Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Devopment of Doctrine East and West

Update. In deference to my Orthodox readers, whom I greatly respect and whose good wishes I earnestly seek, I have changed my characterization of Fr. Reardon's position. My initial description was written in haste and with insufficient sensitivity. Thanks to reader Rob Grano for bringing this matter to my attention.
There's an interesting and important post up at Dr. Mike Liccione's Sacramentum Vitae. Mike quotes from an essay by Fr. Patrick Reardon, editor of Touchstone (a very nice journal, by the way), in which the bizarre views of Dan Brown (of The DaVinci Code fame, for those who have already forgotten him, now that his 15 minutes are over) are replaced by views about doctrinal stasis within Christianity that I have trouble making any sense of. As something of a fan of Blessed John Henry Newman I am, of course, somewhat biased in my affection for his views about the development of doctrine, but even if I had never heard of Newman the scholar in me would find it wildly implausible that Ecumenical Councils really do nothing at all other than to say out loud what everybody has always been thinking.

In fact, the Church has always been marked by internal disputes over praxis and belief, starting with the Council of Jerusalem. The kind of unity imagined by Fr. Reardon has never existed, and re-describing teachings on the Trinity as nothing more than condemnations of heretics will not make the disputes go away.

As Aristotle was fond of remarking, however, there is often a grain of truth even in a false opinion, or, as Aristotle preferred to put it (perhaps more diplomatically), Fr. Reardon is in one sense right, but in another sense he is not right. Clearly he is at least partly right in this, for example:
It is important to observe that the use of the word homoousios did not “clarify” anything about God. It added no new light or intelligibility to what was already revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is not to throw further light on what is, after all, the fullness of revealed truth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is, rather, to confound heretics. Dogma serves to “focus” revelation in the sense of declaring what is “not in line” with revelation. Of itself, however, a dogma adds nothing new. Hence, it is wrong to imagine that Nicaea’s declaration clarified revealed truth. It did not. Nicaea told us absolutely nothing beyond what the Apostles had declared. Indeed, the Nicene Fathers went to some lengths to insist on this point.
This is just a statement of what I have called the Principle of Non-ampliative Inference. But he is clearly wrong if he thinks that all of this adds up to a proof that doctrine itself does not develop over time in any sense. The Greek term, homoousios, is all that one need point at to prove him wrong: the word is a coinage of the Church, a word invented for precisely the reason that Fr. Reardon says it cannot serve, to clarify what it means to say that the Father and the Son are co-eternal. The only way in which any sensible metaphysical scheme could make sense of such a remark would be if the two things, Father and Son, have the same essential nature, the same ousia, in Greek. To speak in terms of properties such as co-eternality, or divine filiation, or what have you, is one thing; to speak in terms of ousia is quite clearly something else, although, as Fr. Reardon is right to say, non-ampliative. It is not something new or different from what had always been believed, but it adds a nuance that was not present before--it is a development of the doctrine. Sometimes one gets the impression that writers such as Fr. Reardon would not understand the claim that there is a real difference in meaning between the expressions "the morning star" and "the evening star"--one begins to imagine them saying things like "But both expressions refer to the same thing! They don't say anything different at all!"

And so it goes. Mike does a nice job of pointing out the difficulties with the anti-doctrinal-development position.


Rob Grano said...

Scott -- allow me to repeat what something I said on Mike's site. Two things cloud the issue, IMO. One is the tendency of some Orthodox to say "We don't believe in development of doctrine!" when we actually do, albeit not necessarily in the way the RC church does. The other side is the tendency of RCs to dogmatize Newman's model and to view it as the only possible approach to the issue. As in so many other areas, there's a sense in which we're talking past each other. If you get a chance, read Andrew Louth's essay on this subject in the recent festschrift for Jaroslav Pelikan called "Orthodoxy & Western Culture." Louth is saying the same thing Fr. Reardon is, except that he has 15 pages to flesh it out, and thus is able to address in more depth some of the issues that cloud this discussion.

Fr. Reardon is not 'anti-doctrinal development,' and his piece goes nowhere near saying that. Read it carefully, as he writes carefully. Also, to say that his views on this are as "equally bizarre" as Dan Brown's is both insulting and ridiculous.

Scott Carson said...


Thank you very much for your comment!

