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Photo: Pixabay, The Old Farmer’s Almanac.  Vines need a trellis, as wine need a wineskin.

Some of the reactions I get to More Enigma than Dogma range from confusion, as in “what on earth are you talking about?” – to – “you should write more dogma than enigma!” (smile).

I’ve taken a few runs at trying to explain More Enigma than Dogma. I am drawn into the mystery of God as expressed through the mystery of the gospel (a favourite phrase of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians) – and the mystery of the gospel is to be proclaimed. Here I will introduce Kerygma: a Greek word used frequently in the New Testament meaning “proclamation”.

More Kerygma than Dogma?

As is often the case for a person like me who loves to see the mysterious providence of God work in and through and with all aspects of life, I happened to be reading Alister McGrath’s “Understanding the Trinity“, where he writes:

The ‘proclamation’ [kerygma] is the good news of God’s redemptive action in history, and so it is hardly surprising to find that the New Testament is full of the proclamations of God’s saving activity in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ… [and] the apostles ‘never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ’ (Acts 5:42).

The Need of a Trellis

Perhaps it is a matter of emphasis, as McGrath suggests the preacher is concerned with proclamation – with “setting out of the relevance and importance of Jesus for his hearers,” whereas:

Dogma is basically concerned with correlating all ideas into a coherent unity. Doctrine is to proclamation what wineskins are to wine – something to contain it, to give it shape and strength. It is like a trellis upon which a climbing rose might be grown – it is a framework, a structure which supports something else…

Doctrine is taking the trouble to think through the implications of the proclamation, and making sure that these implications are understood…

Dogma as the subject of Kerygma

Thus when speaking about the nature of God as Triune, McGrath writes:

What we are leading up to is simply this: the proclamation is that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’; the doctrine is that the ‘God’ in question has to be thought of as a Trinity if this proclamation is valid…

The tip of the iceberg is the proclamation – the bit which we first encounter. But on further exploration, we discover the doctrine, the part which is already there, but which we didn’t realize was there until began to explore further.

“What must God be like?”

Though proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ need never delve into the doctrine of the Trinity, if you start thinking about the question, “what must God be like if he is able to act in this way?” you will end up with the doctrine of the Trinity.

In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity is the end result of a long process of thinking about the way in which God is present and active in his world. It is the result, not the starting-point, of a long process of thinking…

The proclamation is that God redeems us in Jesus Christ – the doctrine is that God must therefore be a Trinity. It doesn’t explain why God is like this, and neither does it pretend to – it simply states that God must be like this if he acts in the way in which Christians knows he does.

Back where I started: More Enigma than Dogma

In the last pages of McGrath’s book he writes:

The doctrine of the Trinity, then, is the Christian’s last word about God. It is not something which we begin with, but something we end up with… you begin by talking about Jesus Christ, about his death on the cross and resurrection, or you might talk about the possibility of encountering or experiencing God here and now. But even as you begin to talk about God in such ways, you are working within the framework established by the doctrine of the Trinity.

We are continually beckoned to and by this kerygmatic God who’s holy and Triune nature is a beautiful enigma we are invited to explore. Or as Karl Barth said,

The revelation of God is the abolition of religion.

In the caption of the vineyard photo above, I noted that “Vines need a trellis, as wine need a wineskin.” But that’s not entirely true, is it? It really is the other way around. The whole point of a trellis or a wineskin is the subject of its purpose. We no more want the trellis than the vine, in the way we no more want the wineskin than the wine. But in this life we use dogmatic structures, being always mindful of the beautiful enigma it feebly describes, and being ready to present the kerygma of His goodness.


P.S. If you are still reading at this point: congratulations!

I thought I lost you at “kerygma” (smile).