Monday, July 07, 2008

Concerning the Theory of Doctrinal Development

Scott Carson has written an interesting response to recent discussions on his own blog. It is well presented and thought out. It is friendly and conciliatory, as well as both polite and robust- traits we appreciate at The Continuum. But, it shows me how very differently from us some modern Roman Catholics have come to think. And, also how much they depart from the mind of the ancient Church and the Fathers, at least as far as my several decades of reading have led me to understand.

I quote some here.

One thing that I've noticed about the debate so far is a certain amount of equivocation on certain key terms, such as "authority", "private judgment", "the Church", etc. I don't think that either side disagrees that it is not up to the individual person to pass judgment on the truth of authoritative Church teaching; where they disagree is over what constitutes an authoritative Church teaching and why. For example, Anglicans as well as Catholics will assert that a Christian must believe in the Trinity, and both will agree that the reason why a Christian must believe in such a thing, in spite of the fact that no such thing is ever mentioned in the Scriptures, is because the doctrine has been taught by the Church. Well, what does that mean? If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that it means that it was taught by an Ecumenical Council. Some Catholics perhaps still think that is what it means; but to some Anglicans what it means is that the doctrine of the Trinity meets a certain standard, namely, the Vincentian Canon (a subject of much comment both here and at Mike Liccione's Sacramentum Vitae). That which has been believed by all Christians at all times and places, these Anglican say, is what must still be believed by anyone professing to be a Christian.

As it happens, not everyone agrees that the doctrine of the Trinity actually meets this criterion. It is an empirical question, and as far as I can see most, if not all, of the evidence points towards the doctrine being one that evolved over time. This does not preclude the possibility, of course, that it was at least secretly believed right from Day One, but unfortunately there is no evidence to that effect, and the very fact that it was necessary for an Ecumenical Council to define the doctrine, and to anathematize anyone who rejected it, suggests that there were plenty of folks who did not accept it.

The problem is Cardinal Newman's theory of Doctrinal Development. His idea was rejected by the Roman Magisterium, but has come to be respected more and more over the last century. If you want to understand that theory, you have no better brief example than what Scott Carson wrote in the above quotation.

The problem is, it is factually wrong.

About us: We do not believe the doctrine of the Trinity simply because it meets the criterion of the Vincentian Canon. Christianity is the Revealed Religion. In fact, nothing meets the criterion of the Vincentian Canon that cannot also be demonstrated from scripture. The first authority is scripture, and only scripture contains revelation. The teaching voice of the Apostles once contained it, but within one generation the New Testament was left behind containing their teaching, along with all things necessary for salvation. Writers, including some as early as, for example, St. Justin Martyr, reveal that the Church received the same twenty seven books, if only vox populi, as authoritative. In some regions questions were raised about II Peter and Jude, and in others The Shepherd of Hermes was received equally. But, in general they had what we have, the same twenty seven books as the last portion of our one Canon in two Testaments. At the Council of Nicea, the bishops merely clarified what had long been established about the New Testament Canon. The Bible is part of the Church's Tradition, for it is both the Word of God and the Book of the Church. The See of Rome was clear on this too back when Newman proposed his theory, and so they rejected that theory.

About the doctrine of the Trinity: It is most certainly in the Bible, taught very clearly and powerfully. I can prove the doctrine with nothing but a Bible in my hand. I am very happy for the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, but I can prove the doctrine the same way those holy Fathers at the Councils actually proved it: with scripture. I fail to understand how anyone could not. It is, frankly, easy. It is easy because it was not hidden. Try to make sense out of John chapter one, for example, without the Trinity as the only solution, in light of the obvious fact that the scriptures teach Monotheism.

About the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea, it was not called because "
there were plenty of folks who did not accept" the doctrine we have come to call the doctrine of the Trinity. It was called because Arius was instantly recognized for the heretic that he was, introducing new and strange doctrine contrary to the teaching that the Church had believed all along, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. (Yes, the Arians later inflicted themselves on the Church, but only by the power of an emperor. This drove St. Athanasius into exile several times, making him the first bishop, and logical patron saint, of the Continuing Church.) That is what history shows, that is what the Fathers wrote, and that is why the doctrine of the Trinity meets the test we apply: Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition.

And, again for Fr. Alvin Kimmel's benefit: Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition, that Tradition constituting quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, is not, and never has been, "private judgment."


An Anglican Cleric said...

Amen! Amen! Amen!

Sandra McColl said...

I lack the theological and philosophical equipment of Fr Hart, and have always felt a little inadequate in the face of Newmanesque attacks on the Vincentian canon. I was nevertheless able to recognise in such attacks a sense of being too clever for one's own good, and Fr Hart's mini-exposition here has done much to clarify matters and convince me I was right. Once again, thank you, Fr Hart.

poetreader said...

Good teaching!

I would insert, however, that, though the Scriptures (both Testaments)defy understanding if the doctrine of the Trinity be not accepted, it simply doesn't happen that a person (singular) with a Bible in hand discovers this doctrine. Over and over again, quite intelligent and educated individuals and their followers have approached the Scripture and come up with false conclusions. It took generations of close study and discussion to come up with a formulation by which the many questions individual minds had raised could be answered and minds could be truly focused on what the Scriptures had always said.

