William Webster’s Misunderstanding of Development of Doctrine

(with particular reference to the papacy, Vatican I, Pope Leo XIII, St. Vincent of Lerins, and Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman)


Photograph Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845-1896) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




The following is a direct reply to Protestant polemicist William Webster’s article: The Repudiation of the Doctrine of Development as it Relates to the Papacy by Vatican I and Pope Leo XIII. His article was largely in response to certain assertions in Steve Ray’s book Upon This Rock. I break up his paragraphs in order to create a more readable back-and-forth dialogue (as is my custom), but readers can easily link to Mr. Webster’s original to check for context, if that is desired. Webster’s words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Ray of Light Concerning Papal Development


One of the claims being made by present day Roman Catholic apologists is that, as an institution, the papacy was something that developed over time.

As indeed every other doctrine held by Catholics and Protestants has, whether in understanding and/or in application.

In his book, Upon This Rock, Steve Ray represents this position. He uses the metaphor of the acorn and the oak. In critiquing my book, The Matthew 16 Controversy, Peter and the Rock, Ray states:

Webster’s section on St. Cyprian also demonstrates his unwillingness to represent fairly the process and necessity of doctrinal development within the Church. As we have demonstrated earlier in this book: the oak tree has grown and looks perceptibly different from the fragile sprout that cracked the original acorn, yet the organic essence and identity remain the same. Do the words of the very first Christians contain the full-blown understanding of the Papacy as expressed in Vatican I? No, they do not, as Webster correctly observes. (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999, p. 184).

My good friend Steve Ray (we have known each other since 1983 — many of those years as Protestant evangelicals) is exactly right, and presently I endeavor to show why he is, and why William Webster is wrong, by means of many different avenues of historical and theological arguments and analogies.

Now, there is an implicit admission in these statements. Steve Ray is admitting to the fact that the papacy was not there from the very beginning. It was subject to a process of development and growth over time. This is a simple historical fact recognized by historians of nearly every persuasion.

Indeed, all the elements which flow from the essential aspects of the papacy took time to develop fully. Thus the papacy as we know it today (i.e., post-Vatican I, when papal infallibility was defined) was not present “full-blown” in the first century. This should neither surprise nor scandalize Catholics, as if it were a “difficulty.” The essence of the papacy has been there all along, and that is precisely what Catholic apologists and any others who understand the true nature of Newmanian, Vincentian development of doctrine refer to, when they speak of doctrines having been “present from the beginning,” or as “part of the apostolic deposit passed on from Jesus to the Apostles.” Nor is this at all contrary to the teaching of the First Vatican Council or Leo XIII, as I will demonstrate. Mr. Webster simply has no case.

The essence of the papacy is Petrine primacy and divinely-granted jurisdiction over the Church universal. I have recounted many biblical and historical arguments in this regard in the following paper: 50 NT Proofs for Petrine Primacy & the Papacy. Since my analysis in that paper is entirely grounded in the Bible (the sole formal principle of authority for Mr. Webster – assuming he espouses sola Scriptura), therefore the only development these essential, presuppositional aspects of the papacy have undergone – in a remote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek sense – would be the development entailed in the process of determining the canon of the New Testament.

But I find it interesting that Mr. Webster cuts out the second half of Steve Ray’s paragraph, which he cites. I believe that the reader will be able to understand why:

But then, neither do the words of the first Christians present the fully developed understanding of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ (or the canon of the New Testament, for that matter) as expounded and practiced by later generations of the Church. One must be careful not to read too much into the early centuries — but one must also be careful not to ignore the obvious doctrinal substance contained and practiced by our forebears, which was simply developed and implemented as the need arose throughout subsequent centuries. (Ray, ibid., p. 184; emphasis added)

This shows that Mr. Webster’s reasoning would also apply to doctrines he himself also holds (as indeed Newman argued in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), therefore causing his case to more or less collapse, thus it was better that this was not revealed in a paper such as his present one – it makes for too much extra work, and we are all very busy . . .

Vatican I and Authoritative Biblical Interpretation


The problem for Roman Catholics is not whether there was development. The problem lies in the fact that Vatican I says there was no development.

Of course the Council claims no such thing. It asserts that the papacy was present from the beginning, and Mr. Webster falsely assumes that therefore the papacy as understood and practiced post-1870 is being referred to as having been present all along (i.e., the “oak tree” rather than the “acorn”). It is easy to “win” an argument with a straw man of one’s own making (whether it is intentional or not).

In other words there was no acorn. It was a full blown oak from the very beginning and was therefore the practice of the Church from the very beginnning.

Again, this is a gratuitous and false assumption. Such a thing is never stated by Vatican I. And what is stated is wrongly interpreted by Mr. Webster, as I will demonstrate in due course. It so happens that I have previously “anticipated” Mr. Webster’s argument here (in exchanges with others) and have — I believe — (by means of Newman himself) satisfactorily “answered” his contentions already, in a paper: “The Development of the Papacy (Newman).

