Sunday, July 13, 2008

On Development of Doctrine

Many of the disagreements between Catholics & Protestants on proper reading of the Early Church Fathers stems from a disagreement on development of doctrine. Many Christians have little to no awareness that doctrine develops by necessity.

Sacramentum Vitae posted a thoughtful piece which I recommend on the "development of development of doctrine" quoting St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Vincent of Lerins and Vatican II - Dei Verbum to examine this principle.

If we can first agree that the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity developed over time and that it is infallibly binding, then we must agree that Transubstantiation is also infallibly binding. True, we can find some language in the early Fathers which is inconsistent with Transubstantiation but we would find inconsistent Trinitarian language even easier. Therefore we can no sooner reject Transubstantiation on the basis of inconsistency among fathers before its dogmatization than we could reject the Nicene council on the basis that some of the fathers before the 4th century wouldn't have been able articulate its findings.

So then, if we wished to deny the dogma of the Immaculate Conception for example, we'd have as much of an issue on our hands as if we wanted to deny the Nicene-Trinity. We must give a very precise reason why this dogma of the Church is not infallible while the Nicene-Trinity is. This reason must include an exact time and place at which the Church of Christ lost the authority to pronounce doctrines infallibly. The Orthodox & at least some Anglicans would point to the great Schism. Since the Church was no longer one in their estimation, she could no longer authentically continue the "hermeneutic of continuity".

This solution raises more questions than answers. Where is the continuity of development itself? For if the Church could not leave the Scriptures and the very words of the Apostles to speak for themselves, at what point could she say "the doctrines have been refined enough". So it is no surprise then, that the Anglicans and Orthodox both have a tendency to deal with difficult doctrinal questions with the weapon of ambiguity.

It is not merely her Western sensibilities that encourages Rome to continue doctrinal refinement; it is her divine prerogative, nay her duty. If the Church is the ark which saves mankind, it would be her duty to protect men from the evil which endangers his soul more than anything else - heresy. Unless we are to somehow believe heresy ended in the 11th century, we would be forced to admit that the Church, by her divine duty, must continue developing doctrines. Therefore, if we wish to find the Church - we need only look for the institution that is developing doctrines and refining dogmas in continuity since the time of the apostles.

Of all the doctrinal developments which we think belong to the Church's duty, we often forget development itself. The Church must have a living voice or she doesn't have an ancient one. If we say the Church still exists and yet can't point to her now, how could we point to her in history? No one can say "the Church says thus in antiquity" who cannot also say "the Church says thus now". As Cardinal Manning pointed out, it is not only because antiquity belongs to the Church but also because the voice of the Church is divine. Of those who appeal to antiquity outside of the Catholic Church Cardinal Manning writes:
the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine.
And as Chesterton explained in his book "Heretics", it is to be naturally expected of any (truly) progressive man to build on the traditions of his forefathers (anyone who did not would, on average, be no better than his predecessor and thus not "progressive" at all). For the world, (and this is to some extent mirrored by Anglicans and Orthodox), progressive men or institutions would tend to be more "open minded" and to have less dogmatic certainty on various issues. Thus we have the Anglican & Orthodox tendency to leave unrefined certain doctrines (like Transubstantiation). But Chesterton points out that movement in the direction of ambiguity and "open mindedness" is not progression at all but regression! "Trees have no dogmas and turnips are singularly broadminded".

So we should not be surprised that the Catholic Church has continued refining dogmas. In fact, we should expect nothing less. We must associate Christ's visible Church with the commonly called "Roman Catholic Church" unless we can think of a good reason why development was no longer necessary after the 11th century (for example, we'd need to show that it really didn't matter whether you believed in Transubstantiation or mere "Real Presence"). The objector could argue that it was never part of the divine plan for the Church to split and had she not, she may well still be defining dogmas in continuity with the earlier Church.

