. In this address we shall deal with this significance of dogmatology for the training for the ministry.


With respect to the name of this group of theological disciplines one can wholeheartedly agree with Kuyper. When Synod Orangeville 1968 established our Theological College it appointed, among others, a professor of "systematic theology." This is the term commonly used on the North American continent. However, there are at least two objections against this designation.

First, it is not a specific name, for all theological study has to be systematic. "Systematic" is a formal concept. As such it does not indicate anything but the fact that one treats his discipline in a methodical manner. All theoretical knowledge is to be systematic in this sense. "Systematic" can also mean that one is eager to discover and disclose the coherence of the subject matter, the system of a certain science. Even if we proceed in the latter direction and regard the adjective "systematic" as an indication of the system of doctrine, we nevertheless prefer the name "dogmatology" to that of "systematic theology." Dogmatology indicates more clearly the specific object of this group of theological disciplines. Dogmatology is that part of the science of theology which deals with the doctrine of Holy Scripture as confessed by the church. All the disciplines of this theological department circle around the dogmas, the formulated and accepted doctrines of the church.


In order to show the significance of dogmatology for the training for the ministry, I first would like to draw your attention to a group of words in the New Testament, namely the words "to teach," "teaching," and "doctrine' -- words which in the Greek of the New Testament are related to one another. Already in the gospels we read that our Lord Jesus Christ went about the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Mt. 4:23; 9:35), and that also the disciples preached and taught (Mk. 6:30). While preaching has the character of proclamation and is the action of the herald of God's Kingdom, teaching brings us into the area of instruction. A teacher explains and shows links and connections. We read in the book of Acts about the teaching of the apostles. They taught accurately the Word of God or the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 18:11; 28:31) and the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching (2:42).

When in his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul mentions his ministry, to make the word of God fully known to the Gentiles, he speaks about the riches of the glory of this ministry, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He then adds, "Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ" (1:28). The same apostle thanks God that the Christians in Rome have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which they were committed (Rom. 6:17). Especially in his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul speaks time and again about doctrine, the good doctrine, the sound doctrine, the doctrine of God our Saviour, the teaching which accords with godliness. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warns against false teaching, doctrines of demons, in which the good creation of God is slandered. He then encourages and exhorts Timothy in this manner, "If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed" (4:6). In his letter to Titus the apostle stresses this requirement for a bishop or overseer: "He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it" (1:9). The apostle John speaks of doctrine in similar fashion: "Any one who . . . does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son" (2 Jn. 9).

We conclude that already in the New Testament, teaching is connected with the proclamation of the gospel. The Word of God has to be explained; its implications must be brought to light; its connections with previous revelations are to be shown; its content has to be set off against the ideas of false religions and it has to be defended over against heresies within the church itself. The author of the letter to the Hebrews even makes a distinction between the first principles of God's Word, the elementary doctrine of Christ, and the solid food, the more mature knowledge of the truth. He exhorts his readers, "Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" (Heb. 6:1,2). These quotations from Holy Scripture make it clear that we may not fall prey to a contrast between a so-called undoctrinal period of the early Christian church and the stifling of the Christian proclamation by later dogma. There is indeed a distinction between the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the dogmas of the church, but there is no contrast between God's revelation in Holy Writ and the development of church dogma as such.


With this remark we make the transition to the first discipline of dogmatology, namely, symbolics. The name "symbolics" is derived from the noun "symbol," and "symbol" in this connotation means "creed" or "confession." In symbolics we deal with the creeds and confessions of the church. One may put it this way: if in dogmatology we occupy ourselves with disciplines connected with the dogma of the church, we first of all have to find and know that dogma. Where do we find the doctrines formulated and accepted by the church? The answer is, in the symbols. Symbolics, therefore, has as its object the creeds and confessions of the church. This discipline has the task, first, to establish the official text of the symbols; then, to investigate the origin of the creeds and confessions; and, finally, to elucidate their expressions, explain their contents, and show the connections within the confessional statements of the church. One may speak of a literary-critical task, a genetico-historical task, and an exegetical task of symbolics.

