How do Protestants justify their belief in sola fide (salvation by faith alone) if it didn’t exist prior to the sixteenth-century? How do Catholics explain their belief in the Assumption of Mary when it wasn’t dogmatized until the twentieth-century? How does Eastern Orthodox justify their under-developed beliefs and tendency to punt to “mystery”? What’s going on with all this changing doctrine?
How do Protestants justify their belief in sola fide if it didn’t exist prior to the sixteenth-century?
How we answer these questions is our doctrine about the development of doctrine itself. Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics have to account for the way truth has been progressively understood over time. Here are the problems each tradition faces:
Why do we hold so strongly to doctrines such as sola scriptura and sola fide when, prior to the Reformation, many (if not most) in the church didn’t? The typical answer is “because the Bible is clear about these teachings”. While true, it causes us to wonder, if the Bible was so clear, why did these doctrines take so long to develop?
If the Bible was so clear, why did these doctrines take so long to develop?
In 1950, the doctrine of The Assumption of Mary was dogmatized in Catholicism, and enforced under pain of excommunication. However, it finds no biblical warrant and little support in church history. In fact, the first mention of the Assumption of Mary we find in church history isn’t until the fifth-century. Why wasn’t it heard of before this? Why did it take so long for it to become dogma? This is only one of the many doctrinal “developments” Catholicism must explain. Here is a partial list:
- Doctrine of Purgatory
- Dogmatization of the seven sacraments and the specific role they play in one’s salvation in the Middle Ages.
- Papal infallibility
- The Marian Dogmas
- What “outside the Church there is no salvation” meant (pre and post-Vatican II).
The first mention of the Assumption of Mary we find in church history isn’t until the fifth-century.
Both Catholics and Protestants face the same question: What about those who came before? Why didn’t they understand or emphasize these issues to the same degree?
Eastern Orthodox Problems
Eastern Orthodoxy has a very different approach to doctrinal development. In short, they don’t really believe in it, at least not in the way we’ve been talking about it. They hold that the fullness of doctrine was developed in the first few centuries of the church. All future developments are deemed novel and/or heretical. In short, if the early church didn’t articulate it, neither should we.
If the early church didn’t articulate it, neither should we.
What’s the problem with this perspective? It sounds good. The difficulty is that the early church articulated doctrine only to the degree that those doctrines were challenged. In other words, there wasn’t enough time for all doctrines to be fully established, challenged, and refined in the first few centuries.
Just insert the word “mystery”, and you’ll be fine.
Because of their perspective on doctrinal development Eastern Orthodox have difficulty with:
- The meaning of the atonement
- The instrumental cause of salvation
- The canon of Scripture
- The authority in the Church
- The “ransom to Satan” theory of the atonement
They’re frozen in the past. Issues that weren’t dogmatized and articulated in the first few centuries are doomed to a perpetual state of apophatic necessity. In other words, just insert the word “mystery”, and you’ll be fine.
The Protestant View of “Changing” Doctrine Defended
Both Catholic and Orthodox are alike in that they seek, above all else, to find their tradition in the early Church. Their philosophy of history is, “the closer you get to the Apostles’ successors, the closer you are to truth.”
Do you get closer to truth the closer you get to the Apostles?
Protestants, by-and-large, do not take this approach, believing it to be naive. We reject the assumption that the early church (the one right after the Apostles) got it all right. (Hang with me here). We opt for a development of doctrine which sees the Protestant dogmas as defining Protestant orthodoxy. While true and important, these dogmas do not define historic orthodoxy (see my blog Are You Orthodox or Heretic for more on this).
God, in His grace and in His own time, allows doctrines to develop in essence and articulation.
In other words, the doctrine of sola fide, for example, may not have been strictly held, prior to the Reformation. However, God, in His grace and in His own time, allows doctrines to develop in essence and articulation. It is true that Evangelical Protestants who hold to essentialism would fly this flag higher than other traditions in the Protestant faith.
A Uniquely Protestant Problem
Here is an attempt to represent how Protestants understand doctrinal development.
