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Penetrating Gospel Truth More Deeply

A primer on the thought of St. John Henry Newman, the acknowledged modern authority on doctrinal evolution

Tom Nash

In his brief epistle, St. Jude proclaims, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” ( Jude 3). But if God revealed the faith “once for all” to the earliest disciples of Jesus, in what sense can the Catholic Church speak about the development of doctrine?

Doctrinal development means the Church Jesus founded gains a better understanding of his saving truth over time, not that the teachings Christ and the Holy Spirit imparted to the apostles (Matt. 28:20, John 16:13) change fundamentally throughout history. The former reflects the Church’s subjective appropriation of divine revelation, based on its God-given yet humanly limited capacity to assimilate the deposit of faith progressively (1 Tim. 6:12). The latter implies a formal contradiction in official teaching during Church history, something antithetical to Jesus’ self-identity as “the truth” ( John 14:6) and his promise to the apostles that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

“Even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says. “It remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries” (66).

In this light, development of doctrine has been compared to an acorn’s growth into an oak tree, or, better yet, a human fetus’s development from conception to birth and then to an adult. There is no fundamental change during their respective development—the oak tree manifests everything contained in an acorn, and a blossoming child gradually unveils all the attributes present from the beginning of human personhood.

To some extent, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians all agree that the Church has gained a greater grasp of certain doctrines over time, even if they disagree how that process has taken place. For example, some modern Christians might read Matthew 28:18-20 and automatically infer the Holy Trinity from this passage, based on their upbringing. The historical reality is that the early Church combatted heresies such as modalism (which asserted there is only one divine person), Arianism (which denied the divinity of Jesus), and pnematomachianism (which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit) to more clearly apprehend and articulate dogmas such as the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

The problem for Protestants, and lesser so for the Orthodox, is that overseeing and safeguarding doctrinal development—so that God’s people can increasingly comprehend Christian truth over time—requires a divinely ordained teaching authority or Magisterium, that is, the pope and the bishops in union with him (CCC 85-87). Arius exemplified the perils of private judgment as he argued that Jesus himself proclaimed, “The Father is greater than I” ( John 13:28), and that St. Paul clearly distinguishes “one God, the Father” from “one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6).

Orthodox Christians join Catholics in recognizing the need for a Magisterium, even though there are disagreements in how that teaching authority has functioned in Church history and continues to operate today. Meanwhile, even though they rejected the Church’s Magisterium and instead espoused sola scriptura as the sole rule of Christian faith, Martin Luther and John Calvin, the two most influential Protestant Reformers, demonstrated the need for a Magisterium via their voluminous extrabiblical writings in which each makes his respective case for the authoritative explanation of Scripture (see sidebars on Protestant development of dogma).

In its 1989 document The Interpretation of Dogma, the Church’s International Theological Commission (ITL) underlined the importance of a divinely provided and visible teaching authority to lead God’s people:

The criteria which we have enumerated will be incomplete if we omit to remind ourselves of the function of the Church’s Magisterium, to which the authentic interpretation of God’s word has been committed, both written and passed on by tradition, and as a mandate exercised in the name of Jesus Christ and assisted by the Holy Spirit (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 10).

Newman’s insight and criteria

While the Church has exercised and otherwise affirmed doctrinal development throughout its history, it was a nineteenth-century convert-in-the-making—St. John Henry Cardinal Newman—who helped refine and distill the Church’s understanding of the process. As a Protestant, Newman had a great love of Scripture, and as an Anglican he also had an appreciation for Church governance and teaching authority—but not enough to become Catholic, because certain aspects of Catholic doctrine and practice were not found explicitly in the Bible.

However, Newman’s desire to better understand Scripture, ecclesiastical authority, and how Christian doctrine could develop yet remain in continuity with the early Church led him to become a Catholic in 1845. “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” Newman famously summarized in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which was published the same year he entered the Church.