Vatican I reaffirmed the decree of the Council of Trent on the Unanimous Consent of the Fathers which has to do specifically with the interpretation of Scripture. It states that it is unlawful to interpret Scripture in any way contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

I assume Mr. Webster makes reference to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter II, “Of Revelation” (ending):

Now since the decree on the interpretation of Holy Scripture, profitably made by the Council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which holy Mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

This passage does not — strictly speaking — deal with mandatory interpretations of particular Scripture verses. The Church — in this instance, as always — is much more concerned with true doctrines, as opposed to absolute requirements of belief with regard to any given biblical passage. That’s why the Council speaks of “the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture” (i.e., as a whole; as a set of doctrinal beliefs, or the crystallization of Holy Tradition), rather than of “the true meaning and interpretation of every individual passage of Holy Scripture.” The Church would, therefore, contend that Holy Scripture teaches the doctrine of the papacy, and that anyone who would deny that is in the wrong, and is opposed to the “unanimous consent” of the Fathers.

Mr. Webster, therefore (inadvertently, I assume) sets up false premises, upon which he bases his argument, which he apparently considers compelling and clear-cut. It rests upon a supposed conciliar requirement to interpret individual biblical passages in the way it itself interprets them, and an alleged claim that all the Fathers indeed interpreted them in this fashion. But these demands and claims simply do not occur in the Council’s decrees. Like many non-Catholic controversialists, Mr. Webster falls prey to the temptation of attributing to the Catholic Church an objectionable and excessive “dogmatism” which goes beyond what the Church claims for itself.

Vatican I then proceeds to set forth its teachings on papal primacy and infallibility with the interpretation of Matthew 16:18, John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:32 as the basis for its teachings.

So far, Mr. Webster is correct. Like any good Protestant, the Catholic Church seeks to offer biblical rationale for its beliefs.

And then it states that the interpretations that it gives and the conclusions it draws from these interpretations, in terms of the practice of the Church, has been that which has ever been taught in the Church and practiced by it.

In terms of the essence of the papacy, and the kernels contained in these passages, yes. But as we will shortly see, Mr. Webster falsely charges that the Church is making an untrue claim about historical exegesis – a contention which I cannot find in the texts he cites (perhaps I missed it, and Mr. Webster can point this out to me).

Here is what Vatican I says:

Chapter I: Of the Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in blessed Peter.

We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord. For it was to Simon alone, to whom he had already said: “Thou shalt be called Cephas,” that the Lord after the confession made by him, saying: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” addressed these solemn words: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, because flesh and blood have not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” And it was upon Simon alone that Jesus after his resurrection bestowed the jurisdiction of chief pastor and ruler over all his fold in the words: “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in his Church, deny that Peter in his single person, preferably to all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction; or of those who assert that the same primacy was not bestowed immediately and directly upon blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through the Church on Peter as her minister.

If any one, therefore, shall say that blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of all the Apostles and the visible Head of the whole Church militant; or that the same directly and immediately received from the same our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honor only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema.

(Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [New York: Harper, 1877], Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, Ch. 4, pp. 266-71).

[remainder of lengthy citation from Vatican I deleted — the reader may read it on the link provided on top]

Notice here that Vatican I states that its interpretation of Matthew 16 and John 21 has been the interpretation that has ever been understood in the Church. That is, from them very beginning.

If by this, Mr. Webster is implying that the Council claimed all the Fathers interpreted these particular passages in the same fashion, it simply did not do so. A crucial distinction must be made at this point. The Council (and Catholic apologists today) can and may use various biblical texts in order to support some particular Catholic doctrine. Vatican I, then, is in effect arguing:

“These are some of the biblical reasons why we accept these beliefs (about the papacy), beliefs which have always been held (in their essence – with development over time) by the Church.”

Note that this is quite different (vastly different, in terms of logic) from arguing the following, which — if I am not mistaken — Mr. Webster falsely claims that Vatican I is doing:

“These are some of the biblical reasons which have always been used by the Church — with the unanimous consent of the Fathers — to justify these beliefs (about the papacy), beliefs which have always been held (in their essence — with development over time) by the Church.”

In other words, the beliefs themselves and the particular biblical rationale and proof texts for those beliefs are not one and the same. Thus, even if not all Fathers accepted the interpretations of certain “papal” passages which are frequently used in Catholic apologetics today, that does not mean that they therefore rejected the doctrine of the papacy. Mr. Webster has subtly altered the sense of Vatican I and “smuggled in” notions which are not actually present in the documents themselves, in order to bolster his anti-papal case. Again, I don’t contend that he is being deliberately deceitful. The logic is sufficiently subtle to have been botched in its application, a faux pas all proponents of a particular viewpoint are prone to commit, in their zeal and passion for the ideas they hold. But now that this logical fallacy has been pointed out and exposed, Mr. Webster must honestly face it.

Furthermore, one must precisely understand what is meant by the “unanimous consent” of the Fathers. Steve Ray has written about this as well. In a nutshell, it doesn’t mean in this context (ancient Latin usage), “absolutely every.” It means “very broad / widespread consensus.”

Vatican I, Cardinal Newman, & the Papacy vs. William Webster
It further states that Peter was given a primacy of jurisdiction from the very beginning by Christ himself and that this primacy was passed on to Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome. This, it says, has been known to all ages.

Indeed, jurisdiction was present from the beginning, and recognized by the Fathers, as fully evidenced in my 50 NT Proofs for Petrine Primacy & the Papacy and in great depth in Steve Ray’s book Upon This Rock. It was present when Jesus gave to St. Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” and renamed him “Rock,” with strongly implied (and soon-exercised) ecclesiological preeminence, as shown in the many passages I detail. The successors are a matter of historical fact. Rome became the center of the Church by God’s design: Sts. Peter and Paul were martyred there, after all. American Christians have scarcely any notion of the place and function of martyrdom in the Christian life. Rome was also obviously key in terms of influencing the Roman Empire. But I digress . . .

