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What Does it Mean for Doctrine to Develop?

Church teachings have changed over time but have never contradicted past doctrines

Many Catholics today are concerned about the disparagement of, and even attacks upon, Catholic doctrine, that is, the truth of the revealed mysteries of our faith. Some within the Church, not only theologians but also bishops at the highest level, appear to denigrate the doctrines of the faith as archaic, lifeless artifacts that possess little relevance for today’s world. Often what is newly proposed is said to be a development of doctrine and thus an innovative teaching that speaks to our contemporary age.

This present ecclesial situation raises several important theological issues.

  • What does it mean for doctrines to develop?
  • Are the professed doctrines of the Church such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the sacraments unalterably true, or can they develop into something radically different from what we now believe them to be?
  • How can we discern what is an authentic development of doctrine from that which would a “false development,” that is, a proposed teaching that would be contrary to what has been revealed by God and presently taught by the Church?

In this rather brief article, I will examine these questions in the hope of bringing some clarity to the theological and ecclesial concerns at hand. As a systematic or doctrinal theologian, I will focus almost exclusively on the revealed mysteries of our faith and not on the Church’s teaching regarding moral issues, though some of what I will say here will be relevant as to whether or not the Church’s moral teaching can develop and change and, if so, in what manner.

The importance of revelation

To address the question of doctrinal development, we first must be clear about the nature of divine revelation. Often when we consider divine revelation, we think of it as God telling us things that we would not have known if he had not told us.

This is only partially true. For example, in the Old Testament, God did reveal to Moses that he is truly the one who is—YHWH—”I Am Who Am.” So, the Israelites and everyone else came to know the mystery of God’s being, even though no one can comprehend a being who simply IS. Moreover, God reveals not merely by “speaking” but, primarily, through his divine actions within space and time. We read in the Old Testament, for example, that God acted in such a manner that he freed the Israelites from their Egyptian captors and then made a covenant with them in the desert so that they would be his people and he would be their God.

These saving divine actions reveal God to be merciful and loving, and one who has now bound himself to the Jews in a singular manner, different from his relationship with all other peoples. Thus, what is narrated in the Old Testament is not only what God has “said” but also what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future on behalf of humankind’s salvation. Thus, what God said and did, as written in the Old Testament, is always true. The truth of God’s words and the truth contained in his actions can never change. We can never say that God’s name is no longer He Who Is, nor can we ever say that God did not make a covenant with the Jews. We cannot undo God’s words and actions.

However, we can come to a deeper understanding of what God revealed through his words and deeds. Thus, while we can never comprehend the fullness of who God is, we can come to realize, as did the Jews, that since God’s nature is “to be,” then God must be the Creator who brought everything into existence out of nothing, something that only a being who simply “IS” can do.

Likewise, the Israelites, and now Christians, can come, and have come, to a fuller understanding of God’s covenantal relationship—that God bound himself to the Jews so that from their stock the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would come. The Old Covenant prefigures and anticipates the New Covenant.

Similarly, we see, as Christians, that the old covenantal sacrifice finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the new high priest who offers himself as the most holy sacrifice of the New Covenant. Here we perceive that there is a development in God’s revelation, the fulfillment of what he previously revealed. However, nothing of the old was lost or contradicted. Rather, within the interlacing of the old and the new, we find the fullness of God’s saving words and actions.

We find, then, the completeness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is the foundational mystery from which flows all that God wishes to reveal. Thus, again by way of example, the Father, in sending his Son into the world, is the divine act by and in which the Son of God comes to exist as man.

This incarnating act was accomplished through the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, such that the Son of God took flesh within the womb of Mary. In the very act of the Incarnation, the one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is revealed.

The revelation of the Trinity is likewise revealed in the act of Jesus being baptized by John. God the Father, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, declares that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased. The mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation are, therefore, inseparably bound together. Thus, Jesus did not simply tell his disciples that God is a trinity of persons. Rather, the very acts that each person of the Trinity performs reveal the trinitarian nature of the one God.

We find in the above two principle doctrines two foundational mysteries of the Christian faith. Again, what is important to grasp is that we, through faith, know the truth of these mysteries. We know that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We know also that Jesus is the Father’s incarnate Spirit-filled Son.

We do not comprehend, we cannot fully know, the entire truth of these mysteries, and we never will, not even in heaven. Nonetheless, we hold that these divine mysteries of faith, these divine doctrines of the faith, were revealed in and through Jesus, and that the New Testament, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, bears witness in writing to the truth of these mysteries.

