The Development of Doctrine: Incremental Understanding

The Development of Doctrine: Incremental Understanding February 22, 2022

Why do people join a Bible study? Obviously, to learn more about the teachings of the Bible! Why do theologians continuously study the Bible? Same answer: to learn more about the teachings of the Bible!

Gee, after nearly 2000 years of New Testament study, and several hundred years of Old Testament study before that (which continues today), haven’t we just about exhausted all there is to learn?

In a word: No! That’s not only because we can never fully understand God, but also because, with each generation, we evolve in our ability to understand God’s Word, building our knowledge on the scholarship of those before us.

St. John Henry Newman

The concept of an evolution of theological understanding was explained by St. John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, when he published An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in 1845.

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Considered one of the most important theological works ever written, Cardinal Newman’s essay originated the term “development of doctrine” and inspired a branch of theology that influenced Vatican II.

By “development” Newman meant “growth.” That is, the Church’s understanding of Christ’s many profound teachings has grown in stages. It takes time, maybe millennia, to drill into their depths.

Protestants believe that their Reformation was a doctrinal development that returned the Church to its roots, eliminating corrupted or invented practices. However, Newman believed that Catholic practices have always evolved in accordance with the Scriptures.

Newman proved that by tracing them to their origins. He also argued that Catholic doctrines were developed from the application of reason to the study of Scriptural truths, which resulted in additional revelations and understanding.

Dei Verbum [Word of God], the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, is one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. Newman’s influence is seen in these lines:

″[T]he understanding of the things and words handed down grows, through the contemplation and study of believers, … (which) tends continually towards the fullness of divine truth.”

Keep Studying

With something as complex as the Bible, you can’t expect to grasp it all in one reading. Maybe not even in a thousand readings. You have to keep studying, keep learning new facets of God’s nature.

Think about it—the writings of ancient Greeks and Shakespeare are still worth plumbing hundreds of years later because each new generation applies its own worldview to them. If the scholarship on these authors continues to grow, then doesn’t it make sense that our study of Scripture would likewise continue to grow?

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My Bible study teacher explained Newman’s principle to us in brilliantly simple terms. He said that the history and process of divine revelation should be viewed as evolutionary; that is, just as a child learns in steps, so we must learn about God in increments.

Our teacher added that, as salvation history shows, God’s revelation has a system and method. So, when it was time to prepare ignorant humans for the coming of Christ, God started with the basics.

God taught Abraham, born into a world of idols, that there was only one God. The history of Judaism/Christianity proceeded from there. God talked to prophets and gave the commandments to Moses, rules and traditions developed and then Jesus came.

It took nearly two thousand years for God to give us the instruction book. We don’t know how long it will take the Holy Spirit to inspire our understanding of the book.

Increased Understanding, Not Change

Let’s be clear: by the development of doctrine, we don’t mean changing doctrine. We are talking about increasing our understanding of the ancient roots of God’s Word. Yet some people want to apply their own ideas as a new “interpretation” of the meaning.

This is an error known as the “evolution of dogmas.” We hear it a lot as people try to justify abortion, relaxed sexual mores, etc. as modern replacements for what they consider outdated religious constrictions. But morality doesn’t change with time.

Orthodox religions reject doctrinal development. They believe that all we need to know was given to us at the founding of the Church, so nothing should change. Well, true, nothing in the Bible should change or be eliminated or rejected.

However, our understanding of what the Bible is trying to tell us changes over time as we Christians mature in our faith. Sometimes it’s a long wait for the light bulb to turn on in our heads, and we say, “Oh, now I get it!”

God’s children keep taking those baby steps toward understanding all that God wants of us. Sometimes we fall and refuse to get up again, sometimes we seem to take steps backward, but over time, God’s Church is learning and growing.


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