Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Musings on Doctrinal Development

But first...

Rather than pretend that the knowledge I impart is from a genuine study of the subject I am imparting knowledge about, I'd much rather blog about my musings on the given subject. I'd like to do this mostly because it is more honest in that I'm not simply regurgitating what I found elsewhere, though re-purposing that information is inevitable to discuss any subject.

Everything that I write about could be credited to all of the historians, theologians, philosophers, etc. that I stand on to help me develop my thinking. How else do we learn?

So the primary purpose of this blog is to present it to my readers as a genuine reflection on the given subject  "according to Daniel" and to hopefully provide it in an accessible manner so that the subject is easily understood.

The secondary purpose of this blog is to fulfill my burning desire to write and learn. Having a blog allows me to have conversations about the things I like to have conversations about when "real life" doesn't present those opportunities. I've found that most people simply do not like talking theology, philosophy, history, and like subjects. This blog fills the gap between those occasions where I do find myself in the presence of someone who is intellectually curious and the very long periods of time where I don't encounter those people.

That being said, indulge with me for a moment about a subject I am most unqualified to muse about...

Doctrinal Development

One of the most striking features of Catholicism is their definition of doctrine compared to the rest of the worlds religions. What we find in Catholicism is a "code" with walls and all. Defining what we believe is essential in maintaining what we believe as time goes on and cultures change.

 If there ever was an institutional mainstay in society, the Catholic church is it. This is evident when we consider a controversial topic such as that of contraception. The Catholic church has not changed her position on the subject for 2,000 years and despite getting opposition from non-Catholic Christians and secularists alike, they still won't change their position. 

Interestingly enough, one of the accusations Catholics receive from Protestants about doctrine in general is how certain doctrines developed over time. If I held the "bible alone as the sole rule of faith" presupposition, then I'd probably be suspicious of Catholicism as well. In fact, I was when I was a Protestant, despite having grown up in the Catholic church. But once that presupposition gets called into question, the dominoes fall in order and you start to see why Catholicism makes more sense. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman is the person to look to when it comes to the subject of doctrinal development and you can find a lot of his work online regarding it. For now, all I want to do is point out one particular thought of his regarding development.

In order for anything to "develop" it first needs to be living. I think that makes a lot of sense when thinking about things in nature or even abstract laws or constitutions. From this perspective, one can see that development is not necessarily a bad thing. So the question isn't about whether it is good for something to develop or not, but rather whether something has developed genuinely or fraudulently.

In other words, is this development corrupt or does it derive from its original source? Catholics believe in Sacred Tradition, which is the deposit of faith handed down from the Apostles. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:

"Holy Scripture is therefore not the only theological source of the Revelation made by God to His Church. Side by side with Scripture there is tradition, side by side with the written revelation there is the oral revelation."

That oral revelation combined with the written revelation work hand in hand to make up the sacred deposit of faith. With oral revelation, in order for it to be living, it needs to be handed down from its source, the same way written revelation is handed down. This is where the Living Magisterium of the Church comes in. That is just a fancy way of saying the "teaching authority" of the Church. These teachers are legitimate successors to the Apostles who handed down the deposit of faith to men they chose to be their successors.

Whether we can prove that these teachers, the successors of the Apostles, are truly successors can be addressed in another post. But suffice it to say that there is no other plausible contender for such a position in light of history. It is virtually undeniable.

Now, this is the context in which we can now look at the essence of doctrinal development. It must be understood that the deposit of faith does not comprise of dusty books from the ancient world, but is "living and active" being that it is the Word of God (Heb. 4:12). And as I have mentioned before, anything that develops is assumed to be living.

Now, many non-Catholic Christians take it for granted that they also are a part of a tradition whether they like it or not. Even if you're part of a non-denominational church, there is an inherent connection to some other tradition that ultimately has its origins in the Reformation. Whether these Protestant traditions develop is evident by their various characteristics. For example, evangelical fundamentalism in America looks nothing like the Lutheran churches, though they essentially have their origins in the Reformation. Evangelicalism is largely the fruit of the seed planted during the "Great Awakening" in the 19th century and Lutheranism is closer to what was originally planted during the Reformation.

All of this was a round about way of pointing out that regardless of whether or not you think you're simply a "bible Christian," you're part of a larger theological tradition that has developed, evolved, and grown into something different than what it once was.

This brings me to my thoughts on Primivitism, which in and of itself has many forms within Christendom. Primivistism is the idea that the Church became corrupted at a certain point after the period of the Apostles and the primary goal of Christians should be to restore "pure Christianity." In its extreme form, you get Mormonism. It its more docile form, you get different types of Protestantism.

Protestants believe that the purest form of the deposit of faith from the Apostles is found in the New Testament, not Tradition. Ever since the Reformers planted this seed into peoples minds, protestant Christianity mutated and multiplied exponentially. This was mostly because of the invention of the printing press which essentially allowed more people access to Sacred Scripture.

When it was established in peoples minds that there wasn't a need for a teaching authority and that they now have the purest form of the deposit of faith in their hands, they believed they could legitimately start their own church according to their interpretation of the written word of God.

What Protestants take for granted is their own assumption that the Church was ever corrupted, but it's this view that the Church did become corrupt that drives their suspicious of doctrinal developments in Catholicism.

Going back to what I said earlier, the question isn't whether development is bad, but whether its corrupt or legitimate. Protestants essentially say that most Catholic doctrines are corrupt and they do so on the basis that certain doctrines (such as Marian doctrines) are "un-biblical."

So now we arrive at a point in the discussion that can go either of two ways. We could take the micro-level view and pick each doctrine apart and see whether or not it developed, or we could look at the macro-level and see whether doctrinal development makes any sense in the first place. I'd rather take the macro-level view.

Once we establish that doctrinal development makes sense, then we can see why Catholicism is the best possible option for anyone wanting to experience full Christianity.

The Trinity

There is perhaps no better example of doctrinal development than the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Holy Scripture does not contain any explicit formula for the doctrine of the Trinity and as such has been the source of many heresies.

We can access this concept via philosophy and define it from there, but none of these definitions are found in Scripture, at least explicitly. What the Church received regarding the Trinity contained in it the purest form of its truth, which is that God is one, yet is three distinct persons. There is a certain potentiality that exists in this doctrine that allows itself to be worked on while maintaining its most basic truth, namely that God is a Trinity of Persons - Father, Son, Holy Spirit. 

But how we grow to understand the trinity, though it may seem to have foreign language in its definition when compared to what was originally said about it, is something that cannot help but grow. One can look a car they look and find it very pleasing on the outside and they understand it to an extent. They know what it looks like. But that is all together different than knowing how it drives and once you do know how it drives, you've grown in your understanding of that vehicle. And in understanding how it drives, you don't lose what you previously knew about the vehicle, but you gain more knowledge. 

The purpose of me giving you that measly analogy is simply to point out that one can grow in their knowledge of something that is complete, but at various points not know it completely. The Trinity seems to have that characteristic, as do many other doctrines. We've grown in our understanding of how it would work using our reason and thus can define it more clearly. Defining it more clearly and explicitly only helps us to avoid falling into heresy by not believing what was divinely revealed to us. When we see it from that perspective, doctrinal development is a very good thing.

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