Is the Idea of Doctrinal Development Compatible With Belief in the Abiding Truth of Christianity?

The problem that the development of doctrine presents to the church is simple. On the one hand, Christianity is presented as containing the lasting and eternal truth of salvation and eternal life, and on the other hand, when the history of the church is studied, the details within which this truth is presented, have quite clearly changed.

This problem is particularly exacerbated for those involved in ecumenical dialogue, and for theologians within the Roman Catholic church. For ecumenical dialogue, one must either try and hammer out those doctrines which are true and which arent, an approach that wont get very far, or learn to live together despite having different doctrines, that is, to say that what the other side says is wrong, but that can be accepted.

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A third approach, tried by some within the movement, is to try and find some reason why both sides of the debate can be right in some sense. For Roman Catholics the problems is exacerbated by their strong sense of authority of the church down the ages, and in particular the veracity of the official doctrines issued by the Popes and the Councils. If a Pope has held that Matthews gospel was written first, then it is very difficult for Catholic theologians to argue that that isnt true, and that Marks gospel, for instance, was in fact the first written. Within this essay I shall be looking at different approaches to the issue before going on to try and find the most convincing solution, should that be possible.

The history of doctrine in the early nineteenth century was seen by catholic theologians as being one of pure, unsullied teaching that had been handed down by the church from the time of the Fathers to the present day. There may have been changes of language, but the concepts behind them remained immutable. The reformation scholars looked upon doctrine as having started off good and pure, but then being corrupted by the church. They sought a return to the principles and doctrines of the early church, and saw their own work as being reflective of the teaching of the apostles and early fathers.

Newman was the first British scholar to look at the development of doctrine, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and say that doctrine had changed since the early church. For him, it was important to see doctrine in its historical context, and to understand why it was developed and by whom. He ceased to see the Protestant church as being the modern day equivalent of the early church, or to see it as historical Christianity.

The problem that Newman faced was that the current doctrine of the time as propounded by Bossuet was that the church had had various doctrines down through the ages, and at each crisis, the church had merely restated, perhaps in different language, these same doctrines. This meant that when, for instance, a heretic had risen in the church, the church responded by reiterating its doctrines, doctrines that had been existent in the church at all times.

For Newman, this seemed to be impossible. Instead of the church declaring her known mind on a problem brought to the surface by a heretic, this was impossible, as often the church didnt know her own mind. In Newmans theory the heretic is a thinker who makes an effort, but a mistaken or one-sided effort, at a statement of true doctrine, and who thus initiates or continues a doctrinal debate valuable for the church. (Chadwick, p.159)

As he saw there was enough indecision in the history of the church when faced with a heretic, this proved for him that the authorities of the Church were frequently ignorant of the true answer to the problem raised by a heretic, and that this true answer had to be thrashed out, debated and discovered, before the Church could pronounce her mind on the question. This led Newman on to conclude that the theology of the church is a diligent, patient, working out of one doctrine out of many materials. The conduct of Popes, Councils, Fathers, betokens the slow, painful, anxious taking up of new elements into an existing body of belief. (Essay, 353-4)

Lindbecks book suggested that there are three current trends in theories of doctrine. The first, cognitive-propositionalist, stresses the cognitive aspects of religion, emphasising the manner in which doctrines function as truth claims or informative propositions. In the experiential-expressive theory, doctrines are interpreted as non-cognitive symbols of inner human feelings or attitudes. Lindbecks own personal preference is for the theory of the cultural-linguistic approach, which is associated with a rule, or regulative theory of doctrine.

The first theory, the cognitive-propositionalist theory, which treats doctrines as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities, is dismissed by Lindbeck as voluntarist, intellectualist and literalist, saying that those who perceive or experience religion in cognitivist fashion are those who combine unusual insecurity with navet. The problem with his dismissal of these theories is that he appears, according to McGrath, not to treat these theologians with the thoroughness that perhaps they deserve. According to McGrath, for such theologians, doctrines are reliable, yet incomplete, descriptions of reality. Their power lies in what they represent, rather than what they are in themselves.