In his book, Newman lists seven criteria distinguishing authentic development of doctrine, which the Church’s International Theological Commission (ITC) addressed in a 1989 document on interpreting dogma. What follows is a summary explanation for each of Newman’s criteria, plus examples that positively and/or negatively support the criteria.

1. Preservation of type

If a change occurs, the basic structure of an organism or system remains. As Newman notes, “The parts and proportions of the developed form, however altered, correspond to those which belong to its rudiments” or original state. “Young birds,” he adds, “do not grow into fishes.” On the other hand, some original elements of an organism or system can remain amidst a fundamental and corruptive alteration.

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

The divinity of Jesus. God’s oneness is not violated with the affirmation that Jesus and the Father are divine Persons. Rather, because they wholly possess the same divine nature, they are two different divine Persons but one in divine essence or nature. “The Christian faith, and human life too,” philosopher Michael Pakaluk notes, “consists of mysteries, that is, combinations of truths that are indeed each true but which never stop seeming incompatible, such as that Christ is God and Man, or that there are Three Persons in One God.”

NEGATIVE EXAMPLES:

In an effort to make God more humanly accessible and therefore less mysterious, Arius denied that Jesus is God, the Savior’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding ( John 5:17-18; 8:57-59). In addition, sola scriptura is a latter-day doctrinal novelty, nowhere seen in Church history before the wayward Catholic priests John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, beginning in the latter fourteenth century.

Consequently, while early proponents of sola scriptura adhered to the divinity of Jesus and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, they severed themselves from the Magisterium Jesus founded to teach and govern his people and subsequently rejected a variety of Christian doctrines.

2. Continuity of principles

“Doctrines grow and are enlarged,” Newman says, whereas “principles are permanent.” If doctrine is detached from its founding principle, the ITC summarizes, it’s prone to being interpreted in more ways than one and consequently can lead to contradictory conclusions: thus, “continuity of principle is a criterion which can distinguish proper and legitimate development from the erroneous.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

The early Church’s subsequent Christological dogmas and related pronouncements. After the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 solemnly defined that Jesus is a divine person, the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned the belief that Jesus is two persons, a divine one and a human one (Nestorianism). And in 451, the Council of Chalcedon condemned monophysitism, which taught that Jesus only had one nature, with some adherents saying he had only a divine nature, while others a combined nature that was both divine and human. The Council Fathers defined that Jesus has two distinct natures, a divine one and a human one, and therefore is both true God and true man.

The continuous principle in all three ecumenical councils is that the Church’s Magisterium, in accord with the model Jesus established to lead the Church through his apostles and their successors, issued these definitive teachings.

NEGATIVE EXAMPLES:

In espousing the principle of private interpretation of Scripture, Fr. Dwight Longenecker notes, Protestants are “cut off from the principle of Church authority with which they should be united.” “Protestantism, viewed in its more Catholic aspect,” Newman argues, “is doctrine without active principle; viewed in its heretical, it is active principle without doctrine.”

“Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine,” he adds. For example, “Calvinists become Unitarians from the principle of private judgment. The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting.”

3. Power of assimilation

A living idea shows its edge by its ability to get at reality, attract other ideas to itself, stimulate reflection and develop itself further without loss of its internal unity,” the ITL states. “This capacity for being integrated is a criterion of legitimate development.” “A living idea becomes many,” Newman adds, “yet remains one.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

While maintaining fidelity to “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), the Catholic Church’s unifying Magisterium and living Tradition allow her also to be vibrant and flexible in fulfilling the Great Commission Jesus gave her, something crucial in “making disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) who collectively speak thousands of languages.

“The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament,” the Catechism states, “and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition” (CCC 83; see 75-79). Because of its living Tradition and therefore capacity for enculturation among various peoples around the world, the Church “can consult expedience more freely than other bodies,” Newman says, “and is sometimes thought to disregard principle and scruple, when she is but dispensing with forms.”

