Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Development of Doctrine: Norm or Novum?

The Council of Nicea (fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome)

Has the belief that doctrine develops always been the norm in the church's history, or is it in fact a novum (a new thing, an innovation...itself a development!)? Your answer to that question probably turns on whether you are a Roman Catholic or not, for modern Roman Catholicism is, as far as I am aware, the only church body to officially work with the notion that doctrine can be developed (true, theologians from other confessions may say "doctrine develops", but they most often mean something different from what Rome claims). For all churches apart from Rome, however, Christian doctrine has historically been regarded as a given; it is the doctrinal content of the apostolic deposit of faith (variously: "the faith", fides quae, de fide), set down once and for all in the holy scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church may differ from traditional Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed and others in broadening the definition of the deposit of faith to include 'tradition' as the life of the Holy Spirit in the church (some avant garde Orthodox theologians have pushed this in the direction of an idea of development, but more traditional Orthodox theologians (e.g. Florovsky) have written against this), but all have traditionally been united in affirming that the apostolic deposit of faith is a given, not subject to development in any true sense, defined as growth in content.

This statement immediately calls for clarification. It is not denied that there has been growth in the church's subjective understanding of the apostolic deposit of faith. This growth in understanding has come about particularly as the church has had to confront various heresies, disputes occasioned by the erroneous public interpretation of aspects of the deposit of faith whose resolution called for more specific definitions of doctrine than had hitherto existed (the Christological definitions are the classic case). But that actual new doctrines not explicitly contained or logically implicit in the apostolic deposit of faith could develop or grow out of these confrontations, or even apart from doctrinal controversy as a normal process in the life of the church, is a view which, as far as I am aware, only developed [sic!] in the 19th century.

As we consider the advent of the theory of doctrinal development, it should be noted that the Western world of the 19th century was generally fascinated by ideas of progress, development and evolution, but at the same time the new scientific approach to historical research was contributing to a growing historical consciousness. This historical consciousness was reflected in the Romantic movement, which permeated both popular and intellectual culture, especially in Germany, France and in the Anglosphere, the most developed cultures of the time. The 19th century world, then, was equipped to look both into the past and into the future in a way which no previous era of humankind was able to do. Indeed, the hubris of 19th century culture is displayed in its many attempts to define the past and thus direct the future, acting as if from a position of unassailed intellectual and spiritual authority. With that background in mind, let us focus on the individual responsible more than anyone else for the rise of a theory of the development of doctrine.

Newman about the time of his conversion

The proposition that doctrine develops or grows was developed in the years 1843-1845 out of the fertile mind of John Henry Newman, who was in the process of conversion to Roman Catholicism and struggling to provide a credible answer to Protestant criticism of Roman doctrines which were clearly absent from the life of the early church, such as Purgatory (the German Catholic theologian J.A. Moehler, had proposed doctrinal development some 20 years earlier than this, but by all accounts his published views are too vague to be called a 'theory'; it does, however, show that notions of development were 'in the air' at the time, particularly among those influenced by Romanticism, as Moehler and Newman both were). Newman had begun his Christian life as an Anglican Evangelical, so he knew the power of these criticisms from the inside, as it were (indeed, he had even made these criticisms himself - see below). It's true that Newman frames his work from the beginning as an attack on "Protestantism" for its alleged unhistorical character, but the tenor of the work is purely apologetic (defensive).

Littlemore, the modest set of cottages in Oxford where Newman lived with like-minded young men in a quasi-monastic setting from 1842-1845, whence his great idea was conceived

To this task Newman applied his subtle and creative mind and his gift for expressing himself in captivating, almost hypnotic prose. The end result was a seminal theological text which Roman Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, oppressed by the growing realization that advancing historical research increasingly revealed the untenable nature of the old Roman claim of simple continuity with the early church, were to find indispensable in providing a defence against Protestantism, which dominated mid-20th century theological discourse (Barth, et al). To mangle a phrase from the debate about development in the biological field, "Newman's doctrine of development made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled, modern Roman Catholic" (with apologies to Richard Dawkins!).

No-one, to my mind, expresses the importance of the doctrine of development to the modern Roman Catholic more honestly than the Dominican theologian, Aidan Nichols:
"Why is the issue of doctrinal development worth studying? In what respects is it a significant, or even a crucial, issue for theology, and, indeed, for faith?

In the first place: for Catholic theology, the issue of doctrinal development is vital to the justification of specifically Catholic Christian doctrinal insights, vis-à-vis the serious objections to these which other historic Christian communities can lodge. For it may be said that certain elements met with in Catholic teaching today, such as, for example, the doctrine of Purgatory, were not found in the early Church, or, at any rate, can be found there only with difficulty. But if an aspect of the public faith of the Church today was not a constitutive part of the original apostolic preaching, at least not in any obvious sense, how can this aspect be supported, or even tolerated?