While we will never fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation, we are able nonetheless to grow in our understanding and so more fully appreciate and love them. Because of our faith, the Holy Spirit dwelling within us compels us to always seek to understand them more fully. The Second Vatican Council, in its Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) declared, “The same Holy Spirit [who brings us to faith] constantly perfects our faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly be understood” (DV 5). Thus, what is divinely revealed does not change or develop. Rather, our knowledge and appreciation of the divine mysteries can develop as we grasp more clearly their inherent meaning and their salvific significance.

Moreover, regarding divine revelation as narrated in the Old Testament, the revelation of the Trinity and the Incarnation can never be changed or substantially altered, for who God is as a Trinity of Persons and the acts by which the Trinity reveals itself through the Incarnation can never change. Our understanding of them may grow and develop, but the mysteries of faith forever remain unalterably true.

Scripture and Tradition

Having spoken of God’s progressive revelation that finds its completion in Jesus Christ, we need to consider the relationship between Scripture, particularly the New Testament and the Church’s Tradition. Often, when considering the nature of doctrine, we think of it as those truths that the Church declared subsequent to the written Scripture, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Incarnation.

However, Scripture itself contains, and so professes, Christian doctrine. Scripture itself declares the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation as well as many other doctrines such as Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. To speak of a development of doctrine is not to speak of a development that goes beyond or is fuller than the doctrine that is contained in the Bible itself. Rather, development of doctrine, as seen above, pertains to the Church’s growth in its understanding of all that was proclaimed and professed within the scriptural text itself.

This later development of understanding and expression is found in what is called the Church’s living tradition. Thus, again, Dei Verbum states:

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound close together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move toward the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church (DV 9-10).

The ever-living ecclesial tradition is primarily then the reading and interpreting of Sacred Scripture from within the apostolic tradition—that is, understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ as the apostles meant it to be understood and as the evangelists faithfully put it into writing. By contemplating Scripture within the living apostolic tradition, the Church grows, throughout the ages, in its understanding of what has been divinely revealed. Development of doctrine is this growth in understanding and expression of what has been revealed.

Historically, such development has often not taken place in the midst of tranquility but in the midst of intense controversy—precisely because “false doctrine” was being proposed. Allow me to provide one example that, again, bears upon the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

The Nicaean clarification

The New Testament professes that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the Church’s desire to declare these mysteries more fully and clearly (faith seeking understanding), the Fathers of the Church sought to conceive of and articulate how God could be one and yet the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all be equally God.

There were many missteps and unsatisfactory proposals, not because of disbelief but simply because such an intellectual task is not easy to accomplish. While theological headway was made, in the early A.D. 300s a priest, Arius of Alexandria in Egypt, concluded that there was no way to conceive of God as one and simultaneously to regard the Son as truly God. Thus, Arius proposed that there is one God and that this one God became Father when he created his Son, the first and highest of all creatures. The Son may be the most divine-like of all creatures, but he was not God in the way that God is God.

In the midst of the passionate controversy that ensued, in A.D. 325 the emperor Constantine called a council to be held at Nicaea. Most of the bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea, except for those who sided with Arius, did not come to the Council wondering what the Church really believed. Because of what the New Testament taught and what had been the Church’s tradition since apostolic times, they firmly believed that Jesus, as the Father’s eternal Son, was truly God.

The conundrum they faced was twofold. First, how could they protect the apostolic reading of Scripture with its apostolic interpretation? Second, how could the Trinity be conceived and articulated so as demonstrate clearly that God is one and that the Father and Son (and eventually the Holy Spirit) are both equally divine?

They soon realized that quoting Scripture passages would not suffice, for Arius and his followers could give to them a meaning that was in accord to their own teaching. Thus, to say that the Son was begotten of the Father would mean that he was created by the Father and so was a creature.

At this juncture, the orthodox bishops enacted a true act of doctrinal development, and they did so in a most creative manner, though they would not have called it such or even fully realized that they had done so. This doctrinal development is embodied in the Nicene Creed:

[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is of the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. . . . Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

The council made some significant distinctions as well as employing an immensely important concept. The Son is the only begotten Son of the Father, and so he proceeds from the very substance or nature of the Father, as God from God. In being begotten from the Father, the Son is not made. What is “begotten” is always of the same nature as the begetter. What is made is always of a different nature than the maker. Ants beget ants but make anthills. Humans beget humans but make houses. God the Father begot God the Son but made/created the cosmos.

Then, the council stated that the Son is of one substance/nature (homoousion) with the Father. This is the first time a Church council employed a non-scriptural word to define a scriptural truth, a truth of the faith. The one nature of God is the Father eternally begetting his only Son. The Father’s begetting of his Son inheres within the very nature of God’s oneness.