Yet, we must still account for God's divine protection of His Church. If the Church is Christ's bride which He sent into the world to rescue the lost, on what basis could we say that the Holy Spirit had left her to her own devices as it were? If we assert, and we must, that it was God's divine protection that enabled the Church to articulate the Trinity, correctly select the books of the New Testament, reject Arianism & Nestorianism, Pelagianism and other heresies, then how can we say "God's protection is no longer needed" as if no serious heresies would arise after the 11th century?

The objector will doubtlessly assert that God's protection is now evident in other ways. This is a theological short cut which doesn't really help the problem though. Because when it all boils down, for us to deny that the Catholic Church is the only one in continuity with the early Church, we have to simultaneously say that God didn't think the Church really needed to infallibly address the issue of Transubstantiation, the Old Testament Canon, Infallibility of the bishop of Rome or the Immaculate Conception or even modern issues which divide so many Christians today: contraception, abortion, women's ordination etc.. Christians in modern times need to know for sure what God says (through His Church) about these things.

Therefore we have established a necessity not only for the hermeneutic of continuity but of doctrinal development.


R. E. Aguirre. said...

Tim, good post that brings up some interesting points. Newman and many others as you well know have made a strong case for the development of doctrine on an 'all or nothing' basis, de fidei: binding on all Catholics.

The logic behind this is quite simple and cogent, to guard the regula fidei from perversions and innovations.

However, the question can be raised - philosophically how realistic is the current understanding of the dev of doct in light of the early Church's view? For example the Immaculate Conception, some early Catholic scholars speak against this (or knew of no such guarding of sin for St. Mary), i.e., Aphraates, Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux and yet today it is de fidei doctrine. I have heard of attempts to reconcile this particular problem what would be your view?

R.E. Aguirre

Anno Paolino.

Tim A. Troutman said...

I have argued here that the Immaculate Conception has strong roots in early Church history but I think we need to clarify what the debate in the middle ages was. To quote Pelikan (who as far as I know never assented to the dogma):

"Gregory of Rimini, citing other passages from Augustine that made Christ the only exception to the universality of original sin, explained that in the passage under discussion he must have been referring only to actual sin, from which everyone, including Bernard, agreed that Mary was from."

He is of course referring to Augustine's passage which I quoted in the link above where St. Augustine admits that we must make an exception for the sinfulness of mankind in Mary he just didn't know how. The Church was not ready to wrestle with that question yet.

I think this key element is left out of a lot of discussion of the Immaculate Conception. The Church, (even Bernard of Clairvaux and as far as I know Aquinas), never thought Mary was guilty of actual sin just that they understood her prevention from sin in a different way than the Franciscans did in the medieval debate.

So, in my opinion, if someone wants to debate the Immaculate Conception on the testimony of Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard etc... they need to first admit that she was free from actual sin and then we can talk about how that happened. I'd be interested to hear what angles you've run across in that debate.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

As far as St. Augustine is concerned yes you are right Tim there is absolutely no grounds to deny that he held at least some variant of the Immaculate Conception.

As far as the Persian and Aquinas and such it would seem that for example in the case of Aphraates the Persian Sage, it would seem strange for him to write say this -

"Of all those who have been born and who have put on flesh, there is one only who is innocent: namely, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in fact testifies to such in His own regard. For He says, "I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) The Prophet too testifies of Him: "He did no sin, nor was wickedness found in His mouth" (Isa 53:9). And the blessed Apostle says, "He that knew no sin was made to be sin, on our behalf" (2 Cor 5:21)." (Demonstrationes. 7, 1)

..if he knew of at least a strand of Immaculate Conceptionology (and he wrote this as late as the fourth century - not too mention the early Catholics in the area of Syria/Mesopotamia were big fans of St. Mary as their art can testify).

In all fairness however, it can be said that Aphraates was perhaps and exception to the larger rule of things.

The usual response for Aquinas and Bernard is that they simply lived before the doctrine was codified as official. Had they lived in a later time they would have no doubt agreed with the majority of the episcopate.

