"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Saint Vincent of Lerins on the development of doctrine

The following selection (between the dashed lines) is from one of the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours a few weeks ago, by Saint Vincent of Lerins (434 AD). Notice how remarkably consistent it is with Cardinal Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:


Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale.

Who can be so grudging to men, so full of hate for God, as to try to prevent it? But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.

The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.

The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of the one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person.

The tiny members of unweaned children and the grown members of young men are still the same members. Men have the same number of limbs as children. Whatever develops at a later age was already present in seminal form; there is nothing new in old age that was not already latent in childhood.

There is no doubt, then, that the legitimate and correct rule of development, the established and wonderful order of growth, is this: in older people the fullness of years always brings to completion those members and forms that the wisdom of the Creator fashioned beforehand in their earlier years.

If, however, the human form were to turn into some shape that did not belong to its own nature, or even if something were added to the sum of its members or subtracted from it, the whole body would necessarily perish or become grotesque or at least be enfeebled. In the same way, the doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age.

In ancient times our ancestors sowed the good seed in the harvest field of the Church. It would be very wrong and unfitting if we, their descendants, were to reap, not the genuine wheat of truth but the intrusive growth of error.

On the contrary, what is right and fitting is this: there should be no inconsistency between first and last, but we should reap true doctrine from the growth of true teaching, so that when, in the course of time, those first sowings yield an increase it may flourish and be tended in our day also.

One obstacle to the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers is a lack of understanding that doctrine develops as organic bodies develop. Many non-Catholic Christians assume that unity must be based on the Apostolic doctrine as it is found undeveloped in the pages of the New Testament. But that very assumption implicitly contains within it another assumption, i.e. that doctrine has not developed in the Church. So the notion that Christian unity should be based on doctrine as it is found undeveloped in the New Testament is built on an implicit anti-ecclesiastical assumption, namely, that the Church has not been growing all along and thus has not been developing these doctrines for the past two millennia. The two errors with respect to the development of doctrine (besides failing to recognize it altogether) are: (1) failing to recognize that dogma cannot be contradicted by development and (2) failing to recognize that development of doctrine requires that there be dogma that cannot be contradicted by development. The latter is the more common error of the two. Some Protestants claim to accept the authority of the early Ecumenical Councils, but when they start to come to understand the content of those Councils, then they realize that they (if they wish to remain Protestant) must either pick and choose in ad hoc fashion from them, or they must deny their authority altogether. Both moves essentially deny the authority of the Councils. And the denial of the authority of Councils denies the possibility of dogma. And the denial of the possibility of dogma eliminates the possibility of affirming
(without inconsistency) the development of doctrine. And in this way the sola scriptura principle of Protestantism is intrinsically anti-ecclesiastical. (Of course I am not claiming that Protestants are intrinsically anti-ecclesiastical.) The challenge for the Protestant in seeing the other paradigm is to see that if there has been a Church for the past two millennia, then there has been organic development of doctrine, in which case we should not expect to ground unity on Apostolic doctrine in its undeveloped form as found in Scripture. Such an expectation is for that reason intrinsically anti-Catholic, and therefore not ecumenically 'neutral'.

1 comment:

Tom B. said...


Thanks for this. I happened to read this portion of St. Vincent's Commonitorium last week, and I have Newman's Essay on its way in the mail! I can't wait to see how the two line up.

Peace in Christ,