It goes without saying that no one is able to study symbolics without taking a confessional stand himself. At our Theological College in Hamilton, we take the Reformed stand. We teach the students on the basis of the Reformed conviction and in agreement with the Reformed confessions. The confessional standards of the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Three Forms of Unity, are in the centre of our attention. Our students are to obtain a thorough knowledge of the Reformed confessions of those churches in whose midst they desire to become ministers of God's Word. The lectures deal with a certain specific topic, for instance, the doctrine about the church in the Reformed confessions, and the students have to memorize the contents of the Heidelberg Catechism and basic contents of the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.

If someone were to be afraid that this attention to the Reformed confessions makes for narrow minded ministers, he would only show that he does not really know the Reformed confessions and their catholic character.

In line with Article 9 of the Belgic Confession we pay close attention also to the ecumenical creeds. We study the background, history, and contents of the so- called Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed. It is important for Reformed ministers-to-be to know the significance of the well-chosen expressions of these ecumenical creeds.

In addition to the Three Forms of Unity and the ecumenical creeds there are other confessions and doctrinal statements to be studied. In symbolics we deal especially with the documents of the Second Vatican Council in order to give the students the opportunity to become acquainted with the continuing controversy between the Reformation and Rome. Our heartfelt commitment to the Reformed confessions does not exclude such study, as some "ecumeniacs" might think; rather, it renders this study challenging and profitable.

It is clear that symbolics is an important part of dogmatology and that it is of great value for the training for the ministry. In preaching, in Catechism instruction, indeed, in all aspects of the work of a minister, it will become evident whether or not he has a thorough knowledge of the creeds and confessions of the churches. A congregation which loves the Reformed doctrine-not because of that doctrine as such, but because of its Scriptural nature-will always thankfully notice it when, in preaching and teaching, its minister manifests himself as a truly Reformed man.


We now come to the discipline of dogmatics. Dogmatics is the scientific reflection upon the truth concerning God and concerning His creatures in their mutual relationship, which truth God has revealed in His Word, and the church has confessed in obedience to this Word. Again we begin with the dogmas of the church. The Belgic Confession, for example, speaks about the triune God, His revelation, Holy Scripture; about the creation of the cosmos, of the angels and of man; about man's fall into sin and God's eternal election; about Christ's Person, His work, and His benefits; about the church of Christ and its offices; about the means of grace, Word and sacraments; and about the consummation of God's work of redemption in the glorious coming of our Lord and Saviour.

It is the task of a dogmatician to take all these wonderful topics, one by one, and go back, first of all, to Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith. In close cooperation with his colleagues of the bibliological department he has to study what God has revealed in His Word about a particular aspect of His truth. For this cooperation with the professors of Old and New Testament, I think especially of historia revelationis, the discipline which deals with the history of revelation. Dogmatics must be based on Scripture; and because in dogmatics we are aiming at the system of truth, we are especially interested in what the study of the Scriptures yields in a comprehensive manner. We are interested in a survey of God's revelation in Old and New Testament, for example, of His revelation about creation, or His revelation about sin, or about reconciliation and atonement. When I think about the future of Reformed dogmatics, after Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, Bavinck, and Schilder, I hope that through close cooperation between bibliology and dogmatology, a new development may be found.

It is also the task of the dogmatician to show the connections between the truths of Scripture and, therefore, also to expose the relations between the various elements of the dogmas of the church. In this twentieth century we are possibly more modest than certain predecessors of the nineteenth century. We are more aware that it is impossible to build a dogmatic system as a completely finished, theoretic structure. Paul's expression of amazement weighs heavily on our consciousness, "0 the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33). On the other hand, this modesty may not entice us to laziness or disorder in thinking. Dogmatics seeks to combine the dogmas into a systematic whole. It wants to discover the connections between the separate dogmas. Dogmatics wants to expose, for instance, the connections between the .doctrine about sin as guilt and as pollution, the doctrine about Christ's righteousness and holiness, and the doctrine about our justification and sanctification. Especially in dealing with the truth of the Word of God we have to think in an orderly manner. We may not be confused in our thinking and may not confuse others either.

The apostle Paul prayed for the congregations that they might be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding (Col. 1:9), that they might have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:2,3). In order to become a good instrument for the Holy Spirit in His answering this prayer, a minister must study the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the dogmas of the church. How else could we obtain power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:18,19)?

