Sunday, December 20, 2015

Brief thoughts on Newman’s “Development of Doctrine”

On p. 47 of Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman writes:
I have been arguing, in respect to the revealed doctrine, given to us from above in Christianity, first, that in consequence of its intellectual character, and as passing through the minds of so many generations of men, and as applied by them to so many purposes, and as investigated so curiously as to its capabilities, implicaitons, and bearings, it could not but grow or develop, as time went on, into a large theological system.
He’s correct on this point, I believe. Anything that impacts human beings is going to invoke human curiosity, and anything that claims to be as significant as Christianity will necessarily be the focus of a great deal of intellectual endeavor. I can’t imagine being human without some desire for consistency and coherency in what we believe, and I can’t imagine a human civilization without people who are focused on figuring out how each part of our social and intellectual worlds connects up to the other parts. If something big happens to humans – boom, humans are gonna start thinking about it. And arguing. And those arguments are going to get more sophisticated and subtle as time goes on, as flaws in earlier formulations become apparent, as various and sundry attempts are made to resolve the inevitable difficulties.
But Newman goes on to write:
…next, that if development must be, then, whereas Revelation is a heavenly gift, He who gave it virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption, in all such development as comes upon it by the necessity of its nature, or, in other words, that that intellectual action through successive generations, which is the organ of development, must, so far forth as it can claim to have been put in t charge of the Revelation, be in its determinations infallible.
He’s wrong on this point, I think. He would be correct of the intellectual content of Christianity were its chief or most important characteristic. But if Christianity is the remnant and the witness to God having done something, and what God has done is more important than what we think or understand about what God did, then I can’t see any reason why God would find it necessary to preserve it from all perverson and corruption. As I understand Christianity, I can see how it would be important to shield it from a certain amount of perversion and corruption: what God is doing involves, among other things, making sure people learn about what God has already done. And there is an intellectual component to this. But it’s certainly not the only and probably not the most important component. Jesus said that all men would know that we were His disciples by our love for each other – and not, let us be clear, by the correctness of our theology. If that’s the case, I could see God being willing to put up with quite a lot of theological misunderstanding and wrongheadedness, for the sake of His people learning to be the sort of people He wants.

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