Does doctrine evolve?
Based on Sola Scriptura (scripture only), Protestants should be surprised to learn that their doctrines have developed over time since they claim to get them all from the Bible, straight out of the Bible. You would think these Biblical doctrines would be clear to everyone right away, not requiring centuries to evolve under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And anyway, the Bible doesn't mention whether doctrine will develop like this.
I explore this topic highlighting issues typically ignored by everyone, Catholics and Protestants alike.
Does doctrine evolve?
What is Doctrinal Development?
The Process of Doctrinal Development
Isn't the Bible Sufficient?
Is the Bible a Book of Systematic Theology?
Straight Out of the Bible
Against Doctrinal Development
The Christians of the apostolic era did not have our modern versions of doctrines and it was good enough for them. Perhaps there is no need to have any doctrinal development at all?
Certainly heretics prompted the bishops to define doctrines to avoid going off into false views. But now that these heretics are no longer on the scene, perhaps there is no longer the need for the doctrines that were developed to combat those heresies? Perhaps the purpose of developed doctrines is to refute heretics who promote false ideas, but they have no value apart from that?
A preliminary note: I occasionally make reference to the idea that Protestants should consider only statements from "straight" out of the Bible, rather than using exegesis and hermeneutics to derive doctrine from the Bible. I do this to illustrate a point, not because I recommend the practice.
A few considerations:
This is especially true of Protestant doctrines which took 1,500 plus years to develop (and this development still continues even today).
They determined which books are inspired and which are not. We should note that this list of books is not in the Bible: neither is the criteria for choosing which books to include in the canon. These facts undermine the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Some examples of Protestant doctrinal development (yes, even Protestants have developed doctrine):
In discussing the topic of doctrinal development by the Catholic Church it is important to consider what doctrinal development is and what it is not:
What doctrinal development is not:
What doctrinal development is:
What does it mean when we say a doctrine developed? One key factor in doctrine that developed (as opposed to doctrine that did not develop) is there was change over time. Since Protestants claim the Bible is their only authority, doctrines which have not developed are those which can be directly read from the pages of the Bible. But there are no doctrines of this type; rather, the various supporting passages must be selected, correlated, compiled, interpreted, synthesized, summarized, and finally stated in words other than those in the Biblical text. In other words, Protestant doctrine has changed since the time the apostles wrote the Bible. And Protestant doctrine has also changed since the time of the Protestant Reformation (and still continues to change today — it is still developing).
In discussing the process of developing doctrine from the Bible we must first consider where the Bible came from. Even the Bible itself developed. The process:
Of course, the Early Church Fathers didn't wait until the canon was officially determined to start developing doctrine. They had various writings (both inspired and uninspired) as well as verbal tradition which was passed on to them from their predecessors. The process of developing doctrine:
Apparently not. Protestants have many other books in which they define and defend their doctrines. It is very common for Protestants to use various commentaries when studying the Bible.
If Protestants really believed that the Bible was sufficient they would have no other books or writings — they would merely read and recite the words of the Bible as they are written. But instead, they interpret and synthesize the words of the Bible and proclaim these new "truths" in their sermons and in their various Christian books.
Catholics do not claim that the Bible is enough. They look to the Church as the Holy Spirit-inspired authority for biblical interpretation and teaching. But it should be noted (since Protestant anti-Catholicsoften misrepresent this point) that Catholics do believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant; and that the Bible is a key foundation of the Christian faith.
In this section I address the topic of whether Doctrinal Development is really just some sort of naturalistic form of evolution. Since many Protestants typically ignore the topic of Doctrinal Development they are likely to misunderstand what development is. I attempt to clarify the issue.
The word evolution has several nuances of meaning:
I prefer the phrase Doctrinal Development over the phrase Doctrinal Evolution because there is less chance for misunderstanding.
In listening to Protestants who claim that the Bible is all that is needed in matters of faith, we should expect to find a book of the Bible which defines all topics of theology in a systematic way. But we cannot find such a book or letter in the Bible.
