Sunday, August 16, 2020

Principles For Evaluating Development Of Doctrine

The subject of doctrinal development often comes up in discussions with Roman Catholics, but it's relevant to other contexts as well. We've written a lot about it over the years, and you can find many relevant posts in our archives. I want to outline several of the principles we should keep in mind as we think about the topic:

- Different individuals and groups make different claims about the beliefs under consideration, and they bear different burdens of proof accordingly. Catholics can't try to have the benefits of making higher claims about the alleged history of their doctrines without also paying the cost of bearing a higher burden of proof. The two go together. See the second-to-last paragraph of the post here regarding what Roman Catholicism has claimed about the history of the assumption of Mary or the opening paragraphs here regarding the papacy, for example.

- Different individuals and groups make different claims about the surrounding context of the beliefs under consideration, and they bear different burdens of proof accordingly. If you claim that there's an infallible denomination Jesus founded that's existed throughout church history and has taught the same beliefs in every generation, and you claim that all or almost all Christians of the earliest centuries belonged to that denomination, for example, you bear a heavier burden of proof than somebody with a Protestant ecclesiology making much lower claims about the relevant issues.

- The nature of the belief in question needs to be kept in mind. For example, some beliefs are simpler, and some are more complicated. We shouldn't expect people to need as much time to come to an understanding of something like the assumption of Mary as they need to come to an understanding of, say, something like Chalcedonian Christology or other aspects of Trinitarianism. See here regarding the difficulties involved in arriving at a canon of literature, and particularly a canon of scripture in a Christian context, which makes it absurd to put something like the development of the assumption of Mary or the development of the papacy in the same category as the development of a canon of scripture.

- The totality of the evidence for the belief in question needs to be kept in mind, not just a portion of the evidence. Let's say our New Testament canon first appears in the historical record in Athanasius around the middle of the fourth century. And some other belief, such as the assumption of Mary, first appears around the same time in an apocryphal document written by an unknown source and depicting Mary's assumption in a highly unhistorical setting. Are the two beliefs - our twenty-seven-book New Testament canon and the assumption of Mary - equally credible, since both first appeared in the historical record around the same time? No. The timing of their first appearance in the historical record is only one line of evidence we would consider among many others.

Athanasius is a more credible source, there's far more internal evidence for his claim, etc. Since the canon of scripture is so often brought up in discussions about doctrinal development, it should be noted that a canon, by its nature, has much more internal evidence and other forms of evidence associated with it than something like the assumption of Mary does. We can gather a large amount of evidence for or against a canon from the language of the documents involved, the arguments made by the documents, and other internal data. And by the time we get to a source like Athanasius in the fourth century, we've had hundreds of years of people commenting on the origins of the books, people commenting on their canonicity, etc. You could arrive at a canon without even having a list like the one in Athanasius. If you have sufficient evidence for each part of the canon (however many parts you want to divide it into), the cumulative effect is the twenty-seven-book canon, even if you didn't get to that canon by means of a list like the one in Athanasius.

By contrast, how much internal evidence do we have for something like the assumption of Mary? And how much support is there among earlier sources for the parts that make up the assumption belief (perhaps a belief that Mary wasn't buried in any tomb, a belief that somebody had received a vision seeing her bodily in heaven, etc.)? There isn't much internal evidence for a belief like the assumption of Mary. There's vastly less internal evidence for the assumption than for the canon. And we don't have the sort of evidence for the constituent parts of the assumption prior to the fourth century that we have for the constituent parts of the canon during that timeframe. It's not as though all of the parts of the assumption were present and widely affirmed, but we just didn't have anybody putting all of the pieces together and affirming that cumulative effect. Rather, the situation with the assumption is much different than the situation with the canon.

And I'm just addressing a common perception regarding when these beliefs first appear in the historical record, not what I believe the timing to be. As I've argued elsewhere, the twenty-seven-book New Testament canon probably first appears in Origen, more than a century before Athanasius, and it's likely that other sources also held that canon prior to Athanasius.