In other words, there was no acorn. According to Vatican I, the papacy was a full blown oak from the very beginning because it was established by Christ himself.

The Council never asserts that it was a “full-blown oak from the very beginning” (because that would be clearly untrue). Nothing in the documents contradicts development of doctrine – rightly understood – in the least. The fact that the papacy was established by Christ Himself does not mean that it would initially look and operate in the same manner as it does today, after nearly 2000 years of development. Cardinal Newman writes very eloquently (as always) about this notion:

Let us see how, on the principles which I have been laying down and defending, the evidence lies for the Pope’s supremacy.

As to this doctrine the question is this, whether there was not from the first a certain element at work, or in existence, divinely sanctioned, which, for certain reasons, did not at once show itself upon the surface of ecclesiastical affairs, and of which events in the fourth century are the development; and whether the evidence of its existence and operation, which does occur in the earlier centuries, be it much or little, is not just such as ought to occur upon such an hypothesis.

. . . While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope . . .

When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops,and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . .

Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated, were it ever so certainly provided, while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined. The Creed, the Canon, the Papacy, Ecumenical Councils, all began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. And as it was natural that her monarchical power should display itself when the Empire became Christian, so was it natural also that further developments of that power should take place when that Empire fell . . .

On the whole, supposing the power to be divinely bestowed, yet in the first instance more or less dormant, a history could not be traced out more probable, more suitable to that hypothesis, than the actual course of the controversy which took place age after age upon the Papal supremacy.

It will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is: it is a theory to account for facts as they lie in the history, to account for so much being told us about the Papal authority in early times, and not more; a theory to reconcile what is and what is not recorded about it; and, which is the principal point, a theory to connect the words and acts of the Ante-nicene Church with that antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme, and that actual exemplification of it in the fourth century, which forms their presumptive interpretation. All depends on the strength of that presumption. Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it . . .

Moreover, all this must be viewed in the light of the general probability, so much insisted on above, that doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and that its developments are parts of the Divine system, and that therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later.

(Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878 edition, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989, pp. 148-155; Part 1, Chapter 4, Section 3)

And then it states that this teaching is part of the content of saving faith. To deviate from this teaching is to incur the loss of salvation. This is an explicit affirmation that outside the Church of Rome there is no salvation.

This is true, but of course it must be understood how this teaching is applied (a task beyond our immediate purview). There are many “loopholes” which allow for ignorance and lessened culpability due to a variety of factors in which a given individual may not be at fault for his unbelief. Catholic teaching in this regard is very biblical, nuanced, and complex, unlike, e.g., Calvinist and other fundamentalist Protestant views which consign whole classes of people to damnation and hell due to double predestination and their never having heard the gospel. I have many links about this topic on my Ecumenism and Christian Unity page.

Later on, in its teaching on papal infallibility, Vatican I states:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by his revelation they might make known new doctrine; but that by his assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles. And, indeed, all the venerable Fathers have embraced, and the holy orthodox doctors have venerated and followed, their Apostolic doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of holy Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error according to the divine promise of the Lord our Saviour made to the Prince of his disciples: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not, and, when thou art converted, confirm thy brethren.” This gift, then, of truth and never failing faith was conferred by heaven upon Peter and his successors in his chair, that they might perform their high office for the salvation of all . . . [omitted second portion of the citation]

Vatican I is basing its teaching of papal infallibility on the interpretation of Luke 22:32. A teaching or tradition which it says was received from the very beginning of the Christian faith. The Council asserts that the doctrine of papal infallibility is a divinely revealed dogma and all who refuse to embrace it are placed under anathema.

It does not assert that the entire teaching is based on Luke 22:32. It merely gives that passage as a proof text, not for papal infallibility per se, but rather, for the indefectibility of the Church, as centered and grounded in the orthodoxy of the popes. Again, this does not mean that absolutely every Father took this interpretation of Luke 22:32, if that is what is being implied. What was received from the beginning was papal primacy and universal jurisdiction, which is the essence and “seed” of papal infallibility, just as the biblical statement “Jesus is Lord” is the “seed” of the exceedingly complex and highly-philosophical Chalcedonian Christology of 451 A.D.

If Christology itself – the very doctrine of God – took over 400 years to “sort itself out,” so to speak (actually, even longer, as the Monothelite heresy was yet to appear), why not the papacy? In 451, Pope St. Leo the Great was reigning, and was a key figure in determining orthodox Christology (accepted to this day by all three branches of Christianity). The papacy was quite robust and “full-blown” by then, as most historians would agree. See my paper: “Pope Leo the Great & Papal Supremacy.” As for papal infallibility: true Christian authority must have a divinely-ordained means to protect it from error. We serve a God of truth, not of relativism and confusion. Ultimately, this “protector” is the Holy Spirit Himself, according to such passages as John 14:26 and 16:13.

Vatican I, Vincent of Lerins, Verities, & Verbal Gymnastics


Before moving on to Mr. Webster’s misguided accusations concerning the teaching of Pope Leo XIII vis-a-vis Vatican I and development, let us briefly note the fact that Vatican I – far from rejecting it – embraced development of doctrine. There can be no question of this whatsoever, as I will now prove.