NEGATIVE EXAMPLE:

“Forms, subscriptions, or articles of religion are indispensable when the principle of life is weakly,” Newman writes. “Thus Presbyterianism has maintained its original theology in Scotland where legal subscriptions are enforced, while it has run into Arianism or Unitarianism where that protection is away.”

4. Logical sequence

“The development of dogmas is a vital process which is too complex to be regarded simply a logical explanation and deduction from given premises,” the ITL states. “Nevertheless, there must be logical coherence between the conclusions and the initial data. Conversely, one can judge what a development is from its consequences or recognize it as legitimate or otherwise by its fruits.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

Because the Church is guided in a divinely mysterious way, Newman says, the twelve apostles had a grasp of “all the truths concerning the high doctrines of theology,” which “of necessity come to [greater] light at a later date” when “their issues are scientifically arranged.” “Thus St. Athanasius himself is more powerful in statement and exposition than in proof,” Newman adds, speaking of the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, “while in [St. Robert] Bellarmine we find the whole series of doctrines carefully drawn out” beginning in the latter 1500s, “duly adjusted with one another, and exactly analyzed one by one.”

NEGATIVE EXAMPLE:

Luther’s “dogmatic principle” was “contradicted by his right of private judgment,” Newman says. After his death, Lutherans exalted their founder’s teachings, as “every expression of his upon controverted points became a norm for the party.” However, in time private judgment gained supremacy, including in Phillip Jakob Spener’s pietism, “the so-called religion of the heart, in the place of dogmatic correctness,” and then the rationalism of Christian Wolff.

5. Anticipation of its future

Given that genuine doctrinal development is faithful to the apostles’ teaching, there should be in the early stages of its development indications of what it will become in full flower. “Such advance trends,” the ITL says, “are signs of the agreement of subsequent development with the original idea.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

Mary’s being described as “full of grace” in Scripture and as the new Eve—by both Sts. Justin Martyr (ch. 100) and Irenaeus (ch. 22.4) in the second century—anticipate Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854.

NEGATIVE EXAMPLE:

Luther referred to the Letter of James as an “Epistle of Straw,” because James teaches justification by faith and works. Newman says Luther’s view anticipates the denial of “many principles of morals” by some Lutheran groups in his days 300 years later. And even more starkly today in those Lutheran communions that espouse abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage.”

6. Conservative action upon its past

“Development becomes corruption when it contradicts the original doctrine or earlier development,” the ITL provides. “True development conserves and safeguards the development and formulations that went before.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

The dogmatic definition regarding papal infallibility in 1870 conserves and develops the primacy St. Peter and his successors have in teaching and guiding the Church, for only to Peter did Jesus give “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19) and for Peter alone did Jesus pray, in order that his faith would not fail so he could strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:31-32).

NEGATIVE EXAMPLE:

Sola scriptura severs the union between Church authority and Scripture dating to the earliest days of the Church.

7. Chronic vigor

“Corruption leads to disintegration. Whatever corrupts itself cannot last for long,” the ITL. “Whatever is vital and durable on the contrary is a sign of authentic development.”

POSITIVE EXAMPLE:

The endurance of the Catholic Church for 2,000 years, holding together and further developing the collective deposit of faith while fulfilling her divine mandate to make disciples of all nations.

NEGATIVE EXAMPLE:

While sola scriptura necessarily prevented the Christianity unity that Luther and Calvin desired, their associated doctrinal principle of private judgments ironically lives on as a divisive principle. “An heretical principle will continue in life many years,” Newman says, “first running one way, then another.”

Sidebar 1: By What Authority?

In his introduction to Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, J.M. Cameron sheds light on how any form of Protestantism suffers from the absence of a divinely established Magisterium and any sense that God’s people can apprehend Christian doctrine more deeply over time:

“The Father is greater than I.”