The experiential-expressivist theory of doctrine is one that has arisen from various psycho-social features of the post-Cartesian, post-Kantian, privatistic context of late twentieth-century western thought. For example, the contemporary preoccupation with inter-religious dialogue is considerably assisted by the suggestion that the various religions are diverse expressions of a common core experience, such as an isolable core of encounter or an unmediated awareness of the transcendent.

According to this approach, religions, including Christianity, are public, culturally conditioned manifestations and affirmations of pre-linguistic forms of consciousness, attitudes and feelings. Doctrines are interpreted as noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes or existential orientations. Lindbeck criticises this view of doctrine by looking at the phenomenological inaccuracy that it suffers. He points out that the possibility of religious experience is shaped by religious expectation, so that religious experience is conceptually derivative. It is difficult or impossible to specify its distinctive features, and yet unless this is done, the assertion of commonality becomes logically and empirically vacuous.

The assertion that the various religions are diverse symbolisations of one and the same core experience of the Ultimate is ultimately an axiom, an unverifiable hypothesis, not least on account of the difficulty of locating and describing the core experience concerned. The theory can only be credible if it is possible to isolate a common core experience from religious language and behaviour, and demonstrate that the latter two are articulations of or responses to the former.

Lindbecks own personal favourite view is that of the cultural-linguistic model. He says that a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought…. It is not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (although it may involve these), or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings or sentiments (though these will be generated).

Rather, it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings and sentiments. Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities. It comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed.

Doctrines are seen as the rules that order and create the intra-systemic consistency of the religion, in the same way that grammar regulates a language. It is not their content that matters so much here, as their function within the religion. The bible can be seen as being a vast, loosely-structured non-fictional novel, the canonical narrative of which offers an identity description of God. This is not dependent on the facticity of the scriptural story (e.g. Prodigal Son).

Lindbeck also tends to ignore history, that is, the historical development of doctrine. Doctrine came into being under certain situations in history, has been influenced by other historical problems, and should be explained today under historical grounds. Certainly, Lindbeck ignores the problem of the source of doctrine. Is it just the churchs response to certain situations, man-made and thought up by man, or is it God-given in the Christ-event? McGrath perceives doctrine as having four roles, and developing within these influences.

Firstly, he sees doctrine as developing because of the need for doctrine as a social demarcator. In the early church, they felt the need to explain what was different about them from the Jews, and so doctrines, such as baptism arose. Later, doctrines arose when the need was felt to be separate from the Gnostics. At the Reformation, doctrine was the social demarcator for the Lutherans, and in specific, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Secondly, he sees doctrine as the interpretation of narrative, in particular to the Christian faith, the narrative that is contained within the scriptural story. Christian communities of faith orientate and identify themselves with reference to authoritative source which are either identical with, or derived from, scripture. (p.55) His third viewpoint on doctrine is that as the interpretation of experience, more specifically, the experience of the communal experience of the Christian community.

Finally, McGrath sees doctrine as truth claim. This is because, he believes, the questions that doctrine is the answer to, is based upon the Christ-event. It is this that has provided the continuity down the ages, and it is this that leads him to believe, differently to Lindbeck that there is an ineradicable cognitive element to Christian doctrine.

Kung regarded doctrinal change as paradigm change, in the same way that paradigms within natural science have changed. For the old model to be replaced by a new, there has to be dissatisfaction with the old, and the new one ready to take its place. While science changes its model, but retains its faith in its methods, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity shouldnt be able to change the paradigm that it uses, while retaining a faith in the abiding truth of Christianity.

Perhaps what people from Newman down to the present day have seen and accepted is that there is an inescapable need for doctrine to change, as thought processes, world views and experience change down the ages. What people have differed, though, is in to what extent certain elements of Christianity are immutable.

Newman took the pope as his constancy, and relied on the popes to prevent Christianity going off the rails. Others have seen the bible as their guide, and others as being the Holy Spirit. Perhaps what all doctrine change needs to refer back to is the Christ-event; to decide whether or not the language used is compatible. Arius, for instance, did not use the language of ultimate concern for Christ, who was indeed, the ultimate concern.

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Is the Idea of Doctrinal Development Compatible With Belief in the Abiding Truth of Christianity?. (2019, Jan 18). Retrieved from