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(Gr. dokein, “to seem”). The word ranged in meaning from “thinking” or “having an opinion” to “appearing best” or “being determined.” The noun formation dogma is first found in early fourth-century b.c. writings of Xenophon and Plato, with an application comprehending legal or military decrees or commands, and philosophical or religious tenets or understandings. Patristic citation shows the process over three or four centuries of Christian confrontation with Judaism and with its own deviations, by which the legal weight of commandment was carried into the philosophical dimension, so that dogma came to identify fixed doctrines or the total system of creedal religion. That which had expressed opinion became the determined or right opinion (orthodoxia). Collectively dogma is the intellectual side of the Christian faith. The Nicene church reviewed it historically; the nineteenth century subjected it to critical analysis (cf. F.C. Baur and Adolf Harnack).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(dogma, from dokeo, "that which seems," "an opinion," particularly the opinion of a philosopher):

1. As Law and Ordinance:

In the decadent period of Greek philosophy, the opinion, or ipse dixit, of the master of a philosophical school came to be quoted as authoritative truth; also, the opinion of a sovereign imposed as law upon his subjects: a decree or ordinance of the civil authority. The word never appears in English Versions of the Bible, although it is used 5 times in the Greek New Testament, but with the one exception of Ac 16:4, in a sense widely different from that which ecclesiastical usage has given to it from the 2nd century downward. "Dogma" is used in the New Testament,

(1) of Roman laws: "a decree (Greek dogma) from Caesar Augustus" (Lu 2:1); "the decrees of Caesar" (Ac 17:7) = the whole body of Roman law;

(2) of ordinances of religious law: "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph 2:15); "the bond written in ordinances" (Col 2:14) = the Mosaic ordinances as expressing the moral law which condemned the sinner, and whose enmity Christ abolished by His death. It is a significant revelation of the spirit of Greek theology that all the Greek commentators understood by ordinances in these two places, the gospel as a body of dogmas which had removed the commandment or bond that was against us (see Lightfoot, Colossians, at the place);

(3) of the decrees of the Council of Jerusalem (Ac 15:20), which Paul and his companions delivered to the Gentilechurches (Ac 16:4). Here we have one element that entered into the later ecclesiastical meaning of the word. These dogmas were decisions on religious matters, imposed by a more or less authoritative council of the church as a condition of admission to its membership.

2. As Formulated Teaching:

There is however one important difference. These decrees relate to moral and ceremonial matters, but from the 2nd century downward, dogma means especially a theological doctrine. In Greek theology "doctrine" and "dogma" meant the same thing. Each had its origin in the opinion of some great teacher; each rested upon revelation and claimed its authority; each meant an exposition of a particular truth of the gospel, and of the whole Christian truth, which the church adopted as the only right exposition. Each word might be used for the teaching of a philosopher, or of a heretic, although for the latter, "heresy" became the regular term. On the one side stood the doctrines or dogmas of the majority or the "Catholic" church, and on the other side, those of the heretics. So long as the "Catholic" ideal of orthodoxy and uniformity of belief held the field, there was no room for the distinction now made between "doctrine," as a scientific and systematic expression of the truth of the Christian religion, and "dogma," as those truths "authoritatively ratified as expressing the belief of the church." This distinction could only arise when men began to think that various expressions of Christian truth could coexist in the church, and is therefore quite modern and even recent. Dogma in this sense denotes the ancient conception of theology as an authoritative system of orthodoxy, and doctrine, the modern conception, outside the dogmatic churches, where theology is regarded as a scientific exposition of truth.


Harnack, History of Dogma, I, chapter i; Drummond, Studies in Christian Doctrine, 1-7.