Here is a portion of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. 4, “Of Faith and Reason,” from Dogmatic Canons and Decrees (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1977; reprint of 1912 ed. of authorized translations of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, Imprimatur by John Cardinal Farley of New York, pp. 232-233):

Hence, also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretence or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them (can. iii). Let then the intelligence, science and wisdom of each and all, of individuals and of the whole Church, in all ages and all times, increase and flourish in abundance and vigour; but simply in its own proper kind, that is to say, in one and the same doctrine, one and the same judgment. (29)

29. Vincent of Lerins, Common. n. 28.

This expresses precisely the Vincentian and Newmanian (and Catholic) understanding of the development of doctrines which remain essentially unchanged. Development is emphatically not evolution per se, which is the transformation or change of one thing into something else. The two concepts are entirely distinct philosophically and linguistically. Shortly I shall cite Pope St. Pius X, who makes precisely this distinction in a papal encyclical.Here is a second translation of the passage, from The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, edited by J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, New York: Alba House, 5th revised and enlarged ed., 1990, p. 47:

Hence also that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our Holy Mother Church has once declared, and there must never be a deviation from that meaning on the specious ground and title of a more profound understanding. ‘Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.’ (1)

(1) Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium primum, 23.

Perhaps, in the words of the prison guard in Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” There is no conflict whatever between Cardinal Newman’s thesis in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and the above infallible pronouncement of an Ecumenical Council (during his own lifetime, in fact).

Vatican I cites St. Vincent of Lerins as a precedent, just as Newman himself had 25 years earlier. It cites the very passage which is — from all accounts – the classic exposition of dogmatic development in the Fathers — the very inspiration of Newman to expand upon the notion further. St. Vincent even draws the analogy of the organic growth of bodies, using a metaphor (“seed”) which is the same notion as the “acorn and the oak tree” which Mr. Webster so disdains.

And here is the excerpt from St. Vincent of Lerins which Vatican I cited (Notebooks, 23:28-30), from yet another translation (William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minesota: Liturgical Press, vol. 3, 1979, p.265). I will provide the context, with the portion utilized by Vatican I in-between ***’s. Note that by citing this passage – given the explicit context – Vatican I is implicitly and beyond doubt giving sanction to the notion of doctrinal development. It is expressly denying (contra Webster) that Catholic doctrine (including, by extension, the papacy) starts as an “oak tree” rather than as a seed or acorn:

[28] But perhaps someone is saying: ‘ Will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? ‘ Certainly there is, and the greatest. For who is there so envious toward men and so exceedingly hateful toward God, that he would try to prohibit progress? But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. *** It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily as much in individuals as in the group, as much in one man as in the whole Church, and this gradually according to age and the times; and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion.*** [29] The progress of religion in souls is like the growth of bodies, which, in the course of years, evolve and develop, but still remain what they were . . . [30] . . . Although in the course of time something evolved from those first seeds and has now expanded under careful cultivation, nothing of the characteristics of the seeds is changed. Granted that appearance, beauty and distinction has been added, still, the same nature of each kind remains.

[the first ellipses (. . . ) are in Jurgens’ version; the second set is my own]

If this weren’t a striking enough disproof of Mr. Webster’s claim that Vatican I opposes doctrinal development, in the same work, St. Vincent expresses his famous dictum (often cited by Protestant polemicists against development):

In the Catholic Church herself every care must be taken that we may hold fast to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. For this is, then truly and properly Catholic . . . (Notebooks, 2, 3. Jurgens, ibid., vol. 3, p. 263)

Obviously, unchanging essence and developing, progressing non-essential elements are compatible, according to St. Vincent, Newman, and Vatican I. Here we have almost all the elements outlined by Newman fourteen centuries later, yet Protestant controversialists such as George Salmon and William Webster continue to claim that Newman’s views were a radical departure from Catholic precedent! How silly; how sad!

To establish the fact that St. Vincent of Lerins is a key figure in the “development of development of doctrine,” I shall now cite Pope St. Pius X, and four specialists on the history of Christian doctrine: two Catholic and two Protestant scholars, respectively:

28. It is thus, Venerable Brethren, that for the Modernists, whether as authors or propagandists, there is to be nothing stable, nothing immutable in the Church. Nor, indeed, are they without forerunners in their doctrines, for it was of these that Our predecessor Pius IX wrote: “These enemies of divine revelation extol human progress to the skies, and with rash and sacrilegious daring would have it introduced into the Catholic religion as if this religion were not the work of God but of man, or some kind of philosophical discovery susceptible of perfection by human efforts.”[14] On the subject of revelation and dogma in particular, the doctrine of the Modernists offers nothing new. We find it condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX, where it is enunciated in these terms: ”Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the progress of human reason”;[15] and condemned still more solemnly in the Vatican Council: ”The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted. Hence also that sense of the sacred dogmas is to be perpetually retained which our Holy Mother the Church has once declared, nor is this sense ever to be abandoned on plea or pretext of a more profound comprehension of the truth.”[16] Nor is the development of our knowledge, even concerning the faith, barred by this pronouncement; on the contrary, it is supported and maintained. For the same Council continues: “Let intelligence and science and wisdom, therefore, increase and progress abundantly and vigorously in individuals, and in the mass, in the believer and in the whole Church, throughout the ages and the centuries–but only in its own kind, that is, according to the same dogma, the same sense, the same acceptation.”[17] (Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, “On the Doctrine of the Modernists,” 8 September 1907, section 28)

Note how the pope who is known for his opposition to theological modernism, or liberalism — in his famous encyclical on that very subject –, cites the same passage from Vatican I which I have noted, including the citation from St. Vincent (which is at the very end). He contends that development of doctrine is neither “evolution” (which he contrasts to it) nor modernism. By extension, then, he is verifying that Vatican I upheld development of doctrine (as explicated by St. Vincent and more recently in the same sense by Cardinal Newman) as entirely orthodox and Catholic.

