Development of an idea and of doctrine ~ Cardinal Newman

JHN, Richmond portraitThe development of Christian doctrine is a very important subject in Christianity and one, which demands a proper understanding and safeguards. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) John Henry Newman explains how human beings grasp ideas, looking at them from different angles. This is something that takes time and effort. Then as ideas are connected with other ideas and rightly ordered doctrines are formulated.

“Ordinarily an idea is not brought home to the intellect as objective except through this variety; like bodily substances, which are not apprehended except under the clothing of their properties and results, and which admit of being walked round, and surveyed on opposite sides, and in different perspectives, and in contrary lights, in evidence of their reality.”

Ideas grow over time. “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea, no one term or proposition which will serve to define it…”

Newman makes an analogy with a stream and a river. An idea begins like a spring but when it develops it is more like a river. He writes that an idea “is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full.”

He explains that an idea is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. “From time to time it makes essays, which fail, and are in consequence abandoned.” Thus we arrive at an often quoted passage from his essay, one usually quoted without the proper context: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Newman thinks that change is a natural part of growth and perfection and as such that development of doctrine in Christianity is to be expected. At the same time he writes that “an infallible developing authority is to be expected” to judge about such developments because for many reasons such as birth, education, place, personal attachment people interpret developments differently.

The infallible voice of the Church is necessary: “some rule is necessary for arranging and authenticating these various expressions and results of Christian doctrine.” This teaching authority is necessary “to impart decision to what is vague, and confidence to what is empirical, to ratify the successive steps of so elaborate a process and to secure the validity of inferences…”

After speaking about this Teaching Authority Newman goes on to speak of seven tests or notes that are also helpful for ascertaining the correctness of development. We have alluded to them in an earlier post, “but they are insufficient for the guidance of individuals in the case of so large and complicated a problem as Christianity though they may aid our inquiries and support our conclusions.”

In sum, with the passage of time the Church’s doctrine grows, and its teaching authority judges on the correctness of this doctrinal growth. The tests identified by Newman helps the Teaching Magisterium it in this important task.


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