Posts Tagged 'Development of Doctrine'

The Centrality of Trinitarian Doctrine

The following may be of interest to some. It can be of little doubt that the language used in the Trinitarian formulas of the 4th century is foreign to that of the New Testament. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is the example par excellence of a development of doctrine. If the doctrine of the Trinity (as we know it) was not part of the explicit teaching of the early Church, why, then, is not this doctrine open for serious debate like many other developments of doctrine?

Emil Brunner, in Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), addresses the question by making a distinction between the proclamation of the early Church (kerygma) and the subsequent theological reflection upon that proclamation. For Brunner, one of the roles of theology is to safeguard the revealed truths contained within the kerygma. Thus the principle of sola scriptura is maintained while allowing for a developement of doctrine, in that the doctrine is derived by reflection upon the earliest witness to the kerygma, the Scriptures.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word “Trinity”, but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness to the faith; it is equally certain and incontestable that the best theological tradition, with one accord, clearly points to the Trinity as its centre. However, there is a third point to be noted, namely, that the re-discovery of the New Testament message at the Reformation did not re-vitalize this particular theological doctrine; the fact is, the Reformers did not alter this fundamental dogma of the ancient Church, but rather, so to speak, “by-passed” it, than made it the subject of their own theological reflection. The statement of Melanchthon, “Mysteria divinitas rectius adoraverimus quam vestigaveriums“, is characteristic of this attitude. Calvin expressed himself in the same way; he regards the doctrine of the Trinity from the following point of view only; namely, that through its conceptions, which differ from those of the Bible, the opponent of the divinity of Christ – who is the enemy of Christian Faith – is forced to throw off his disguise, and to fight in the open, instead of concealing his hostility under a cloak of Christianity.

How are we to explain this strange situation? Here I anticipate the result of the following enquiry, and state it in the form of a thesis: The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church. Hence it does not belong to the sphere of the Church’s message, but it belongs to the sphere of theology; in this sphere it is the work of the Church to test and examine its message, in the light of the Word of God given to the Church. Certainly in this process of theological reflection the doctrine of the Trinity is central.

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And The Discussion Continues…

Well, they’re still at it. Or I should say, we’re still at it, since I’ve managed (against my better judgment) to insert myself into this discussion as well.

As I mentioned not too long ago, over at the Philosophia Perennis blog some excellent discussion has been had over the topic of the development of doctrine (DD for short). In the few comments that I put forward (both at PP and fides quaerens intellectum) I’ve been fairly insistent (annoying?) about bringing the issue of DD back to an assumption of authority. Now it seems Dr. Mike Liccione has done the same, albeit with much more intellectual acumen than I could ever muster.

It’s been noticeable in the comments made by Catholics regarding the issue of DD, not to mention in the original post by Mike, that a necessary assumption is being made that the Church can teach authoritatively and infallibly (under certain circumstances). This is simply part of the Catholic mind. I prefer to call it, joyful obedience. And that’s really what it is. Any faithfully committed Catholic can attest to this. And of course, this is not a blind faith, an ignorant faith, or mere fideism, as some Protestants have assumed.

Mike sums up the necessary assumption of authority in his concluding remarks:

What goes for orthodox christology and triadology goes a fortiori for the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to be infallible under certain conditlions. Whatever reasons might, collectively, constitute reason enough to accept that claim, they cannot themselves constitute proof for such authority, if by ‘proof’ one means a perspicuously valid deductive argument based on premises that all parties to the discussion would accept. If, contrary to fact, such proofs were available for dogmas, then in this case such a proof would retorsively obviate the need for the very authority it is meant to support. This means that, if there is some rational justification for the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to authority, it cannot, in the very nature of the case, yield a result that is intellectually compelling. It can only yield a result which can be seen, retroactively, to cohere with and illuminate the agreed-upon data, and thus supply reason enough to make an act of faith in the Catholic Magisterium—an act that would thus be one of informed faith, rather than blind faith.

Accordingly, the question whether there is reason enough to accept distinctively Catholic dogmas as de fide ultimately hinges on that of whether there is reason enough to accept the Magisterium’s claim to authority. Unless and until that question is settled, everything must remain purely a matter of opinion…

Notice what Mike says here; essentially that no argument for the Church’s claim “to teach infallibly under certain conditions” can be be proved deductively, for to do so would undermine the very authority the deductive argument would be trying to prove. In other words, why would we need authority if deductive arguments based on commonly held axioms would work? As someone flippantly (although, I think correctly) said in one of the comboxes, if this were true, why not just replace the Magisterium with a computer? Of course, the answer is because the “unpacking” of divine revelation (i.e. DD) is not linear. It’s much more dynamic and complex than that. Doctrinal development does not always derive from easily followed deductive arguments based on commonly held axioms. If this were so, theology would have been an exhausted project long ago.

Instead, in matters of faith some (at least implicit) claim to authority must be made. And both Protestants and Catholics do this. Whether it be the Holy Spirit working through the individual or the Holy Spirit working through the Church (however you define “Church”), a claim to authority is made. And this authority must of necessity have an element of infallibility (i.e. particular teachings that are considered irreformable such as the divinity of Christ). For if there is no element of infallibility, how could any Christian believe anything de fide?. It seems to me you couldn’t, and you’ve traded in your faith for a doubt. Authority is one of those theological axioms every “orthodox” Christian stands on, whether he be Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

It is for this very reason that I have long maintained that a belief in the authority of the Church to teach infallibly is foundational to Catholicism. And I assume this is why so many Protestants reject it out of hand. It’s, so to speak, the Protesters theological axiom that the Church cannot do so.

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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