Is “Development of Doctrine” a Valid Category?


I was recently listening to a debate (please watch) between Peter D. Williams (Catholic) and Dr. James White (“Reformed” Baptist) on the subject of the Marian Dogmas which are held as infallibly revealed doctrine given by Christ through the Apostles, and, as always, the issue comes down to whether the Catholic can show continuity, not just between Scripture and the Marian dogmas, but also that it can be shown from the survived documentary copies of Christian antiquity that these dogmas were believed and held by all Christians from all times. Williams was clear that his position has no commitment to the famous Sola-Scriptura doctrine held by the Protestant Reformers, and Dr. White knew well enough that this was the case. Williams, therefore, indicated that Scripture is not the sole source of divine revelation, but that Sacred Tradition also constitutes, together with Scripture, said revelation. White then pointed out in a number of places where James-White-Kruger-Bookthe Marian dogmas were either explicitly denied or undermine by X and Y Church father. To this, Williams gave a few instances where the fathers show implicitly that Mary is exempt from what systematical theologians would called “original sin“, but then followed by insisting on the fact that Doctrine develops. In response, White took advantage of these words and thought it afforded him the pleasure of just repeating “Well, you admit these beliefs were not held by the Apostles or the early Fathers, since they developed over time” (etc,etc,.). Does this idea of the development of doctrine  afford Dr. White what he sought to take advantage of? Does it really just come down to the Catholic Church just innovating doctrine out of nowhere, or that she builds mountains (dogmas) on the chicken coup foundations (sparse data of explicit information)? Now, I don’t think that Williams made a sufficiently good case for himself, but his rebuttal to Dr. Whites on how the latter knows the Canon of Scripture if the Scriptures do not contain it was absolutely unanswered by Dr. White. Thus, the whole time Dr. White was gleefully unaware of this glaring inconsistency of pointing the finger at another with the accusation “Development!”, all the while holding proudly to both Canon and Sola Scripture, both of which not only were developments in tradition, but the Protestantized Canon and doctrine of Sola Scriptura find their origin in the 16th-century (with some small voices which came recently before). The debate is well worth listening to, anyhow.

What about the Eastern Orthodox? Priest scholar Fr. Andrew Louth wrote an essay entitled “Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category?” which is collected in “Orthodoxy and Western Culture” , and herein he says the following:

“We do not hope to surpass the Fathers in our grasp of the mystery of Christ; rather, we look to them to help us to a deeper understanding. We do not stand over against the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFathers; we come to them to learn from them. This entails that if development means that there is an historical advance in Christian doctrine, making our understanding of the faith deeper or more profound than that of the Fathers, at least in principle, then such an notion of development cannot be accepted as a category of Orthodoxy theology.” (Pg. 55).

This was a rather odd conclusion, especially since paragraphs before he wrote as follows: “It would seem obvious to an historian that neither the eighth-century doctrine of the necessity of making and venerating icons nor the fourteenth-century Palamite distinction between essence and energies can really be found in the fourth-century Fathers..” (pg. 47). But even so, I think there is a practical incoherence in this statement. On one hand, Fr. Louth says that we can gain “deeper understanding” from the Fathers of the Church, and yet on the other hand we cannot output more advanced definitions which are based on that further reflection. Moreover, it presupposes the Apostles were confronted with every single doctrinal question and aberration. The Apostles and Fathers did not hand on a book with all the potential problems, questions, and deadly heresies (though they be just shades in difference from orthodoxy by a single letter!) from which we simply passively get answers from. One wonders how on earth Fr. Louth would conceive that the veneration of images, in the precise theology of Nicaea 787, and the distinction between God’s essence, as one, and God’s energies, as another, was fully and sufficiently explicated by the holy fathers in the first 5 centuries of Christendom?

Here is where James Cardinal Gibbons helps by showing how the finality and singularity of divine revelation fits together with the progressive deepening of the Church’s understanding of that single and final body of Teaching. What I found valuable here, besides echoing Blessed Newman’s essay on the same subject, was his citing two very well known Western saints, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Vincent of Lerins. These were 5th-century men who lived during great doctrinal debate, and knew what it was like to live as a Christian in the Catholic Church wherein questions of divine revelation were wont to come up and make men quarrel.  My only reservation is that St. Vincent’s Commonitorium was conceptually incomplete, and this I say here, but will defend in another post. Take note, however, that the idea or concept of “development of doctrine” was already in the great minds of Fathers such as these two, contrary to the claims of both Dr. White and Fr. Louth. If they had already conceived of this concept, who are we to deny?

The Cardinal wrote:

“No new dogma, unknown to the Apostles, not contained in the primitive Christian revelation, can be admitted. For the Apostles received the whole deposit of God’s word, according to the promise of our Lord: ‘When He shall come, the Spirit of truth, He shall teach you all truth’. And so the Church proposes the doctrines of faith, such as came from the lips of Christ, and as the Holy Spirit taught them to the Apostles at the birth of the Christian law- doctrines which know neither variation nor decay. 

