John Henry Cardinal Newman should be named a saint if only for his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. All joking aside this book was eye opening. If anyone wants to understand fully how Christian Doctrine has developed over time you need to read the book. This article is not to be confused as a review or summary of the book but a short explanation.
Vatican II’s explanation of development of Doctrine is:
"The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her" (Dei Verbum 8).
Development is often confused with changing or “inventing” of Doctrine. Most important of all is the understanding that The Church cannot change or invent Doctrine to add to what has been revealed (as many charge the Catholic Church of doing) but instead misunderstandings are cleared up. An example of this would be with the Trinity. The Council of Nicea cleared up many misunderstandings about the nature of Jesus. The misunderstanding, by Arius and his followers, was that Jesus was a created being. The council cleared this up by declaring that Jesus was “begotten not made” by the Father. Another misunderstanding would be whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. Again the council declared, following “begotten not made,” that Jesus is consubstantial (homoousion), or of the same substance of the Father. We can even go back as far as the Old Testament to see the seeds being planted (Genesis 1:26, Deuteronomy 6:4 etc.). This doesn’t change the Doctrine that Jesus is God but is a development of the language and understanding of Jesus and the Trinity.
As we saw, developments are a necessary part of the Christian religion. Faith starts as a mustard seed (Genesis 1:26) and grows into a tree (homoousion). It is one thing to understand a Doctrine but quite another to formulate it into words that correctly describe the truth. One can simply understand that Jesus is God when He takes the name of God (I AM) in John 8:58 but it is quite a difference to formulate it into words that correctly describe this relationship fully.
Through history we notice that Doctrine went undefined until they were challenged. As we saw before, Arius challenged the Traditional teaching of Jesus as God. Now no Christian would deny the Trinity (it is by this fact that makes them a Christian) so then what happens when a Christian decides to deny a truth even before it is defined by the infallible Church? This is called, by Cardinal Newman, a corruption.
Cardinal Newman defines corruption as: “a corruption is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death” (p. 446). This seems to be correct when taken into context of the corruptions before the council of Nicea. He says that, when referring to Catholicism, “that its long series of developments should be corruptions would be an instance of sustained error, so novel, so unaccountable, so preternatural, as to be little short of a miracle, and to rival those manifestations of Divine Power which constitute the evidence of Christianity” (ibid). The argument he makes here is fairly long so I will not duplicate it but it is rather convincing. If Catholicism is not the True Faith then something must be holding it together other than God as it would have to be a sustained corruption. If God is not sustaining it, then who? If it were mere humanity it would have gone by the wayside like many other corruptions but it has not. Some may say that the Catholic Church is the house of Satan but that doesn’t make sense either since that attributes much power to Satan as well as much good (the largest charity in the world) for well over a thousand years (if it is indeed a corruption). Instead, the developments have happened logically from mustard seeds into full blow Doctrine supported by God Himself.
However, we do find departures from The Truth by those within the Church. Fast forwarding to the 16th century where we see many corruptions taking place. Contradictory doctrines flying here and there, doctrines not heard of previously being taught, books of the Bible being thrown out because this doctrine or that is in those books. This departure from development should show us somethings. First, examples like this have happened in the past as spoken to previously with Arianism which was a novel doctrine. Second, that, if this new doctrine is true, then why wasn’t it taught before and how was God’s Word hidden, as in no one believed it, for more than 1,000 years? Why didn’t God guide them to The Truth sooner? Take for instance this new doctrine of Sola Scriptura. There is no verse that commands us to adhere only to Scripture. Why would a doctrine so central to The Truth be so indecipherable even to the early Christians who, instead of gathering up all Scripture on the death of the last apostle, did not even define the canon of Scripture until more than 300 years later and, if Catholicism is untrue, was wrong for another 1,200 years! It seems unimaginable that God would allow such a dark period for His loved ones. Inconceivable even that He had never done such a thing or even prophesied of it! One would have to assume the falling away of the entire Church with only His written Word saved.
Yet we can see The Truth still living on when we study history and the development of Christian Doctrine. We see the early Church Fathers showing their reliance on both Scripture and Tradition. Sola Scriptura would be a novel doctrine even to them if their actions are anything to go by. Their reliance on Tradition in conjunction with the Scriptures they had available to them, or those they believed to be Scripture such as the Didache, instead of gathering up all the Scriptures to ensure they were teaching only from Scripture shows that either they didn’t care about Scripture or there is more than just the Scriptures that a Christian needs to follow in relation to God’s Word. The first example makes no sense since they often quoted Scripture at length to make their case however, during the Arian heresy, Scripture alone was not sufficient which is where homoousion came into play. The second example makes much more sense and is supported with a plethora of Scripture.
There can be truth in corruption. A correct diagnosis helps cure the disease. If corruption is simply rejected without careful examination it makes it difficult for those infected to come to The Truth. Once a correct diagnosis is made the infected have the means to be properly treated. The proper diagnosis leads to a correction of the corruption but also an emphasis on the truth within the corruption to lead the affected back to orthodoxy. For instance, today the corruption that many churches face is one of same-sex marriage. Many proponents in favor of same-sex marriage tell us this is the humane way to treat those with same sex attraction. Many view not allowing two men or two women to marry as a lack of love for them. However, the diagnosis, so far, has been to stress loving the individual while still combatting the corruption. In this case, loving the individual is The Truth which we must proclaim and cannot be thrown out along with the corruption.
As we see, development is a necessary part of the Christian religion. Without it Christianity stagnates and becomes prone to corruptions. Corruptions are typically short in duration yet the Catholic Church has been around for nearly 2,000 years. Novel doctrines do not constitute development but corruption and should be cured.