The task of a dogmatician is to show something of this breadth and length and height and depth of the truth of God in Christ Jesus. As Paul indicates, this can only be done in the communion of the saints, also in communion with the saints of the past. Therefore a dogmatician has to study the history of dogma. Here the dogmatician approaches the ecclesiological department. Study of church history and study of the history of dogma are closely related. When in dogmatics we deal, for example, with the doctrine of the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ--God and man in one Person-we need to study the history of the Christological dogma, which history is interwoven with the history of the church of Christ in the fourth and fifth centuries. This relationship between the study of dogmatics and the study of church history can be seen also in another respect. Another task of the dogmatician is the defense of the doctrine of Scripture as expressed in the dogma of the church. He has to demonstrate and to defend the doctrine of truth over against heresies and deviations. It is precisely in the struggle against heresies that the dogmas of the church have come about, time and again. A thorough knowledge of the history of dogma therefore will open one's eyes to deviations from the truth in the present time that are similar to heresies in the past.

Although we stress that dogmatics takes its starting point in the dogmas of the church and is related to the study of church history, we do not forget that Holy Scripture is the only rule of faith. Therefore, we have to go back from the dogmas of the church to the revelation of God. The demonstrative task of the dogmatician is to prove the doctrine of the church to be in agreement with Holy Writ. Scriptural proof occupies an important place in Reformed dogmatics. The Word of God is also the norm for the critical task of dogmatics. We must try to develop the dogmas of the church and to improve them where improvement may be necessary. K. Schilder called this the "sympathetic-critical" character of Reformed dogmatics: "sympathetic" with regard to the confessions of the church, and "critical" because Holy Scripture is and remains the only rule of faith. Councils, decrees, or statutes are not of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all (cf. Art. 7, Belgic Confession).

What is the significance of this study of dogmatics for the training for the ministry? The answer is already implied in the foregoing remarks. A minister has to learn to think in an orderly manner, and to present the truth of God's Word, the doctrine of the gospel, in an orderly manner. He is to handle the word of truth in the right manner (2 Tim. 2:15) and to declare to his hearers the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). He is to teach what befits sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1), to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it (Tit. 1:9). He is not able to do so if he does not have a thorough knowledge of the sound doctrine of Scripture and if he does not know how this doctrine has been attacked in the history of the church of Christ and has been defended by the bride of Christ in her creeds and confessions.

If the doctrinal truths of Scripture and the dogmas of the Reformed churches, in their relations and connections with each other, do not form the background, the skeleton, the structure of preaching and teaching, the ministry of the Word will deteriorate. Sermons will become nothing but religious lollipops; they will be far removed from that solid food prescribed to the church of all ages by the Holy Spirit in His letter to the Hebrews. And what will a minister do in Catechism class if he himself is not nourished by the words of the faith and of the good doctrine (I Tim. 4:6)? Catechism instruction will deteriorate into discussions about what some young people think important because it is the latest fad, while they do not yet know the truth of God's Word, committed to and confessed by the catholic church of all ages.


Meanwhile, we do not forget that teaching in the Scriptural sense of the word also has an ethical aspect. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom," Paul exhorts the Colossians (3:16). "Teach and urge these duties," he writes to Timothy, and he states as the purpose of admonition "that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed" (1 Tim. 6:1). Thus in Scripture, teaching is also ethical in character. It deals with Christian conduct or way of life.

Similarly the dogmas of the church are ethical as well as doctrinal in nature. Think of the last and largest part of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Lord's Days 32- 52 deal with the law of God and with the Lord's prayer. It is only for practical reasons that we distinguish between dogmatics and ethics. Dogmatics speaks about the teaching of Scripture concerning that which we are to believe; ethics deals with the teaching of Scripture concerning that which we are to do.

It is the task of ethics to expose in a systematic manner the revealed will of God to which man must be conformed. In the centre of attention is the law of God, especially the Ten Words of the Covenant, and that which the church has confessed as the contents of God's law. Cooperation with the exegetes of Old and New Testament is necessary also in this part of dogmatology. Again the history of revelation is important in order to understand correctly the obligation of man's will to the will of God (cf. Art. 25, Belgic Confession).

