The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 3 Development of Doctrine

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

III. History of the Idea of Development of Doctrine

In the late second century, St. Irenaeus speaks of Christian doctrine as “everywhere the same.” Yet he goes on to assert that:

. . . constantly it has its youth renewed by the Spirit of God, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel; and it causes the vessel containing it also to be rejuvenated.” (52)

Tertullian, writing c.206, states that “the grace of God works and perfects up to the end.” (53)

St. Vincent of Lerins, writing around 434, gave the classic exposition found in the Church Fathers:

In the Catholic Church herself every care must be taken that we may hold fast to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. For this is, then truly and properly Catholic . . . (54)Will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is, and the greatest . . . But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily . . . and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion. The progress of religion in souls is like the growth of bodies, which, in the course of years, evolve and develop, but still remain what they were . . . Although in the course of time something evolved from those first seeds and has now expanded under careful cultivation, nothing of the characteristics of the seeds is changed. Granted that appearance, beauty and distinction has been added, still, the same nature of each kind remains. (55)

Dogma . . . may be consolidated in the course of years, developed in the sequence of time, and sublimated by age – yet remain incorrupt and unimpaired . . . so that it does not allow of any change, or any loss of its specific character, or any variation of its inherent form. (56)

It should flourish and ripen; it should develop and become perfect . . . but it is sinful to change them . . . or mutilate them. They may take on more evidence, clarity, and distinctness, but it is absolutely necessary that they retain their plenitude, integrity, and basic character . . .

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 . . ., she adds nothing to it. (57)

Here we have almost all the elements outlined by Newman fourteen centuries later, yet Protestant controversialists such as George Salmon claim that Newman’s views were a radical departure from Catholic precedent! (58)

Cardinal Newman points out the relative development of two doctrines in the early Church, as an example:

Some notion of suffering . . . or other vague forms of the doctrine of Purgatory, has in its favour almost a consensus of the first four ages of the Church . . . Whereas no one will say that there is a testimony of the Fathers, equally strong, for the doctrine of Original Sin . . . In spite of the forcible teaching of St. Paul on the subject, the doctrine of Original Sin appears neither in the Apostles’ nor the Nicene Creed. (59)

Finally, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) commented:

Regarding its substance, then, faith does not grow with the passage of time, for whatever has been believed since was contained from the start in the faith of the ancient fathers. As regards its explication, however, the number of articles has increased, for we moderns explicitly believe what they believed implicitly. (60)

Development of doctrine, then, has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church from the beginning, and all through its history. Only a misunderstanding of what development entails, or ignorance of the history of Christian doctrine, could cause anyone to doubt this. Nor is the concept hostile in any way to the considerable amount of biblical data which can be brought to bear on the subject.

Development is not necessarily corruption, as so many evangelical Protestants casually assume. Rather, it is novel innovation, according to Scripture, the early Church, the Fathers, the Councils, and continuous Catholic Tradition, which is certainly a corruption of true apostolic Christianity (see Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Galatians 1:9,12, Jude 3).

FOOTNOTES (Development of Doctrine)

52. Against Heresies, 3,24,1. In Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 94.
53. The Veiling of Virgins, 1,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 137.
54. Notebooks, 2,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 263.
55. Ibid., 23:28-30. Emphasis added. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 265.
56. Ibid., 23. From Chapin, John, ed., The Book of Catholic Quotations, NY: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956, 271.
57. Ibid., 23/23:30 ff. From Chapin, ibid., 271; Gibbons, James Cardinal, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, 12.
58. Salmon, George, The Infallibility of the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House (orig. 1888), 31-35.
59. Newman, John Henry Cardinal, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845; revised 1878), edition published by Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989, 21,23. Introduction, nos. 15-16.
60. Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, 2-2,2,7. In Chapin, ibid., 271.


About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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