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

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.

Pondering the "Smaller but Purer" Vision of the Church

In the early days of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI was quoted to say that he envisioned the immediate future of the Church to be a smaller but more pure Church. In the video below he reiterates something very similar:

In my view, a Church which seeks above all to be attractive, is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for herself, she does not work to increase her numbers and power. She works for Another. She serves not herself, not to become strong. She serves to make the announcement of Jesus Christ more accessible….. (On the Papal Plane headed to the U.K.).

I was talking with a friend recently who is troubled by such notions and stated that many declining Protestant denominations have said something similar. He further said that their experience is that denominations that claim the mantle of being “smaller but purer,” end up being  just smaller.

Of course I would counter that many of the approaches that have shrunk the main-line Protestant denominations were far from pure. In fact many of the older Protestant denominations abandoned biblical principles and  forged a strange alliance with the  “new morality” of an increasingly corrupt world. Evangelical Protestantism has risen in defiance of that trend. But I digress.

I will admit that the Pope’s remarks  may cause us to wonder, and some even to worry. I want to defend the Pope’s remarks but perhaps we can begin by articulating some concerns that such remarks might cause:

  1. As a Church with a mandate to evangelize the whole world, it seems natural that we would want to talk about growing as a general norm.
  2. If we are shrinking  in parts of the world it may be that we are being purer in a world gone mad. But it may also be due to the fact that we are arcane in how we communicate. Perhaps we have not adapted to the newer forms of media. Perhaps we have not considered articulating our views in the vocabulary of the average modern person. Perhaps we are simply ineffective communicators. Perhaps, due to scandal etc., we no longer seem credible to the world. Our doctrine must be pure but our delivery of the message may need legitimate adjustments. Simply pointing to the likelihood that we are going to be smaller and accepting this may not help us to look at and change what ought to be changed.
  3.  Accepting “small” as a norm does not encourage an urgency to evangelize.

So here are some concerns that weigh against the Pope’s remarks and vision of a smaller and more pure Church.

But we also ought to examine the value of such a vision. Here are some:

  1. Popularity too often comes in this world at the cost of compromise. Jesus said, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers treated the false prophets in just this way (Lk 6:26). Hence our first concern should not be numbers, but fidelity to the whole counsel of Christ.
  2. The Lord promised us the world’s hatred (Jn 15:19) and this does not suggest that our numbers would routinely include vast majorities. That is ,  if we are proclaiming the unabridged, unvarnished truth announced by Jesus Christ and, thus, experiencing the hatred he promised.
  3. Jesus indicated that while many are called, few are chosen (Matt 22:14). Hence we should evangelize all,  but accept that many, perhaps even most, will reject the invitation to the Kingdom of God or be found unworthy of it.
  4. The Gospel is to be preached in season and out of season. This more than suggests there would be fallow periods in the expected harvest and that numbers are not the main priority, faithfulness is.
  5. Jesus did not seem to trust larger crowds and would often thin the ranks with a “hard saying” when he noticed gathering crowds. More on this concept here: Thinning the Ranks
  6. Other denominations that have tried to accommodate to modern demands by abandoning gospel purity have been the most devastated in terms of dropping numbers.
  7. Hence the denomination that seeks to be big by being less insistent on purity ends up being neither big nor pure. In other words it ends up being nothing.
  8. Thus, it is purity that matters most and the numbers must be left to God.

In the end the “smaller but more pure” vision is a “dangerous doctrine” for it can lead to a kind of quietism. Only if we humbly leave the question of numbers to God, and continue to evangelize in the most effective and persistent manner we know, can we maintain the proper balance. Jesus said Go (unto all the nations) and so we go. He did not say count all your converts or boast of your numbers. He did not say be popular, or the most numerous. He did say be faithful and teach all he had commanded us.

I am interested in your thoughts on the “dangerous doctrine” of the smaller and more pure Church. Perhaps it is well to conclude with the words of St. Paul who counsels Timothy and all of us:

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 3:2-5)