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On the Development of Doctrine (part 2)

Updated: May 29, 2021

By Luke Lancaster


With an idea comes varying interpretations or doubts. Sometimes these disagreements on doctrine will lead to heresies, and such heresies will cause debate, but ultimately, the truth will come out. This is seen particularly when the Church definitively speaks (Ex. Council of Nicaea). The truth will always generally come out more refined after such a debate, with possibly a new interpretation of Scripture emerging as well.

This refining can be seen through the contradictory teachings by Christian leaders. We already saw the issue of Pelagius arguing with Augustine, but that definitely was not the first or last time disagreement occurred. Consider how some Christians said that Mary never sinned (ex. Augustine), while other Christians implied that she did (ex. Chrysostom).

Is this disagreement a cause for concern? Newman says it is not, for such differences within “individual writers are consistent with, or rather are involved in the very idea of doctrinal development, and consequently are no real objection to it.” Doctrines are argued back and forth constantly before they are defined.

For instance, Newman points out, “The language of the Antenicene Fathers, on the subject of our Lord’s Divinity, may be far more easily accommodated to the Arian hypothesis than can the language of the Postnicene.” Arianism, then, could have been a form of orthodoxy before the Council of Nicaea. For the Ante-Nicene (before 325AD) Fathers speak of “Three” yet do not speak about the Trinity being a mystery, “that the Three are One, that They are coequal, coeternal, all increate, all omnipotent, all incomprehensible.”

If their writings solely are looked at, then St. Justin “arianizes,” Tertullian is “heterodox on the doctrine of our Lord’s divinity,” Origen is “suspected,” and Eusebius is a Semi-Arian, to name a few. St. Justin spoke about “the Son as subservient to the Father in the creation of the world” for the Son was the one who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, or appearing as a “minister and Angel.”

There are a few Ante-Nicene figures whose writings are “exact and systematic enough to remind us of the Athanasian Creed [325AD],” and those are Athenagoras, St. Clement, Tertullian, “and the two SS.” So there could be “bishops against bishops in Church history, Fathers against Fathers, Fathers against themselves” without there being any reason for concern. That is a natural occurrence in the development of ideas.

The issue of silence

Many of the modern developed doctrines of the Catholic Church did not have much support explicit in the early centuries of the Church, so there is much silence by the Church Fathers. Should that be a concern as well? Does that mean that the doctrines were inventions, or does that indicate that the doctrines followed the path they were supposed to take regarding development?

Newman noted that this problem of silence is just a common problem of history, for instance, “Seneca, Pliny the elder, and Plutarch are altogether silent about Christianity; and perhaps Epictetus also, and the Emperor Marcus.” If silence were an issue, then maybe Christianity did not exist during the first and second centuries! That would mean that all the other sources speaking about Christianity were false.

Even Scripture has this problem, for “there is no direct intimation all through Scripture that the Serpent mentioned in the temptation of Eve was the evil spirit, till we come to the vision of the Woman and Child, and their adversary, the Dragon.” The Scriptures were silent on that issue for thousands of years, only identifying the Serpent during the Revelation of St. John in around 100AD!

What needs to be remembered is that there can be varying reasons why certain events are not spoken about. Newman says, “Silence may arise from the very notoriety of the facts in questions…Or it may proceed from fear or disgust, as on the arrival of unwelcome news; or from indignation, or hatred, or contempt, or perplexity, as Josephus is silent about Christianity.” Maybe documents were lost, such as the example with the shorter Epistles of St. Ignatius.

The Reformers and their followers at first did not believe in the Mass or the “sacramental virtue of Ecclesiastical Unity,” saying that the earliest Christians did not hold to those teachings. Yet, now those objectors have been put to rest with the finding of the Epistles of St. Ignatius.

Sometimes the reason there is silence is because of the environment not being suitable. For, “Christians were not likely to entertain the question of the abstract allowableness of images in the Catholic ritual, with the actual superstitions and immoralities of paganism before their eyes.” That would have to be a later development when paganism was not so rampant around them that the uneasiness with images would be forgotten.

Infallible protector of Revelation

All of these examples of development and the objections which come to it point to the need of an infallible guide, the Church. Imagine trying to sort all of this out without one. No Council of Nicaea to decide which Church Father to follow regarding the deity of Jesus Christ. There needs to be an authority who can speak for God when “faced with competing interpretations of divine revelation.” Otherwise, many issues would result. Newman put it well,

"If things are left to themselves, every individual will have his own view of them, and take his own course; that two or three will agree today to part company tomorrow; that Scripture will be read in contrary ways…that philosophy, taste, prejudice, passion, party, caprice will find no common measure, unless there be some supreme power to control the mind and to compel agreement."

That is what occurs within Protestantism. Even though the notion of infallibility would not have been proclaimed at first in the early Church, it would have been a hidden implication that became clear over time.

Do doctrines always follow the correct path of development, or could there be corruptions? That is where the Church comes in, who decides what is true development of teaching from Christ or not. How do the people of God, “defend the reasonableness of the Church’s determinations” though?

Newman gives seven guidelines to use when measuring any particular teaching. They are, as Dr. Matthew Levering summarized, “preservation of type, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, logical sequence, anticipation of its future, conservative action upon its past, and chronic vigor.” What was originally given to the Church by Christ and the apostles should develop over time in a straight line.


There are many, many facets to development of doctrine. The fact is, every idea undergoes development, for every idea has certain implications not seen originally. Different events bring out different aspects of the idea; it is similar to the example of a family. Newman writes,

“Relatives often live together in happy ignorance of their respective rights and properties, till a father or a husband dies; and then they find themselves against their will in separate interests, and on divergent courses, and dare not more without legal advisers.”


John Henry Newman. Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Garden City: Image Books, 1960.

John Noonan. The Church That Can and Cannot Change. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Matthew Levering. Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.

Thomas Scheck. Origen and the History of Justification. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008

The Holy Bible RSV - CE. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.

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