Scripture, Authority, and the Development of Doctrine

The small world of blogs that I visit regularly has been abuzz with the topic of authority and the proper understanding of the development of doctrine. It all started with C. Michael Patton over at his popular blog, Parchment and Pen. In his post entitled, Why I Believe That Our Canon is Fallible… And Am Comfortable With It, Patton (following R.C. Sproul) argues that while Scripture is infallible, the list of books which make up the canon is fallible. In other words, because there is no infallible human authority (according to Protestants) to determine which books should make the canon, we have “fallible cannon of infallible books”. In need not be said, that not all Protestants hold to this view as enunciated by Patton and Sproul.

However, this is all very confusing to a Catholic, so Fr. Alvin Kimel of Pontifications and Dr. Mike Liccione of Philosophia Perennis made all the necessary objections based on the meaning authority and interpretation, not to mention epistemology. This debate on sola scriptura leads quite nicely into the issue of authority and the development of doctrine. The debate of the canon, the nature of authority, and the development of doctrine flowing from that authority has even spilled over to the blogs, fides quaerens intellectum and After Existentialism, Light. It’s all been very interesting to read, but one gets the feeling this topic has been much debated through the years in the blogosphere. Overall, this has been a good discussion, and it should be noted that debates like this can (and often do) lead to a greater understanding between Protestants and Catholics, even if we still disagree. To summarize G.K. Chesterton, the purpose of debate is to come to the truth. We debate in order to learn and obtain knowledge, not to win an argument.

The issue of the development of doctrine also dovetails into the issue of reform in the Church. What does true reform look like anyway? Avery Cardinal Dulles takes up this issue in his Spring 2003 Laurence J. McGinley lecture given at Fordham University. In this lecture I think he nicely summarizes some of the points the Catholic participants in the aforementioned debate have been trying to make.

Quoted from Church and Society (Fordham University Press 2008):

Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there. Unlike development, it implies that something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an idea already accepted.

Reform may be either restorative or progressive. Restorative reform seeks to reactualize a better past or a past that is idealized. Progressive reform aims to move ahead toward an ideal or utopian future. Either style can run to excess. Restorative reform tends toward traditionalism; progressive reform, toward modernism. But neither direction can be ruled out. Sometimes the past needs to be repristinated; at other times, it may need to be transcended.

In any discussion of reform, two opposite errors are to be avoided. The first, is to assume that because the Church is divinely instituted, it never needs to be reformed. This position is erroneous because it fails to attend to the human element. Since all the members of the Church, including the pope and the bishops, are limited in virtue and ability, they may fail to live up to the principles of the faith itself. When guilty of negligence, timidity, or misjudgment, they may need to be corrected, as Paul, for instance, corrected Peter (Gal 2:11).

The second error would be to assail or undermine the essentials of Catholic Christianity. This would not be reform but dissolution. Paul rebuked the Galatians for turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6). The Catholic Church is unconditionally bound to her Scriptures, her creeds, her dogmas, and her divinely instituted hierarchical office and sacramental worship. To propose that the Church should reject the divinity of Christ, or retract the dogma of papal infallibility, or convert herself into a religious democracy, as some have done in the name of reform, is to misunderstand both the nature of Catholicism and the nature of reform.

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