Even for those rare topics which have extended passages (such as virginity in 1 Corinthians 7, or the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15) we find that Bible scholars use many passages when discussing a particular doctrine. They have to bring together the various passages which speak about a particular topic. You would think that if God intended that the Bible was all that was needed, that it would be organized so that we don't have to search for related passages like a needle in a haystack. But the Bible is not all that is needed — the church provides Holy Spirit-inspired teaching and defines true doctrine.
We can purchase many books of Systematic Theology written by various scholars and representing the views of various denominations. But why do we even need such books at all if the Bible is all we need? And, of course, each particular theological system has its own particular doctrinal statements — there is not a general agreement among Protestants about the details of any doctrines.
If Protestants really believed that the Bible were really all that was needed, their church services and worship services would be different. Here's the changes we would expect to see:
The Bible should have the following features since this is the way in which Protestants conduct their church services and Bible studies (but alas; none of these are in the Bible):
I am presenting the notion that we should only use Biblical truths which are straight out of the Bible. Why, you might ask? Because of the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. If the Bible is all that is needed, then it is all we should use.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is a foundational doctrine for the various denominations (and non-denominational groups) which ultimately had their roots in the Protestant Reformation (I should note that some Protestants wish to distance themselves from the Protestant Reformers).
Certainly, most Protestants believe that biblical exegesis is valid, and that formulating biblical truth in terms which go beyond the biblical statements is a valid procedure. Thus Protestant denominations have systematic theology, creeds, and denominational statements of faith. But I want to suggest the idea that this "reformulation" and "restatement" of the words of the Bible is contrary to the spirit of Sola Scriptura in which the Bible is the only authority for matters of faith and salvation.
By allowing interpretation of the Bible these adherents to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura have inadvertently made their own interpretations of the Bible more authoritative than the words of the Bible itself. When I studied the Bible as a Protestant I tended to understand the meaning of the words from the pre-formulated framework of what the Bible said based on what I was taught by the various Protestant theologians I studied. This was especially true of the so-called "difficult" passages which, on the surface, appeared to make no sense at all (but since I learned of Catholic teaching, these "difficult" passages now make perfect sense).
I challenge Protestants to seriously consider their sources of authority and knowledge which come from outside the Bible.
At the same time that certain foundational Protestant doctrines were being developed (in the early centuries of the church) the distinctive Catholic doctrines were also being developed (for example, church authority and ordination, the pope, the Eucharist, Marian devotion, etc.). What basis is there for accepting the "Protestant" doctrines but rejecting the "Catholic" doctrines since they were being developed at the same time by the same people, and they were being ratified at the same councils?
Protestant anti-Catholicstypically claim that the notion of Doctrinal Development implies that truth changes or that God changed His mind. But such is not the case. It is our human expression and understanding of the truth that changes, not the truth itself. Us humans will forever have an incomplete understanding of truth and of God; and as consequence of this we will always be able to add new insights and new ways of understanding and explaining the truth about God and His work. This is the essence of Doctrinal Development. Just as the amount of light revealed in the New Covenant is greater than that of the Old Covenant, so our light can increase over time as more people contemplate the scriptures and the faith; and as more cultural situations present themselves in which truth needs to be understood and explained in a new context.
Certainly the modern doctrines of the Church are not stated in the exact words of the New Testament; therefore, they have developed.
The Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman wrote a book (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine)about the topic of doctrinal development which Catholic Apologists promote as explaining how it all works. The problem is that the Magisterium(teaching authority) of the Catholic Church does not support this idea in the least. Can Catholics latch on to their favorite theory whenever their choose?
Even worse are the descriptions given by the Catholic Magisterium. These are that the wordsused to describe the doctrines change from generation to generation to meet the needs of the people but that all these descriptions describe exactly the same thing. This is nonsense. For example, the doctrine of indulgences simply didn't exist in earlier eras, and there are many examples like this.