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The Development of Dogma:
A Systematic Account

by guy mansini, o.s.b.
catholic university of america, 192 pages, $29.95

The development of doctrine is a notion more frequently invoked than understood. When, as is too often done, a novelty or even a reversal of traditional Christian teaching is proposed as a “development,” the term is being abused. Indeed, it is being deployed to denote precisely the opposite of what the Church’s greatest theorists of dogmatic development, SS. Vincent of Lérins and John Henry Newman, had in mind. Doctrine develops when hitherto unforeseen implications of the deposit of faith are drawn out of it. It is corrupted when that deposit is contradicted or new teaching is spun out of whole cloth. If what I know at first is that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man, an inference to the effect that Socrates is mortal would be a development. Somehow to infer instead that Socrates is immortal or that roses are red would be something else entirely.

Catholics speak of “the mind of the Church” because the Church is a kind of corporate person. That a true development is always consistent with the past reflects the fact that hers is a logical mind. It also reflects her nature as an organism that grows as other living things do, yet, unlike them, is divinely preserved from deformation. Chesterton once wrote:

When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.

Were the Church to teach in a way that contradicts the deposit of faith, she would be like a puppy that degenerates into a catlike monstrosity. Were she to teach sheer novelties, she would be like a child whose stilts and padding present as growth what is not growth at all. To be sure, the Church’s pastors may err in isolated cases when speaking in a non-definitive way. But in the consistent teaching of centuries and in acts of the extraordinary magisterium (ex cathedra papal pronouncements and conciliar definitions), she is preserved from doctrinal corruption.

The main way in which corruptions of doctrine masquerade as developments is by claiming descent from some particular part of Scripture or tradition while ignoring other relevant parts. This is in fact the literal meaning of “heresy”—the hairesis or “choosing” of some aspect of the deposit of faith in a manner that distorts it by separating it from the rest of that deposit. Hence, one heretic might appeal to the unity of the divine nature in trying to justify denying the distinctness of the three divine Persons. Another might appeal to the distinctness of the Persons in trying to justify denying the unity of the divine nature. Trinitarian orthodoxy avoids these heresies (modalism and polytheism, respectively) by adhering simultaneously to both divine unity and the distinctness of the Persons.

In recent theology, some have appealed to Christian mercy to justify rejecting the doctrine of hell, or to argue that capital punishment is intrinsically or of its very nature wrong (as distinct from the weaker claim that it is wrong when unnecessary for maintaining public order). These heresies essentially “choose” divine mercy at the expense of divine justice, yielding a distorted conception of the former. And they clearly contradict Scripture and tradition. By the criteria of Newman and Vincent of Lérins, they manifestly count as corruptions rather than developments of doctrine.

This much gives us merely the basics of the theology of doctrinal development. That these basics are often poorly understood today would suffice to justify a book-length treatment. Naturally, a deeper study would be even more useful. The publication of Fr. Guy Mansini’s The Development of Dogma is thus a most welcome event. It is not only a salutary correction of the usual errors, but a penetrating exploration of the neglected historical, theological, and philosophical roots of the notion of doctrinal development. Learned, systematic, and written with admirable lucidity, it will benefit not only Catholic theologians and churchmen, but also Protestants and Eastern Orthodox who often misunderstand the Church’s claims in this area.

Mansini begins by setting out the key constituents of the notion of development. Doctrinal development presupposes a creed, in the sense of a body of beliefs comprising divinely revealed propositions that correspond to objective reality, rather than merely expressing subjective religious experience. This creed is one insofar as its components are not a hodgepodge, but unified by logical connections and conceptual overlap. It is also many insofar as this unified body of doctrine contains multiple aspects, implications, applications, and so forth. Development entails the passage of time between the formulation of the one creed and the gradual working-out of its ramifications. But it also crucially involves rational continuity rather than mere temporal succession. And this extrapolation from the creed yields not only new conclusions but greater clarity of the creed itself. Having established these themes, the book sets out to examine each of them in depth.

A crucial part of this task involves clarifying the other key term referred to in the book’s title, namely dogma. A dogma is a definitive and binding formulation by the magisterium of the Church of some truth known through divine revelation. Mansini argues that dogma is essentially the invention of the Council of Nicaea. That is not to deny that something like dogma existed before then (such as the teaching about what constitutes the canon of Scripture). But what would become the characteristic notes of dogma—the encapsulation of revealed truth in a precise and sometimes novel technical vocabulary, formally defined by ecclesiastical authority—came to the fore with this council, which condemned the Arian heresy and established Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The council’s term homoousios, “of the same substance,” is a famous example of a technical term introduced in order to sharpen the boundaries of correct belief. As Mansini explains, the reason this linguistic novelty amounts to a true development rather than a doctrinal novelty is that it follows logically from what was already present in the deposit of faith. And here, Mansini notes, we begin to see the indispensable role that both logical inference and philosophy—especially metaphysics—have played and must always play in the development of doctrine. For it required metaphysical analysis to work out the precise content and implications of notions like “substance” and “person,” and logical precision to determine that a seemingly close-enough compromise term like homoiousios (“of similar substance”) would undermine rather than preserve orthodoxy.

However, not all philosophical ideas are equally conducive to true development. In recent decades, some have rejected a “propositional” conception of divine revelation in favor of the notion that revelation is a kind of “personal encounter,” as if these concepts were mutually exclusive. One problem with this view, as Mansini points out, is that a personal encounter with Christ itself entails the revelation of propositions, since what we know about Christ and from him are truths that are unintelligible unless put in propositional form. Another problem is that overemphasis on the believer’s personal encounter with God tends to result in revelation’s being regarded as ongoing even now, an idea that conflicts with the Church’s perennial teaching that public revelation is closed, the deposit of faith having been “once for all delivered” (Jude 3). As St. Vincent of Lérins summed up the constraints: “Do not say new things but say old things newly.”

