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On the Development of Doctrine (part 1)

Updated: May 29, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Christ gave us teachings or Divine revelations which were deeply rich and vast, to the point that not all of it was understood at first. As a seed turns into a vast tree, so the sacred realities (ex. Mary) given to us by Christ about various things develop over time. This idea of "development" comes from Cardinal Newman, who wrote the great work, Essay on the Development of Doctrine. In it, he explores the questions of how it happens, whether it can go wrong, whether there objections to it, and finally, whether there needs to be an infallible interpreter of Revelation (to protect against corruptions of Revelation).

The idea of Christianity grows overtime with reflection, as any other idea grows and develops. Look at the idea of atheism and how it has grown into a large system of thought. Same with Christianity, which is a living organism made up of thinking men who possess profound truths.


With the amount of theologians who have reflected on, spoken about, and written on Revelation throughout the centuries, no wonder a development of understanding occurs! Newman comments that these generations of men have "investigated" Revelation "so curiously as to its capabilities, implications, and bearings," to the point that it's nearly impossible for it to remain stagnant (Essay).

The Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, said that Revelation or Tradition is within a "history which comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions, and questions that need answering." The theologian has a key role in that development, for he does “scientific investigation” into revelation, in order to understand it “more fully.”

Questions will naturally posit themselves and answers need to be thought out, for neither Scripture nor apostolic Tradition answers everything. To give a well-known example, Scripture speaks of predestination, and of free will. How do they both interact? Many theologians have come up with various ways to synthesize them, so that Catholicism now has four main theories.


Working out all those implications will naturally lead to connections over time between different aspects of the Faith, and that is called the “analogy of faith” by Congar. That analogy is the, “relationship and proportions existing between the different statements or articles that have been revealed…new statements [that are] not made explicitly in the documents of Revelation, appear possible and even necessary.”

Some examples of connections within the analogy of faith are listed by Congar. “The Lenten fast,” started to be mentioned in Church history by St. Irenaeus (2nd century), St. Jerome (4th & 5th centuries), and St. Leo (5th century). This probably was a connection made between the fact that Christ prepared for His great ministry with forty days of fasting, and the fact that Christians did not have a preparation for the greatest feast day of the year - Easter. So, Christians began fasting for about forty days.

The idea of “Prayer for the dead” was spoken about by St. John Chrysostom (4th century), would probably be a connection between the fact that God is all holy, and man still sinned after baptism, so there must be a purging of sin before Heaven. If so, then those Christians within it (Purgatory) are still members within the Body of Christ, and if members of the Body of Christ can receive prayers, then those on earth should pray for them. Such connections are “practical conclusions connected with doctrine, to determine Christian practice or the life of the Church according to the Gospel.”

A development of a doctrine can flow out of other doctrines very fluidly. For instance, if sins are forgiven when one repents and gets baptized (Acts 2:38), what happens when one sins after baptism?How are those sins dealt with? The sacrament of Confession now starts to develop.

But how does Confession work when Christ has already atoned for our sins? The distinction between eternal punishment and temporal punishment needed to be thought out. Do all sins have to be confessed, or is there a distinction between moral and venial sin? Questions such as these naturally came in the history of Christianity. It was over time that answers to them would be fleshed out and explicated. Many more distinctions could have been made, and that is what has been happening throughout the last twenty centuries.

See part 2 here.

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