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Does Doctrine Change?

Eric Sammons

Growing up Protestant, I had a distorted view of Christian history. I essentially believed that after the death of the last apostle, the teachings of Jesus were quickly distorted and even lost, not to be recovered until Martin Luther proclaimed them in the sixteenth century. And without much thought about the intervening centuries, I assumed that my twentieth-century Protestant beliefs fell right in line with Jesus and Luther. In historical terms, the span of years 100-1500 and 1540-1980 were theological black holes.

Of course, this view is full of problems. For one, it completely denigrates or ignores centuries of great saints and theologians who grappled to understand and explain Christian doctrine. The work of theological giants like Athanasius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas is thrown aside like a used McDonald’s wrapper. The work of a few men—the Reformers—is held up as an example, but even then this distorted history, commonly held among Protestants, forgets that they depended on many before them and that Protestant teaching today goes well beyond them.

As I grew older and my study of history became more comprehensive, I realized how stunted my previous understanding was. And as I looked into the history of Christian doctrine more deeply, a disturbing question surfaced: does doctrine change over time?

My study of history revealed that the presentation of Christian teaching differed in the year 100 compared to 500, and it differed between 1000 and today. But if Christian doctrine deals with eternal truths, something that was true yesterday should be true today and tomorrow as well. If Jesus is divine, then he is always divine. If abortion was immoral in the first century, then it’s immoral in the twenty-first.

So how do we reconcile the seeming paradox of unchanging doctrine with what appear to be historical changes in Christian teaching? Among Christians who attempt to explain it, we tend to find four approaches.

1) Any and all changes outside the New Testament are a deformation. This is essentially the Protestant position. A more extreme (and logically consistent) form of this view can be found in Mormonism, which believes in a “Great Apostasy” that occurred early in the Church’s life and was overcome only in the nineteenth century. The deformation view is the result of a Scripture-alone mentality, according to which the presentation of Christian teaching in the Bible can never be added to, subtracted from, or developed.

This view rejects the idea of a Church founded by Christ that is able to lead his followers to a deeper understanding of the truth over time. But as Christ told his apostles, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It’s understandable that men and women would need time to comprehend the divine teachings of Christ.

2) Doctrine can change fundamentally over time. The idea that doctrine can “evolve” into something quite different has become more popular today than at any time in history. Moral teachings in particular are open to change, as society’s changing norms influence the way some Christians think.

However, this view contradicts basic logic. Truth cannot fundamentally change. If 2+2=4 is true, it cannot later be true that 2+2=5, no matter who proclaims it to be so. If Jesus is divine, or if he is substantially present in the Eucharist, then at no time does he become a mere man (however good and wise), and at no time does the Eucharist become mere bread (however symbolically significant).

3) Doctrine cannot change and is always presented in the same way. This view is most commonly to be found among Eastern Orthodox and some Catholic traditionalists. Everything has always been taught exactly as it was taught from the beginning, with no changes to the doctrine or changes to the presentation of the doctrine. All future declarations, such as council statements, must simply re-declare what was taught before.

One flaw in this view is that it’s simply not historically accurate. Reading second-century Catholic apologetics on the Trinity, for example, we see a less precise view than that posited by Augustine or Aquinas. The more advanced views of later centuries came from longer and deeper reflection on Christian mysteries and development of philosophical categories in which to understand them. The later views were not a change in doctrine, but the way doctrine was presented did change.  

As I moved toward becoming Catholic, none of these three competing views of the historical changes in Christian teaching satisfied me. I wanted a view that recognized the role of the Church in deepening our understanding of Christian truth and was logically consistent and historically accurate. It was then that I discovered the Catholic view, as best formulated by Bl. John Henry Newman: the development of doctrine.

4) Doctrine cannot change, but it can develop. What does it mean to change? In a most basic sense, it means something is different from what it was before. However, there are many senses in which something can be “different.” A tree can grow a new leaf, or it can be cut down and burned. In both cases, the tree is changed, but in the former case it doesn’t cease to be a tree (indeed, it becomes more tree-like through this change).

Likewise, if a doctrine is presented in a new way, that doesn’t mean it ceases to be the same doctrine. Only when the doctrine is altered such that what was taught previously is no longer valid can we say that it is truly changed.

The history of the doctrine of the Trinity provides a good example of the development principle. The doctrine posits that God is three Persons in one divine nature. This teaching was promulgated definitively during the great Trinitarian and Christological debates of the fourth century. Before that time, Christian apologists had varying ways to explain the Trinity, and although they didn’t always use the philosophical terms, such as person and nature, used in the fourth century, the essence was still there: God is three-in-one. He is one God, and he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There was no change in this fundamental Christian doctrine, but there was a development in the Church’s understanding of it.

In fact, doctrine often develops in response to attempts to change doctrine. The fourth-century Arian heresy declared that Jesus was not really God. This is a Christological and a Trinitarian error. For if Jesus is not God, then there is no Second Person of the Trinity who became man. Catholics recognized the Arian teaching as a change and rejected it. However, they also developed the Church’s true doctrine so that it could better combat the heresy. This deeper understanding was necessary to protect the Church’s deposit of faith from actual deformations.

Another example: from the beginning, the Church understood and proclaimed that using artificial means to prevent pregnancy is always wrong. In response to modern technological and philosophical challenges to that teaching, Pope Paul VI affirmed and deepened it with Humanae Vitae. That encyclical stands as a bulwark against some today who mistakenly think that Catholic teaching on contraception can be “developed” into its opposite.

The historical record of Church teaching does pose a challenge: Christian doctrine is unchanging, yet history has shown that changes do occur. Some Christians claim that all developments are actually deformations; others believe that doctrine can fundamentally change; and still others deny the existence of developments. Catholics, however, understand that developments are examples of an ever-richer understanding of revealed truths as well as a means by which the Church defends those truths against the challenges of the age.


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