Without neglecting the insights he thinks can be drawn from nouvelle théologie writers such as Yves Congar, Mansini is unapologetically old-fashioned in upholding an Aristotelian-Thomistic epistemology and metaphysics as essential to understanding dogma and its development. Revelation, for this school of thought, builds on—without smothering—the human intellect’s natural capacity to grasp mind-independent truth and human language’s capacity to convey it. Mansini effectively argues against both the historicist denial of the possibility of attaining such truth and a fideism that supposes such attainment possible only by way of a miracle (putting faith in place of reason rather than working with reason). Along the way, he provides a philosophically subtle but clear and accessible account of the nature of cognition and language.

As Mansini points out, even where mundane realities are concerned, words function to make absent things present to the mind by virtue of the concepts and propositions they evoke. Thus can we contemplate whales even when we are miles from the ocean, and know that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March despite this event’s having occurred in the distant past. Supernatural realities would be even more inaccessible if we lacked such intellectual and linguistic capacities. As Mansini notes, we could not know God if we lacked words like “all” and “not,” since to know what God is entails knowing that he is not any of the things of our experience, yet is the cause of all of them. No gesture could convey even these simple concepts, since we cannot gesture at all things or point to what is not. They are abstractions, which only the intellect can grasp and only words can express. And they illustrate the incoherence of any attempt to make sense of revelation in non-propositional terms.

Naturally, Newman’s influential account of doctrinal development receives much attention in Mansini’s book. On the one hand, that account emphasizes features of the history of dogma, such as continuity and logical progression. On the other hand, Newman’s analysis does not entail that future developments are strictly predictable from the past. The reasons are twofold. First, the course doctrinal development takes is affected by personalities and historical circumstances and events that are highly contingent. Things could have gone in different directions, even if not in directions that would bind the Church to error. Second, development is ultimately a result of the action of the Church, and the Church, again, is a kind of corporate person. As such, she is free, just as persons in general are, and her actions accordingly are not rigidly determined. Furthermore, as Mansini illustrates with several case studies, sometimes the justification of a doctrinal development is a matter not of strict demonstration but rather of more informal and probabilistic modes of reasoning. (Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption are among Mansini’s examples.)

Mansini notes that Newman’s conception of development, though it reflects how the Church has understood herself historically, has been challenged in recent theology. Mansini counts the Catholic theologian Walter Kasper and the non-Catholic David Bentley Hart among those who would reorient doctrinal development toward the future rather than tying it unalterably to the past. On their view, a true development is one that gets us closer to some envisaged eschaton, without necessarily conforming to traditional teaching. Indeed, it may require correction of past teaching.

The problem with this view of development is that it fatally undermines the idea that Christian doctrine is grounded in divine revelation. For the future, needless to say, has not happened yet. Hence the theologian can hardly appeal to it to provide an objective foundation for his claims. Nor can he appeal even to whatever part of past teaching he thinks aims us toward the eschaton, since he would already need to have some idea of the eschaton in order to judge that that past teaching is oriented to it. In effect, whatever such a theologian teaches is at best a personal opinion about what should be revealed in the future, not a claim about what has in fact been, or will in fact be, revealed. Theology is thereby sunk in subjectivism.

This brings me to the main area where, it seems to me, Mansini’s treatment of his subject, though excellent, could use supplementation. He argues that Scripture and tradition on the one hand, and later magisterial and dogmatic formulations on the other, are a package deal. We cannot properly understand the former apart from the latter. So far, so good. But the claim needs qualification. It is not, and cannot be, the case that Scripture and tradition are entirely unintelligible apart from later magisterial and dogmatic formulations. For one thing, even people who are ignorant of or reject the formulations have some understanding of Scripture and tradition, however imperfect and incomplete. For example, that the world is created by God, that God instituted a covenant with Israel through Moses, that Christ is the Son of God, and so on, are all knowable from Scripture even to someone who doesn’t know about or doesn’t agree with what the Church has said about the correct understanding and implications of these claims.

For another thing, to make Scripture and tradition entirely unintelligible apart from later dogmatic and magisterial formulations would throw into doubt the claim that dogma and magisterium always build on, and never contradict or add sheer novelties to, Scripture and tradition. Suppose the Church were to teach that Christ is not really divine after all, or that there is a fourth divine Person in the Godhead. Naturally, critics would say that the first claim contradicts Scripture and tradition, and that the second has no grounding in Scripture and tradition but is made up out of whole cloth. Suppose the Church said in response that if it seems that way, this just shows that people have for millennia been misunderstanding Scripture and tradition.

Needless to say, this would render meaningless the Church’s claim to teach in conformity with Scripture and tradition. Any departure from Scripture and tradition could magically be rendered “traditional” by an insistence that, appearances notwithstanding, it can’t really be a departure if the Church teaches it. (In logic, this move is called the “No true Scotsman fallacy,” the tactic of defining away inconvenient evidence by arbitrary stipulative definition. It is illustrated in the following dialogue: “No true Scotsman would play James Bond!” “What about Sean Connery?” “Well, if he played James Bond, he must not really be a Scotsman after all!”)

It seems to me that Mansini could say more about exactly how to draw the line between what can be understood about Scripture and tradition apart from later dogmatic and magisterial formulations, and what strictly requires the latter. But no book can do everything, and Mansini’s already accomplishes a great deal. It will promote deeper and more systematic thinking about the nature of doctrinal development, something that is now needed perhaps more urgently than ever. 

Edward Feser is professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College.

Image by Sergey Smirnov, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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