He states this outright: “Nor is the development of our knowledge, even concerning the faith, barred by this pronouncement; on the contrary, it is supported and maintained.” Nothing could be more clear. This is another nail in the coffin of Mr. Webster’s claims. The papacy is one of many doctrines contained in “the faith” and the apostolic deposit. It develops like all the other dogmas, and like all the beliefs in Protestantism as well — including the canon of Scripture itself (much as many Protestants would seek to deny this).

Vincent’s doctrinal principle does not exclude progress and development; but it does exclude change. For Vincent, progress is a developmental growth of doctrine in its own sphere; change, however, implies a transformation into something different. In his encyclical Pascendi gregis against modernism, Pope Saint Pius X refers favorably to St. Vincent; and so does the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. III, Jurgens, ibid., p. 262)

[Describing St. Vincent’s thought] The criteria of tradition does not lead to immobility, given that it is joined with a second criterion, both essential and complementary, of dogmatic progress which operates according to the laws of organic growth.

‘This progress truly constitutes a progress and not an alteration of the faith, for it is characteristic of progress that a thing grows while remaining the same thing, and characteristic of alteration that one thing is changed into another. Therefore intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom grow and increase considerably both of the individual as of all, of the single man as well as of the entire church, according to ages and times. The particular nature of each is to be respected, however; that is, it remains exactly the same dogma, has the same meaning and expresses the same thought’ (c.23).

Vatican I adopted this well-known formula as its own . . . There is thus a three-fold progress: a progress in formulation which the church, having been challenged by the heretics, accomplishes by means of conciliar decrees to enlighten the understanding with new and appropriate terms and transmit them to those who will come later; progress in the organic life which takes place in dogmatic truths and always exceeds the language which expresses it, much in the same way that a human life grows from infancy to old age while always remaining the same person; progress in the final acquisition of truth without alteration or mutilation . . .

Paradoxically, this teacher of the immutability is revealed as the theologian of the laws of the development of dogma . . . The Commonitorium, as Bossuet noted, also drew its inspiration from the writings of Augustine . . .

Even though Vincent was concerned primarily with the innovations of the heresies, the West has drawn inspiration from his teaching on the progress of dogma developed in several chapters of the Commonitorium (c. 23-24). He recognized this development both in the understanding and in the formulation of dogmatic truth. Without changing the deposit of faith in any way, the church explores its richness more deeply and expresses its content more clearly . . . .

It is certain that . . . the influence of the Commonitorium has not ceased to increase since the sixteenth century . . . Bellarmine described it as the libellus plane aureus, while Bossuet makes constant reference to it in his Defense de la tradition des saints Peres. Catholics and Protestants regarded it with equal admiration at first. Newman found an “ecumenical” norm in the Commonitorium and procured a new importance for the work . . . the First Vatican Council . . . took the last word from Vincent of Lerins in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Faith. (Patrology, Johannes Quasten, vol. IV, ed. Angelo di Berardino, translated by Placid Solari, Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1977, from ch. 8, by Adalbert Hamman, pp. 548-550)

Augustine . . . manifestly acknowledges a gradual advancement of the church doctrine, which reaches its corresponding expression from time to time through the general councils; but a progress within the truth, without positive error . . . In like manner Vincentius Lerinensis teaches, that the church doctrine passes indeed through various stages of growth in knowledge, and becomes more and more clearly defined in opposition to ever-rising errors, but can never become altered or dismembered. (History of the Christian Church, vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, Philip Schaff, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974 [orig. 1910], p. 344)

. . . Not that Vincent is a conservative who excludes the possibility of all progress in doctrine. In the first place, he admits that it has been the business of councils to perfact and polish the traditional formulae, and even concepts, in which the great truths contained in the original deposit are expressed, thereby declaring ‘not new doctrines, but old ones in new terms’ (non nova, sed nove). Secondly, however, he would seem to allow for an organic development of doctrine analogous to the growth of the human body from infancy to age. But this development, he is careful to explain, while real, must not result in the least alteration to the original significance of the doctrine concerned. Thus in the end the Christian must, like Timothy, [1 Tim 6:20] ‘guard the deposit’, i.e., the revelation enshrined in its completeness in Holy Scripture and correctly interpreted in the Church’s unerring tradition. (Early Christian Doctrines, J. N. D. Kelly, San Francisco: HarperCollins, revised edition, 1978, pp. 50-51)

Salmon and Dead Horses (Being Beaten)


The Anglican George Salmon’s The Infallibility of the Church (originally 1890) apparently remains an inspiration for the anti-infallibility, anti-development polemics of the current generation of anti-Catholic crusaders, such as William Webster and James White. Yet it has been refuted decisively twice, by B.C. Butler, in his The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged “Salmon”‘ and also in a series of articles in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, in 1901 and 1902. (1)

Nevertheless, even the more ecumenical Protestant apologists Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie claimed in 1995, in a major critique of Catholicism, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, (2) that Salmon’s book has “never really been answered by the Catholic Church.” Geisler and MacKenzie cite Salmon as a “witness” for their case (3).

