April 21, 2009

More on the Development of Doctrine: The Choice is not between “Protestantism” and the “Older Traditions.”

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Theology — William Witt @ 2:05 am

HeronMichael Liccione has continued the discussion on the Development of Doctrine over at Perrennis Philosophia.

This is the first part of what I hope will be a series of responses.

1) Dr. Liccone begins with a misleading summary of the issue of disagreement. He suggests that when it comes to the question of the Development of Doctrine there are three hermeneutical circles (HC), characteristic of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The purpose of the HC is to identify an “authority [his emphasis] of ultimate appeal for distinguishing between true and false doctrine.”
2) The fundamental choice really boils down to two, between the Protestant HC on the one hand and the Catholic and Orthodox HC on the other, which he refers to as “the older traditions.” The main difference is “how they relate belief about the nature and authority of the confessing community itself to the deposit of divine faith.”
3) Liccione believes that the question of authentic authority has to be settled prior to the question of whether there are legitimate developments of doctrine.
4) Nonetheless, there is a criterion that can help one settle which prior explanation one should endorse—abduction, by which he means “inference to the best explanation.”

Liccione’s identification of the choice in assessing the question of doctrinal development between what he calls the Protestant HC and the “older traditions” is inherently misleading because there is no “older tradition” of doctrinal development. Doctrinal development is a modern phenomenon.

Prior to the nineteenth century, it was assumed by both Protestants and Roman Catholics that the truth of Christian faith was unchanging. In distinction from the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists and Puritans), which rejected the entire Catholic tradition as a departure from biblical faith, “Reformed Catholics” (Lutherans, Anglicans, Mercersburg Reformed) argued that in many areas, the Medieval Western Church (Roman Catholicism) had added to and distorted the historic Catholic faith of the patristic Church, and that the Reformation was a return to the historic faith of the patristic Catholic Church. So John Jewel in his Apology of the Church of England argued that Anglicanism was in continuity with the church of the first several centuries, and Rome was not. Jewel argued (correctly) that there was no evidence for transubstantiation or the papacy in the early patristic church. Roman Catholics, to the contrary, argued that there had been no change, and that Catholic Christians had always believed in transubstantiation, the papacy, purgatory, and the Marian dogmas from the very beginning.

In the centuries following the Reformation, Counter-Reformation Roman Catholics adopted two different theories to explain this – the French traditionalism of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) and the scholasticism of Spanish Jesuits like Gabriel Vasquez (1549-1604) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). See Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development (Cambridge University Press, 1957).

Against Protestantism, which, Bossuet argued in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches was nothing but a history of incompatible variations, Bossuet insisted that any variation in religious belief is an indication of error. The Tridentine position was that the faith had been delivered to the Church by Christ complete and entire. The Church had preserved the faith without change. Any admission of change was heresy.

Post-Tridentine Jesuits adopted a different, and contrary position. They explained what would later be called doctrinal development in terms of logical explanation. Development is a logical drawing out the logical consequences of what can be found in Scripture.

Example: (from Chadwick, p. 27)
It is revealed that God was in Christ.
It is revealed that Christ was very man.
It is therefore a necessary inference that in Christ there were two natures.

Note that the two views are incompatible. For Bossuet, the doctrine of the two natures had to have been revealed by Christ and believed by the Catholic Church from the time of the apostles. For the Jesuits, it could have been left until Chalcedon to draw the necessary logical consequences. Chadwick discusses some of the controversy that followed from the Jesuits’ views. The Inquisition intervened when theologians debated the proposition: “It is not de fide that a particular person, e.g., Clement VIII, is the successor of St. Peter.” Since it could not be demonstrably proven that a given pope had been validly baptized, ordained, and canonically elected without simony, it was claimed that one could have only “moral certainty” that a particular pope was the successor of Peter. The proposition was eventually judged to be “scandalous,” but not heretical.

This all changed with development of modern historical method. As early as the fifteenth century, it became evident that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. Nineteenth century historical method made clear that Christian theology had developed over centuries. Modern historical method had discredited the traditional Roman Catholic notion that Catholics simply believe what the church had always believed. It was no longer possible to claim that the Marian dogmas, transubstantiation, or the papacy had been the historic faith of the church from the beginning.