What is the significance of this study of ethics for the training of the ministry? In preaching and teaching the minister of God's Word has to admonish and exhort. He has to deliver what the apostle Peter calls the "holy commandment" (2 Pet. 2:21). He has to teach the congregation knowledge and all discernment, so that it may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Phil. 1:9,10). Children of God may not be conformed to this world, but are to be transformed by the renewal of their mind, that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:2).

Reformed ethics cannot simply repeat the wisdom of handbooks of previous centuries. Today we are placed before such matters as abortion, nuclear weapons, birth control, unionism, mercy killing, etc. Christians must make important new ethical decisions, time and again. Therefore we have to study the Ten Words of God's covenant in the context of the whole Mosaic law and of the history of revelation. We have to study the impact of the development of technology, organization, and natural science on modern society in order to give knowledgeable answers to modern problems.

One may understand the significance of this study of Reformed ethics for ministers-to-be. They are to preach the will of God in this twentieth century, to give guidance, to admonish, and to reprove. We think of what is called "pastoral counseling." Here dogmatology approaches diaconiology, the discipline that centers around the offices in Christ's church. Also then we are aware of the tremendous task and of our own weaknesses and shortcomings.

Modern Theology

We still have to mention two disciplines which Synod Orangeville 1968 indicated as the task of what it called the "professor of systematic theology." These are modern theology and philosophy. modern theology can be classified under what Kuyper called "statistics of dogma." The task of this discipline is to explain the state of affairs in the development of dogma in the present time. It is the attempt to orientate oneself with regard to the various and diverse movements in contemporary theology. In modern theology we deal, for example, with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, with Teilhard de Chardin, Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, with Berkouwer and Kuitert, with Van Til and Schilder.

It is evident that a Reformed theological student has to learn to discern the spirits, also, and especially, the spirits of his own time. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I Jn. 4:1). The study of modern theology is necessary for a clear picture of the phenomena in dogmatology in our own day, in order to distinguish between that which Reformed theologians must promote and develop, and that which they must combat and ward off. Shepherds are to use the rod and the staff in guiding and safeguarding the flock of Christ Jesus.


With a view to this calling of pastors and teachers we also study some philosophy. Philosophy is an independent science. When in dogmatology we take up some study of philosophy, it is because of the influence philosophy has exercised upon theology in the past and still exercises in the present. Augustine cannot be understood without some knowledge of Neoplatonism; Thomas Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle; modern theologians follow the pattern of thinking set out by Kierkegaard, Marx, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein. We could easily give more examples.

To enable future ministers to become aware of this impact of certain philosophies on theology, we offer a course called Introduction to Philosophy. Since we study philosophy only as an auxiliary science, we restrict ourselves to a discussion of the philosophy of cosmonomic idea, and of the history of modern philosophy.


Although we still do not agree with Kuyper's characterization of dogmatology as the proper sanctuary of theology, we are nevertheless confirmed in our conviction that it rightly possesses its own place. Dogmatology is important for the training for the ministry.

When in Ephesians 4 the apostle Paul portrays the gifts of the ascended Christ, he mentions also ministers of the Word of God. He calls them pastors and teachers, given for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness, in deceitful wiles (Eph. 4:11-14). There you have the significance of the study of the truth of God's Word, negatively over against false doctrine, and also positively for the growth of the congregation of Christ to maturity.

When in our days our Canadian nation is considering a revised version of "0 Canada" which will become Canada's national anthem, the most familiar and most repeated line is in discussion: "0 Canada, we stand on guard for thee."

Let Canadian Reformed people not forget that in his first letter to Timothy the apostle Paul describes the church of the living God as the pillar and bulwark of the truth (3:15). He concludes this same letter with the personal, urgent exhortation, "0 Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you . . . ... The sound doctrine is like a fixed deposit, like a treasure deposited for safekeeping. There are robbers, however. Therefore Paul admonishes, "Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge . . ." (6:20).

Dogmatology makes one sing: O gospel truth, we stand on guard for thee.


[1] Address delivered on the occasion of the annual college evening of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, November 8, 1974. The article was first published in Clarion 23 (Christmas Issue, 1974), 6-9.

[2] A. Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, vol. 3 (Amsterdam: Wormser, 1894). 346. An English translation has been published under the title Principles of Sacred Theology, trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980). This translation only contains the beginning of vol. I and the entire vol. 2 of the Dutch original.