Hence, whenever it has been defined that any point of doctrine pertained to the Catholic faith, it was always understood that this was equivalent to the declaration that the doctrine in question had been revealed to the Apostles, and had come down to us from them, either by Scripture or Tradition. And as the acts of all the Councils, and the history of every definition of faith evidently show, it was never contended that a new revelation had been made, but every inquiry was directed to this one point – whether the doctrine in question was contained in the Sacred Scriptures or in the Apostolic traditions. 

A revealed truth frequently has a very extensive scope, and is directed against error under its many changing forms. Nor is it necessary that those who receive this revelation in the first instance should be explicitly acquainted with its full import, or cognizant of all its Champaigne,_Philippe_de_-_Saint_Augustin_-_1645-1650bearings. Truth never changes; it is the same now, yesterday, and forever, in itself; but our relations towards truth may chance, for that which is hidden from us today may become known to us tomorrow. ‘It often happens’, says St. Augustine, ‘that when it becomes necessary to defend certain points of Catholic doctrine against the insidious attacks of heretics they are more carefully studied, they become more clearly understood, they are more earnestly inculcated; and so the very questions raised by heretics give occasion to a more thorough knowledge of the subject in question’ (City of God, Book 16, Ch. 2)

Let us illustrate this. In the Apostolic revelation and preaching some truths might have been contained implicitly, e.g., in the doctrine that grace is necessary for every salutary work [i.e. a work which is directed toward salvation], it is implicitly asserted that the assistance of grace is required for the inception of every good and salutary work. This was denied by the semi-Pelagians, and their error was condemned by an explicit definition. And so in other matters, as the rising controversies or new errors gave occasion for it, there were more explicit declarations of what was formerly implicitly believed. In the doctrine of the supreme power of Peter, as the visible foundation of the Church, we have the implied assertion of many rights and duties which belong to the centre of unity. In the revelation of the supereminent dignity and purity of the Blessed Virgin there is implied her exemption from origin sin, etc, etc. 

So, too, in the beginning many truths might have been proposed somewhat obscurely or less clearly; they might have been less urgently insisted upon, because there was no heresy, no contrary teaching to render a more explicit declaration necessary. Now, a doctrine which is implicitly, less clearly , not so earnestly proposed, may be overlooked, misunderstood, called in question; consequently, it may happen that some articles are now universally believed in the Church, in regard to which doubts and controversies existed in former ages, even within the bosom of the Church. ‘Those who err in belief do but serve to bring out more clearly the soundness of those who believe rightly. For, there are many things which lay hidden in the Scriptures, and when heretics were cut off they vexed the Church of God with disputes; then hidden things were brought to light, and the will of God was made known” (St. Augustine , Psalm 54, No. 22).

This kind of progress in faith we can and do admit; but the truth is not changed thereby. Albertus Magnus says: ‘It would be more correct to style this the progress of the believer in the faith, than of the faith in the believer’. 

To show that this kind of progress is to be admitted only two things are to be proved: (1) That some divinely revealed truth should be contained in the Apostolic teaching implicitly, less clearly explained, less urgently pressed. And this can be denied only by those who hold that the Bible is the only rule of Faith, that it is clear in every part, and could be readily understood by all from the beginning. This point I shall consider farther on in this work. (2) That the Church can, in process of time, as occasions arise, declare, explain, urge. This is proved not only from the Scriptures and the Fathers, but even from the conduct of Protestants themselves, who often boast of the care and assiduity with which they ‘search the Scriptures’, and study out their meaning, even now that so many Commentaries on the sacred Text have been published. And why? To obtain more light; to understand better what is revealed. It would appear from this that the only question which could arise on this point is, not about the possibility of arriving by degrees at a clearer understanding of the truth sense of revelation, as circumstances may call for successive developments, but about the authority of the Church to propose and to determine that sense. So that, after all, we are Cyril_of_Alexandria,_Athanasius_of_Alexandria,_Leontiy_of_Rostovalways brought back to the only real point of division and dispute between those who are not Catholics and ourselves, namely, to the authority of the Church, of which I shall have more to say hereafter. I cannot conclude better than by quoting the words of St. Vincent of Lerins: ‘Let us take care that it be with us in matters of religion, which affect our souls, as it is with material bodies, which, as time goes on, pass through successive phases of growth and development and multiply their years, but yet remain always the same individual bodies as they were in the beginning…It very properly follows from the nature of things that, with a perfect agreement and consistency between the beginnings and the final results, when we reap the harvest of dogmatic truth which has sprung from the seeds of doctrine sown in the spring-time of the Church’s existence, we should find no substantial difference between the grain which was first planted and that which we now gather. For though the germs of the early faith have in some respects been evolved in the course of time, and still receive nourishment and culture, yet nothing them that is substantial can ever suffer change. The Church of Christ is a faithful and ever watchful guardian of the dogmas which have been committed to her charge. In this sacred deposit she changes nothing, she takes nothing from it, she adds nothing to it (Commonitorium – Ch. 23)

– The Faith of our Fathers by James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore (Chapter 1, The Unity of the Church)

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