- We have to distinguish between possible conclusions and probable ones. As I wrote in another post:

What we should be looking for here is probability, not just a possibility. It would be possible to take James 5:16 as a seed that develops into the tree of private confession to a priest, and it would be possible to take Revelation 11:19 as an infant who grows into the adult of the bodily assumption of Mary. It would also be possible to take James 5:16 as a seed that develops into the tree of public confession to a deacon, and it would also be possible to take Revelation 4:1-2 as an infant who grows into the adult of the bodily assumption of John. None of those passages imply such conclusions. None of those texts render such doctrinal developments probable. And an appeal to a church authority to render such interpretations probable would require that the church authority in question be shown to be probable itself. Yet, when we get to foundational issues of authority like the papacy, we often see another appeal to doctrinal development. Either the foundation has to be laid for Catholicism without an appeal to development or some sort of foundational development has to be shown to be probable, not just possible.

- We need to distinguish between when a belief was first affirmed in extant sources and when it was popularized. For example, comparing when the assumption of Mary first appeared in the historical record to when our New Testament canon became widely accepted (e.g., citing alleged affirmations of it at councils in the late fourth and early fifth centuries) is misleading.


  1. Jason--

    One of the main "evidences" of the Assumption that Catholics tend to put forward is the absence of first-class relics for Mary. (Of course, Joseph has none either. I think a few prominent Catholics in history--Francis de Sales, for example--actually believed in an assumption for Joseph, as well.)

    Do you know anything about how the history and provenance of relics fits into this whole mess? It looks to me that there were alternate theories as to the destinies, destinations, and final resting spots of most of the apostles. That there were relic hunters drawn to certain graves by dreams rather than research. That many were collected long, long after the saints' deaths. That there may not be much of any way to authenticate most ancient relics.

    Is that what you have found?

    1. I address relics and some related issues as they pertain to the assumption of Mary in the posts here and here.

  2. Jason, do you think RC apologists have borrowed from Protestant thought when working through doctrinal development? Newman is obvious, but the myriad of converts to Rome turned apologists today seem to not mind perpetuating arguments that would have been anathema in Rome prior to Vatican II.

    1. There has been a variety of arguments among Catholics and inconsistencies over time, but I don't know much about the sources behind the arguments. I would expect different Catholics to be influenced by different sources, and an individual Catholic could be influenced by multiple sources. I wouldn't expect Protestants to typically be the only source of influence, though they're involved to some extent. All of us are influenced by other sources, often unconsciously, and thinking in one area can influence thinking in another even when the two areas are significantly different (e.g., a popular scientific hypothesis influencing historical thinking; a popular theory in one field of historical research becoming influential in another field of historical research). Tracing the influences in a person or group's thinking is often difficult or impossible, and it's frequently not worth the effort.

    2. Agreed at the micro-level. At the macro-level, sociologists trace consensus in thought rather well. In fact, we do it when we seek to understand the Bible in the context of those to whom it was written.

      It is not a far cry to contend RC thought, prior to Newman and later Vatican II, was generally Trentitarian, that is, believing all the “traditions” in the church, both oral and written, were handed down through Apostolic succession from hand-to-hand, essentially unchanged. Therefore, doctrinal development didn’t exist or at least it existed in a different philosophical framework, essentially with a different definition than today.

      I think there is a similar thought in Orthodoxy, though with more flexibility. Newman popularized the “seed” concept which changed RC thought and allowed for doctrinal development. Newman’s thought was shaped through Protestantism, and afterwards changed Roman Catholic thought.

      I’m suggesting Newman is a forerunner who broke ground for other Protestant to RC converts who now propose arguments wherein the foundation of the argument can only be found historically in Protestant thought.

      Perhaps it is not worth spending much time on, but it does help me to see the errors in RC apologetics, essentially where they cannot stay consistent. Their claim is to historical consistency, yet that can be debated and perhaps completely disproved.