Once the concept has been found, then it can be rather easily demonstrated to be the only possible meaning of the text. From the very first words of the Canon of Scripture, "Bara bereshith elohim...", "in the beginning God created...", with its peculiar mixture of singular and plural forms, to the complexities of the Apocalypse, and understanding of the Trinity is necessary and inevitable, but it needed to be defined, and so it was. Without such a formulation, it is difficult to come to an accurate understanding. Arius is an excellent example. A bright man had a bright idea. Those in tune with the Scriptures recognized it as error, but needed to formaulate a contrary expression which would be fully Scriptural, and so they did. Such development of doctrine as there may be is just that, the uncovering of what has always been there, always been believed, but has not heretofore been formulated.

The converse is that such a formulation, by being perfectly in accord with Scripture, exposes competing formulations for what they are: false.


Anonymous said...

In the case of the Trinity, while the definition is not spelled out in Scriptures, I agree with Fr Hart that the doctrine can be proven and deduced from Scriptures. However, I also agree with Ed that others have come to Scriptures and have concluded it does not teach the Trinity. The result often times is that Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians throw proof texts at each other reminiscent of the situation during the Arian contraversy. I think the deal breaker is that that from the beginning, the Apostolic Church has proclaimed a somehow triune God in her baptismal formula (see Matthew 28 and Didache) and her "rule of faith" which, though varying in details of the specific words, always had the triadic structure. This triadic confession along with a firm commitment to monotheism thus provided the proper pattern for interpreting the Scriptures, so that when confronted from heresy on either side--Sabellianism and Arianism--the Church could correctly clarify what she had believed and prayed from the beginning, particularly when a linguistic apparatus became available--and agreed upon--for such technical clarifications (ie homoousious, one ousia and three hypostases, etc) needed to properly exclude error.

--Doubting Thomas

John A. Hollister said...

Ed Pacht noted, "it simply doesn't happen that a person (singular) with a Bible in hand discovers this doctrine. Over and over again, quite intelligent and educated individuals and their followers have approached the Scripture and come up with false conclusions."

All too true. That is why it is the Church, which in the first place wrote the Scriptures under God's inspiration, that must give the authoritative interpretation of those Scriptures.

Certainly it is possible for a benighted individual to try to read a text separate and apart from the author's own understanding of that text.

To give an example of the futility of this self-absorbed approach, at least its futility in producing practical results, I would point to a secular instance that involved a notably complex text. This is essentially how Lyndon LaRouche tried to approach the U.S. Internal Revenue Code; as to the success of his results, so far as I've ever read, he's still in prison.

John A. Hollister+

Fr. Robert Hart said...

"Bara bereshith elohim..."

Actually Ed, it is "B'Rasheet bora Elohim."

The one Elohim of the ancient Hebrews is a mystery revealed more fully in the New Testament.

The problems with DD are numerous. Historically, the Church did not meet in Councils to define or pronounce dogma, but to defend what was received from the beginning. The result was clarification and teaching. The DD theory misconstrues this history as defining moments in progressive revelation. Very dangerous stuff. Not only is it wrong about the past, but scary in terms of future possibilities.

Arius was also too clever for his own good. What he really did was incorporate the Hellenistic concept of God (sometimes called Zeus or Jupiter) into Christianity; God who created a god- a kind of polytheism, but just enough different from older polytheism that he could fool himself.

It is relevant to this thread to point out a historical fact of modern times. When the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society reintroduced the Arian heresy for modern consumption, they found it necessary to produce their own deliberately mistranslated version of the Bible (The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures). The most significant fraud in that whole version is found in John chapter one, where they rewrote verse one to say "a god."

By the way, the Watchtower would love Newman's theory. It is exactly what they have been accusing us of all along.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Doubting Thomas wrote:

I think the deal breaker is that that from the beginning, the Apostolic Church has proclaimed a somehow triune God in her baptismal formula (see Matthew 28 and Didache) and her "rule of faith" which, though varying in details of the specific words, always had the triadic structure.

From the beginning is exactly right. Arius came along with new, strange teaching that caused quite an uproar.

poetreader said...

Thank you, Fr. Hart, that is precisely what I'm trying to say. Without the definitions even the OT is not fully comprehended. With them, the original meaning becomes inescapable, and the reaction is to see exactly how it is that wht I knew all along really does express the text. There is development in precision of expression, but NOT development in the underlying truth.

You're right, my memory supplied the wrong word order. I knew better. However the spelling I used is the transliteration found in several scholarly texts I've consulted -- Hebrew Orthography, of couse, has no capital letters and originally had no expressed vowels. The final letter of bereshith is not the letter always rendered :T", but the one rendered either "T" or "TH", and given the pronunciation "S" in the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

I should have given it as "Bereshith bara elohim"


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I learned Sephardic Hebrew, and the instructor was an Israeli. When I told a former chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (I think his name was David Rosen, or a name close to that) that I learned Sephardic, and stuck to it even when fellow seminarians assumed it was wrong, he said, "good for you."