Our argument would be that the essentials of who Christ is and what He has done has always been held by all (Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox):
- That Christ is both fully God and fully man
- That Christ died on the cross and rose from the grave
- That mankind is sinful and in need of a savior
- That faith in Christ is necessary
- That grace is the only foundation for salvation
This is just a short list of doctrines that form the bedrock of orthodoxy (not Orthodoxy as in “Eastern”). Yet, from this perspective (the crucible of time) controversy, canonical reflection, and maturation help us to add flesh to what these doctrines mean. Many times, this flesh significantly develops our understanding.
“Change” is a Bad Word
Change is the key word here. And if you noticed, I have not used it to describe our belief. No one likes this word. No tradition (outside of liberalism) believes doctrines change. Evangelical Protestants say that all the essential components for doctrine are found in the apostles’ teaching, but even the apostles had yet to put flesh on these bones.
No tradition (outside of liberalism) believes doctrines change.
Here’s another way Protestants look at it. Scripture is an undeveloped seed that could grow in the wrong way if it’s grown in bad soil (Catholic) or lacks water (Orthodox). This seed can be restored by being placed in purified soil and with allowance to grow (hence the developments of the Great Reformation).
From the Protestant’s perspective, it is not as if the Orthodox and Catholics are without the essential element – the seed, but that they have failed to allow doctrine to develop correctly.
Another way to put this (I work through this extensively in The Church History Boot Camp) is that the DNA of truth never changes. It is immutable. But the DNA has to mature and develop. The Scriptures never change. The truths of Scripture are perfect and without error. But these truths (this DNA) can, have, and will continue to mature. The primary evidence of the maturing is not only in articulation, but systematic understanding.
“Development” is a Good Word
It’s naive to think that the early Church got everything right simply because they were closer to the Apostles. Why would we make such an assumption? How would we justify this belief? I don’t even think the Apostles themselves had everything figured out. They certainly would not have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity the way we do, even if they did progressively believe and teach its basic components.
I don’t even think the Apostles themselves had everything figured out.
The Apostles planted the perfect seed and, like a seed, it wasn’t fully grown at the time of its planting. This is why the earliest creeds simply state, in biblical language, what the truth is without providing detailed definitions. Again, it is only when challenges are made and time has passed that the church further studies and refines doctrine. This is how I can say that belief in the doctrine of sola fide can be historically defended. It is not a change, but a development.
The Failure of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
Catholics, on the other hand, I believe, must admit with Martin Luther that their tradition is riddled with compromising change. Catholic scholar John Henry Newman put together the first substantial defense against the charges of change in Catholicism (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine). But, as brilliant as it was, history is the witness that significant contradictions exist in the history of Catholic doctrine. This would not be so devastating to Catholicism if they did not believe Church dogma to be infallible. “Development” or “maturation” are words Catholics would like to adopt, but they’re simply self-deceiving Band-Aids covering what I believe to be fatal wounds.
The Orthodox time machine is quite impressive. And, for the most part, their theology does reflect what might be considered an eastern consensus on doctrine. They hold to the first seven Ecumenical Councils and the statements of faith they represented. Protestants greatly appreciate that the Eastern Orthodox reject:
- Papal infallibility
- The assumption of Mary
- The equality of the Protocanonical works (Protestants 66-book canon) with the Deuterocanonical works (the Apocrypha).
However, their “time freeze” is not only unwarranted, but denies the power of the Spirit to work through the church, bringing us a more mature, sanctified, and systematic understanding of God. If we’re going to grow in our understanding of the Lord throughout eternity, why claim that all maturation of our faith ceased in 787?
I’d like to share a quote from my favorite Christian historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, who converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy in his 70s and died just a few years ago. He sums it up like this (taking about Catholicism and Protestantism):
I consider that the parting of the ways between the two Christian communities takes place on the issue of development of doctrine. That development has taken place in both communities cannot possibly be denied. The question is, what is legitimate development, what is organic growth in the understanding of the original deposit of faith, what is warranted extension of the primitive discipline of the church, and what, on the other hand, is accretion, additive increment, adulteration of the deposit, distortion of true Christian discipline? … Perhaps, above all, the question is, what are the limits of development and growth – the limits that must be reached on peril of archaistic stuntedness, and the limits that must not be transgressed on peril of futuristic decadence?” (J. Pelikan, Development of Christian Doctrine. Some Historical Prolegomena [London 1969], p. 1.)