Is Development Of Doctrine A Corruption Of Biblical Teaching

C.S. Lewis, the famous Anglican writer, once wrote: "The very possibility of progress demands that there should be an unchanging element ... the positive historical statements made by Christianity have the power ... of receiving, without intrinsic change, the increasing complexity of meaning which increasing knowledge puts into them."

The Catholic Church, in agreement with Lewis, defines doctrinal development as a growth of depth and clarity in the understanding of the truths of divine revelation. It is important to understand that the substantial or essential truths at the core of each doctrine remain unchanged. Only the subjective grasp of men increases.

This increase is the result of the prayerful reflection of the Church, theological study and research (often occasioned by heretical challenges), practical experience and the collective wisdom of the Church's bishops and popes, especially when joined in Ecumenical Councils.

Like many Christian doctrines, the idea of doctrinal development is based on much implicit or indirect scriptural evidence. The best indications are perhaps Mt 5:17, 13:31-32; Jn 14:26, 16:13; 1 Cor 2:9-16; Gal 4:4; and Eph 1:10, 4:12-15.

Furthermore, doctrine clearly develops within Scripture ("progressive revelation"). Examples of this process include: doctrines of the afterlife, the Trinity, the Messiah (eventually revealed as God the Son), the Holy Spirit (Divine Person in the New Testament), the equality of Jews and Gentiles, bodily resurrection, and sacrifice of lambs evolving into the sacrifice of Christ. Not a single doctrine initially emerges in the Bible complete with no further need of development.

In general, whenever Scripture refers to the increasing knowledge and maturity of Christians and the Church, an idea very similar to doctrinal development is present. Holy Scripture, then, is in no way hostile to development. It is only Protestant presuppositions --- not always so "biblical" themselves --- which preclude development for fear of "excess."

The canon of Scripture itself is an example of developing doctrine. The New Testament never informs us which books comprise itself, and its Canon (the final list of books) took about 360 years to reach its definitive form (at the Council of Carthage in AD, 397).

For instance, the books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were not widely accepted by the Church until 350. And books such as Barnabas and 1 and 2 Clement were considered Scripture by many at the same time (for example, the manuscripts Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus). Of the 27 New Testament books, 14 were not mentioned at all until circa 200, including Acts, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians. On what grounds, then, can we receive the Canon today except on the authority of the Church in the fifth century?

These facts cause insuperable problems for Protestantism and its guiding principle of "Scripture Alone." Tradition, Church authority and development were all crucial elements in the very human process of selection of the biblical canon. It is impossible to maintain, as did Luther and especially Calvin, that the knowledge of what books constitute Scripture can be attained by a Holy Spirit-produced subjective intuition within each Christian. If the early Church had such a difficult time determining what was and was not Scripture, how could Calvin 15 centuries later plausibly claim that it was simple for him and every other sincere Christian, without the help of the Catholic Church?

The Church is called the "Body" of Christ often (e.g. Eph 1:22-3), and is compared to a seed which develops into a tree (Mt 13:31-32). Seeds and bodies grow and expand. Yet Protestants tend to see Church and doctrine as more like a statue, subject to pigeon droppings (i.e., so-called Catholic "corruptions"!).

This robs the metaphors of Christ of their essential meaning. It is very difficult to argue that no development occurred in Church history, or that it ceased after the first, second, third or fifth century, etc. (all arbitrary human traditions). The Bible is not absolutely clear in every part, and requires the developing wisdom of the Church.

Doctrines agreed upon by all develop, too. The Divinity or Godhood of Christ was only finalized in 325, and the full doctrine of the Trinity in 381. The dogma of the two natures of Christ (true God and true man) was proclaimed in 451. These decisions of General Councils of the Church were in response to challenging heresies. Why Should Protestants accept these authoritative verdicts, but reject similar proclamations on Church government, the Eucharist, Mary, purgatory, etc.?

