In the combox to “The Fathers Gave Rome the Primacy”, a slightly off-topic discussion of the Catholic understanding of the “development of doctrine” began. I would like to divert the discussion to this post’s combox, because I think that doctrinal development is a very important discussion for this blog – not merely because it’s identified by some Orthodox writers as a major difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but because the Catholic understanding of the Papacy really does hinge on the possibility of the development of doctrine.
I propose that we take some quotes from Michael Liccione’s Sacramentum Vitae posts on doctrinal development as a basis for discussion. Dr. Liccione has, in my view, done an excellent job in explaining this difficult and often misinterpreted Catholic concept. Liccione shows (quite convincingly in my opinion) that orthodox Catholic theories of doctrinal development* by no means involve “additions” “innovations” or “improvements” to the original apostolic deposit of faith (as if what Christ entrusted to the Church were incomplete or imperfect). Still less does legitimate doctrinal development have to do “new revelations” or “new truths” somehow esoterically communicated to Popes or Ecumenical Councils (that, of course, would differ little from the Mormon theory of continual revelation).
In The Embryo and the Deposit of Faith (10/15/2005), Liccione explains doctrinal development in terms of what we know about DNA:
Recall that you are spatio-temporally continuous with a blastocyst. Within that microscopic you, there were and remain all the DNA instructions for what you physically became. Your body was once “virtually”—in the classical sense of that term derived from the Latin virtus: “power”—what it is now. Indeed, your body now is the same body as that blastocyst; the difference is that what “it” contained were mostly the codes for producing what you now see (and a lot of what you don’t see). The difference is one of development not identity.
The Catholic Faith is like that. That the authoritative documents of the Catholic Church, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are collectively much, much longer than the New Testament is not a sign of undue human elaboration of the Word of God. The primordial Word of God is God the Son and thus God himself: “In the beginning was the Word.” What’s more often called the “Word”, embodied in the preaching of the Apostles, the Bible, Sacred Tradition, and dogma, is but the transmission of truths from and about the primordial Word. Such media of transmission and elaboration are but the making explicit of much that was implicit in the primitive kerygma. That entails development fueled by explanation. Thus the Apostles would not have known what the Council of Nicaea meant by saying that the Son is homoousios with the Father, yet that phrase signified an authentic, organic development of what they did preach. The basic deposit of faith was indeed “delivered once for all to the saints” from the start; but it took centuries of meditation, heresy, and definition to bring forth to maturity much that was inchoate. The right codes were always there, but what contained them needed time and nourishment for the growth they have regulated.
In Cardinal Newman on the Depositum Fidei (10/4/2006), Liccione presents an important quote from Newman in order to show that for Catholics, legitimate doctrinal developments (yes, there can be illegitimate doctrinal developments) are merely explications of what was implicit in the minds of the Apostles, in that Faith which Christ “once delivered” to the Apostles, and which the Apostles then passed to the Church:
I conceive then that the Depositum is in such sense committed to the Church or to the Pope, that when the Pope sits in St. Peter’s chair, or when a Council of Fathers & doctors is collected round him, it is capable of being presented to their minds with that fullness and exactness, under the operation of supernatural grace, (so far forth and in such portion of it as the occasion requires,) with which it habitually, not occasionally, resided in the minds of the Apostles;—a vision of it, not logical, and therefore consistent with errors of reasoning & of fact in the enunciation, after the manner of an intuition or an instinct. Nor do those enunciations become logical, because theologians afterwards can reduce them to their relations to other doctrines, or give them a position in the general system of theology. To such theologians they appear as deductions from the creed or formularized deposit, but in truth they are original parts of it, communicated per modus unius to the Apostles’ minds & brought to light to the minds of the Fathers of the Council, under the temporary illumination of Divine Grace.
In Ampliative Development of Doctrine (Part I) (12/20/2006), Liccione likens legitimate doctrinal development to “the pattern in the unfolding of divine revelation itself”, that is, the gradual unfolding of the plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, as reflected in the Old Testament and New Testaments:
Consider how Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14 to support the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. Matthew was relying on the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which uses the term parthenos, meaning “virgin,” to translate Isaiah’s almah, meaning “young woman.” Why that translation? After all, not all virgins are young women and not all young women are virgins. Perhaps the “seventy” Jewish scholars in Alexandria who produced the LXX believed that the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin; but then, perhaps not. We really don’t know. They may simply have chosen parthenos as a decorous synonym for ‘a young woman’ with the implication that the Messiah would be her first-born. At any rate, we have no evidence that first-century Jews assumed the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin. There doesn’t appear to have been any consensus among Jews about how to construe Isaiah 7:14 on this particular point. Yet Matthew, or at least the early Church that received his Gospel as canonical, seems serenely confident that it prophesied that Jesus the Messiah was born of a literal virgin.
This is but one instance of how the New Testament in general treats the Old Testament. The NT even has Jesus himself explaining “the Scriptures,”—i.e., the works comprised by the LXX—as referring to him in various ways that either the original authors of the Scriptures or their audiences do not seem to have had in mind. So if Christianity is true, then the material sense of those Scriptures is far broader than what they formally say. The full material sense—what Scripture scholars call the sensus plenior—is formally brought out only in light of later events, reflections, and interpretations. And that, I believe, is how a great deal of DD also proceeds even after the complete divine revelation was fully given to the Apostles. The process of coming to understand the deposit of faith, given once-for-all to the saints, recapitulates the unfolding of divine revelation itself during the long period leading up to and including “the Jesus event.”
Accordingly, if such controverted doctrines as papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception are instances of authentic DD, they are so because they are derived from the faith-once-delivered in a way very similar to how christology is derived by the NT from the OT and by the first several ecumenical councils from the NT and other early Christian sources. They are not strictly deducible from what everybody professed formally in common during the first millennium of Christianity; they formally express what was there all along, to be sure; but they could not be derived, by any means generally acknowledged as logically reliable, from what was there all along. I don’t think ‘induction’ is quite the right term for that. I can think of no better term than, simply, ‘ampliative inference’.
Liccione’s many other posts on the topic are well worth reading as well:
- Ampliative and Clarificatory Inference in Theology (11/8/2006)
- Distinguishing Dogma from Theology (11/15/2006)
- That Homoousios Again (12/11/2006)
- Ampliative Development of Doctrine, II (12/21/2006)
- Ampliative Development of Doctrine, III (12/29/2006)
- The Latest Development in the Development Discussion (1/12/2007)
- Development of Doctrine, Fr Louth, and Ecumenism (3/8/2007)
- Development of Doctrine, Essence/Energies, and Ecumenism (3/18/2007)