There would certainly be little quibble from someone who suggested that doctrine develops. There would also be no problems when someone suggests that earlier writers of the Old Testament knew less than later writers. The idea here is doctrinal development within the canon, often referred to as the doctrine of progressive revelation.
For example, we understand that Abraham did not have access to any of the Old Testament. His sources for theological inquiry had to come from other places. David, on the other hand, had much of the Old Testament to draw from, including the story of Abraham. We would assume that David’s understanding of the Gospel was more fully developed than Abraham’s. Abraham’s was most certainly more developed than Adam. Isaiah’s was more developed than any of these. Why? Because he had a fuller complement of understanding, both from time and the fuller complement of God’s revealed word. Yet Daniel had even more than Isaiah! You see where I am going.
So far so good?
Now let us move to the New Testament. I am sure that you would not have any problems with assertions that the Apostles in training while under the tutelage of Christ were less theologically astute and aware than the post-resurrection Apostles. No one would dare immortalize Peter’s rebuke of Christ’s revelation of his impending crucifixion (Matt. 16:21-23), believing it to be correct and Christ in error. We understand that the Apostle Peter was wrong and, with regard to the theology of the Gospel, a novice. We give him grace. We understand that Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 presents a bold and corrective advancement in his theology. We allow for this kind of development.
Normally, people would assume that after the resurrection and the receiving of the Holy Spirit early in Acts that everything the Apostles said and believed was not only correct, but representative of the fullness of the truth. We often assume that, at this time, there was no further need for any development in their understanding.
However, I am not completely convinced of this. In fact, I believe that, like with the authors of the Old Testament, the New Testament authors developed in their theology. In fact, I don’t necessarily believe that any of them, even Paul, had it all figured out the way we often suppose. I think that we sometimes read into their thoughts and writings a theology that, while correct, is not fully representative of the way they would have understood it, much less expressed it.
Why would we start with such an assumption? What need is there? We don’t do so with the Old Testament, why do we with the New Testament?
What kind of doctrine develops?
Let us start with something easy. I think that all of us would be willing to admit that, in Acts, there is a belief that Christ is coming in the lifetime of the Apostles. In Acts 1 the Apostles ask if it is now that Christ is restoring his kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). Christ tells them, essentially, that they are not going to know the timing of his kingdom. Therefore, should we not expect them to speak with some degree of ignorance about this throughout the book of Acts and in other letters? In Acts 3:19, it seems that Peter had an expectation of immediate eschatological fulfillment of the coming of the Lord. Paul often seems to express the same expectation. For example in Romans 13:11-12, Paul exhorts the Romans to righteous living based upon this expectation: ” Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (NAU). As well, notice in 1 Cor. 7:29 that Paul exhorts virgins not to get married because, in his opinion (? see 1 Cor. 7:25), “the time has been shortened” (v. 29). Peter, in 1 Pet. 4:7, says “the end of all things is at hand.” However, we don’t notice much development beyond this. Obviously, at the time of the Apostles death, they developed to the point that they knew the coming of Christ was not going to be in their lifetime!
As well, we know that Peter still struggled, post-Pentecost, with his prejudice concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan. It was not until Acts 10 that Peter comes the the full realization that the Gentiles are included in the kingdom plan. But even after this, he has a hard time accepting it as evidenced by his confrontation with Paul (Gal. 2:11-14). Therefore, we know that Peter’s doctrine was still in development even after the receiving of his Apostleship and the Holy Spirit.
As well, Peter talks about his struggle understanding Paul’s writing (2 Pet 3:16). Isn’t that a relief? Peter—the Apostle Peter—admits that there were things that Paul said that caused him to scratch his head. More important are the implications. Peter admit that he is learning from Paul, therefore, Peter admits ignorance about certain things. What things? He does not tell us, but more than likely these were doctrinal issues. Peter was advancing in his theology by his own (implied) admittance.
Things get a little more controversial when we move to other more specific and cardinal issues. . .
For example, could it be that the Apostles developed in their Christiology and Trinitarian understanding of God. Could it be that the Apostles and writers of the New Testament struggled in their early writings to understand what it meant that Christ was God’s Son and how to integrate that into their monotheistic worldview? Could it be that we have indications of this struggle in their writings? This is a very difficult proposal to make for me, but I believe that this type of intra-canonical development in the New Testament is perfectly consistent with a view of inerrancy.
All three historic traditions of Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) believe that a Trinitarian understanding of God’s nature is true and essential to the Christian worldview. Our trinitarian formula goes something like this: We believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons, all of whom are fully God all of whom are equal. However, many Christians have often scratched their heads wondering why there is not a more explicit testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity in such a form if the doctrine is so essential. In fact, it seems to have bothered some scribe so much that he added his own explicit statement of the of the Trinity to the Bible which made it into the KJV!
The question is, Why isn’t there a more explicit statement about the Trinity in the New Testament? There could be many factors at play here.
For one, while the authors of the New Testament wrestled with many doctrinal issues including the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), legalism (Gal.), God’s faithfulness (Rom. 9-11), and Christ’s humanity (1 John), it is possible that with regard to Christ’s deity, the culture was fully willing to integrate this teaching as much of the culture was already polytheistic (not that the Trinity is polytheistic!). But this begs the question concerning the Jews who were monotheistic. Would not there have been some controversy among them? Hence the lack of explicit references?
But it could also be that the Apostles themselves were wrestling with this conviction. There are plenty of statements about the deity of Christ in the New Testament (Jn. 1:1, 18, 8:58–59, 10:30–33, 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 1 Tim. 3:15–16; 2 Thes. 1:12; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15–17, 2:9). Fewer about the Holy Spirit, and very few that attempt to put all of these together in a systematic whole. However, concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, it is interesting how developed the Apostle John is in this regard. In the “Upper Room Discourse” (John 14-17) we have some of the most specific and developed theological discourse about the Trinity in the Bible. Certainly, this discourse was given many years prior to John’s recording, but it is interesting that John, in the 90’s (the most accepted date for the book of John), in one of the latest books of all the New Testament, includes this discourse while the others don’t. As well, all would admit that the book of John (and Revelation) have what could be considered the highest Christology in the whole Bible. Could it be that John had a better grasp of and comfort with the doctrine Trinity than anyone else?
But even then, we would have to admit that John’s own understanding is only in a sort of “proto-” form that the historic church would later develop further.
These are the types of issues with which we must wrestle.
All of this to ask some important questions. How does this affect the doctrine of inspiration and, more specifically, inerrancy. I have already expressed my comfort in holding to this kind of intra-canonical development and inerrancy. However, this causes me to nuance my view of inerrancy and my hermeneutic (method of Biblical interpretation). I believe that while all of the apostles are correct in everything they said (being inerrant), this does not make them omniscient in their knowledge or complete in their understanding. I believe that we have to look at the canon as a whole to responsibly systematize our doctrines.
See Dan Wallace’s writing on this here.