February 3, 2009

A Little More on the Development of Doctrine

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Theology — William Witt @ 5:08 am

A reader with the nom de plume of kepha asks me to respond to a piece by Michael Liccione, which I haven’t read yet.

I will look at Prof. Liccione’s piece. The two of us have a history together and this sometimes produces more heat than light in our conversations. Perhaps this is because we do indeed have much in common. I think both of us view Thomas Aquinas as our primary mentor. Both of us have a friend in the Pontificator, who helped keep me in Anglicanism back when he was an Episcopalian, and who became Roman Catholic largely through discussions with Michael Liccione and others.

Part of our disagreement has to do with a different understanding of the trajectory of Thomas’s theology. Prof. Liccione sees a trajectory from Aquinas through Trent to Newman. I rather see Trent as a rather unfortunate sidetrack in the train of late Medieval Scholasticism, where the kind of Thomism that flourished at that time was a kind of mongrelized version of Suarez or Cajetan, and Newman as rather too much reflecting the epistemological unclarity that followed Descartes. (To put this way too summarily, Newman echoes Descartes when he views the problem of interpreting Scripture as an issue of the certainty of the knower rather than a question of the intelligibility of the extra-mental object. The solution here goes back to both Aquinas and Aristotle, both of whom were realists in insisting on an inherent intelligible correlation between known object, knowing subject, and language as an “intelligible word,” and the crucial role of the judgment in affirming truth or falsity.)

I think the real issue of disagreement has to do with the question of the inherent intelligibility of Scripture. Followers of Newman often speak of the sufficiency of Scripture in terms of a “material” sufficiency. On the page on my blog titled “Who Are Those Guys?” I speak of how, as I read Aquinas, Arminius and Barth, they do theology as a penetration into the mystery of the inherent intelligibility of revelation as witnessed to in Scripture. I see the same kind of approach in Eastern theologians like Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria.

Such an understanding of Scripture’s inherent intelligibility presupposes that the sufficiency of Scripture is not material, but formal. The difference here is between a blueprint to make a building, and the bricks of which the building is made. A merely materially sufficient Scripture is like a pile of bricks that can build anything from a cathedral to a tool shed, but the bricks themselves possess no inherent intelligibility (formal sufficiency) in one direction for another. The intelligibility derives from outside the bricks. Conversely, a blueprint is inherently intelligible, and thus has not material but formal sufficiency to create a specific building, whether cathedral or tool shed.

In terms of development, the claim that Scripture is materially sufficient presumes that the intelligibility of revelation derives from elsewhere than Scripture itself. A definitive magisterium (or external tradition) is necessary to decide what to do with the bricks. Without the magisterium it is impossible to know whether the bricks were intended to be a cathedral or a tool shed.

Conversely, if Scripture is formally sufficient, it is comparable to an architect’s blueprint, not a pile of indeterminate bricks. The divine Author of revelation has made himself known, has spoken and acted in such a way that what he says can be understood, and the inspired apostolic witness to that revelation (Scripture) itself possesses an inherent intelligibility–it is also knowable and understandable. Of course, just as there is an architectural tradition in which blueprints make sense, and in which builders interpret blueprints, so the community of the church is the tradition in which Scripture is properly read. The church’s job in this situation is not to act as architect, but to act as contractor–to be faithful in following the architect’s plan. On this reading, development adds nothing new to that which is already in the blueprint. Yet without development, the physical building never exists. The architect’s plan must be enacted. At the same time, it is always possible to check the building against the original blueprint. It is not the contractor who specifies whether he has been faithful to the original blueprint, but the blueprint (the text) itself. If the contractor includes a bowling alley in the transept of the cathedral, one can always check against the blueprint to see if a bowling alley was part of the original plan. The contractor cannot justify the bowling alley as a legitimate development on the grounds that in architecture, both blueprints (Scripture) and builders (tradition) are equally necessary.

As for Aquinas, we differ on the final trajectory. I don’t see the clear trajectory between Aquinas, Trent, and Newman. Rather, I think that Hooker’s approach in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, or the kind of Thomism I find echoed in Arminius or (more recently) Eric Mascall or Austin Farrer more faithfully reflects Aquinas’s own understanding that Scripture is inherently intelligible.

Or, as I say when talking about Barth in my “Who Are Those Guys?” page, the reason why Barth began his Church Dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinty was his realization that God must be in himself who he is in his revelation. In the ordo cognoscendi the starting point of a doctrine of the immanent Trinity (ordo essendi) has to be God’s revelation as economic Trinity in the history of salvation–a history of which Scripture as God’s Word written is the intelligible and formally sufficient witness. Barth’s realization was the impetus for the twentieth century revival of Trinitarian theology that has produced tremendous fruit. If God’s revelation is to be a true revelation of his character–God is in himself who he is for us–then theology must find its primary task in listening to God’s word as echoed in the apostolic witness of Scripture.

Bernard Lonergan and Thomas F. Torrance understand Nicea and Chalcedon in this way. The councils are not a move from one kind of intelligibility to another kind, but a move from one kind of intelligibility to another kind of intelligibility of the same kind. The development that takes place at Nicea and Chalcedon is the move from the “common sense” realism that we find in Scripture–the narrative and symbolic account of God’s revelation propter nos in the history of revelation–to a critical realism that speaks about God in himself (in se) as the necessary implication and presupposition of that revelation. The move from Scripture to Nicea and Chalcedon is a “development,” but it is not a development in the sense of adding something new, something that was not in the text all along. Rather, there was an intelligible inevitability to the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is in himself who he has revealed himself to be in the history of his revelation in Israel, in his incarnation in Jesus Christ, in his pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Church, then God must really be triune in himself.

