The Development of Christian Doctrine

In my last post I reviewed how the dogma of the Trinity came to be more formalized.  This is an example of how Christian doctrine has developed over time.

The dogma of the Trinity as articulated by Christians today is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture.  In fact, the word “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in Scripture.  Trias in Greek simply means a set of three, or the number three.  It is an example of a “normal” word that comes to have a unique and specific meaning in Christian theology.  While the “seeds” of the dogma can certainly be found within Scripture as we shall see, it is much more implicit than explicit.  And there are those who profess to a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God who don’t believe the dogma of the Trinity is what the Bible teaches at all.  This would include groups like the Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Latin theologian Tertullian writing in the early third century is credited to be the first to use the words “Trinity,” “person” and “substance” to explain that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are “one in essence – not one in person.”

When we speak to the development of doctrine, we are not talking about a change from a previous belief or a new “invention” that occurs at a particular time.  Most often, doctrine develops due to some heresy that starts to gain ground, as it did in the fourth century with Arianism.  It was recognized by many in the Church that what Arius was saying was false.  The result of addressing that falsehood was a more clear, more focused and more complete statement about the nature of God that left no room for doubt or confusion or argument about who Jesus Christ is.  The Church didn’t change a previous teaching, but it certainly expanded upon it and allowed it to organically grow to meet the challenge of the day.

Scripture itself leads us to expect this normal progression of understanding.  Christ promised the apostles at the last supper that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (John 14:26, John 16:13).  We see the beginning of this process in the book of Acts, when the Church is struggling over the need for circumcision and whether Gentile converts need to keep the Jewish law.  This issue was resolved by the Church coming into council (Acts 15) where the Holy Spirit does guide them to the truth.  This is what happens in the fourth century with the conflict over the nature of Christ and the Trinity.  As Catholics it is easy for us to believe the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church through that model because Christ both promised it would, and we see it utilized by the apostles in Scripture.  Twenty-one times over the last 1900 years the Church has convened in an ecumenical Council and trusted in the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth.

St. John Henry Newman coined the term “development of doctrine” in his book “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” published in 1845.  According to Wiki:

“He relied on an extensive study of early Church Fathers in tracing the elaboration or development of doctrine which he argued was in some way implicitly present in the Divine Revelation in Sacred Scripture and Tradition which was present from the beginnings of the Church.  He argued that various Catholic doctrines not accepted by Protestants (such as devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Purgatory) had a developmental history analogous to doctrines that were accepted by Protestants (such as the Trinity or the divinity and humanity of Christ).”

Here is an interesting example.  Regarding the dogma of the Trinity, this evangelical site acknowledges that there was a lack of clarity in the early Church and that a council was convened, but gives little credit to the Holy Spirit working through this Council to arrive at the truth.

The main theological issue had always been about Christ.  Since the end of the apostolic age, Christians had begun debating these questions: Who is the Christ?  Is He more divine than human or more human than divine?  Was Jesus created or begotten?  Being the Son of God, is He co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, or is He lower in status than the Father?  Is the Father the one true God, or are the Father, Son, and Spirit the one true God?

It also states about the activity of the Council however that “The Council of Nicea upheld the doctrine of Christ’s true divinity, rejecting Arius’s heresy.  The council did not invent this doctrine.  Rather, it only recognized what the Bible already taught.”

 From the Catholic perspective we would agree the Council did not invent this doctrine.  And the Council certainly recognized the truth based upon the apostolic teaching.  They then formally articulated the truth in an explicit way that ended the questioning.  It is an example where Scripture alone could not resolve the controversy, as the argument was over the meaning of Scripture itself.  When an argument occurs about the meaning of Scripture and what is the truth, there are basically one of two paths to take.  One path would be for the church to split, with each side forming their own community with their own version of the truth.  The second path is for the Church to come together in the model described in Scripture, allow the Holy Spirit to guide them into recognizing the truth and then proclaim it.  This is the path the Church takes in the fourth century.  The Church, who Scripture refers to as the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) recognized the truth, proclaimed it in a clear way, and resolved the controversy.

Consider now this view of the Council of Niceae and the dogma of the Trinity from a Jehovah Witness site, who would reject the dogma:

What is the origin of the myth? 

“The impression could arise that the Trinitarian dogma is in the last analysis a late 4th-century invention.  In a sense, this is true .  .  .  The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Volume 14, page 299.

From their perspective, the Trinity is a myth, an invention of the 4th century that the Church made up.  They reject the idea that doctrine can develop, and if it’s not explicitly found in a specific interpretation of Scripture, it’s false.

For what it’s worth, that quote is a bit “doctored.”  The full quote in context is this:

From what has been seen thus far, the impression could arise that the Trinitarian dogma is in the last analysis a late 4th century invention.  In a sense, this is true; but it implies an extremely strict interpretation of the key words Trinitarian and dogma...”  The article then goes on to explain while the precise language had not been formulated prior to this time, the seeds of the doctrine are there.

Jesus promised the apostles they would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, and the Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” continues to be led.  Thus we see that while doctrine never changes, it does develop such that it becomes more clear, more focused and more complete, resolving questions and doubts about the major truths of the faith.

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