George Salmon revealed in his book his profoundly biased ignorance not only concerning papal infallibility, but also with regard to even the basics of the development of doctrine:

Romish advocates . . . are now content to exchange tradition, which their predecessors had made the basis of their system, for this new foundation of development . . . The theory of development is, in short, an attempt to enable men, beaten off the platform of history, to hang on to it by the eyelids . . . The old theory was that the teaching of the Church had never varied. (4)

1. Butler: New York, Sheed & Ward, 1954, 230 pages. A friend was recently able to obtain the articles from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in the library of a well-known evangelical seminary in the Chicago area.

2. Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995, p. 206, which calls it the “classic refutation of papal infallibility.” See also p. 459.

3. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., pp. 206-207.

4. Salmon, George, The Infallibility of the Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House (originally 1888), pp. 31-33 (cf. also pp. 35, 39).

Here Salmon (like Webster) is quixotically fighting a straw man of his own making and seeking to sophistically force his readers into the acceptance of a false and altogether logically unnecessary dichotomy: that development of doctrine implies change in the essence or substance of a doctrine and therefore is utterly contrary to the claims of the Church to be the Guardian and Custodian of an authoritative tradition of never-changing dogma. But this is emphatically not the Catholic belief, nor that of Newman, to whom Salmon was largely responding. Nor is it true that development was a “new” theory introduced by Cardinal Newman into Catholicism, while the “old theory” was otherwise. This is unanswerably proven by the writing of St. Vincent of Lerins, above (themselves paralleled by St. Augustine and other Fathers well familiar with the orthodox notion of development).

Pope Leo XIII: Foe of Development of Doctrine and Newman?


The papal encyclical, Satis Cognitum, written by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, is a commentary on and papal confirmation of the teachings of Vatican I. As to the issue of doctrinal development, Leo makes it quite clear that Vatican I leaves no room for such a concept in its teachings.

If indeed this were true (it assuredly is not), then I would find it exceedingly odd that Pope Leo XIII would name John Henry Newman a Cardinal in 1879, soon after becoming pope (1878). Why would he do that for the famous exponent of the classic treatment of development of doctrine, if he himself rejected that same notion? No; as before, Mr. Webster is (consciously or not) subtly switching definitions and statements of a pope and a Council in order to make it appear that there is a glaring contradiction, when in fact there is none. Such a mythical state of affairs is beyond absurd:

Il mio cardinale“, Pope Leo called Newman, “my cardinal”. There was much resistance to the appointment. “It was not easy”, the Pope recalled later, “It was not easy. They said he was too liberal.” (Marvin R. O’Connell, “Newman and Liberalism,” in Newman Today, edited by Stanley L. Jaki, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 87)

And the very fact that Newman was now a member of the sacred college had put to rest, as he expressed it, ‘all the stories which have gone about of my being a half Catholic, a Liberal Catholic, not to be trusted . . . The cloud is lifted from me forever.” (Ibid., p. 87; Letter of Newman to R. W. Church, 11 March 1879, Letters and Diaries, vol. XXIX, p. 72)

Ian Ker, author of the massive 764-page biography John Henry Newman (Oxford University Press, 1988) expands upon Pope Leo XIII in relation to Newman:

The Duke of Norfolk had himself personally submitted the suggestion to the Pope. The Duke’s explicit object was to secure Rome’s recognition of Newman’s loyalty and orthodoxy. Such a vindication was not only personally due to Newman, but was important for removing among non-Catholics the suspicion that his immensely persuasive and popular apologetic writings were not really properly Catholic. It looks in fact as if Leo XIII had already had the idea himself, as Newman was later given to believe . . . After being elected Pope, he is supposed to have said that the policy of his pontificate would be revealed by the name of the first Cardinal he created. Several years later he told an English visitor: . . .

‘I had determined to honour the Church in honouring Newman. I always had a cult for him. I am proud that I was able to honour such a man.’ (p. 715)

Newman wrote:

For 20 or 30 years ignorant or hot-headed Catholics had said almost that I was a heretic . . . I knew and felt that it was a miserable evil that the One True Apostolic Religion should be so slandered as to cause men to suppose that my portrait of it was not the true — and I knew that many would become Catholics, as they ought to be, if only I was pronounced by Authority to be a good Catholic. On the other hand it had long riled me, that Protestants should condescendingly say that I was only half a Catholic, and too good to be what they were at Rome. (in Ker, ibid., pp. 716-717; Letters and Diaries, vol. XXIX, p. 160)

Such is the lot of great men; geniuses; those ahead of their time. Now Mr. Webster joins this miserable, deluded company of those who pretend that Newman was a heterodox Catholic, and that his theory of development is somehow un-Catholic, or — even worse — a deliberately cynical method of rationalization intended to whitewash so-called “contradictions” of Catholic doctrinal history.