Scott Carson said...

I am happy to agree that id quod credendum est must be demonstrated from scripture; we apparently disagree not on that, but on what that means. You may find my essays here, here, and here of interest in this regard. I can't promise that anyone will find them interesting, let alone persuasive, but they set out rather nicely (though not very briefly) what most Catholics think about what it means to say that doctrine "develops" over time and what it means to "prove" something from the scriptures.

In regard to that last, I will make the following suggestion. Consider what it would mean to "prove" the doctrine, to which we all must assent, that the Father and the Son are "one in substance". I'm sure that there is plenty of scriptural "evidence", of one kind or another, for this doctrine, but things are not always so simple as running the family bible, opening it up to one's favorite passage and saying, "Right there, there's your homoousia for you, right there!"

True enough, in the Gospel of St. John Our Lord says clearly enough "I and the Father are one", but I'm sure the readership here is intelligent and alert enough to realize that philosophers and theologians have long been at odds over the very notion of what it means "to be one" (indeed, Aristotle wrote an entire book on the subject), and the philosophical/theological notion of what it means to be a substance is no less difficult. In short, one reason why the doctrine had to be articulated by a Council is the plain fact that not everybody believed it, and the folks who did not believe it thought that they, too, could prove their point of view from the scriptures. Unless some sort of central authority, such as a council, makes this sort of thing explicit, one may fairly say that it is not, in fact, explicitly stated in the scriptures, but must be derived therefrom by some means of logical deduction. This is what it means for a doctrine to develop in Newman's sense (contrary to what some interpreters of Newman seem to want to insist). On this account of doctrinal development, no new doctrines are added to the body of de fide teachings of the Church, that is to say, no teachings that are new in the sense that they do not follow logically from the deposit of the faith as we received it from the Apostles. (I hasten to add that Mike Liccione and I do not fully agree on this point; if you should happen to read the essays I link to above, you will find that I there link to some of his essays in which he disagrees rather strongly with my reading of Newman.)

That we all (Anglicans and Catholics) accept that Ecumenical Councils play this role (the articulation of what must be believed) seems clear enough, though we appear to disagree on what counts as this sort of "council". But I think the time has come to stop equivocating on the notion of "proving from the scriptures" this or that doctrine; there can be no doubt about the fact that some of the things that must be believed by all Christians have only been made explicit by conciliar statements, based on inferential interpretations of the scriptures. That these statements are intended to exclude competing interpretations originating with particular individuals or in particular communities also seems clear.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The people who did not believe in what later came to be called the Doctrine of the Trinity, were the Arians. They were not simply people here and there throughout the Church. They could not "prove" their interpretation, even though they could argue for it. Had Arius been able to prove it, the Council would have had a problem. The Arians were a problem and caused a huge reaction immediately. Why? Because they came up with something new and wrong.

The proof from scripture does not come from one or two phrases ("I and my Father are One.") but from the fact that the scriptures either teach the Trinity, or they are so totally self-contradictory that they are neither the word of God, nor the product of a rational mind. Assuming the writers were not contradicting themselves, which would have proved them irrational, we have only one solution that is consistently logical. That is, the Trinity.

Newman's history of Development of Doctrine is highly selective. Was it development, or clarification? It was clarification, and those clarifications were stated for the purpose of defending the teaching that had been believed always, everywhere, always and by all.

Fr_Rob said...

Thank you, Scott Carson, for a very fine explanation of doctrinal development.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

"Doctrinal development" means something very specific with Newman. His theory rejects quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.

It should, because it doesn't fit it.

Never has the Church claimed to teach a new revelation that slowly dawned on it after the time of the Apostles. Every major doctrine has been set forth as having come from the earliest time of the Church -until Newman, and, of course, a few Pentecostal preachers with new revelations.

Malcolm Smith said...

I am reminded that Vincent actually began is "canon" by saying: "Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it."
In other words, the whole point of the Vincentian canon is to establish the ancient and universal interpretation of scripture, not to add anything more.
Apart from Gnosticism, all the ancient heresies involved attempting to make a synthesis from the theses and antitheses of the Bible in matters which are ultimately beyond human understanding: such as the nature of God, or the incarnation, or sin, free will, and predestination. On these matters, a lot of loose talk was often permitted, until someone went too far, and there was backlash.
Thus, there are passages which can be read as portraying the equality of the Son with the Father, and others suggesting the subordination of the Son. Elaborating on this Biblical language was considered all very well, until Sabellius claimed that the Son was exactly the same as the Father. Immediately, the church as a whole recognized this as going too far, and they labelled it a heresy. Indeed, it because too many people regarded Sabellianism as "the real enemy" that Arianism flourished as long as it did. Even so, as soon Arius raised his opinion, it was seen to be an innovation, and roundly rejected. Only then was it felt necessary to find a term, such as homoousios to define the orthodox position. But the doctrine had always been there.