You criticize the Tractarians for teaching such doctrines as, for example, the apostolic succession of bishops or that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and our criticism rests on the contention that these doctrines are not plainly and unambiguously contained in Scripture and may not indeed be in the Bible at all. I concede, goes the reply, that these doctrines are not to be found in the letter of Scripture or on its surface. But this is just as true of other doctrines you as an orthodox Protestant believe quite firmly; such doctrines as, let us say, the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, or that Holy Scripture contains all that is sufficient for salvation. . . .

It seems to me that you ought in consistency to believe less than you do or more than you do. If you confine yourself to what is what is contained in Scripture then the content of your belief will be thin and even incoherent and you will have not rationale for giving the Bible this supreme position. What you do, inconsistently, believe . . . is a warrant for your going further and adopting as your criterion the tradition of the first few centuries and using this tradition, embodied in the formularies of the Church, as that in the light of which Scripture is to be read and understood. You must either move upwards into Catholicism, or downwards into unbelief. There is no midway point of rest.

Sidebar 2: Ironic Exegesis: Protestants’ Development of Doctrine Guarantees Multiple Expressions

In decrying the Catholic Church for its alleged addition of many unbiblical doctrines, the Protestant Reformers actually advanced one of their own: sola scriptura, the teaching that the Bible is sole rule of faith, the standard or norm God provides so that his disciples know what to believe, that is, his saving truth.

Sola scriptura has roots neither in the Bible nor otherwise in the early Church. It began with two Catholic priests—John Wycliffe of England (d. 1384) and Jan Hus of Bohemia (d. 1415). And the movement only gained enduring traction more than a century later with Martin Luther and John Calvin. In advancing their competing perspectives on this latter-day doctrine, Luther and Calvin ironically showed its inherent unworkability, demonstrating the need for a magisterial authority over Scripture through their voluminous extrabiblical writings.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s magnum opus, is well over 500,000 words by itself. And Luther also wrote prolifically, producing more than 50 published volumes. Both men were committed to explaining Scripture to the masses and rebuking those who didn’t adhere to their understanding. In so doing, they also ironically developed their own Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, respectively, to support their scriptural interpretations. How else could they safeguard what they believed the Bible teaches?

Given their rejection of the Church’s divinely ordained Magisterium, Luther and Calvin also opened a doctrinal door for their successors to further develop where they thought one or both Reformers got it wrong, including on key beliefs. For example, Jacob Arminius—from whom we get the name Arminians— couldn’t accept Calvin’s “Dreadful Decree” that God predestines some people to eternal perdition and there is nothing they can do about it. Arminius logically opted to teach that God could foreknow our destiny without predetermining it.

Many other Christians have subsequently departed from Luther and Calvin on the necessity of baptism for salvation—strongly opposing infant baptism in particular—and have instead espoused “believer’s baptism,” arguing that one must personally accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior to be saved (see Rom. 10:9–10). Baptism comes afterward as a mere ordinance done out of obedience, not because it has any power to save. This is a classic doctrine embraced by many Protestants today, including many Baptists.

Many modern Protestants also believe in “once saved / always saved”—that a man cannot lose his salvation once he accepts Jesus, and here they depart from Luther who believed that believers could “backslide” and fall out of favor with God through loss of faith. On the other hand, there are many Protestants, including various Evangelicals, who espouse the reality of backsliding, a Protestant term for losing the fervor of faith and drifting back into a life of sin.

In summary, as with the Bible as the rule of faith, so also with the matter of salvation. Beginning with Luther and Calvin, Protestant Christians have ironically replaced Sacred Tradition with their own “development of doctrine” and thus manmade religious traditions, and their spiritual descendants have developed them further, often in ways that contradict Luther and Calvin—even on matters as important as how we are saved. The Protestant Reformation and its centuries-long aftermath illustrate these sad realities. And this despite all concerned parties vowing to adhere strictly to “the Bible alone” in advancing their respective, though differing, doctrines.

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