LUENSE: Developing doctrines takes time, patience and understanding

November 26, 2019

The recent canonization of now St. John Henry Newman has caused many to take another look at the life and writings of one of the intellectual giants of the 19th century.

One of the works for which he is most famous is his essay “On the Development of Christian Doctrine.” The idea of developing doctrine is often a hard one for Catholics to understand. Since God is eternal and unchanging, and doctrine is supposed to be a reflection of the revelation of that unchanging God, how is it doctrine can develop? The truth revealed by God shouldn’t change if God does not change. Is there a difference between development and change? Are there some kinds of changes that are permitted and some that are not?

The first thing to keep in mind when thinking about developing doctrine is the fact that salvation history itself shows development and progression.

It is an article of our faith that God, in God’s infinite goodness, desired to reveal Himself to people in a fashion they were capable of understanding. Therefore, He condescended to reveal Himself progressively and in stages.
This progressive revelation means that, being communicated in and through history, there are times at which the revelation is less complete than at others.

Jesus Himself in His ministry acknowledges this when He uses the formula, “You heard that it was said … but I say to you …” Examinations, especially of the Old Testament, which we believe to be an inerrant manifestation of the Word of God, must always bear in mind the possibility that what is communicated at one point may be incomplete and partial, laying the foundation for a fuller and deeper understanding later.

As an example, the first of the Ten Commandments that we find in Exodus 20:2-6 clearly paints a picture of an understanding that a lot of different gods exists, but that the people of Israel are called to be faithful to the one particular God who chooses them as His own and who brought them out of Egypt.

He is their God, and they are His people. Only later does Israel come to understand, in the words of the prophet Isaiah that, “I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me” (45:6). Thus, God accepts the fact that, at first, the people are not ready to hear and understand that there is only one God in all the universe. God is willing to walk with these people and slowly reveal Himself more and more to them until they are ready to receive a more complete revelation.

Second, while acknowledging the completeness of revelation in Jesus Christ, the Church also recognizes that “the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 94). The Scriptures themselves bear witness to the fact that even the apostles, who knew Jesus better than anyone, often misunderstood Him and His message.

It was only over time, and under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that they began to make sense of and proclaim to others what they had already experienced in Christ. There are numerous examples of the ways in which the Church’s understanding of what was already revealed in Jesus Christ evolved over time.

As a single example, one can consider the issue of slavery. For centuries, the Church did not question the moral legitimacy of the social institution of slavery, embedded as it was in every culture in which the Church found itself. St. Paul, in his writings, for example, touches on the issue of slavery several times and never once calls it into question.

Over time, Church institutions, and even religious orders, owned, bought and sold slaves. In this country, the first Catholic university, Georgetown, was saved from financial insolvency only when the Jesuit order that founded it sold some slaves it owned and used the proceeds to support the university. In the last three centuries, however, a deeper reflection on the nature of the dignity of the human person led the Church to the conclusion that today we take for granted, that the enslavement of human beings is always and everywhere wrong (cf. CCC, no. 2414).

St. Newman, in his examination of the development of doctrine, likens it to the development of living things.

A tiny sapling, or even in an acorn, already possesses the potential to become a mighty oak. That full potential, however, is only realized over time as the full implications of what is in written in the very nature of the acorn are allowed to express themselves in a fuller and more complete way as the tree grows and matures. One of the hallmarks of any organic form of development is change with continuity.

This must also be true for any authentic development of doctrine. Newman, in his essay, identifies what he calls seven “notes” of authentic development; characteristics that differentiate between true development and corruption.

In looking at what is proposed as a legitimate doctrinal development, that change can be measured against these seven notes.

Thus we see that all of salvation history, from the time of patriarchs down to the present day, has been a time of deepening understanding and the development of expressions of that understanding. This process, itself guided by God, is one that stresses continuity and development and not reversal, discontinuity, or replacement. 

Brian Luense is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.