Newman’s theory of development was an attempt to deal with this historical change. The doctrine of development was necessary because modern historical method had discredited the traditional Roman Catholic position. Contrary to the entire previous Roman Catholic tradition, Newman argued that it was no longer necessary to claim that the content of Catholic faith had been established once for all from the beginning of the history of the church, but rather that the doctrines of Roman Catholicism came about through a process of historical growth and development. One did not have to establish that the church had always believed in transubstantiation, or papal infallibility or the marian dogmas. These were later developments from an original seed.  Note that Newman’s position is not what Liccione calls the “older tradition,” but is simply a departure from what previous Catholic tradition had always affirmed. Newman’s theory met serious opposition from Roman Catholic theologians after his conversion; Orestes Brownson repeatedly claimed that Newman’s views were heretical; When Newman tried to get a favorable hearing from Giovanni Perrone by presenting him with a list of developments that could not be accounted for under the traditional theory (the validity of heretical baptism, the canon of Scripture, the sinlessness of the virgin Mary, the doctrine of indulgences, eucharistic sacrifice, and others), Perrone responded: “All these the Church has always held and professed.” (Chadwick, 184).  Of course, Perrone was mistaken, but he was correct in his assumption that he was affirming the “older tradition.”

Note also that Newman’s theory was necessitated by recognition of facts that were not problems for Reformed Catholics. Jewel had argued the Church of England was truly Catholic while Rome was not, on the basis of continuity between the Church of the earliest centuries and Anglicanism. The Church of England maintained the primacy of Scripture; the Rule of Faith, real presence (but not transubstantiation); episcopacy (but not papacy)–all doctrines of the patristic Catholic Church of the first several centuries. Newman’s theory was a concession to the historical scholarship of Reformed Catholics like Jewel. Jewel was correct that the papacy, the Marian dogmas, and transubstantiation did not exist in the patristic church; they were later additions after all. What Newman’s theory amounted to was an apologetic to justify Roman Catholicism while granting a key concession Tridentine Catholicis had always denied—that the Protestants were right about the history of the distinctively Roman dogmas in the Church.

So the real question is not whether one accepts the HC of the “older traditions” on doctrinal development or the HC of Protestantism. There is no “older [Roman Catholic] tradition” on doctrinal development. Modern historical scholarship has demonstrated that the post-Tridentine position about church tradition (the genuinely “older [Roman Catholic] position”) is untenable. Rather, the question is whether, given that historical study has demonstrated that such doctrines as papal infallibility, the marian dogmas, or transubstantiation, were not part of the original faith of the Catholic Church, Newman’s new theory of doctrinal development can save Roman Catholic claims by accounting for the changes which were previously denied, but can no longer be doubted, in such a manner as to preserve a continuity of identity, or, rather, whether such developments are aberrations—departures from the historic catholic identity of the church.

So the choice is not between what Michael Liccione calls the Hermeneutical Circle of Protestantism and the Hermeneutical Circle of the “older traditions.” Rather, as I have said elsewhere, the choice is between Newman and Karl Barth on how to interpret the Council of Nicea.

More will follow later, if and when I have time.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post.

    I enjoyed From Bossuet to Newman. The question with which Chadwick concludes is the question those in the train of Newman must answer, viz. how do developments like the papacy not amount to additional revelation? how do they belong to the deposit of faith?

    Partly in response to this difficulty Roman Catholic theology over the past century and a half has undergone sweeping changes in its notions concerning revelation. Traditional belief gets interpreted through the lens of the Spirit’s guidance in the present. As a result, the Church (after the fact of development) recognizes the continuity between the fruits of her Spirit-led maturation in faith and the original teaching passed down from the apostles.

    This modification allows more flexibility for Newman’s theory to operate. Ian Ker, for example, uses a drama analogy to argue that development does not imply new revelation.

    Notably, Chadwick’s book prompted an article in the Journal of Theological Studies (9 [1958], 324-335) which published for the first time an 1868 letter by Newman. At the end of this Newman wrote the following:

    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.

    This I suppose makes for a point of departure from which to trace modern RC ideas about revelation and development. But for now time constrains me to be a spectator, eager to see where your conversation with Dr Liccione goes.

    Pax Christi,


    PS At the Conscious Faith/FQI blog we just went through a discussion (unfortunately somewhat heated) of Trent and the formal cause of justification. If you have a chance, your input on the topic would be welcome and much appreciated.

    Comment by Iohannes — April 21, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  2. Thanks a lot for this post. I’m anxious to read what you have to say on the choice between Newman and Barth. I consider both of these men to be the principal figures in moving, respectively, Catholicism and Protestantism away from a crass evidentialism and toward greater epistemic surety. Both men located the authority of God in an event of revelation made present to the subjective consciousness. For Newman, it was the aesthetic and moral fittingness of the Catholic faith, known by the Holy Spirit’s renewal of the mind, yielding certitude; for Barth, it was the absolute holiness and supremacy of God’s authority in Christ, known by the Holy Spirit’s renewal of the mind, yielding certitude. Both men were accused, by their more traditional counterparts, of being subjectivists and Kantians — which is not an entirely unfounded claim.

