Thursday, July 23, 2015

Charles Hodge on Doctrinal Development

In the section quoted below from Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1940), pp.116-117 (in the Hendrickson 2003 reprint), taken from the plain text version on the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Hodge articulates a view of the development of Christian doctrine very similar to that described by St. Vincent of Lerins (in chapter 23 of his Commonotory) and much later by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  Of course, Hodge is approaching the subject from a Protestant point of view, and so there is no indication of any infallible guidance provided by the Holy Spirit in the church's development of doctrine, but his description of how doctrine develops is very helpful for showing how a state of developed doctrine in the church might look similar to and yet different from a less developed earlier state, much as an embryo looks different from the adult form.  Not all changes are unwarranted innovations!

Obviously, Catholics will disagree with Hodge's attempt to portray the Protestant doctrine of Justification as a warranted development of biblical doctrine, but it is interesting to see how Hodge makes use of the concept of doctrinal development in the church to justify a theological position that was never clearly articulated before Luther.  Ultimately, while we can examine the specific evidence for ourselves with regard to any claimed developed doctrine, Catholics acknowledge that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church to fully and accurately ascertain the correct developments of doctrine and distinguish them from false distortions or innovations.  Because they do not defer to such infallible guidance from the Spirit upon the church, Protestants' developments of doctrine are necessarily to some degree arbitrary and without adequate warrant.

I might also add that a correct understanding of the development of doctrine helps in answering Eastern Orthodox arguments against alleged Catholic "innovations" in doctrine and practice.  The Eastern Orthodox accusations here tend to be very subjective, because they rely on their own personal judgment (their own personal readings of and inferences from Scripture, the Fathers, etc.) to determine what is a legitimate development and what is an innovation without adequately recognizing the importance of looking to God's guidance of the church in drawing this line, despite their general acknowledgement in other areas of the need for such guidance.  They beg the question against the Catholic Church by assuming they can clearly delineate which Catholic positions are innovations and which are warranted developments as a means of determining whether God has guided the Eastern Orthodox Churches or the Catholic Church, instead of recognizing that one must decide which is the church that is guided by God before one tries to draw that line in order to be able to make use of reliance on God's guidance of the church's tradition in the drawing of the line.  To get these in the wrong order requires one to approach the drawing of the line by means of one's own personal evaluations without the authoritative guidance of the church, much (ironically) as Protestants try to do.

All Protestants admit that there has been, in one sense, an uninterrupted development of theology in the Church, from the apostolic age to the present time. All the facts, truths, doctrines, and principles, which enter into Christian theology, are in the Bible. They are there as fully and is clearly at one time as at another; at the beginning as they are now. No addition has been made to their number, and no new explanation has been afforded of their nature or relations. The same is true of the facts of nature. They are now what they have been from the beginning. They are, however, far better known, and more clearly understood now than they were a thousand years ago. The mechanism of the heavens was the same in the days of Pythagoras as it was in those of La Place; and yet the astronomy of the latter was immeasurably in advance of that of the former. The change was effected by a continual and gradual progress. The same progress has taken place in theological knowledge. Every believer is conscious of such progress in his own experience. When he was a child, he thought as a child. As he grew in years, he grew in knowledge of the Bible. He increased not only in the compass, but in the clearness, order, and harmony of his knowledge. This is just as true of the Church collectively as of the individual Christian. It is, in the first place, natural, if not inevitable, that it should be so. The Bible, although so clear and simple in its teaching, that he who runs may read and learn enough to secure his salvation, is still full of the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God; full of ta bathe tou theou, the profoundest truths concerning all the great problems which have taxed the intellect of man from the beginning. These truths are not systematically stated, but scattered, so to speak, promiscuously over the sacred pages, just as the facts of science are scattered over the face of nature, or hidden in its depths. Every man knows that there is unspeakably more in the Bible than he has yet learned, as every man of science knows that there is unspeakably more in nature than he has yet discovered, or understands. It stands to reason that such a book, being the subject of devout and laborious study, century after century, by able and faithful men, should come to be better and better understood. And as in matters of science, although one false theory after another, founded on wrong principles or on an imperfect induction of facts, has passed away, yet real progress is made, and the ground once gained is never lost, so we should naturally expect it to be with the study of the Bible. False views, false inferences, misapprehensions, ignoring of some facts, and misinterpretations, might be expected to come and go, in endless succession, but nevertheless a steady progress in the knowledge of what the Bible teaches be accomplished. And we might also expect that here, too, the ground once surely gained would not again be lost.

But, in the second place, what is thus natural and reasonable in itself is a patent historical fact. The Church has thus advanced in theological knowledge. The difference between the confused and discordant representations of the early fathers on all subjects connected with the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ, and the clearness, precision, and consistency of the views presented after ages of discussion, and the statement of these doctrines by the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople, is as great almost as between chaos and cosmos. And this ground has never been lost. The same is true with regard to the doctrines of sin and grace. Before the long-continued discussion of these subjects in the Augustinian period, the greatest confusion and contradiction prevailed in the teachings of the leaders of the Church; during those discussions the views of the Church became clear and settled. There is scarcely a principle or doctrine concerning the fall of man, the nature of sin and guilt, inability, the necessity of the Spirits influence, etc., etc., which now enters into the faith of evangelical Christians, which was not then clearly stated and authoritatively sanctioned by the Church. In like manner, before the Reformation, similar confusion existed with regard to the great doctrine of justification. No clear line of discrimination was drawn between it and sanctification. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, and among the most devout of the schoolmen, the idea of guilt was merged in the general idea of sin, and sin regarded as merely moral defilement. The great object was to secure holiness. Then pardon would come of course. The apostolic, Pauline, deeply Scriptural doctrine, that there can be no holiness until sin be expiated, that pardon, justification, and reconciliation, must precede sanctification, was never clearly apprehended. This was the grand lesson which the Church learned at the Reformation, and which it has never since forgot. It is true then, as an historical fact, that the Church has advanced. It understands the great doctrines of theology, anthropology, and soteriology, far better now, than they were understood in the early post-apostolic age of the Church.

UPDATE 7/23/15:  Here is an article from an Eastern Orthodox writer also giving a good description of the how the church has developed through the ages, and so doesn't look exactly as she did before but yet retains continuity with what she was before.

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