Development of Doctrine: How this often denigrated process is unavoidable

In my experience, when the dialogue between Catholics and Protestants (as well as Orthodox) gets past the initial stages, you will find that the more perceptive Protestants (or Orthodox) often come to an “aha!” moment wherein they feel they have found the real crux in all the disputes. That crux being that oft-used and popularly denigrated concept of the “Development of Doctrine” (DoD). Often enough, people think that DoD to be simply an artificial bridge to connect the wide chasm that exists between the beliefs of early Christianity with the late Medieval Catholic Church. No one, I think, disputes that there is, prima facie, a chasm between these two. Protestants are quite ready, at the drop of a hat, to exclude Fathers, Doctors, Theologians, and Councils (for they can all err when plainly shown to be from Scripture), and so don’t really care (ultimately) if a chasm exists between them and the early Church (at least it doesn’t debilitate their confidence if such a chasm were to exist).

On the other hand, some will take advantage of this unquestionable chasm between early Christianity and the late Medieval Catholic Church in order to exemplify how the Catholic Church *added* foreign additions and innovations to the Apostolic deposit. That much seems quite obvious to them. This is why the appeal to DoD just looks like pathetic and willful ignorance of what is plain as day for any rational observer. I’m not here to respond to this accusation. However, I am here to observe some irony. The Calvinistic Reforms (here I mean the breadth of Calvin’s soteriological effect) all claimed to be returning to the pure teaching of salvation by their apprehension of monergistic models (thereby preserving sola gratia). But it is just on this matter that the best of the Calvinistic school shows just how unavoidable the development of doctrine really is. Which of the historical theologians who follow in the Presbyterian (WCF) or English-Baptist (1689) line of thinking ever said that the full fledge doctrine of predestination even had a interpretative community before the 5th century? Even then, St. Augustine’s interpretations came under rigid examination, and even revision. No, I’m not saying there were no avid promoters such as St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, but no one denies there was some hesitations and tweaks (see Weaver, R. Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy, CUP). (And please spare the “But it is in St. Paul!” commentary). Theologians in the Greek East seemed to be unashamedly settled on the side of free-will, and it will be that or death. Not much has changed, either.

We all know very well that St. Thomas Aquinas carried on the Augustinian reading of Romans 9 (that’s not to say they agree on every jot and tittle on overall subject) and that predestination in scholastic thinking well synthesized a variety of options, some of which could be adequately reconciled with the Genevan reformer. But even then we aren’t exactly given such a clear and cut idea such that it was unmistakable that predestination is either symmetrical or asymmetrical for the elect and the reprobate, respectively. Nor was it clear for everyone whether the model should be concieved in supralapsarian versus infralapsarian terms. Are the reprobate passed over, or are they in some sense influenced in the direction of evil, in order to realize God’s purpose? Is there a compataibility between sovereignty and human freedom, and if so, how so? Does Molinism, Arminianism, Báñezianism, or some other coinage (even to be) better explain the mystery? Even the Catholic Church has been satisfied with a stand-still since the days of the Congregatio de Auxiliis.These debates continue on to this very day, and it seems as though final answers never materialize as crystally clear for all subscribers to even the common confessions of the 16th century Protestants. And so it would almost appear as though the crystal clarity of Predestinarianism is something that appears on one side of a chasm that is bridged by, *gasp*, a process of theological development. Any process where an idea undergoes a transition from obscurity to clarity is a certain kind of rational and intellegible development of the idea. The idea in substance remains the same (yes, it is all substantially in St. Paul.. get it out of your system), but its un-fleshing and un-packing opens up what appears to be a new world of thought as time goes by. Catholics would say the Apostolic Deposit, in substance, remains one and the same forever from St. John (the last Apostle) until the end of this age. Ironically, then, the Calvinistic theologians known by experience what St. John Henry Newman wrote about in theory. Now, we can respect the fact that a Protestant might say, “Well, I accept the concept, nay, the reality of theological and doctrinal development, but I think Catholic doctrines exceed the principle of cause and effect, since the effect has more than what is in the cause.” I can respect this. That’s a fair critique, even if I disagree with it. What I can’t respect is the out in out denial of the reality of doctrinal development, as if Christ handed to the Apostles everything that would have made null and void Protestant squabbles such that went on between Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and his foes, Cranmer, Fisher, More, Sebastian Franck, Whitefield, Wesely, and all the way up to the present day.

In fact, one could almost perform an exercise which would be a sort of Newman-in-reverse. That is to say that perhaps a Protestant can adopt a similar argument (for it can’t be precisely the same) as Newman constructed in his famous essay, but argue the opposite direction, namely, that the kernels for Protestant religion were there in Scripture and in early Christianity, and it took the watering and growing through the weeds of sacerdotalism, clericalism, conciliarism, Imperialism, Papalism, and Christendom until it flourished atop in a clean and precise maturity with the Westminster Confessions or the London Baptist Confessions, or what have you.

2 thoughts on “Development of Doctrine: How this often denigrated process is unavoidable

  1. The problem with doctrinal development is its usually done by taking too seriously a passage in Paul that is fringe and contradicts the rest of scripture, and its always Paul.

    For instance, I can accept the development of purgatory from the parable or whatever it is, allegory maybe, of “he will not get out till he pays the last farthing/penny.” Or again, the doctrine of mortal and venial sins from John talking about a sin unto death and not unto death.

    But predestination is from the pits of hell and Paul really stepped into Gnoetic heresy with that garbage. Which is why no father prior to Augustine the Gnostic Manichean heretic was dumb enough to follow Paul into that heresy.

  2. Also doctrinal developements that take place before Auguatine are benign, and purgatory was in Tertullian already. But from Augustine onwards all doctrinal development is based on Augustine the Manichean Heresiarch’s predestination and original sin heresies are are vitiated by them and must be rejected because they are based on a heretical root from Gnosticism.

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