The Development of Doctrine

The Development of Doctrine

by Vincent Arong

The objection against the Catholic Church's claim of doctrinal development goes something like this:

"The Catholic claim that doctrine develops over time is contradictory because the Catholic Church also claims that its doctrine is identical that which the Apostles possessed."

The Catholic would point out that the objection exhibits a false dichotomy -- a fallacy that a Christian may encounter when dialoguing, for example, with those of the Arian persuasion (i.e. "God is three or God is one, Christians believe both, but both cannot be right at the same time"). Perhaps a Trinitarian would use the term "categorization" since God is not one in the same category as God is three: God is one is in the category of nature and three is in the category of person.

Of course, since Christians believe in the Trinity, Christians who object to doctrinal development would not say that they being contradictory in asserting that God is one being in three persons, despite Arian claims to the contrary. Trinitarians would see the distinctions as valid, and so would Catholics, which brings us to the objection to dogmatic development.

There are two distinct categories in the issue of doctrinal development: the objective property of what the doctrine is and the subjective apprehension of this objective property.

Catholics would say that the Revelation given to the Church in the 1st century is objectively the same exact Revelation that the Catholic Church in the 21st century guards and professes in a certain category. This means that the concepts behind the dogmatic statements that arise after the apostolic period were possessed by the Apostles materially and not formally.

In other words, for example, the terms and dogmatic sentences that describe Christ's consubstantiality with the Father like "homoousious" weren't explicitly defined or even used by the Apostles, but the concept behind the terms was "once-for-all" given to the Apostles, even if it was not consciously possessed by them in the dogmatic format that Nicaea professed.

Thus development occurs in our explicit recognition of a certain point of Revelation, which is always what it is objectively, whether in the 1st century or in the 21st century, whether we subjectively apprehend a content of this Revelation.

An imperfect analogy is of the Pacific Ocean. This civilization has possessed the concept of "the Pacific Ocean" for generations. Yet, our knowledge of the Pacific Ocean has been growing in depth (no pun intended) ever since we first found out that the Pacific Ocean existed. The ever-increasing knowledge of what the Pacific Ocean is does not modify in a substantial sense to the concept of the Pacific Ocean that we have had since the beginning. However, our subjective knowledge of the Pacific Ocean does undergo some kind of growth. Our perception of the Pacific Ocean will not grow in such a way that one day we will refuse to call it the "Pacific Ocean" and instead call it "a rabbit."

If we connect this analogy with the Catholic concept of dogmatic development, we can see how Revelation is objectively what it is, was given "once-and-for-all" and is unalterable. Yet, in meditating upon the Word of God that we consciously apprehend, we come to realize certain facets of this diamond of Revelation that we didn't explicitly notice before. This growth in knowledge doesn't add to Revelation in the objective sense, but it demonstrates that our apprehension of this Revelation does develop subjectively.

Protestant apologist James White concurs with Catholics on that point:

"[W]e agree with Rome that doctrine does develop" (Roman Catholic Controversy, page 83).

Despite this agreement, he has some reservations: "But we strongly disagree about how it develops (ibid., emphasis his). I assume that White concurs that the Revelation he has received is the exact same Revelation that the Apostles were bequeathed in the objective sense. Yet, he would concede that his there is an "ever-increasing understanding of the Word of God" (ibid.).

If those who oppose Catholicism can agree with White and the Catholic Church that development does occur, then the controversy can be further localized in the method, content and limits of development.


For us and our salvation,
Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again
so we would believe, repent and be forgiven of our sins.

Copyright 2002 Vincent Arong

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