    Comment by Kevin Davis — April 21, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  3. Excellent post, professor. This is without question a powerful argument against Rome. I wonder, though, haven’t Protestants had to deal with the same challenges of modern historical criticism. For example, with regard to the creation of the world. Hasn’t modern scholarship and science, despite the traditional understanding of the Church, forces Protestants to
    change their mind” on this issue? I’ve asked this of Protestants before and basically I got a “Roman Catholic answer,” namely, “Well, that wasn’t a part of the deposit of Faith.”

    Comment by kepha — April 21, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  4. I am not altogether certain about this, but I have read about an important seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar, named Dionysius Petavius, who showed, long before nineteenth-century historical scholarship, that many dogmas of the Catholic Church (including the Trinity) were much more unstable before their definitions by Church Councils.

    It may be interesting to explore this matter further.

    Comment by Matt — April 29, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  5. Matt,

    Petavius is an important person in this discussion. Anglican Bishop George Bull wrote a two volume work specifically to refute this work, which became a standard text for two hundred years. French Roman Catholics were so happy with this work that they honored Bull with official appreciation. It being an ecumenical age, he showed his gratitude by publishing a book on the errors of Rome.

    I owe lots of commenters responses, and I want to continue this discussion. Alas, I am in the last two weeks of the semester here, and am overwhelmed with grading papers, supervising Master’s theses, etc. I will continue the discussion in a few weeks, I hope.

    BTW, I am reading through Bull’s work right now, and while not a modern book on patristics, it is a formidable book on the history of Pre-Nicene Christology. Bull establishes that pre-Nicene fathers consistently identified Jesus as pre-existent, as Creator and not creature, as identical to the angel of the Lord in the OT, whom they also identified as God appearing in the form of a theophany, as affirming the full deity of Christ.

    Comment by William Witt — April 29, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

  6. Dr. Witt, you are not the first to note that the theory of the development of doctrine was a radical new idea for the Roman Catholic Church and that it clashed with traditional teaching.

    “The first strategic movement toward the rear was the doctrine of development, which has seriously modified the old theory of tradition. When Dr. Newman became a Roman Catholic, it was necessary for him in some way to reconcile this step with the proofs he had previously given that certain distinctive Romish doctrines were unknown to the early Church. The historical arguments he had advanced in his Anglican days were incapable of refutation even by himself. But it being hopeless to maintain that the present teaching of Roman Catholics is identical with the doctrine held in the primitive Church, he set himself to show that though not the same, it was a great deal better. This is the object of his celebrated essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine , which he published simultaneously with his submission to the Roman Church. The theory expounded in it in substance is, that Christ had but committed to His Church cetain seeds and germs of truth, destined afterwards to expand to definite forms: consequently, that our Lord did not intend that the teaching of His Church should be always the same; but ordained that it should go on continually improving under the guidance of His Holy Spirit. This theory was not altogether new. Not to speak of earlier anticipations of it, it had been maintained, not many years previously, by the German divine Mohler, in his work called Symbolik ; and this mode of defending the Roman system had been adopted in the theological lectures of Parrone, Professor in the Jesuit College in Rome. But Newman’s book had the effect of making the theory popular to an extant it had never been before, and of causing its general adoption by Romish advocates, who are now content to exchange tradition, which their predecessors had made the basis of their system, for this new foundation of development. You will now find them making shameless confession of the novelty of articles of their creed, and even taunting us Anglicans with the unprogressive character of our faith, because we are content to believe as the early Church believed, and as our Fathers believed before us…. When Dr. Newman’s book appeared, I looked with much curiosity to see whether the heads of the Church to which he was joining himself would accept the defense made by their new convert, the book having been written before he had yet joined them. For, however great the ingenuity of this defence, and whatever important elements of truth it might contain, it seemed to be plainly a complete abandonment of the old traditional theory of the advocates of Rome. The old theory was that the teaching of the Church never varied. Scripture proof of the identity of her present teaching with that of the Apostles might fail; but tradition could not fail to prove that what the Church teaches now she had also taught from the beginning…. No phrase had been more often on the lips of Roman controversialists than that which described the faith of the Church as what was held ‘everywhere, always, and by all’. Bishop Milner, in his well-known work, of which I shall have more to say in another lecture, The End of Religious Controversy , writes: ‘It is a fundamental maxim never to admit any tenet but such as is believed by all the bishops, and believed by their predecessors up to the Apostles themselves.’ ‘The constant language of the Church is nil innovetur, nil nisi quod traditum est . Such and such is the sense of Scripture, such and such is the doctrine of her predecessors, the Pastors of the Church, since the time of the Apostles.’ Dr. Wiseman said: ‘We believe that no new doctrine can be introduced into the Church, but that every doctrine which we hold has existed and been taught in it ever since the time of the Apostles, having been handed down by then to their successors.’

    George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church , 1888

    Comment by McCallester — May 7, 2009 @ 4:35 am

  7. […] 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 “Faith and Private […]

    Pingback by Non Sermoni Res — January 30, 2010 @ 5:30 am

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