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On the Development of Doctrine (as illustrated in a Superbowl commercial).

February 9, 2012

Consider for a moment if you or I were to plant an acorn and then water it daily. Would we not be gravely disappointed if, within the space of a year, that acorn remained wholly unchanged, i.e. remained just an acorn? We may as well have planted a stone. Of course what we expect to see in due season is the shoot of a new oak tree, and next the leaves. And in the course of years we hope for, and expect, a mighty oak tree to spread its growing branches and to continue to grow each year.

Mysteriously too, everything that oak tree becomes was contained in the seed of that little acorn. Where we to plant an acorn, it would surely be shocking to see a bird, or a fish, or a person, emerge from the soil. Even stranger would it seem for the acorn yield an oak, but then suddenly that small oak tree shape-shift or morph and become a dolphin. Such things just don’t happen. An acorn contains the nature of an oak tree and, though its origin is humble, it becomes a mighty oak, just that, and only that. It does this in stages, to be sure, but it does not suddenly shift its shape or form and become something other than a tree. So the tree develops and becomes more and more itself.

It is the same with doctrine. The Lord planted the seed of his Word and teaching in the soil of our hearts, and in the heart of the Church. And surely, as the centuries have gone by, the same Lord has seen to it that the seed of his teaching should grow and develop in stages, as the Church authentically reflects on it, and as it is watered by the Holy Spirit. Surely the Lord would not be pleased if, having planted the seed of his truth, it were to have remained just a seed.

And thus, in the early centuries as the seed of God’s Word and teaching developed, as the Church hammered out the doctrines of the Trinity, of Christ, of Grace, of the Sacraments, of salvation and so forth. And thus the truths of these things, contained in seminal form, in Scripture and Tradition, grew to greater maturity and began to spread their branches over the Church.

We call this the Development of Doctrine

But note this, the teachings became what they already and always were. They did not spring up as one thing and morph into another. Neither did they come from nowhere. All the Church’s teachings come from the one seed of God’s Word and truth, a seed sown by God himself, in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. We do not invent new truth, nor does the truth alter itself.

St. Vincent of Lerins says this of the Development of Doctrine:

Is there to be not development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale…..But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alternation 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 one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person…..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….the fullness of years always brings to completion those members and forms that the wisdom of the Creator fashioned beforehand in their earlier years.

….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……there should be no inconsistency…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. (First Instruction)

This understanding of doctrine should lead us to a balance that rejects sudden and and inauthentic innovations that respect neither authenticity or continuity; but the same balance we seek should also lead us to reject a notion of the Church as utterly frozen in place, and where we harken to some golden age whence the Church can never emerge or grow.

Hence in recent times we have risked what some have called the “Hermaneutic of Discontinuity,” wherein some have proposed thinking and practices that do not flow from authentic growth, and are not a development of doctrine, but a denial of it. Recent Popes and the Magisterium have had to summon many back to the true fonts of our faith. The publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and numerous corrective documents, both doctrinal, disciplinary and liturgical, have been necessary mechanisms in this summons.

But also to be avoided is what might be called a kind of “archeologisim” that indiscriminately favors the liturgical practices, doctrinal expressions, and/or disciplines of the ancient and early Church, or of some other chosen “golden age” and dismisses many later and legitimate developments. An acorn is not meant to stay and acorn, a young man is not meant to say a young man, and the Church and her doctrine are not meant to stay undeveloped and seminal.

And thus the “Development of Doctrine” is essential to the Church’s life. But this development always respects the true nature of the seed of doctrine that was sown by Christ, and the Apostles. And no true development of doctrine can proceed apart from the growth of the original seed, sown by Christ and his Apostles, and nurtured by God in his Church. There is an ancient maxim: Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est (Let nothing new be introduced, except what has been handed down). Hence there is not to be some new or separate growth that springs up from no where, but only the steady growth and maturity that respects continuity, and is linked back to what Christ sowed.

During the Superbowl I saw a commercial for the NFL that actually inspired this post. In this video you will see football in its early stages. There are differences, but all the essentials (the seed) are there. As the player runs the field, he also runs the years. And while it is clearly the same game, (football has not morphed into car racing or something else), there is a clearly a development in everything, from pads and uniforms, to tactics, stadium design, and even the fans. So the essentials are not rejected, they just grow and become more mature, more refined, more developed.

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  1. James says:

    The acorn image is a terrific analogy. I’ve often thought of the development of doctrine as taking a slab of rock and cutting away at it. Within that rock is a beautiful statue, and that statue has always been there. As time progresses, the rock is chipped away revealing a beautiful sculpture.

  2. Ikedi says:

    I’ve always thought the “development” of Catholic Doctrine is more like the revelation of universal and “hidden” truth. Hidden because it’s impossible for us fallen and wretched creatures to discern or discover them by any of our senses or severely hindered intellect. Universal because all people are subject to it whether they realize it or not. The truth revealed through Holy Mother Church and Sacred Scripture continue to astound me on a regular basis the more I conform to them over time.