By Ben Zemmer
Despite the fact that C.H. Dodd was a renowned scholar of the 1940’s, he deviates significantly from the orthodox Christian understanding of the heart of biblical teaching. Simply stated, Dodd concludes in his writings that the central aspect of teaching in the New Testament is an ethical code with the purpose of improving the morals of the broader culture (Dodd, p.23). In his own words Dodd stated that, “These members [new believers] were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life. This course of instruction in morals as distinct from the proclamation of the gospel [kerygma], is covered by the term ‘teaching,’ which in Greek is didache” (Dodd, p.10) Later on, he proceeds to explain the underlying purpose for these ethics namely, that the “Christian church was…aimed at elevating the moral standards of society”(Dodd, p.22-23). In other words, the content of New Testament “teaching” is separate from the gospel and exists for the purpose of improving the standards “of the broader culture”(Dodd, p.23).
While ethics in themselves are not always bad, they certainly become bad when they usurp the position reserved only for Christ. The Apostle Paul waxed eloquent in his refutation of the Galatians’ return to the law for their confidence rather than to Christ. He had very strong words for those who abandon Christ for any form of the law. In similar fashion, Herman Ridderbos wrote opposing Dodd’s view. While he concedes that, “teaching and to teach are concerned especially with ethics”, he proceeds to say that, “teaching not only accompanies the kerygma [proclamation of the gospel] (Matt. 4:23; 11:1); from the outset it refers to the content of the kerygma (Matt. 5:2; Mark 1:27; 4:2ff.; Acts 28:31; Gal. 1:12) and in part consists of the further explanation of the nature and progress of the accomplishment of redemption (Mark 9:31; 4:2ff.; Acts 18:25)” (Ridderbos, p.70). The difference between this statement and Dodd’s statement boils down to content and purpose. Dodd says that the content of the didache is ethics and its purpose is improving the “standards of society”, while Ridderbos says that the content of the didache is the gospel and its purpose is the “edification of the church” (Dodd, p.22; Ridderbos, p.76).
For true believers this is the difference between day and night. If ones hope rests in ethics as the core of Christian living, then one has placed hope in an empty gospel.