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.

Protestant anti-Catholicsstrongly object to the Catholic teaching that doctrine has developed radically since the apostolic era and that it should have developed this way.

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?
Doctrinal Evolution?
Is the Bible a Book of Systematic Theology?
Bible Only
Straight Out of the Bible
Against Doctrinal Development

Good enough for the early Christians?

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?

Doctrinal Development

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:

Some examples of Protestant doctrinal development (yes, even Protestants have developed doctrine):

What is Doctrinal Development?

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).

The Process of Doctrinal Development

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:

  1. Each Early Church Father started with knowledge they acquired from various sources both written and verbal.
  2. They felt the need to define a doctrine either in response to heresy or to instruct the faithful.
  3. They synthesized the various bits of knowledge into new doctrinal statements which they passed on to others and/or wrote down.
  4. The entire set of Early Church Fathers over the first few centuries of the Church collectively had a wide range of views. There was a need to accept some of these views and reject others.
  5. For any particular doctrinal topic the various Early Church Fathers had varying opinions about how all these views should be synthesized.
  6. As time went on it became more and more apparent there was a need to formulate definite official, authoritative doctrinal statements. This was often necessary to combat heresy so the faithful would not be led astray.
  7. They began meeting together in church councils to discuss the various doctrines. This went on for centuries.
  8. For each particular doctrine there was a final doctrinal formulation which is accepted even today by Protestants as the correct doctrine (but we should note that each denomination has different views about which statement is the correct one).
  9. After much time, all the major essential pre-reformation doctrines were developed.
  10. During the Protestant Reformation the various reformers developed entirely new doctrinal statements for a variety of issues. They claimed that these new doctrines were the true, correct, Biblical doctrines (but they are expressed in new words and phrases since they are based on a synthesis and interpretation of the Bible).
  11. Each reformer had his own variation of these doctrines. Even today each denomination has their own particular set of doctrines.
  12. Even today there is continuing doctrinal development in various Protestant denominations.

Isn't the Bible Sufficient?

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.

Doctrinal Evolution?

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.

Is the Bible a Book of Systematic Theology?

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.

Bible Only

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):

Straight Out of 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.

Against Doctrinal Development

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?

Most of the doctrines that Protestant anti-Catholicsobject to do appear in the Bible (link, link).

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.

Guided evolution of ideas?

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.

I address the topic of whether doctrines are merely passed-on from the apostles elsewhere.