The point being is the fascinating question of what is the standard or basis for pronouncing doctrines in later ages that are not exactly clear in the testimony of the Fathers. I have always found this question extremely interesting and the part that faith ultimately plays in one's acceptance of de fidei doctrines.

cruciform2 said...

I find it funny when people who have just enough knowledge of Church history to be dangerous oppose the Church's responsibility to develop and define doctrine. I remember when I was on the other side (the aforementioned description was me) I relished being able to say that St. Thomas and St. Bernard did not teach the Immaculate Conception or that the doctrine of Transubtantiation was not declared until 1215. One way of looking at the development of doctrine is that the Church does not define a doctrine until there is a denial of doctrine (think of the early councils Arianism, Nestorianism and even Lateran IV with Transubstantiation etc...) Of course the Marian dogmas (Immaculate Conception and Assumption were not being denied by the faithful) were a bit different. But that the sense of faithful believed these things of Our Lady there is no doubt of the prior to the declarations. A good example is that in 1854 Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception but in 1850 the Cathedral in Mobile was named in honor of Her Immaculate Conception

anne said...

Thank God for converts! I've always said they make the best, most knowledgeable catholics.

So could you please help out a ignorant cradle catholic and tell me (in simple laymans terms): what is the difference between a doctrine and a dogma?

Andrew Preslar said...


I have been wondering the same thing. As a starter for further reflection, here is some stuff from Encyclopedia Brittanica online:

"Doctrine in theology (Latin doctrina; Greek didaskalia, didachÄ“) is a generic term for the theoretical component of religious experience. It signifies the process of conceptualizing the primal—often experiential or intuitive—insights of the faith of a religious community in support of rationally understood belief. Doctrines seek to provide religion with intellectual systems for guidance in the processes of instruction, discipline, propaganda, and controversy. Dogma (Latin decretum, Greek dogma) has come to have a more specific reference to the distillate of doctrines: those first (basic or axiomatic) principles at the heart of doctrinal reflection, professed as essential by all the faithful."
(emphasis added)

In my estimation, "doctrines" are any propositions affirmed in the science of theology, whether or not such propositions are the "offical" teaching of an ecclesial community; whereas "dogmas" are those doctrines which are officially taught, and/or universally received, by an ecclesial community as binding upon (i.e., to be believed with the full assent of faith) all members of that community.

Joseph said...


A doctrine is an official Church teaching that is to be definitively held by the faithful.

Doctrine = teaching

A dogma is a doctrine that has been elevated by the magisterium. If a dogma is denied in any way by a Catholic, that person cannot consider themselves Catholic, as they are denying a major tenet in the Creed: "I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church", which is to say that you also adhere to all of her teachings. Basically, it sets you out of communion by your choice to deny any facet of a dogma as divinely revealed Truth.

A dogma is a doctrine, but not every doctrine is a dogma.

However, that doesn't give a Catholic the right to deny a doctrine simply because it isn't dogma.

Tim A. Troutman said...

R. E. Aguirre> Yes I agree, it's not a simple cut and dry scenario. But if we needed the unanimous approval of every saint on every dogma we wouldn't be very sure of ourselves! We'd have maybe one dogma "God is good". But I get where you're coming from, it's difficult to sort all of that out. Luckily the Church does it for us.

Cruciform - good to see you around. I agree with your points totally. Even coming into the Church I kept trying to bring up Aquinas & Clairvaux as an excuse to turn my nose up at the dogma but you know.. God let Aquinas get so much right, He had to let him slip up in at least a few places!

Also I didn't know until recently that 1854 wasn't the first time the Church addressed the question in an official capacity. The schismatic council of Basel in the late 1400s had already pronounced the dogma as binding but the council itself was overturned as invalid.

Anne - Don't worry, you're in good company we all have plenty to learn. I think Andrew & Joseph's answers should help.