Put negatively, in terms of apologetics, this is a matter of defending the Catholic Church against the claim that it has corrupted the Gospel by adding to it elements which are not divinely revealed, being of merely human devising. The classic case against Catholicism in just such terms was made by John Henry Newman in his Anglican period. Writing in 1837, in pursuance of the theme of Anglican identity, Newman wrote:

"Romanism may be considered as an unnatural and misshapen development of the Truth; not the less dangerous because it retains traces of its genuine features, and usurps its name . . . However the Church of Rome may profess a reverence for Antiquity, she does not really feel and pay it. There are in fact two elements in operation within her system. As far as it is Catholic and Scriptural, it appeals to the Fathers; as far as it is a corruption, it finds it necessary to supersede them. Viewed in its formal principles and authoritative statements, it professes to be the champion of past times; viewed as an active and political power, as a ruling, grasping, ambitious principle, in a word, as what is expressively called popery, it exalts the will and pleasure of the existing Church above all authority, whether of Scripture or Antiquity, interpreting the one and disposing of the other by its absolute and arbitrary decree." (1)

Nor should it be supposed that such objections to Catholic belief are no longer met with in the contemporary period. Thus in the wake of the proclamation of the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary in 1950, the Lutheran Friedrich Heiler commented that, in the matter of dogmatic evolution:

"Roman Catholic apologetic has not only happily adopted, overnight, one of the basic affirmations of the Modernist concept of dogma, but has outdone the Modernists themselves." (2)

Or again, R. P. C. Hanson, one of the most classically Anglican theologians of recent times, had this to say:

"Their (Catholics') religion is a religion which looks to the present, and to the future for its revelation, indeed one which may confidently expect new revelations and new fundamental doctrines of Christianity to emerge in the future into public gaze ... In this insistence it has entirely deserted the whole emphasis and outlook of primitive Christianity, it has reversed the current of original faith." (3)

And pointing out that the Church must consider itself bound by its original tradition, expressed in Scripture, Hanson maintains that such apparent doctrinal advances as the affirmation of the Son's consubstantiality with the Father, made at the First Council of Nicaea, are not development of that tradition, in the sense of adding fresh articles to its faith. Rather are they measures of defence expressed in the thought-forms of a period, and constructed in such a way as to meet some particular attack on an original identity. (4)

Genuine development of Christian doctrine ... has taken place only in the enunciation of certain formulae necessary to protect the original tradition of the Church from error. These formulae are only de fide, necessary to salvation, in as far as points of controversy have been raised to which they could be the only answer if the witness of the Bible to God's revelation in Jesus Christ was to be maintained in its truth.

Nor are such gravamina confined to individuals, perhaps isolated or in some way atypical. At the time of the promulgation of the Assumption dogma, the Evangelical-Lutheran faculty of theology in the University of Heidelberg issued a joint statement to the effect that the Catholic Church now claims in practice:

"to be able to generate apostolic teaching, whereas its official commission is meant to be simply to guard and interpret historically transmitted apostolic teaching..." (5)

...The ecumenical importance of the theme of development has been well expressed by the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, best known for his part in the marking of the Second Vatican Council's declaration on religious freedom. Murray wrote:

"I consider that the parting of the ways between the two Christian communities [he is speaking of Catholicism and Protestantism] takes place on the issue of development of doctrine. That development has taken place in both communities cannot possibly be denied. The question is, what is legitimate development, what is organic growth in the understanding of the original deposit of faith, what is warranted extension of the primitive discipline of the church, and what, on the other hand, is accretion, additive increment, adulteration of the deposit, distortion of true Christian discipline?" (6)"

As for the Eastern Orthodox, Nichols notes later in his book that:
"A majority...of Orthodox writers register serious reservations about what they take to be the Catholic theory of doctrinal development. Some consider it to involve a 'vitalistic' theory of pre-conscious knowledge which is little different from an admission of blank unawareness, by the ancient Church, of some later points of confessional believing. Again, some regard the movement of Catholic thought on the issue as an attempt to transcend the notion of a closure of revelation with death of the last apostle. Many avoid the term 'evolution of dogmas', but find the phrase 'doctrinal development' acceptable at any rate when taken in the sense of a refinement of the language of theological statements, and a deeper understanding of the revealed contents."

Aidan Nichols, 'From Newman to Congar: The Development of Doctrine', T & T Clark, 1990.

-- + --

Part II of this post, which will look at Roman claims more closely and compare them with holy scripture and the patristic witness, will follow shortly, D.v., as pastoral commitments and family life permit (yes, blogging is a hobby, not my life!). I am also working on posts on the misreading of Luther by both Newman and Ratzinger.