This, I would argue, is very different from the kind of development we see in the rise of the papal office or the later Marian dogmas. That Mary is theotokos (the mother of God) follows necessarily from the personal identity of Jesus. If the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is “Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” then his mother is truly the “bearer of God.” This is primarily not a statement about Mary, but a statement about Jesus. Papal primacy and the assumption and immaculate conception do not follow in this way.


  1. Thank you very much, professor!

    Comment by kepha — February 4, 2009 @ 2:28 am

  2. Dr. Witt,

    Excellent post. I concur with your assessment that:

    “…the real issue of disagreement has to do with the question of the inherent intelligibility of Scripture…Such an understanding of Scripture’s inherent intelligibility presupposes that the sufficiency of Scripture is not material, but formal.”

    I posted the follow excerpt from A.N.S. Lane’s essay, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey” over at Sacramentum Vitae:

    “The Reformers unequivocally rejected the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This left open the question of who should interpret Scripture. The Reformation was not a struggle for the right of private judgement. The Reformers feared private judgement almost as much as did the Catholics and were not slow to attack it in its Anabaptist manifestation. The Reformation principle was not private judgement but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding. This came close to creating anew the infallible church…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between Protestants so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Luthern or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies. But even in 1530 Casper Schwenckfeld could cynically note that ‘the Papists damn the Lutherans; the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians; the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists and the Anabaptists damn all others.’ By the end of seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general assent.” (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45.)

    Does not Lane’s assessment poke some serious holes in the formal sufficiency theory?

    Grace and peace,


    Comment by David Waltz — February 4, 2009 @ 6:56 am

  3. Dr. Witt:

    Thank you very much for this post. I hope you are not about to be dragged into a fray for which you do not have time.

    Around Christmas I finally was able to read Longergan’s Way to Nicea. What struck me was, as you put it, the “intelligible inevitability to the doctrine of the Trinity.” With this acknowledged, the orthodox trinitarianism professed by the Church need not be accepted merely on the say-so of ecclesiastical authorities. For, if so inclined, an inquirer can see for himself just how what the Church teaches is faithful to the apostolic witness.

    Material sufficiency is, I have thought, a spring of difficulties for modern Catholicism. James Gaffney, SJ, said that because of it there has arisen a paradoxical aspect to Roman thought on tradition. For, if the Assumption of Mary is a dogma, then it would seem one

    must be able to know that a given doctrine is somehow in Scripture without at the same time being able clearly to locate it there. The Church may be said, in such a view, to interpret Scripture, in the sense that it makes known truths which Scripture contains but does not readily yield to its readers, but it must be confessed that this is to require the word “interpret” to sustain a very special and unfamiliar nuance.

    This special and unfamiliar nuance looks eerily like the spin the Gnostics put on ‘interpret’. As a commenter observed over at Conscious Faith, the textual support for the Assumption is rather like that for the Dodecad, amounting to points of departure for theological speculation. Supposedly the Gnostic teachings were also “in” scripture but could not be clearly located there. Because scripture contained them but did not readily yield them to its readers, special teachers were necessary. These teachers, having grasped the real idea of Christianity, could show how the pieces of tradition fit together to express it.

    To me it has seemed Dr Liccione’s neo-catholicism flips St Irenaeus on his head. The notion that tradition cannot be “fully and reliably identified independently of what has been definitively taught by the See of Rome” is in stark contrast with what Denis Minns, OP, has written:

    Irenaeus does not and cannot grant that the Church or the bishops or the teachers of the Church, as bearers of the tradition, can determine what the content of the tradition is. If a place in the apostolic succession confers authority to determine, discover or develop the tradition, then one need only claim such a place in order to be able to claim apostolic authority for whatever one teaches, which is just what the gnostics did.

    To Dr Liccione’s credit, he intends to look into Minns’ book. In the meantime, there is not much for me to discuss at his blog. But as regards this topic of a latent gnostic tendency, I would be curious to learn what you think of Cardinal Newman’s revised understanding of the deposit of faith. Newman anticipated the turn Catholic thought on the nature of revelation took under the likes of De Lubac in the 20th century. In a letter written in 1868 that went unpublished for ninety years, he wrote:

    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 proportion 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 in 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 given 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 modum unius to the Apostles’ minds, & brought to light to the minds of the Fathers of the Council, under the temporary illumination of Divine Grace.

    Thus, from the beginning the Assumption was contained in the many-sided idea of Christianity imparted first to the apostles, and by them to succeeding generations of the faithful. The apprehension of this idea has developed over time, but the idea itself does not grow. The pope and the wider magisterium, aided on occasion and in the appropriate measure by a supernatural grace of perceiving the mind of Christ that was habitual in the apostles, can authentically determine whether a belief which has grown up in the Church is in truth part of the deposit.

    Though I would like to be sympathetic, this theory looks like a novelty to me. Rather than sounding catholic, it sounds like what the opponents of Irenaeus would have loved to set against him.

    I may be mistaken, though. If you have an opportunity, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

    In Christ,


    Comment by Iohannes — February 4, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  4. I would like to second Iohannes’s words:

    Thank you very much for this post. I hope you are not about to be dragged into a fray for which you do not have time.

    We certainly do not expect you to join conversation at Dr. Liccione’s blog or our own. You comments here are sufficient and appreciated.

    Comment by kepha — February 5, 2009 @ 12:17 am

  5. […] particularly on John Henry Newman’s own contribution. (For previous discussion, see here, here, here, and here.) In what follows I intend to focus on Newman’s shorter essay entitled […]

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