A Little More on the Development of Doctrine

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.