Here are Nichols references:
1. J. H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (London 1837),
p. 100.

2. F Heiler, 'Katholischer Neomodernjsmus. Zu den Versuchen emer Verteidigung
des neuen Mariendogmas', in Oekungenjsche Einheit II. 3 (1951), p. 233.

3. 1n R. P. C. Hanson and R. Fuller, The Church of Rome. A Dissuasive (London
1948), p. 84.

4. lbid., p. 102.

5. Cited by Heiler in his 'Das neue Mariendogma in Licht der Geschichte und im Urteil der Oekumene, 2' in Oekumenische Einheit II. 3 (1951). pp. 240-55. On the
controversy aroused by the preparation of the dogma, see H. Hammans, Die neueren katholischen Erklärungen der Dogmenentwicklung (Essen 1965), pp. 7-9: much more fully: A. G. Aiello, Sviluppo del dogma e tradizione. A proposito della definizione dell'Assunzione di Maria (Rome 5979); and, from a Protestant perspective (Auctores varii) Die Geschiclstlichkeit der Kirche und ihrer Verkündigung als theologisches Problem (Tubingen 1954), pp. 44-5.

6. J. Courtney Murray S.J., The Problem of God Yesterday and Today (New Haven
1964), p. 53; cited in J. Pelikan, Development of Christian Doctrine. Some Historical Prolegomena (London 1969), p. 1.


Ken Stewart said...

Mark Henderson:
This is an extremely stimulating post. Only the Aidan Nichols source is given. Can I take it that the other quotations (eg that of Newman in 1837) are provided there too? I look forward to your further reflections on this subject as I think that Protestantism is right now in danger of running up the white flag on this issue, when - as you say - the Catholic principle of legitimate doctrinal development endangers the Christian faith very considerably.

Ken Stewart

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Thanks for your encouraging words of appreciation. Yes, the indented paras are all from Nichols - including the quotes from Newman, Heiler, Hanson, Murray, et al.

Lvka said...

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Terry Maher said...

Here's a development for you, speaking of Congar. In the pontificate of Pius XII he was banned from teaching or publishing as a Catholic theologian, but he had a follower in a young man named Karol Wojtyla, was quite influential at Vatican II, and was made a cardinal by Wotyla (as JPII) in 1994.

There's development of doctrine for you -- from banned to highly influential over a council and future pope to cardinal.

And he is hardly the only such example in that era. De Lubac, banned by his order (Jesuits) from teaching or publishing, and the year after the ban was lifted is appointed by John XXIII to the preparatory theological commission for Vatican II, a peritus at the council, a member of its Theological Commission, and a cardinal by JPII. Chenu, another damn Dominican like Congar, on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1942, peritus at Vatican II, a guiding light of Gaudium et Spes.

There's more. Development of doctrine indeed. In Rome you can go from novum to norm, but of course, nothing changed!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Terry; very interesting!

I actually have a couple of quotes from Congar in the upcoming post. I think I know why he was rehabilitated -he is one of the major architects of the "new Rome".

Pr Mark Henderson said...


I have now added the references from Nichols to the post, should you or others wish to follow them up.

Terry Maher said...

One may observe the same phenomenon -- white is black more fully understood, black is white in the culture of the time, etc -- in documents, as the trends condemned in Humani generis are promulgated as Catholicism in the Documents of Vatican II, with the nouvelle theologie theologians of those trends unnamed in the encyclical but becoming periti and cardinals etc as noted; Mystici coporis stood on its head by Lumen gentium, With Sebastian Tromp's wonderfully imprecise "subsistit in" about which nobody agrees and "clarifications" keep being made, except that whatever it is it is what Pius XII said too; Mediator Dei, which the Nouvelle Theologians (Congar, de Lubac etc) hijacked and worked over until it came out sounding like them even though they were silenced as Catholic theologians, on and on.

And of course, sola ecclesia, by church alone, it's all OK because the Oracle of Delphi, er, the RCC says it is.

Schütz said...

Dear Pastor,

As is my habit, I have happily stolen your discussion from this point to use on my own blog, rather than attempting a lengthy response here in your combox. See:

Frank said...

Excellent post!

Terry, I share your perspective entirely.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


That's quite OK.


Stay tuned for two more posts on the topic. I've worked up something on Newman's thesis, which I'll post before moving on to its adoption by the RC magisterium and theologians.

I'll also be looking at Newman's egregious misquoting of Luther in another post, and Ratzinger's less culpable but notable misreading as well.

Btw, Newman is one of my contenders for "most over rated theologian"!

Terry Maher said...

Thank you Frank.

I will not be going to David's blog, but I look forward to seeing the further posts here.

Lvka said...

Why the Reformation Is Not Over

I don't know... might it have something to do with Matthew 13:29-30?