Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Developments, Novelties, or Good and Necessary Consequences?

A couple Sunday evenings ago a church member asked a question about covenant theology: “How long has this stuff been around, anyway?” This got me thinking about the issue of the development of doctrine (you know, that topic that comes up approximately 14 seconds into any dialogue with a Catholic brother or sister).

In a nutshell, doctrinal development refers to the phenomenon of some teaching—such as the Immaculate Conception or the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ—that is affirmed by the church but doesn’t exactly jump off the pages of Scripture and smack you in the face.

Back in August, William G. Witt posted on his blog some thoughts concerning the development of doctrine, arguing for what he calls “Development 1” and “Development 2”:

Development 1 adds nothing to the original content of faith, but rather brings out its necessary implications…. There is another kind of development, however, which I will call “Development 2.” Development 2 is genuinely new development that is not simply the necessary articulation of what is said explicitly in the Scriptures.
Examples of Development 1 include the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity or, to return to my church member above, Reformed covenant theology. All the evidence to put these doctrines together can be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Bible. Doctrines that would fall into the category of Development 2, according to Witt, would be something like the Immaculate Conception (the teaching that Mary was born without original sin). It is a genuine novelty, Witt says, an “entirely new development.”

Now it certainly appears (to this Protestant at least) that there is a real and perhaps categorical difference between a doctrine like the deity of Christ and something like the dogma of papal infallibility. Once formulated, loads of evidence can be adduced for the former, while the evidence for the latter is rather slim (though not altogether non-existent). Some questions that are worth pondering, then, are (1) How would this model account for the church’s decision in Acts 15 to not insist on Gentile circumcision? (2) Whose job is it to determine whether the evidence for a doctrine is explicit, implicit, or non-existent? (3) What should the Protestant do when a Mormon sees less evidence for the Trinity than the rest of us do? Or if a Catholic sees more evidence than we do for the assumption of Mary?

(And I can’t believe I even have to say this, but No, I’m not asking these questions because, gee whiz, I’ve just never thought about these issues before. Just facilitating a little dialogue, people, that’s what blogs are for.)