A true development

Thus, the Council not only defended the authentic divinity of the Son, it also allowed the Church to conceive properly how God could be one and how the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) could all be truly divine—for the one God is the eternal interrelationship of the divine Persons. Moreover, and most importantly, the council preserved, defended, and professed the very doctrine of the Trinity as found within the New Testament itself.

As the New Testament declared and professed that one God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, so now the council magisterially confirmed that same truth, thus making its Creed part of the ever-living ecclesial tradition. Scripture must be read in the light of Nicaea.

Likewise, it preserved, defended, and professed the truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Son of God, who is God as the Father is God, is the same divine Son who came to exist as man, and so as man he suffered, died, rose, and ascended into heaven for our salvation. The Council of Nicaea is a magnificent achievement of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth who guarantees that the Church will never fall into doctrinal error.

The Council of Nicaea is then a true development of doctrine, not because the doctrine was changed, but because the council fathers conceived and articulated the doctrine in a manner that could be more clearly understood (though not fully comprehended). Unlike Arius’s false “development,” which dissolved the mystery of the Trinity, the Trinity remained a mystery of the faith.

(If one ever thinks that one has fully grasped a mystery of the faith, one can be assured that one has fallen into heresy. Development of doctrine is always the coming to see more clearly what the mystery is and not the comprehension of the mystery itself.)

After Nicaea, the controversy concerning the Trinity carried on for almost another sixty years. Later, the full divinity of the Holy Spirit was denied, partially because the Holy Spirit is never termed “God” in the New Testament. This denial (false doctrine) was rectified at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. This Council promulgated what is known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which declared that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” And so just as the Lord proceeds from the Father, the Holy Spirit is God as the Father and Son are God. (The Latin Church later added “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” but that is another can of worms.)

During those sixty years, many and some-times most of the bishops fell into some form of Arian belief—the denial of Jesus’ full divinity. However, most of the laity kept faithful to Scripture and the Creed of the Council of Nicaea—even though theologically un-educated, they had a true sense of the Faith. Today, this same authentic sense of faith resides in the hearts and minds of many the lay faithful.

What have we learned?

Although I have focused on the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, particularly as defined by the Council of Nicaea, I hope that we perceive a number of theological principles that are pertinent to a proper understanding of authentic doctrinal development.

First, doctrines, as the mysteries of faith, are founded upon divine revelation and so are not of human making.

Second, because revelation embodies God’s words and actions, such revelation cannot change—revelation is unalterably true.

Third, God’s saving words and deeds are inerrantly narrated in Scripture—Scripture is the fount and source of the Church’s doctrine, for therein is proclaimed the mysteries of the faith.

Fourth, Scripture must be read and interpreted from within the living apostolic tradition, the very tradition that gave rise to what is to be professed, particularly in the New Testament.

Fifth, while God’s revelation historically progressed, finding its culmination in Jesus Christ, the Church’s doctrines do not change in the sense that they become something different from what they were from the beginning.

Sixth, the development of doctrine pertains to the Church’s ever-growing understanding, its ever-attentive defense, and its ever-clearer proclamation of the mysteries of faith—a growth, defense, and proclamation that is guided and furthered by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.

Seventh, whatever is proposed that is contrary to or inconsistent with Scripture as it has perennially been understood within the living apostolic tradition, and as it has been consistently and authentically taught within the Church’s magisterial tradition, is not a true development of doctrine. Rather, such theological proposals would be the destruction of the mysteries of faith, the very demise of God’s revelation and so the ruin of the very realities that guarantee humankind’s salvation.

Thus, the doctrines of the Catholic Church are not lifeless and archaic relics from the past; they articulate the very mysteries of our Faith, the mysteries that are living and life-giving. What can be more living and life-giving than the eternal life-giving and love-giving Trinity? What can be more marvelous than the doctrine of the Incarnation—that the very Son of God came to exist as man for our salvation? The doctrines of the Church and their development are what makes the Church the living and life-giving body of Christ.

I will end with a quote from Dei Verbum that we must always remember:

What has been handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes (DV 8).

Sidebar 1: The Eucharist

The Creed of the Council of Nicaea did not proclaim a doctrine different from that professed in the New Testament—that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and that the divine Son came to exist as man for our salvation. In so doing, the bishops at Nicaea marshaled a concept that did not appear in Scripture: homoousion, that is, that the Son of God is of the one and same substance/nature as the Father. This dogmatic declaration was to assure, against the Arian heresy, that the Church’s faith would be unambiguously understood, adequately defended, and clearly proclaimed.