I suspect that you are quite right when you say that many Orthodox are perfectly happy to say that doctrine develops in some sense. Probably what is at issue is not so much whether, but how, development takes place. I'm not familiar with Louth's essay, but I do have a copy of that festshcrift in my office, so I guess it's time for me to have a look. You're not the first to recommend it to me!

I'm not altogether sure what you mean when you say that RCs have a tendency to dogmatize Newman's model. When you write that, do you really mean to suggest that this is something done by all, or most, RCs, or do you only mean that, of the RCs that you have read/talked to on this issue, most of them strike you as treating Newman's views as some kind of official teaching of the Magisterium? I myself don't know anybody in that category--all of the RCs that I have read/talked to regard Newman's view, like the views of Augustine, or Aquinas, or any other theologian, as one voice among many. Indeed, with regard to Newman in particular my experience has been that folks tend not to take him very seriously at all, let alone as some kind of bellwether.

Having said that, my sense of things on the RC side generally is that there is a tendency to take certain theologians more seriously than others, sure (one thinks almost immediately of Aquinas in this regard, or, in some circles, Balthasar), but that it takes more than being a Newman or an Augustine for one's views to be taken as sure and certain answers to the world's problems. But I confess that I don't really know what you're getting at, so I probably shouldn't speculate this way.

Mike L said...

Thanks, Scott. And Rob, I'll have to get hold of that book. I see Orthodox bloggers refer to Louth over and over again.

Newman's particular theory of DD has not been and cannot be dogmatized, for it is not an article of faith but rather a way of explaining how such articles come to be formulated and understood. The closest magisterial endorsement of DD is this, from Vatican II's Dei Verbum:

"This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her."


Scott Carson said...

The following comment is from Rob Grano, who is having trouble posting here:

Thanks for your revision of your post. I'm having trouble posting on your blog for some reason and figured I'd just email you my response which you can post yourself if you choose to.

Basically, what I mean is pretty much what the Ochlophobist says over on Mike's blog, that Newmanian DD has "entered into the mind of the RC magisterium" if not as an actual dogma or official teaching, then as a overarching theory which is unofficially held to be true and is seldom challenged.
I think that this is true even among some RCs that have never even read Newman on this issue.

Scott Carson said...


It's probably true that some Catholics, just as some Orthodox, form opinions about what is, and what is not, settled doctrine, teachings of the Magisterium, things that must be believed de fide, etc. It may be that there's little to be done about such beliefs, other than to be as clear as possible in our own discussions.

Scott Carson said...

Here's another comment from someone who could not post to this blog! This is from Robert Hart:

I have a blogger account myself, but your comment page is not letting this go through- which means it is not working right.

Dr. Carson:

I am curious as to what your take on the Council of Jerusalem is. In my study of the Book of Acts (and I have written about this a few times), it is clear that the Council of Jerusalem was the proto-type of the Ecumenical Councils. Even though it was so early, it defended the tradition starting with Saint Peter and his authoritative doctrinal pronouncement after going to see Cornelius, and that became the teaching of the apostles from that point on; that the Gentiles had been "granted repentance unto life," and could be baptized into the Church without cicumcision. The Judaizers (like all heretics after them) introduced a new teaching without apostolic authority, caused problems for believers, and forced the first Council to be called.

This is important, because all the innovators of modern churches are trying to tell us that the apostles themselves had not worked out the problem of how to receive the Gentiles until the Council, and they conclude from this wrong interpretation that the Church has not yet worked out such things as "same sex relations" or women's "ordination." This problem may only make headway among liberal Anglicans, and Old Catholics of Utrecht; but the movement is a problem for Roman Catholics too, because many of them are questioning the teaching that has been handed down from the beginning on many issues.

My interpretation of the Council of Jerusalem is really a simple straightforward reading of the text, drawing out the meaning of chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, and reading chapter 15 in that light. It may not be useful for people who want to follow Newman, but it sure does give a lot of recognition to the teaching authority of Saint Peter.

Jack said...


I guess I am one of those incorrigible people who do not see a real difference in meaning between the phrases "I AM the Resurrection" and "homoousia with the Father." It looks to me as if homoousia serves to secure St. Ignatius's apostolic belief in St. Paul's "Lord" who is "Christ our God." Am I missing something here or are we making an unnecessary mountain out of a molehill?

Perhaps Grano is right and we are just speaking past each other.
Maybe you could tell us which doctrinal goods you are trying to secure with a theory of development and we could start from there?

Seeking more clarity.

P.S. I think the security on your comments is too tight.