Development of Doctrine

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Orthodox and Roman Catholics share a common acceptance of the development of doctrine. What is not shared, however, is to what the development amounts. Roman Catholics accept a view of the development of doctrine sometimes analogized as an oak growing from an acorn. Orthodox accept a development of doctrine which is essentially apophatic, characterized more by what it denies than by what it affirms (for example, the four alpha-privatives of the Chalcedonian statement of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures).

For Orthodox, development of doctrine is inherently reactive: it responds to heresy so as to preserve the fullness of the Faith. The seven Ecumenical Councils were all occasioned, whatever their respective historical context, by the need to respond to various heresies: Arianism, Nestorianism, iconoclasm, and so forth. The Creed itself was not promulgated first and then used as a canon, but was, rather, a formulation that developed out of the need to respond to distortions of the Gospel. In its positive pronouncements, it is singularly austere and simple, achieving its fullest “technical” vocabulary in the propositions about the Son. But even those positive pronouncements are, very nearly, entirely restatements of Scripture. The Creed itself is no new declaration, but the summation of the Gospel taught since the Apostles.

To this there will likely be no Roman Catholic objection. So wherein lies the difference? The difference, it appears to me, is that Roman Catholic development of doctrine allows for the notion of an increased understanding of the Faith. That is to say, that those who come later in time, better understand, and thus are able, even better able, to reformulate in new ways with new inferences, the Apostolic Deposit. Proponents of the Roman Catholic understanding of development of doctrine, then, affirm that all they are advocating is the drawing forth of implications and inferences. In this syllogistic defense of development of doctrine, proponents deny that they are creating dogmae or doctrines de novo, but are simply bringing forth the truth(s) already contained in the originating propositions. Like the oak that grows from the acorn, there is no new thing, so the argument goes, the essence remains the same, but, rather, it is simply the natural outgrowth of what lies potentially in the very being of the thing.

The objection here, however, is that one proposition equates dogma to a deductive syllogistic, the other assumes a teleological perspective that it is not clear is warranted.

While it is certainly true that reason is not divorced from faith, and false that dogma and doctrine are not related in any way to reason, nonetheless subsuming dogma to deductive inference is to reverse the order of primacy. Christianity is a revealed religion, not one derived from a priori first principles. The Apostolic Deposit, the Faith once for all delivered to the saints, is not irrational. But it is always already suprarational, for it always already starts from and ends with God who is unknowable apart from revelation. Arius, after all, subsumed the Faith to philosophically rational tenets, and was decried by the Church as a heretic. Indeed, it may not be too hyperbolic to assert that all heresies derive from the reversal of the priority of Faith over reason. Christianity posits nothing no less preposterous than that two natures, human and divine, reside in unity in one Person: Jesus the Christ. Christianity eliminates the dialectic of the one over the many, holding both in tension at the same time. Indeed, Christianity posits the Person over the nature. None of these are subsumable under rationalist dialectical deductive considerations.

If, then, the Faith is not subject to the deductions of rational first principles, then the teleological assumptions of the acorn analogy fall away as well. For the acorn analogy to work, it would be necessary for the teleological endpoint to be known. But for human players in the flow of history, it is not possible to tell if one branching line is in conformity with the essence of the oak, or whether it is a deformation. Only a teleological endpoint perspective would be able to say so with certainty. And to claim such an endpoint is to claim the knowledge which resides in the Godhead. Indeed, it is to claim to know more than the Apostles, whom God ordained to be the foundation of the Church.

If I am not mistaken, this is not the approach of the Orthodox. Orthodoxy prefers to preserve that which has been deposited, guarding it against heresy, but little interested in seeking an advance of dogmatic content. There are certainly new ways to formulate old doctrines. And heresies, inherently innovative themselves, too often mutate and offer new emphases that require such new formulations. But the Orthodox do not claim to know more about Christ by virtue of the Chalcedonian formula, or more about the Holy Trinity by virtue of the essence/energies distinction. Rather, the claim is to preserve the inherent mystery and unknowability of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

While it is true that God does not cease from creating goods, for humans the primary goal is not the rational explanation of these goods, but the union of body, soul and spirit with God through His Son, in ineffable union and distinction so as to enjoy these goods, which are nothing less than participation in God, and to enjoy them forever.

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