Similarly, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, some reformers denied that Jesus was truly and really present in the Eucharist. In order to protect the proper understanding of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and the continuous apostolic tradition of the Church, the Council of Trent declared:

Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.

As the Council of Nicaea employed the non-biblical word homoousion to defend the divinity of Jesus as the Father’s true Son, so the Council of Trent uses a non-scriptural word, transubstantiation, to defend the authentic interpretation of Jesus’ words “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” By using the term transubstantiation, the council was preserving and clearly professing the apostolic meaning of Jesus’ own words.

Likewise, the council was declaring, in accordance with Jesus’ words, that there is a change of “whatness.” What was bread and wine become, after the words of consecration, the resurrected body and blood of Jesus. What is now present is the fullness of Jesus’ risen reality.

The Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation is a life-giving doctrine, for it declares that the living, risen Jesus is truly and really present in the Eucharist.

Sidebar 2: Development of Morality: Slavery

What about doctrinal development within the Church’s moral teaching? Does that change? Two initial points must be made.

First, human beings are called to what is good, and there are many goods that can be done—one can marry or be celibate, one can be a doctor or a construction worker, one can care for the poor or evangelize the rich. Although there are a wide variety of good professions and acts that one could do, one is not obliged to do all of them. That would be impossible.

Second, one is never permitted to do an act that is evil. The reason is that all evil acts violate something that is good. God’s Ten Commandments delineate intrinsically evil acts, acts that may never be committed.

For example, to commit murder is to violate the good of life, and so abortion is always wrong and sinful. Fornication and adultery violate the good of marriage and so can never be engaged in. Lying directly attacks the good of truth, and so perjury is always wrong.

Given the above, can the Church’s understanding of what is morally good develop? Yes. Here I will consider only one example: slavery.

It appears that the early Church took the institution of slavery as culturally given. It was simply the way things were. Nowhere in the New Testament is slavery outrightly condemned. However, the seeds for its condemnation are found within Scripture.

All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. All Christians, whether slave or free, are equal brothers and sisters in Christ (see Paul’s letter to Philemon). As the biblical understanding of the dignity and rights of human beings percolated through society with more and more people becoming Christian, Christians, and then society at large, came to see slavery as intrinsically evil and therefore immoral.

There was a growth, a development, within the Church’s moral consciousness. Importantly, this ethical development gestated from moral principles that are inherent within the Gospel itself and founded upon what pertains naturally to the inherent dignity of every human person. It follows on the nature of love—we are to love one another as we love ourselves, and so we are to do unto others what we would want others to do unto us.

This same development can be seen in our present heightened moral consciousness that the resources of our planet must be used wisely and not wrongly exploited out of greed.

Thus, although the Church’s understanding of what is good can develop, and in turn recognize more clearly what is evil, it can never reverse this process. For example, because the Church knows that sexual acts pertain exclusively to marriage, it can never come to the conclusion and so teach that sexual acts outside the marriage of one man and woman are licit and good. Nor could it ever teach that the trafficking of young girls for sexual exploitation is beneficial. Nor could it condone lying and cheating among corporations for the sake of economic growth.

All of these are intrinsically evil acts. They will always remain so, and therefore they may never be permitted.

Sidebar 3: Liturgy and Sacraments

I have emphasized that the development of doctrine refers to our growth in understanding the mysteries of faith that are found within Scripture. With regard to the liturgy and sacraments, something similar occurs but also something different.

Over the course of the centuries, the manner in which we now celebrate the sacraments of baptism and confession, as well as the Mass, for example, is liturgically different from the way the early and medieval Latin Church celebrated these sacraments. However, the doctrinal truth contained within all of the sacraments has consistently remained the same. In baptism, for example, one dies and rises in Christ and so is freed from sin and re-created into the likeness of Christ through the transforming, indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

But the liturgical manner in which the sacraments are celebrated has changed, and the changes were such so as to provide, in words and deeds, greater theological clarity to the inherent and unchangeable truth that resides within the sacraments. In baptism, besides the immersion in or pouring over of water and saying of words “I baptize you,” the Church also employs other symbols that accentuate what the sacrament symbolizes—the putting on of a white garment, symbolizing the purification from sin and rebirth in the Holy Spirit; or the giving of a lighted candle, symbolizing the new light and life of Christ.

So, while the dogmatic truth of the sacraments does not change, yet the manner in which they are celebrated can change so as to better manifest their theological meaning. This is the case regarding the liturgical traditions in use within the Church other than the Latin rite, such as the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean rites, as well as the liturgies used within the Anglican Ordinariate. Doctrinally they are all in one accord, yet liturgically their rites are different.

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