Although understanding increases, the essential elements of doctrines exist from the beginning. Today's Church shouldn't be expected to look like the primitive Church if it is a living, vibrant, spiritual organism. But the early Church does already look very "Catholic." What we don't find in the early centuries is a "statue," doomed to be increasingly encroached upon by "corrupting" Catholicism, as is imagined by many Protestants of the anti-Catholic variety, usually unacquainted with the oldest source materials after the New Testament, such as the writings of St. Clement of Rome (d. circa 101) and St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 110).

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the great Englishman who converted to Catholicism a century and a half ago this year, is widely regarded as one of the most profound religious thinkers of his time. In his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" (1845), the one indispensable work on this subject, Newman wrote: "One thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches ... at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism ... as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination ... of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone. ... To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant."

Newman points out, for example, that notions of suffering, or "vague forms of the doctrine of Purgatory" were virtually universally accepted in the first four centuries of the Church, whereas, the same cannot be said for the doctrine of original sin, which is agreed upon by Protestants and Catholics. Purgatory is not a later "corruption," but was present early on and merely developed. Original sin, however, was equally - if not more so - subject to development. Therefore, if purgatory is unacceptable on grounds of its having undergone development, then original sin must be rejected with it. Contrariwise, if original sin is accepted notwithstanding its own development, then consistency requires that Purgatory also be accepted.

Cardinal Newman, in the essay quoted above, summarizes: "If it be true that the principles of the later Church are the same as those of the earlier, then, whatever are the variations of belief between the two periods, the later in reality agrees more than it differs with the earlier, for principles are responsible for doctrines. Hence they who assert that the modern Roman system is the corruption of primitive theology are forced to discover some difference of principle between the one and the other; for instance, that the right of private judgment was secured to the early Church and has been lost to the later, or again, that the later Church rationalizes and the earlier went by faith."

This is true whether the theological considerations are those agreed upon by all, such as the divinity of Christ, the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and original sin, or those denied by all or most Protestants, such as the Marian dogmas, purgatory, the papacy, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Communion of saints, priestly absolution, baptismal regeneration, the Sacrifice of the Mass, etc.

It must be stated, then, that it was Protestantism, not Catholicism, which introduced a new mode of Christian authority and "principle" of doctrinal determination which was a radical departure from the established Christian Tradition: that of subjective, private judgment, allied with the unbiblical and unhistorical notion of "Scripture alone."

One could say that an automobile was "corrupt" if the owner decided that it would run better with half its spark plugs, watered-down gas, no rear brakes, one headlight, three quarts low on oil, etc. Corruption can just as easily consist of "subtraction" as "addition." Protestantism's charges of Catholic "corruption," then, if closely scrutinized, only come back to incriminate itself with at least equal force.

Evangelical Protestantism applies the principle of sola Scriptura without much critical consideration of it, and judges all doctrines accordingly, so that those which are regarded as either outright unbiblical or insufficiently grounded in Scripture are jettisoned: the Marian doctrines, purgatory, penance, the communion of saints, the papacy, etc.

Apart from the issue of Tradition as a legitimate carrier (alongside and in harmony with Scripture) of Christian belief, much more biblical support can be found in Scripture for these "Catholic" doctrines than most Protestants suppose. One simply needs to become familiar with Catholic biblical apologetical arguments.

The idea of doctrinal development provides the key, in any event, for understanding why the Catholic Church today often appears on the surface as fundamentally different from (and contrary to) the early Church. Without it, the doctrinal and historical outlook of Catholicism will, in most cases, be too difficult to grasp and fully comprehend for most evangelicals, who have quite different presuppositions in this regard.

Thoughtful and ecumenical Protestants owe it to themselves to ponder this indispensable notion before unduly criticizing the allegedly "unbiblical excesses" of Catholicism.

By: Dave Armstrong - a convert to Catholicism from evangelicalism.
Published in the September/October '95 issue of The Catholic Answer
Our Sunday Visitor
200 Noll Plaza
Huntington, Indiana 46750
Phone: (800) 348-2440