Leo states over and over again that the papacy was fully established by Christ from the very beginning and that it has been the foundation of the constitution of the Church and recognized as such from the very start and throughout all ages.

True enough, in the sense which I have repeatedly stressed.

He further affirms that Vatican I’s teaching has been the constant belief of every age and and is therefore not a novel doctrine:

Merciful heavens! A “novel doctrine” is something like sola Scriptura, or sola fide, the latter of which Protestant apologist Norman Geisler states that no one believed it from the time of St. Paul to Luther (and Catholics would also strongly deny that Paul taught it). Likewise, noted Protestant scholar Alister McGrath confesses:

The essential feature of the Reformation doctrines of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration. Although it must be emphasised that this distinction is purely notional, in that it is impossible to separate the two within the context of the ordo salutis, the essential point is that a notional distinction is made where none had been acknowledged before in the history of Christian doctrine. A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum. (Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, the Beginnings to the Reformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 186-187)

Many other innovations of Protestantism- – established against all contrary Church precedent — amply qualify as true “novelties.” The papacy (even considered as explicitly infallible)- – whatever one thinks of it – is surely not in the same league as all the brand-new Protestant inventions. But let us see what Mr. Webster selects from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, to supposedly bolster his tenuous claims:

Wherefore, as appears from what has been said, Christ instituted in the Church a living, authoritative and permanent Magisterium, which by His own power He strengthened, by the Spirit of truth He taught, and by miracles confirmed. He willed and ordered, under the gravest penalties, that its teachings should be received as if they were His own…Jesus Christ, therefore, appointed Peter to be that head of the Church; and He also determined that the authority instituted in perpetuity for the salvation of all should be inherited by His successors, in whom the same permanent authority of Peter himself should continue. And so He made that remarkable promise to Peter and to no one else: “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. xvi., 18)…It was necessary that a government of this kind, since it belongs to the constitution and formation of the Church, as its principal element – that is as the principle of unity and the foundation of lasting stability – should in no wise come to an end with St. Peter, but should pass to his successors from one to another…When the Divine founder decreed that the Church should be one in faith, in government, and in communion, He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and centre, as it were, of this unity…Indeed, Holy Writ attests that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter alone, and that the power of binding and loosening was granted to the Apostles and to Peter; but there is nothing to show that the Apostles received supreme power without Peter, and against Peter. Such power they certainly did not receive from Jesus Christ. Wherefore, in the decree of the Vatican Council as to the nature and authority of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, no newly conceived opinion is set forth, but the venerable and constant belief of every age (Sess. iv., cap. 3).

Again, this is not at all inconsistent with the idea of a primitive version of the papacy consistently developing into the institution we see today. Mr. Webster simply begs the question by assuming that Pope Leo refers throughout to a full-fledged papacy, and not to the essential, unchanging seed of the later developed papacy, in the person of St. Peter. Leo XIII never makes any statement explicitly denouncing development (which is Mr. Webster’s thesis, after all).

And when he refers to the papacy as the “constant belief,” he is expressing himself no differently than a Protestant who states that “the divinity of Christ has always been believed,” or “the Trinity was always believed,” or the New Testament was always accepted by 1st-century Christians, when they know full well (if they know their Church history at all) that the doctrines of God (trinitarian theology) and especially Christ (Christology) also underwent much development (Two Natures, Athanasian Creed, Theotokos, battles with heretics such as the Monothelites, Arians, and Sabellians) while at the same time remaining the same in essence.

Likewise, there wasn’t total consensus about the New Testament until the canon was finalized in the late 4th century. Yet Scripture was what it was all along: inspired and God-breathed. The Church did not make it so (as Vatican I itself explicitly affirms). Protestants, in speaking of the broad consensus of the early Fathers with regard to the canon of Scripture, are basically asserting the “unanimous consent of the Fathers” in the way a Catholic would argue. Likewise, the papacy was what it was, all along, even if not all recognized it. Not all recognized Jesus as the Messiah and Lord, either. That is no disproof.

Conclusion: Folly, False “Facts,” and Fallacies


The Roman Catholic Church, itself, has officially stated that there was no development of this doctrine in the early Church.

Where? This certainly hasn’t been shown by Mr. Webster. He has to make false deductions and redefine words and phrases to make his nonexistent case, whereas I have clearly demonstrated the opposite, right from the explicit text of Vatican I.

After all, if the fullness of the definition of papal primacy as defined by Vatican I was instituted by Christ immediately upon Peter, as both Vatican I and Leo XIII affirm, then there is no room for development.

This is a classic case of Mr. Webster’s fallacious logic and curious rhetorical method. Where is it stated that the “fullness of definition of papal primacy” was conferred upon Peter? The primacy itself was given to him; the duty and prerogatives of the papal office, and the keys of the kingdom, but none of that implies that a full understanding or application, or unanimous acknowledgement by others is therefore also present from the beginning. The thing itself – in its essential aspects, or nature, is present. And that is what develops, without inner contradiction or change of principle, as Newman ably pointed out in the long citation above.

It was instituted by Christ himself and was therefore present from the very beginning and would have been recognized as such by the Church as Vatican I states: “Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this See, does by the institution of Christ himself obtain the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church –, a fact which Vatican I says has been known to all ages leading to the practice “that it has at all times been necessary that every particular Church — that is to say, the faithful throughout the world — should agree with the Roman Church, on account of the greater authority of the princedom which this has received.” This documentation completely demolishes present day Roman Catholic apologists’ theory of development. They are at odds with the magisterium of their own Church. Indeed, these apologists must set forth a theory of development because of the historical reality, but such a theory is at open variance with the clear teaching of Vatican I and Leo XIII.

Hardly. As shown, Vatican I explicitly accepted development of doctrine, citing the very passage from St. Vincent Lerins which is the classic exposition in the Fathers – essentially identical to Newman’s analysis. Pope Leo XIII made Newman a Cardinal – his very first appointment, meant to send a message, yet Mr. Webster would have us believe that he was diametrically opposed to the thought for which Newman was most famous (and notorious, in some circles): development of doctrine. So we are to believe that Leo XIII made a Cardinal someone he regarded as a rank heretic? I suppose any absurd, surreal scenario within the Catholic Church is possible in the minds of many of her more – shall we say – zealous critics. Likewise, the very next pope, and vigorous condemner of modernism, Pope St. Pius X, also supported not only St. Vincent of Lerins, as we saw above, but also John Henry Newman (see below).

Thus, there is quite positive evidence that development of doctrine was (and is) indeed accepted by the Catholic Church. Mr. Webster, on the other hand, in order to put forth his thesis, must rely on distortions of what development means, and improbable deductions from indirect suggestions in conciliar and papal documents, which he interprets as hostile to development. It’s a wrongheaded enterprise from the get-go. Newman was orthodox, despite what Webster, Salmon, and other Protestant polemicists would have us believe:

To make matters worse, and to deepen Newman’s disappointment, the Essay had been eagerly seized by American Unitarians as a first-rate demonstration that the Trinitarian doctrine was not primitive but was a development of the third century. In the midst of the consequent excitement, the militant American convert, Orestes Brownson, made a series of attacks on the Essay, beginning with a review of it in Brownson’s Quarterly Review in July, 1846. Brownson called Newman’s work “essentially anticatholic and Protestant”; he objected to Christianity being treated as an “idea”; and he also objected to Newman’s third mark of a true development, the “power of assimilation” . . .

It is not surprising, therefore, that the edition of 1878 is in so many ways, both large and small, different from that of 1845. Yet in the thirty-three years between the two editions, the Essay made its way with the Church, and was accepted in its original form as, in the words of Dr. Benard, “simply an original and highly ingenious manner of presenting a strictly traditional Catholic doctrine.” But the vicissitudes of Newman’s Essay were not over. During the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, there arose the Modernist Movement, in which Newman’s volume was made an instrument of heresy . . .

It may be observed that when Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis in July, 1907, condemning the Movement, many of Newman’s readers at once feared that the Essay on Developent had been condemned, too . . . But at the very height of the excitement occasioned by the encyclical Pascendi, the Most Reverend Edward Thomas O’Dwyer, bishop of Limerick, published his pamphlet on Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), which showed clearly that the Modernists could not legitimately depend on Newman for their teaching. The final, authoritative answer to the Modernists, however, appeared when Pope Pius X sent a letter to Bishop O’Dwyer, confirming the latter’s defense of Newman. (Preface to Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by Charles Fredrick Harrold, New York: Longmans, 1949 pp. vii-ix)

So when we analyze these papal teachings in the light of history it is perfectly legitimate to ask the question on two levels. As to the actual institution of the papacy, do we find the teachings of Vatican I expressed by the fathers of the Church in their practice?

Not in its fullness, but this is not required in order for both unchanging essence and developing secondary aspects to harmoniously coexist.

And secondly, as to the issue of interpretation, do we find a unanimous consent of the fathers regarding Vatican I’s interpretation of Matthew 16:18, John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:32 that supports papal primacy and infallibility? In both cases the answer is a decided no.

As already shown, consensus on individual Scripture verses is not required by the Church, and Mr. Webster has not documented that Vatican I taught otherwise. What is required is assent to the essential premises and characteristics of the doctrine, which were indeed there from the beginning, from the time of Christ’s commissioning of St. Peter. Mr. Webster’s case therefore collapses, having been shown to be woefully insufficient or outright contradicted in all of its main points of contention.

I close with a quote from the Protestant apologist C. S. Lewis, which confirms the Newmanian and Catholic understanding of development of doctrine:

How can an unchanging system survive the continual increase of knowledge? . . . Change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak; if it became a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change . . . There is a great difference between counting apples and arriving at the mathematical formulae of modern physics. But the multiplication table is used in both and does not grow out of date. In other words, whenever there is real progress in knowledge, there is some knowledge that is not superseded. Indeed, the very possibility of progress demands that there should be an unchanging element . . . I take it we should all agree to find this . . . in the simple rules of mathematics. I would also add to these the primary principles of morality. And I would also add the fundamental doctrines of Christianity . . . I claim that the positive historical statements made by Christianity have the power, elsewhere found chiefly in formal principles, of receiving, without intrinsic change, the increasing complexity of meaning which increasing knowledge puts into them . . . Like mathematics, religion can grow from within, or decay . . . But, like mathematics, it remains simply itself, capable of being applied to any new theory.

(God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, pp.44-47. From “Dogma and the Universe,” The Guardian, March 19, 1943, p.96 / March 26, 1943, pp. 104 ,107)


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